Friday, March 2, 2012

Ron Wilson Fired as Head Coach of Toronto Maple Leafs

Maple Leafs logo
With fewer than 20 games to go in the 2011/12 regular season and with the Toronto Maple Leafs shrieking head-first towards earth without a parachute, the likelihood of missing the playoffs for the 7th consecutive year hammering towards them like a semi-trailer truck traveling at 100 miles an hour with the driver dead of a heart attack slumped at the wheel, Brian Burke has finally fired Ron Wilson.

Proof once again that pressure can never fully by resisted, even by the biggest blowhard of a GM in the NHL.

Unprofessional, Cringe-worthy Behaviour


Wilson contract extension tweet
Most sane people cringed when Burke, in an unprofessional and bizarre move, handed Wilson the right to announce his own contract extension. Wilson chose Christmas day 2011 to make his smug, condescending  announcement on Twitter. Strange decision by Burke and disrespectful to fans.

But every criticism directed against the Leafs this year has been brushed aside by both Burke and Wilson. They seemed consumed with their hatred of the Toronto hockey media and used this to justify just about everything.

The fans wanted to see Wilson fired? According to Burke, that is because the media has presented Wilson in a negative light. It's got nothing to do with the horrid special teams, the inability to motivate players, or the abysmal slide the Leafs are on that sees them with the worst record in the NHL in the past ten games.

So what finally pushed Burke to pull the trigger on Wilson? Perhaps the realization that his own job may be at risk as his fourth season as Leafs GM draws to a close. With little success to point to and numerous failed signings and questionable moves, the self-preservation impulse likely kicked in.

Or maybe Wilson provided all the justification Burke needed when Wilson dared to offer up a borderline criticism of Burke:

“Everybody is frustrated right now. We did not do anything at the trade deadline and we came out tentative, to say the least, and got behind early.”

This after the Leafs lost 4-2 to the Washington Capitals after the trade deadline had passed without any significant moves by Burke.

In Burke's arrogant, self-serving world, he establishes the goal posts and moves them at will. He offers up deflections, excuses and insults to journalists who aren't appropriately deferential.

When Burke said the negative pressure was now off and insinuated that the Leafs were ready to start winning, the subsequent losses coupled with Wilson's subtle jab were likely enough to provoke Burke to take action.

Wilson has got his 1400th game as an NHL coach and a nice fat contract extension/severance package to ease the pain of being sacked.

But have the Leafs got enough time and the necessary tools to claw their way back into a playoff position?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Arron Asham Knocks Out Jay Beagle: NHL Hockey Fights

And fighting comes one step closer to being eliminated altogether in NHL hockey with another vicious result in a game between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday, October 13th, 2011.

The fight was between Arron Asham (Pens) and Jay Beagle (Caps).

Brutal knockout of Beagle by Asham.



And what are fans outraged about? The fact that, in the heat of the moment, Asham made some theatrical hand gestures after Beagle was knocked out and lying on the ice.

Which goes to prove that in hockey, as in everything, being humiliated by someone after the fact often causes more outrage than the initial instance of conflict.

Drive your fist into someone's face, knocking him out, possibly shattering  his jaw and likely concussing him? No problem. You see, that is ritualized and has a long and storied tradition in the NHL. Celebrate the total destruction of someone after the fight? Now that really has a way of focusing people's sense of what is right and wrong.

And I am not trying to be ironic here. That's just the way things are. Not least because of the fact that in most NHL fights (as in this one), the two combatants willingly engage in battle. But there is something repellent about mocking your opponent as he lies injured on the ice.

On the other hand, some fans claim that Asham absolved himself of the post-knockout taunts by tapping his stick against the boards in the penalty box when Beagle got up off the ice.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Don Cherry Calls Former Players Pukes and Hypocrites

On the first day of the 2011/12 NHL season, Don Cherry vomited forth a load of bile on his Coach's Corner segment in the first intermission of the game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens on Hockey Night in Canada on CBC.

This time around, he referred to a few former players—Chris Nilan, Stu Grimson, and Jim Thomson—as "pukes" and "hypocrites" for daring to hold a view contrary to his illogical, incoherent opinion on fighting in the NHL.

The castrated wonder Ron MacLean sat there like a well-trained little eunuch and didn't dare to question his meal ticket. And the gutless snivelers at the CBC have once again equivocated and bowed down to Cherry, under the delusion that he is somehow an untouchable who is responsible for the millions who tune into Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday during the hockey season.

Sad that the buffoons in charge of CBC Sports don't realize that with one of the most captive TV audiences left in existence, and with an abundance of entertaining and knowledgeable hockey commentators working in Canada, that they could create a truly memorable and quality show to take the place of the embarrassment that is Cherry's weekly rant.

But aside from the fact that Cherry has successfully pushed things to a place where he can get away with slander and ad hominem attacks without so much as a mewling, symbolic tut tutting from his dutiful little fart-catcher MacLean (at 800, 000 a year for his cringe-worthy weekly performance that is the equivalent of picking up one of Cherry's turds, grinning at it with that simpering, moronic look on his face, gulping it down and then further mugging for the camera, apparently he would do anything to keep his snout up to the trough)...

you do have to question those who think Cherry's attacks are all well and fine, and who perpetuate the BS that he is "just an entertainer" and that his irrational verbal attacks are "his schtick," until such time as...

they are the ones getting shat upon.

Chris Nilan's response to Cherry's blindside on HNIC on Oct.6, 2011 was justified and accurate. Nilan makes some great points and correctly highlights Cherry as ignorant and misinformed. Cherry misrepresented what Nilan said in the past, and yes, Cherry is one of the biggest hypocrites of them all. He constantly shrieks about loyalty and friendship and then shoves the knife into Nilan's back.

But if you don't say anything when a self-serving hypocrite like Cherry is ripping people for years on end, then you can hardly be surprised when he turns his sights on you. For Cherry is a shameless self-promoter who sees various individuals for the benefits they can provide him, whether by classifying them as friends or enemies.

Stand up and condemn this fool for his attacks and the cowards at the CBC for allowing him to continue on, or don't be shocked when it is your turn.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

NHL Player Killed in Fight During Game

NHL Fights RIP
The title of this post is a future headline that will one day appear in newspapers across the country.

As players get stronger, fights in NHL games become more vicious, and the league continues to condone aggravated, bare-knuckle assaults, it's only a matter of time.

When the inevitable happens, NHL owners and the players' union will quickly convene a meeting, and shortly thereafter, fighting in the NHL will cease altogether.

Or at the very least, fighting from that point onward will be dealt with in a serious enough way that teams will stop paying otherwise talentless players to provide entertainment to the blood-lust set under the guise that it somehow benefits the game.

The Official Response


The NHL will be swift in delivering a slyly worded, equivocating bit of nonsense regarding the tragedy. The ultimate goal will be to avoid liability and offer up some clever, nostalgic tripe about the passing into history of condoned fights in which players were allowed to drive their fists into each other's faces with little or no possibility of defending themselves, and with no worry of being penalized in a meaningful way.

The official response from the NHL will be quick for a simple reason: it is already prepared and ready to go for when the inevitable comes to pass. All large organizations prepare for crises, and the death of a player during an on-ice fight is something that the NHL has undoubtedly expected for some time now.

But until a death does occur in the inane and indefensible NHL sideshow known as hockey fights, the baboons in charge will continue deluding themselves into thinking that there is no good reason to take preventative action.

As the Bettman experiment of expanding the league into southern US states starts to collapse, the head clown and his band of little sycophants no doubt believe that pulling the plug on mutually agreed upon aggravated assaults would further galvanize his time in power as one of the strangest and most tin-eared that any professional sports league anywhere has ever experienced.

Frankensteins


As the corpses of NHL enforcers past and present continue to pile up in this most depressing of off-seasons, surely it must be dawning on the wackos in charge that there is something inherently warped in allowing the most amateurish, cack-handed aspect of the game to continue on unabated.

However, I'm guessing that the broken enforcer who is hanging by a thread in his personal life is a narrative that is far more familiar in the relatively closed world of the NHL than it is to the general public. Those at the top have known for a long time the all too predictable storyline that follows the enforcer.

"But the fans love it!" the mules shriek. Sure, people everywhere love unhinged displays of violence. If the NFL were to allow players to engage in fights during games in which they swung their helmets wildly at each other's faces, and then paid a senile old fuck a couple of million dollars a year to pander to ignoramuses while talking up the helmet-swinging sessions as being absolutely necessary for the integrity of the game, then it would likely be somewhat popular as well.

And let's be honest about the tragedies of Boogaard, Rypien, and Belak: they're good for business. Death sells. Tortured souls who died well before their time is an emotional narrative that will result in a deluge of "soul-searching" type articles just in time for the new season. And it will make many fans feel that they are part of something big and important that has real and tragic consequences. The bit of tripe vomited forth by Bettman and his boys in response to the deaths is as meaningless as all the other garbage they offer up when the heat is on.

The NHL policy of tacitly allowing on-ice assaults has helped to create these Frankensteins, most of whom likely suffer from brain damage and turn to booze and drugs as a way to escape the physical pain and/or to fulfill their anti-hero, hard-man roles.

No doubt their off-ice woes are also related to the effects of knowing they have to attack and defend night after night. The possibility of being humiliated, injured, or severely damaging another player has got to take its toll. Add into the toxic mix the fact that enforcers often have a tenuous hold on their jobs with NHL teams, and the pressure has got to be at times overwhelming.

Let the Shrieking Commence


And when the expected happens and a player is finally killed in an NHL fight, the shrieking from all sides will reach a fever pitch. Cherry will exploit it for his own gain and his legions of moronic followers will regurgitate his every incoherent utterance as they face the reality that one of their beloved outlets for their sociopathic tendencies is coming to an end.

The entire nation, except for family and friends of the dead player, for those are the only people ever truly affected by a death, will experience a collective exhilaration stoked on by unctuous journalists, politicians and other self-serving pukes.

The most apoplectic of the NHL fight crowd will scream with renewed fury that those who oppose fighting "just don't get it" while being utterly incapable of articulating the rationales that they claim they understand so well. But more than that, the fighting proponents will state outright that anyone who says fighting should be banned in the NHL is somehow less of a man.

For that is at the heart of the visceral passion that so many have for watching other people attack and assault each other: feeling like a hard-man by proxy. Like chicken-hawks who lust for war while those who have experienced its horrors are always more circumspect and cautious, I've always had the suspicion that those who love hockey fights the most have rarely, if ever, been involved (with many exceptions of course) in arranged or spontaneous fights.

Just as watching other people self-destruct is sublime and romantic, seeing other people assault each other and hearing of complete strangers dying is a strangely satisfying tonic for human beings. It reminds us that we are alive and that something horrible has not happened to us yet.

So the spectacle of NHL fights will continue. Bettman and his yes-men have apparently convinced themselves that the end of condoned fights on their watch is not a legacy they want. Presumably, the death of a player during an NHL fight is something they are more comfortable with.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Rick Rypien Dead at Age 27

Sad news: Rick Rypien has passed away at the age of 27.

Rypien had recently signed to play with the Winnipeg Jets for the 2011/12 season.

True North Sports & Entertainment (TNSE), which owns the Winnipeg Jets, has already released a statement. From the Winnipeg Jets website:
True North Sports & Entertainment and the Winnipeg Jets Hockey Club would like to issue the following statement in regards to the passing of Rick Rypien:

“We are deeply saddened to confirm Rick’s passing. As many people are aware, he had strong ties to True North Sports & Entertainment, the Winnipeg Jets Hockey Club, the former Manitoba Moose Hockey Club and the Vancouver Canucks. We would like to express our sincere sympathies to the Rypien family as well as Rick’s friends. We also appreciate all of the support that has come pouring in from Rick’s fans. Rick was a talented player with an extremely bright future. His hunger for the game made him a valued team member both on and off the ice. This loss has impacted us as more than just a hockey team.”

The organization will have no further comment at this time. We kindly ask the privacy of Rick’s family and friends be respected during this difficult period.
People will of course speculate about what happened before there is any official confirmation, and the Wikipedia page for Rypien is already fueling the discussion.

Whatever the reason, it is tragic and sad news. Rest in peace and condolences to his family and friends. 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Locker Room Cancer: NHL Gossip

Heatley cartoon
In any workplace, a person's performance can be broken down into three general categories: competence, responsibilities, and emotions. This also applies in the hockey world.

Competence: does the player consistently perform his role and put in a strong effort?

Responsibilities: does he come to the rink, airport and team events on time? Does he follow the advice of his coaches and try to improve his skills?

Emotions: the big one. How does he interact with other players, the coaches, and even the fans? Does he speak in a professional and respectful way to the media? Can he keep things in check at crucial times during the game and not take stupid penalties? In short, does he play well in the sandbox?

And just like in most job situations, emotions are often the weak point of hockey players. It can be the main reason that a player is shipped to another team. Or at least the tipping point that exaggerates other shortcomings and makes a trade seem like the only way to deal with the problems.

Teams are unlikely to ever come out directly and state that a player had some kind of personality defect that made him an unwelcome presence in the locker room. They may speak in code and say that the player was "not a good fit," but no one is going to air the team's dirty laundry.

Yet the salacious, gossipy type rumours about internal team conflict turn into some of the most popular stories. These types of stories have gained more popularity recently and will receive even more coverage in the years to come. This is for a number of reasons.

First, the rise of the internet, and the increase in the number of sports networks and the resulting 24-hour coverage of all things hockey. No off-season exists for the media outlets that strive to supply a never-ending stream of content for hockey fans.

Also, a realization exists amongst the people responsible for creating content, that gossipy stories are some of the most popular amongst fans. These are the articles that appeal even to the casual fans. It is easier than ever to determine what content resonates with fans and to subsequently justify writing and "researching" more of the same. Click-throughs are easy to measure and so it is a simple matter to determine what "sells."

Though "serious" fans may deny any interest in such prurient topics, you can bet that many of those same individuals have read all the details about the latest melodrama and have formed an opinion.

Conflict sells and is at the heart of all drama, whether fiction or non-fiction. The best regular season and playoff games are themselves stories, with stars, plots and turning points. An easy-to-understand storyline that everyone can relate to, and one that everyone has played a part in, is that of the co-worker who can't get along with others.

What better way to ratchet up the prurient intrigue than for the story to include a highly paid professional athlete who may be on your favourite team, or, perhaps even better, a team that you loathe?

Finally, gossipy stories full of speculation and rumour require far less expertise and familiarity with the game to produce.

To be sure, there are different degrees of gossip, and the vilest insinuations lacking sources (even unnamed) or evidence of any kind will only show up in online locations where there is little or no accountability. But even more reputable outlets are starting to get in on the action.

Leave it to the online hacks or self-proclaimed gossip columnists to get the ball rolling, then everyone can join in the fun with the qualifier that the coverage itself is now a story, and hell, might as well venture forth a smug tut-tutting with some related commentary tucked in for good measure.

Prima Donnas, Punks and Pissants


Just as there are common stories that have been played out hundreds of times with varying details in popular films and books, so too there are some common themes that turn up time and again in NHL melodramas. One of the most common is the "locker room cancer."

The locker room cancer is a player who is a negative influence on those around him and can infect an entire team with an insidious outlook on life and the game. Also known as locker room poison.

What is a Locker Room Cancer?


What does it take for the locker room cancer tag to gain traction with a player?

They are often very good players. A scrub who is also a nasty piece of work in the locker room just doesn't resonate in the same way.

Obviously, the unpleasant personality and/or behaviour does have to exist to fuel the rumours that eventually surface. The behaviour itself could take many forms. From sullen and disinterested, to abrasive and abusive.

A poor stretch of play from the player in question and or the team on which he plays is often a prerequisite for the unpleasantness to come to the surface. Winning is easy. The real test for anyone is when the losses start piling up.

Usually the player has been traded at least once. This provides plausibility to the claims.

The first whispers often coincide with the trade. While the public pronouncements from the team from which the player was traded are always positive, the stories start to circulate. It's "never say anything bad about anyone, ever" for public consumption.

Even though teams pay lip service to that sentiment, too many people are involved with a team for the truth not to come out. The stories have to come from somewhere. For the most part, journalists in the mainstream media don't just make stuff up. Extrapolate, speculate and exaggerate? Of course...filling in the blanks when the full story is not known is what humans do best.

The final factor is that the claims must have an air of truth about them to resonate with fans. How does the player conduct himself on and off the ice? What about his mannerisms and body language?

Anecdotes gleaned from personal contact at autograph sessions, sightings and other non-game situations can play a part as well. It all adds up to a public image. And so, if the stories match up with the public presentation, the claims become believable.

New Beginnings


Luckily for most players tagged as difficult (the locker room cancer is only the extreme), there are going to be other teams willing to give them a chance.  Because it's all subjective. Maybe the other players are the ones who don't know how to interact.

Or maybe it is the coaches or more generally the overall team culture. And of course, even if there is some sense that a team is taking on an abrasive personality, there is always the hope that a person learns and changes over time.

In the end, despite public comments to the contrary, teams may take on a player knowing full well that he is a petulant, glory-seeking prima donna. But that talent is so irresistible that the rationalizing takes over and team management convince themselves that things will be different this time around.

The fans who claim they have no interest in such stories are the rarity or more likely, being disingenuous. Other people's lives intrigue and amaze. Especially when they are rich, talented, and play on the teams that fans love to cheer for. The insight gives a more interesting picture of the players fans love to watch. At the very least, it  provides a point against which fans can rank themselves. "Harummph! I'm too sophisticated to be interested in crap like that."

Amongst all the great games, performances, and playoff races, you can be sure that the coming season will also feature plenty of gossip, rumours and innuendo.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Sean Avery Arrested

So Sean Avery was arrested after getting involved in a dispute with police officers who were called to his home on a noise complaint.

No doubt some schadenfreude will be coming Avery's way because of the loathing many fans have for his on-ice behaviour and comments. Not from me. I've always liked the entertainment value Avery provides with his unhinged antics.

However, the fact that he got arrested after driving one of his neighbours up the wall with noise and then allegedly assaulting a police officer is a good thing.

I can hear the outrage now. "What cowards! To go to the police when you could nicely ask the person to keep the noise down!"

Rallying Cry for Selfish Behaviour


Yes, the rallying cry (with many variants) of those who want to behave however they wish without any worry of consequences. The kind of grade-school oaths that suggest going to some kind of authority is lower than the nasty pieces of filth who engage in the kind of behaviour that causes the need for intervention in the first place. Amazing how many people swallow these kinds of low-life mantras.

No, you must act swiftly and decisively to squash the bullies and thugs who are completely bereft of any notion of sharing the world with other people. The kind of self-serving ignoramus who engages in that kind of behaviour in the first place is the very type who would laugh at respectable attempts by a person to ask them to moderate their actions. The type who would be likely to get violent.

And of course, maybe someone did go and ask first. But more likely, in a neighbourhood like the one where he probably lives, you probably can't just walk up to a neighbour's door. Too much security.

No, do whatever necessary to force selfish, ignorant people to act in a responsible way so that they don't negatively affect others. Selfish people are thrilled that there are so many unassuming, decent people who choose to avoid confrontations and are tolerant to a fault.

Dealing with Scum


Been down this path before. Too many people mistake politeness for weakness. So it's call someone in or take matters into your own hands and then you're the one who's in trouble.

Another unpleasant outcome of trying to be reasonable with a sneering individual regarding his noise pollution is that you develop, however weak and tenuous, a twisted emotional relationship with that person. When they inevitably carry on their arrogant conduct, it becomes all the more personal.

As for the reports that Avery may have put his hands on a police officer, if true, it's obviously not a smart move.

Avery Comes Out Against Noise Pollution?


But the whole unpleasant incident could have a positive outcome. An opportunity to highlight the complete lack of consideration shown by pukes who think their loud music and drunken shrieking is something that others should just deal with. Just as Avery took up the cause of gay marriage, perhaps he could come out against noise pollution.

No, not a chance. Not enough cachet for a hipster like Avery.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Winnipeg Jets' Alternate Logo: Another Logo Released

Winnipeg Jets Alternate Logo
The Winnipeg Jets have unveiled another alternate logo.

This one is in addition to the primary logo and two secondary logos that were introduced to the public on Friday, July 22nd, 2011.

Speculation is that new team slogans are due for release in the near future as well, among them, "Laying Waste to Our Opponents."

And the buzz is already building around the soon-to-be announced cheer-leading squad for the Jets, tentatively called "The Collaterals."

Friday, July 22, 2011

Winnipeg Jets' New Logo: Verdict and Review

Leading up to the release of the new Winnipeg Jets logo, talk of creating a design reminiscent of and/or that paid tribute to the Canadian Forces Air Command was rampant. I wasn't sure what to think of any potential logo that went down that path.

However, the new logos have now been released, and the tacit association with the military has been confirmed.

new Winnipeg Jets logoAn incredibly short-sighted decision in my opinion. A logo can exist and be part of a team's identity for years or decades to come. But the new militarism that is currently popular in Canada is only a recent phenomenon.

No, I do not mean to suggest that Canadians do not have a proud history connected to our military nor that we have not always supported the work that has been done in the past to defend our country. We have and will continue to do so. But the jingoistic, chest-thumping brand of support is something that has only been imported from the US since 9/11.

Consider how imbecilic the Toronto Raptors name sounds years after they anointed their team with an identity based on the fact that a wildly popular movie at the time had made dinosaurs all the rage. Of course, a country's military is far more likely to stay relevant but it is still not the best choice.

The quietly proud, get-the-job-done-and-don't-waste-time-congratulating-yourselves brand of patriotism appeals to most people in Canada, at least in my experience. To design a professional hockey team's logo with the aim of paying tribute to the air force goes against that.

While the majority of Canadians support their country's military, political considerations often surround the actions that a particular government takes and how they may use or misuse military force. Most people want to leave behind any real-world divisive issues when they go to see a hockey game.

True North Sports and Entertainment (TNSE) has ensured that is no longer the case. Sure, the connection is not official, but the logo automatically creates the sense that the team owners are boosters of whatever military action the Canadian government takes.

The current federal government in Canada has announced that it will spend billions on new fighter jets. The government has also been criticized for failing to take steps to support veterans in a more comprehensive way (something that past governments have not adequately addressed as well). How long before the government reaches out to TNSE to try and gain an advantage by associating themselves with a team that has made their support of the military so clear?

The Blowhards Will Love It


The new militarism in Canada has a few unique features. The people who shriek the loudest and try to associate themselves with this new militarism often seem to be in it to boost their own profile as much as to pay tribute to the military. To me, "support" means not just letting everyone know that you consider yourself honourable for supporting the people who take the risks, but actually giving money or time to help those people.

And most of those individuals are hard-core black-and-whiters. To criticize a logo that has that indirect relationship to the military, of course means to the blowhards that you are criticizing the military. It just adds a permanent angle to the identity of the team that I feel is inappropriate. Keep the tributes to individual games and/or pre-game ceremonies. The intentions of TNSE are no doubt good with regard to the logo, but I believe it wasn't the best decision.

The Verdict


But enough of that. How does the new logo rate in terms of its design?

First, the colour combination of blue, silver and red is slick and looks very good.

new Winnipeg Jets logo mainThe main logo features a fighter jet over a red maple leaf on a white circle surrounded by a blue inner ring and a silver outer ring.

Some people may claim that the red maple leaf is not an accurate depiction of a maple leaf as the stem is made to look like a thrust from the overlapping jet.

But, you might say, who cares? It doesn't have to emulate a real-life maple leaf. True, but it may look a bit off to some people.

Also, for most hockey fans, the maple leaf is part of the Toronto Maple Leafs logo and identity. But who says one team has a monopoly on a symbol that is so important to so many Canadians?

Overall, this logo reminds me of a bottle cap. A tie-in with a local brewery could be in the works.



new Winnipeg Jets logo secondaryAs has been pointed out by others, one of the secondary logos looks like a military medal.

It features a military-type insignia that is shaped like wings, over which are imposed two crossed hockey sticks (that also look vaguely like two splayed feet), a red maple leaf and "Winnipeg Jets" in two white banners. It will likely be a shoulder patch.




new Winnipeg Jets logo secondary twoFinally, the other secondary logo features mainly script, and is weak, in my view. The font just does not look very good.

While nothing is ever final, the look of the new Winnipeg Jets is set, at least for the foreseeable future.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Book Review: The Ovechkin Project by Damien Cox and Gare Joyce

The Ovechkin ProjectThe story of Alexander Ovechkin is still far from being complete. But in his six years as a left winger with the Washington Capitals, he has seen highs and lows, and in his 25 years of life, he has experienced tragedy and victory.

The Ovechkin Project: A Behind-the Scenes Look at Hockey's Most Dangerous Player
by Damien Cox and Gare Joyce, examines Ovechkin's professional and private life from his youth growing up in Russia to the 2009/10 Stanley Cup playoffs.

The book opens at the 2010 winter Olympics in Vancouver with Ovechkin and his Russian teammates lined up against Canada in the quarterfinal game. A nice preview, it introduces the insiders whose comments and insights on Ovechkin are presented throughout the book.

Sadly, as the authors note in the acknowledgments section, they were never able to secure access to Ovechkin or his family. A shortcoming that no doubt means a less thorough book but not one that renders the result unworthy of reading for hockey fans.

Outrage at the Title of the Book?


Some readers and critics seem to have been affronted by the fact that the book was sub-titled A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Hockey's Most Dangerous Player, when no direct input was provided by Ovechkin himself.

In fact, that's what most of the handful of reviews for the book at Amazon seem to focus on. It almost seems like a concerted effort to glom onto to this minor point and take away from what is an otherwise entertaining and informative book. The criticism is not really relevant, especially because all PR about the book plainly states that it is an unauthorized look at Ovechkin's life.

And the book does contain many comments from Capitals' insiders: owner Ted Leonsis, GM Mike McPhee, head coach Bruce Boudreau and numerous teammates, past and present, of Ovechkin's.

The Early Years


Readers get a fairly lean retelling of Ovechkin's childhood in Russia and the single-minded focus of his mother Tatiana to turn her son into a world-class athlete. Perhaps he absorbed his mother's passion to see him make it big or maybe he was just blessed with a natural drive and determination. But whatever the cause, together with his relatively prosperous upbringing in post-communist Russia and the sports-related opportunities it afforded him, Ovechkin drove himself to be better than anyone else on the ice.

But not everything goes smoothly. When Ovechkin was 12, his older brother died after being involved in a car accident, one of a handful of deaths of people close to him that would have a lasting effect on him.

Recent History


The past few years of Ovechkin's life offer up some great drama and an arc to his character development that couldn't have been more appropriate for an engaging analysis if it had been created by a fiction writer.

The negotiations for Ovechkin's current mammoth contract of 13 years and 124 million dollars is one example of the real-life drama and provides for great reading. It also further highlights how much his family is important to Ovechkin; he had no agents involved in the discussions for his new deal and instead relied on the input of his mother and father and others in his inner circle.

Following the contract, Ovechkin seems to have changed noticeably. His previous goofy, happy-go-lucky self is replaced with someone who is more arrogant and wary of others. With all the people who are out for a piece of someone in that situation, his reaction is not surprising in many ways.

This is where feedback from Ovechkin could have made this a much better book. Of course, this is no fault of the authors. They could have easily reacted with a negative view of their subject but for the most part avoid that path (except where Ovechkin's behaviour may have warranted criticism).

This relative lack of editorializing on certain topics is good: for example, Ovechkin responds to a question from a reporter that alerts him to the length of a suspension he had been handed from the NHL and his first thought is that he will lose out on over 200, 000 dollars because of the missed games. What does it say about Ovechkin? That is pretty much left to the reader to decide.

Major Disappointments


Major disappointments for his teams, both with the Capitals during the 2009/10 playoffs when they bow out in the first round to a determined Montreal Canadiens team with a hot goalie, and the abysmal performance of the Russian squad at the 2010 winter Olympics, add more intrigue and raise further questions about Ovechkin.

The story that emerges of Ovechkin is of someone who is immensely talented but who has not yet found a way to translate that talent into championships for his team. Someone who is in a fierce rivalry with Sidney Crosby, and someone who, while hailed as a leader by his teammates, occasionally veers towards selfishness both on and off the ice.

Crosby/Ovechkin Rivalry


As far as the ongoing competition with Crosby goes, no doubt there is something there. But writers often try to create a strong narrative around which to structure an entire book, and that is the case here with the Crosby/Ovechkin rivalry. It is played up just a bit too much. For example:

“With no apologies to Bird and Johnson, theirs [Ovechkin and Crosby's] could be a rivalry without precedent in the modern history of sport.”

Not an apology, but a glaring bit of prolepsis.

The rivalry theme inevitably concludes, in not so many words, that Crosby has got Ovechkin beat on most levels: well-rounded multi-dimensional play, a Stanley Cup ring and Olympic gold medal, and the willingness to face the heat in an open and honourable way when his team loses.

Other “Sub-Plots”


As with many books that are ostensibly about a single individual, The Ovechkin Project can't help but include numerous other interesting characters and "subplots." One of the most interesting bits in the book is a section about Bruce Boudreau’s incredible turn of fortunes in the past few seasons as he was named as Capitals' head coach during the 2007/08 campaign and helped the team turn around their season. In the early going of the book, a good discussion on the history of Russian players in the NHL also makes for great reading.

Of course, all the threads are somewhat linked to Ovechkin. The NHL’s move over the last few years to start showcasing some of its biggest stars, with limited results, receives attention in the book. And the endorsement agency that Ovechkin signed with, IMG, and how they have tried to mold his public image in an attempt to help him and them cash in, is also interesting.

The requisite hockey book play-by-play recounting of games and series are here and games from the Vancouver winter Olympics of 2010 and the 2009/10 Stanley Cup playoffs are described in absorbing style.

Worth Reading?


The writing is generally tight and entertaining in The Ovechkin Project. Cox and Joyce are good writers and offer up straightforward, unclichéd prose with some good turns of phrases. This excerpt describes the build-up to game two of the first round series between Washington and Montreal in the 2009/10 Stanley Cup playoffs:
It was as thought the NHL playoff schedule was specifically designed to keep the personal game of H-O-R-S-E between Ovechkin and Crosby going. Going into Game 2, Ovechkin had seen all the highlights from the second game of the Pittsburgh-Ottawa series from the night before when Crosby had constructed a brilliant setup for the winning goal. On that play, Crosby eluded Jason Spezza behind the net with a series of reverses, like he was running a three-man weave by himself, before feeding Kris Letang for the clinching goal. Crosby also made the key defensive play for the Penguins earlier in the game, batting a loose puck away from the Penguin goal line. So the standard was again set, or lifted, for Ovechin as he stepped out on the ice for the second game against the Habs.
But there were some annoyances. Throughout the book, Cox and Joyce insert italicized sentences following some bit of action that has been described involving a player or coach. As if the italicized words represent what the person was likely thinking at that moment. For example, from this passage that describes Ovechkin’s involvement in a scrum after a goal:

“A melee ensued after Staal’s goal when Orpik got his stick up into the face of Pothier and Ovechkin tackled Letang, sitting on top of him and squeezing the life out of him with a bear hug. They stand up for me, I have to stand up for them.”

Or:

Ovechkin skated off the ice after another disappointing loss. The 100 thousand every game soothes the hurt just a bit.

OK, I made up the last one, but you get the point.

This often works to good effect. It makes a story being told in the past tense seem more immediate and it also provides some indication of what that player in question may have been thinking at that moment. But it becomes tiresome through the course of the book. And sometimes the supposed thought is so inane or obvious as to detract from a good section. Other times it just seems like an opportunity to take a dig at someone.

Another criticism: like many hockey books, the copy-editing here falls on the somewhat sloppy side.

Aside from those minor points, there is enough new information and insight from those associated with Ovechkin to make for an enjoyable read. Ovechkin is likely waiting for what he assumes will be a championship or two in the coming years before he collaborates with someone to present his life story—a book over which he and those closest to him will no doubt insist on complete control. Until that time (and perhaps even after), this is the best critical look at the life of one of the current greats in the NHL.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Winnipeg Jets' New Logo

Winnipeg Jets logoA sports team's logo is very important for its fans. The team logo represents in a single image all the hopes, memories and frustrations that a fan has experienced in his relationship with the team. The logo is a call to arms. An image that the fan can use to advertise his commitment to the team. An unspoken challenge to opposing teams and their supporters.

A team logo that has existed for decades becomes iconic and fans could not imagine it being otherwise. All six of the original NHL teams have logos that are instantly recognizable and elicit numerous emotions for fans of the teams and hockey fans in general. Their logos are classic, relatively simple and memorable.

Does this assessment come from an objective analysis of the logo designs or because the logos have existed for so long and become so much a part of each team's history? Probably a bit of both. And it is important to note that even the original six logos have been tweaked somewhat over the years though all have maintained their essential original look.

Winnipeg Jets Fans Await Team's New Logo


After the outpouring of opinions from fans in Winnipeg made it overwhelmingly clear that they wanted their city's new NHL team to be named the Jets, the team owners did the smart thing and acceded.

Now fans of the new Winnipeg Jets await the unveiling of the new Jets logo. The general consensus seems to be that the new logo will vary quite a bit from the Jets logo that was apparently resigned to history when Winnipeg's first NHL team moved to Phoenix in 1996. Of course, some image of a jet is likely to be there in the new design, but beyond that, there will possibly not be much similarity to the old logo.

Most fans seem to be going along with this notion. It's almost as if, strange as it seems, that fans are willing to accept this as a sop to the owners. While no one seems to know for certain, it is likely that the first choice of the owners was not to name the new team the Jets.

So once fans let their feelings be known and True North Sports and Entertainment (TNSE) rewarded the prevailing sentiment with the return of the Jets name, the current thinking has become, "well, they deserve to bring in new colours and a significantly new logo for the merchandising potential and because they want to make the team their own."

Honour Tradition


I disagree. I say, retain the old colours and tweak the old logo somewhat. If you are going to (rightly) honour tradition, why not go all the way?

Regardless of what logo the Jets unveil in the next few weeks, I believe the time pressure is a good thing. Too much time, too many consultants and gobs of money involved in coming up with a logo often lead to over-thinking the design. A desperate need to provide an adequate back-story for the logo can be another consequence. The result can sometimes be ridiculous.

Let's hope that the new Jets logo is an instant classic without too much reliance on fancy computer graphics programs that cause some designers to go over the top simply because they can. Regardless, in due time, any logo they come up with will become part of the Winnipeg Jets and will be accepted by even the most critical fans as time passes.

History of Winnipeg Jets NHL Logos


Winnipeg Jets NHL logo original










1979 to 1990


Winnipeg Jets NHL logo 90s










1990 to 1996

Monday, July 11, 2011

Leafs GM Pledges Commitment to Fans

As the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs,

—tasked with bringing the Stanley Cup back to Toronto after 45 years,

—and having been given a 6-year contract at numerous millions of dollars per year

—with the weight of millions of fans' expectations on my shoulders

—and a legion of scouts at my command

I pledge to you that my first priority above all else is to...



"AMUSE THE TROOPS."

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Cult of Luongo on Life Support

Canucks logoRoberto Luongo had one hell of a regular season in 2010/11. Luongo combined with Vancouver Canucks' backup goalie Cory Schneider to allow only 180 goals all season. Which was good enough to win the Jennings trophy for the fewest goals scored against during the NHL regular season.

Luongo showed brilliance during the playoffs as well. But he stumbled badly in the finals against Boston. After playing solidly in games 1 and 2, the wheels came off for the Canucks in games 3 and 4. Luongo played poorly in both of those games in Boston and was pulled in game 4. Luongo was also abysmal in game 6 and was pulled once again, and his play in the deciding game 7 in Vancouver was less than brilliant.

His finals performance will only fuel the criticism that he chokes when the most important games are on the line.

Will next season see the Luongo's popularity take a serious hit as a result?

The Cult of Luongo

Luongo has always garnered near cult-like status amongst many Vancouver Canucks fans. But it's not only because of his stellar play (most of the time) that elevates Luongo's reputation with so many fans.

It's also because he demonstrates such a passsion for the game. But it's that overwhelming pressure of caring so much seems to cripple him at times.

The War of Art


In The War of Art, author Steven Pressfield discusses the mental forces that conspire to foil the performance of artists, entrepreneurs or anyone who devotes his life to chasing a dream. This passage summarizes how an athlete like Luongo can sabotage himself:

The professional has learned, however, that too much love [for his endeavor] can be a bad thing. Too much love can make him choke. The seeming detachment of the professional, the cold-blooded character to his demeanor is a compensating device to keep him from loving the game so much that he freezes in action. Playing for money or adopting the attitude of one who plays for money, lowers the fever.
...
The more you love your art, calling, enterprise, the more important its accomplishment is to the evolution of your soul , the more you will fear it and the more resistance you will experience facing it. The payoff of playing a game for money is not the money.

The payoff is that playing for money produces the proper professional attitude. It inculcates the lunch-pail mentality. The hard-core, hard-head, hard-hat state of mind. To think of yourself as a mercenary, a gun for hire, implants the proper humility. It purges pride and preciousness.
The above excerpt also explains why so many Canucks fans have built up the cult of Luongo. Because he is like one of them. He dies a little every time he lets the big one slip away.

And which is why the latest failure by the Canucks to win the Stanley Cup can be a good thing. With his relatively poor play being so costly for the Canucks in the Stanley Cup finals, the effect on Luongo could be profound enough that he is able to take that cool detachment to a new level and keep it going, without let-up, all through the 2011/12 regular season and playoffs.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Return of the Winnipeg Jets

Winnipeg Jets logoAfter 15 years, the NHL returns to Winnipeg.


Only a few years ago, this seemed unlikely. But thanks to the insistence of Gary Bettman to encourage and authorize franchises in the most absurd locations possible, a good number of teams in the past few years have been ripe for relocation. And of course, let's not forget the hard work of Winnipegers and the new ownership group in securing the team.

Having served up a team for Calgary in 1980, Atlanta has once again provided a franchise for a city in western Canada.

But now that the team is in Winnipeg, the dynamics will instantly change and will continue changing as the years pass. When you're desperately chasing a goal, you often convince yourself that everything will be all right if you just make it happen. But after you reach the goal, familiarity is right behind and almost as fast you start to take for granted that which you once thought was so important.

Numerous conditions seemed to stand in the way of Winnipeg ever seeing a return of the NHL. The relatively inadequate old Winnipeg arena and its limited seating capacity of 15 393, together with the size of the city and the population from which ticket buyers could be drawn were always pointed to as obstacles.

But the new arena where the Jets will play has only 15 015 seats for hockey. And the population of Winnipeg has essentially remained static since the first Jets team scarpered to Phoenix.

Yet, we are assured by those who wanted the team back in Winnipeg the most that things have changed enough to make an NHL franchise viable over the long term. More luxury boxes in the new arena and more head offices in Winnipeg (hence, all those new, well-paid employees are going to spend their disposable income on hockey tickets?) are two reasons commonly mentioned.

Back then, with some tickets costing as little as 10 dollars each, many games were not sold out. In some post-seasons, you could walk up on game night and buy a ticket. Now the cheapest ticket will be much more—about 39 dollars. And Jets tickets overall currently rank as the second most expensive of NHL teams in Canada.

The city from which Winnipeg purchased the current Jets team is a two-time loser in the NHL department. And it is safe to say that if the Jets ever skipped town again, there would be no third chance. Beyond the honeymoon period of three to five seasons, what is the likelihood that the new Jets will be in Winnipeg for the long term? A few important factors will decide their fate.

Win


The most obvious way to assure a long and happy stay in Winnipeg is to put together a winning team. A long standing lament of fans of the old Jets team was that it was tough to have any post-season success in the Smythe division with the great Oilers teams around. But today's NHL with 30 teams can be even more difficult. In the 21-team league, a team rarely missed the playoffs for multiple years in a row. Now, teams with 5, 6 or as many as 10 years out of the playoffs are not uncommon.

Ride out the Tough Times


The new owners have deep pockets and have expressed the desire to keep the team in Winnipeg as long as possible. Talk is cheap. If the time comes when the team is hemorrhaging cash on a yearly basis and the novelty of having a team is long gone, will the new owners take multi-million dollar losses on an annual basis without considering moving or selling? Who knows?

The Economy


Closely related is the economy. In the late 1980s and early 90s, it was difficult for most NHL teams in Canada. The weak Canadian dollar and the fact that many players had contracts that paid them in US dollars always made things tough. While economic times are relatively good in Canada at the moment, and the dollar is a lot stronger, there is no guarantee that will continue over the long haul.

Fans


Having lost one NHL team and knowing that a second team leaving town would likely spell the end for many decades to come, will fans be willing to support the team through thick and thin? And by support, I mean coughing up the money for tickets if the team goes through a period of horrid play and seasons out of the playoffs.

I hope to see the Jets in Winnipeg for many years to come. The new Jets need to establish themselves as a consistently competitive team within the next three to four seasons to help make that a reality.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

St. Louis Blues: Pay Half for Season Tickets if We Miss Playoffs

blues logoImpressive!

The St. Louis Blues have made a pact with (some of) their season ticket holders. Pay half for your season tickets now, and pay the other half when the Blues make the playoffs. If they don't make it to the post-season, then the second half of the season ticket payment does not come due.

This is the kind of thinking that gets people on board and results in some great vibes. Also convinces fans that the team is serious about making improvements and offering the best on-ice product possible.

And just a tad more thoughtful than certain NHL teams that miss the playoffs for the better part of a decade and do nothing to make amends. One team pulled a different kind of off-season gesture for fans a few years ago following numerous post-seasons out and already with the highest ticket prices in the league. They raised prices again!

Granted, the offer from the Blues only applies to 400 potential seats. And of course, if the demand for tickets was great enough, this kind of promotion wouldn't happen. Still, great idea from the Blues.

st. louis blues arena layout


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Book Review: Leafs AbomiNation by Dave Feschuk and Michael Grange

The Toronto Maple Leafs have more fans than any other single NHL hockey team. They also have more "followers" than any other team.  A follower is someone who enjoys the soap-opera quality of the team and all the related drama but does not necessarily want the team to win.

Followers are perplexing to true fans and are often labeled as "haters" (to which any good follower will simply respond with "If I'm a hater, then you're a fellater." Or to the equally ridiculous "Haters gonna hate"—one of the many clichés of the mindless discussion board simpletons who are flummoxed by nuance—"Fellaters gonna fellate.")

Like any good ongoing social experiment played out for the whole world to see, the Maple Leafs and their fans provide never-ending intrigue and insights into the human condition.

Both fans and followers of the Toronto Maple Leafs will enjoy Leafs AbomiNation by Dave Feschuk and Michael Grange. Despite the title of the book, the picture on the front (a Leafs fan with a paper bag over his head), and quotes that appeared from the book when it was released in 2009, this is not a book true fans should shy away from. While it will make for tough reading at times because of the realization of how good the Leafs could have been over the years, it is not the book-length screed that many fear.

It is simply a fascinating look at the Leafs and some of the reasons that have contributed to their ineptitude over the past 40-plus years.

Arrogance and Incompetence


The theme that emerges as Feshchuk and Grange look at numerous factors is that of mind-numbing arrogance and hubris. A long line of blundering, smug, self-satisfied individuals who have held the reins of the Leafs has resulted in long stretches of horrible play and no Stanley Cup since 1967.

One of the ways that this arrogance manifests itself is in the passing over of some of the greatest players ever to play the game.  It's as if the almighty egos that have soiled the Leafs team ownership and management over the years were affronted that anyone dare to suggest that a great player should be given the chance to play for such a club.

Imagine the player considered the greatest to ever play the game, who grew up worshiping the Leafs and would have given anything to play for them. Yet the moronic Leaf owners were so full of themselves that they let Bobby Orr slip away. This is Orr on why he never had the chance to play for the Leafs:
"Like all kids growing up in Ontario, I watched the Leafs play each Saturday on Hockey Night in Canada and listened to Foster Hewitt on the radio," Orr would tell Howard Berger years later. "They were my favourite team because I saw them every week. I hardly knew anything about the Bruins. So I'm sure my parents wouldn't have been too disappointed if Toronto had shown the same amount of interest in me that Boston did."

How did the Leafs miss?

"My people," Stafford Smythe would later fume, "were too goddamn stupid."

In today's salary cap world, the popular claim is that while the Leafs are by far the wealthiest team in the league, their spending power no longer results in any advantage (not that they were able to use this wealth to give them any leg-up when there was no cap).

But the ability to buy out players and invest in what should be the most comprehensive and far-reaching scouting system in the NHL puts the lie to that sorry excuse. What is even sorrier, however, is that the Leafs are not known to have any sort of advantage over their rivals when it comes to scouting.

Feshchuk and Grange write about this subject and raise it with Richard Peddie, President and CEO of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment:
For most teams it's not a huge expense. When scouts travel they aren't staying on Central Park South in New York—more like the Four Points by Sheraton in Kamloops. Logic suggests that the highest-revenue team in hockey, playing in a city that's mad for a Cup, would blow the rest of the league away when it came to spending on finding talent. The salary cap dictates that the Leafs can no longer out-spend their rivals on player salaries, but they can spend all they like on scouts and coaches. If you want to improve, according to the Peddie mantra, you measure. But suddenly the numbers escape him. "I can't remember where we're at," he says. "But I look at it."

Do the Leafs spend more than any other hockey team?

"No," he admits. "We haven't to date."

They go on to rip Peddie for the meddling that resulted in, among other things, the hiring of John Ferguson Junior as general manager of the Leafs. The authors make a pretty good case that Ferguson was hired because he was relatively inexperienced and therefore was more receptive to being manipulated by the likes of Peddie.

Dough Boy and the Cement Head


Players are not spared here either, as the celebrity culture that surrounds the Leafs is explored and some of the worst offenders over the years are skewered. Feschuck and Grange seem to have a special loathing for Tie Domi, and highlight him as an attention-seeking buffoon who was more concerned about promoting himself than the interests of the team. (And if there is any such thing as hockey karma, surely the pre-game celebration that the Leafs put on for Domi's 1000th NHL game will result in another 70 or 80 years of Cup-less seasons.)

Kyle Wellwood gets similarly ripped:
As a young kid it was a lot of fun, I definitely miss it. If Tie was bringing you out, you got a lot of attention, but it was nice. It was tough for the guys who were married or had a girlfriend.  .../That Wellwood could play three seasons in what is supposed to be one of the most demanding places for a hockey player to ply his trade, undergo three surgeries, miss the playoffs all three  years and wind up unceremoniously waived, and still say it was "funnest time of my life" makes a pretty strong case about the ancillary benefits of citizenship in Leafland.

A player with a conscience might feel differently.

Throughout the other chapters, readers are regaled with some great history and histrionics and numerous people are highlighted as the assholes they no doubt were/are. Consider Harold Ballard, a freakish anomaly who was one of the nastiest, most self-serving pieces of human garbage to ever own a sports team and proudly rode the Leafs into the ground during his reign. However, not sure if the amount of venom that Feschuk and Grange reserve for certain individuals is based on personal dislike or the degree of arrogance displayed by the person under the microscope.

For example, Larry Tanenbaum, the largest share holder of MLSE stock after the Ontario Teacher's pension plan, doesn't come across nearly as badly as you would expect for someone who stupidly predicted that within a few years of taking the position as chairman of MLSE in 2003 that the Leafs would win the Cup. Also, he seemed to be quite the enabler for that same Domi that Feshchuk and Grange despise so vehemently.

One Passionate Owner Could be the Key


But Tanenbaum has a quarter billion dollars of his own money invested in the Leafs, and for Feshchuk and Grange he represents the best current example in MLSE of an interesting theory that they discuss in the book. Perhaps the Leafs' failures over the years aren't only down to the arrogance and stupidity of ownership.

Or rather, perhaps that certain blend of smugness that produces such raw, unfettered crap on the ice is due to the fact that no true owner who is accountable and who lays it all on the line has been around since the days of Conn Smythe. After all, there are plenty of arrogant and successful team owners out there in hockey and other sports.

For the current Leafs, while the arrogance is present and leads to numerous horrific decisions, the final conclusion by Feschuk and Grange is that the nebulous structure of the current ownership is what likely brings about repeated dismal seasons.

The authors point out numerous other sports teams in recent years whose owners were motivated by a love of the game and not only profits. The theory fits with the Leafs as well. In the past 25 years, the most success that the Leafs have had has been under Steve Stavro, who truly was a fan, and did try with all his might to put together winning teams. The '93 and '94 squads with Doug Gilmour leading the team made it to the conference finals, and were it not for the failed call of a certain referee, would have been in the finals in '93.

But a single passionate owner isn't the case now, and it doesn't seem to be something that will become a reality anytime soon.

Burke the Blowhard


The unanswered question through all of this is, does the organization create arrogant self-serving individuals, or are the arrogant smug bastards somehow drawn to the whole insane freak show? Hard to say, though if the final hopeful chapter on Brian Burke is any indication, the answer is: it's probably some of both.

As the book was written before Burke had ridden the Leafs to 29th overall in the 2009–10 season, this quote from the blowhard that appears in the final chapter is very telling:
"The system that I have put together, the system we used successfully in Anaheim, we stole a whole bunch of that from the Colts. I didn't want learn how to handle  a cap when it came in. I spent the better part of three years studying how other teams did it. Rule number one is, you better draft well, because if you have star players, you need entry-level players that are playing, not just taking up a uniform, but contributing. If you've got star players on your team—guys making $5 and 7$ million—you'd better  have guys who are dent making $700, 000."

While the Phil Kessel deal doesn't make Burke a complete hypocrite in relation to this quote, it does at least show how the pressure of being the GM for the Leafs can change things very quickly.

Great, readable style in Leafs AbomiNation. None of the sycophantic drivel that plagues some hockey books. The observations are sharp, rightfully harsh in places and yet still provide some hope that one day things might change.

Another great year of Leafs hockey is in store for the legions of the team's followers. For fans, probably not so much.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Ted Leonsis Responds to Claim about Ovechkin Contract

Washington Capitals logo Access is the lifeblood of journalists. Without the ability to interview key people and maintain an inside track on breaking news, journalists are nothing more than glorified bloggers. This is especially true in the world of sports writers.

The need to maintain access means that sports writers will not always break news that could be damaging to the team on which they report. Perhaps they soften their coverage just a tiny bit here and there. At least until the herd mentality has taken over their fellow hacks, and a particular storyline is deemed safe.

Otherwise, they may find themselves frozen out of the first tier of writers who are given prime interviews, tipped off about impending trades, and made privy to narratives that GMs and/or owners want to float with the aim of strengthening the image of a particular player they want to move.

Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Capitals, suggests in this blog post, that Damien Cox has made misleading comments about Alexander Ovechkin's contract because Cox did not have the access he wanted when writing a book about Ovechkin.

Interesting claim and just about impossible to prove. But let's at least take a look at what seems to have set off Leonsis. Here's what Cox writes in a piece entitled Outlaw owners get their way in Kovalchuk deal:
Ted Leonsis, to name another, was a hawk during the last labour struggle and now drinks deeply and gratefully from the revenue-sharing trough. The president of his Washington Capitals, Dick Patrick, is part of one of hockey’s most famous families and a committed league man.

But when they wanted to give Alexander Ovechkin a 13-year, $124 million contract, one they knew Bettman wouldn’t approve of, they did it anyway. That encouraged others, like the bizarre Tampa twosome of Len Barrie and Oren Koules, to engineer a deal with Vinny Lecavalier that started with a $10 million salary and wound down to $1 million.

So, it seems as though Cox is suggesting that the Ovechkin deal paved the way for others to offer long-term, front-loaded contracts to players with the aim of reducing the cap hit for their team. When you give a player who is say, 35 years-old, a 12 or 14 year deal that pays him 7 or 8 million dollars a year in the early part of the contract, and then tapers off to 1 million or less per year as the deal approaches the final years, then yes, a fairly strong argument can be made that an owner is trying to game the system.

First, it is unlikely that the player will be playing when the deal reaches its conclusion, or perhaps the deal will be renegotiated at some point in the future before it expires.

Here's the main problem with grouping the Ovechkin deal in with contracts that pull the long-term, front-loaded stunt with a player in his early to mid-thirties: Ovechkin's contract is not front-loaded! Ovechkin will be paid 9 to 10 million per year for the duration of the contract.

Not only that, this is probably not the last contract that Ovechkin will sign. He was 22 when he inked the deal with the Capitals, and he will be 35 when it expires. Finally, the contract just doesn't feel off like some of the other ones do.

So, Cox's claims are misleading at best, and disingenuous at worst. As for the charge from Leonsis that Cox is bitter at not having access to Ovechkin when he wrote the book and that is why he took a swipe at Leonsis—simply impossible to know if that is true. Unfortunately for Cox, because of the absurdity of his claim, some will no doubt believe that he is bitter for just that reason.

However, Cox can't be too annoyed at the blog posting from Leonsis and the resulting attention. At the very least, he will receive a lot of free publicity for the book he wrote about Ovechkin that will be released in the fall.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Flyers Complete Historic Comeback Against Bruins

Flyers logoBruins logoThe Philadelphia Flyers have completed the greatest comeback in best-of-seven series history—not only in NHL history, but also in all major North American team sport history. While the 1942 Maple Leafs also came back from 3 down, the 1975 New York Islanders accomplished the same feat, and the Boston Red Sox came back from 3 down in 2004, this comeback from the Flyers tops them all.

Remember that not only did the Boston Bruins take a 3-0 lead in games in this series, but they also were one goal away from eliminating the Flyers as the fourth game went to sudden death overtime.

And on the wretched flipside, the Bruins can lay claim to the biggest collapse in best-of-seven history for all major North American team sports.

To compound the shame for the Bruins, the Flyers came back from a 3-0 goal deficit in the seventh and deciding game.

The Bruins came out flying and pounded in 3 goals within the first 15 minutes of the opening period. Milan Lucic had two of those goals, and together with the offensive explosion, the Bruins were hammering every Flyer in sight.

But Philadelphia stuck with their game, and slowly chipped away at the Bruins' lead. In many ways, the deciding game was a microcosm for the entire series. The Bruins didn't lay back after they took the lead so much as they just didn't have what it takes to keep up the offensive attack.

The stunning early assault on the Flyers' net by the Bruins yielded 13 shots in just under 15 minutes of play, yet in the remaining 45 plus minutes of the game, the Bruins would manage only another 10 shots.

And of course, the Flyers simply did not give up.

To cap off the monumental choke the likes of which we will likely not see in the NHL for years to come, the Bruins took a to0-many-men-on-the-ice penalty at 11:10 of the third period. That allowed Simon Gagne to score the winning goal with 7:08 left in the game. The biggest nightmare of a game for Bruins players, and one that will take them a long, long time to live down.

In the words of the great Freddy Shero, regardless of what happens in the remainder of the 2010 NHL playoffs, these Flyers will walk together forever.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Book Review: Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey by Todd Denault

The Man Behind the MaskJacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey, by Todd Denault, details the life of one of the sport's most colourful and controversial goaltenders. And, just as with any good biography, the book includes far more information than just its main subject. Readers will also learn about the Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1950s and 60s on which Plante played, and many of the all-time greats from those teams.

Jacques Plante was one of the first real renegades in the game. At a time when a players' union had just come into existence, and most players were simply happy to have a job, Plante stood up to absurdities and ushered in important changes in the game due to his force of will and refusal to bend to the criticism and mockery of others.

However, this is no hagiography. Denault includes plenty of criticism of Plante as a goalie and a person. Apparently Plante was one of the tightest individuals who ever played the game, and always made himself scarce when it was time to pay the tab in a restaurant or bar. A character trait that is no doubt due to the poverty he experienced as a child, and part of the thorough look into Plante's life that the book provides.

Fear of Change


Within the story of Plante and the Canadiens of the 1950s, there is the story of human nature, and how people respond to change. It is universal and never-ending in the history of the world: fear of anything new. The ridiculous, illogical resistance offered up by the most frightened individuals of the day and how Plante stands firm in his beliefs result in some of the best passages in the book. Some things never change. Disciples of Don Cherry, who like their arguments as meaningless as possible, will likely not see themselves in the critics of the past who cringed at the possibility of an NHL goalie donning a mask. However, everyone else with a shred of sanity will see the bloviating blowhard Cherry and all those who cheer him on in the mules of yesteryear who brayed the loudest that a goalie dared to protect himself from 100 mile-an-hour slap shots to the face.

Research and Writing Style


This book represents an impressive effort in research. The reader gets a genuine sense of Plante—both the player and person—and also gets a feel for the Canadiens teams on which Plante played. Most of the research here appears to be from newspaper reports from that time, various hockey books, and TV and radio game replays from the era. Denault also includes some primary research in the form of interviews with surviving players and commentators from the years in which Plante played.

Like many hockey books, the writing style does not dazzle. Call it workmanlike at best. At times, the clichés fly fast and loose. An entire paragraph of clichés is no easy feat to achieve:
With three consecutive Stanley Cups, they stood at the pinnacle of the hockey world, and there appeared to be no end in sight. They had set a standard for winning. However, it was in many ways a double-edged sword. They had cast a tremendous shadow over all those who came after them. Nothing less than a Stanley Cup was acceptable now, for them or those who followed in their footsteps in Montreal.

That, however, is an extreme example. In general, the book is very readable.

There are numerous great hockey factoids, stats, and records sprinkled throughout this book. The game was vastly different back then in many ways. For example, teams only had one goalie on their roster at any one time. This meant that when a tender went down with an injury in an away game, the opposing team was obliged to supply a backup goalie for the remainder of the game. A practice goalie usually sat in the stands for the primary purpose of stepping in if the home team's netminder was hurt, but would also fill in for the visiting goalie as well.

Nostalgia for the Game


While the passages that detail the games are vivid and nostalgic of the game as it was played then, it is not really evocative of the years in which Plante played the game. Some more colour and reminiscing about life and society outside the rink during those years would have added some entertainment value to the book. But that is a small criticism that will really be a red herring for most readers. The book is pure hockey, which is the reason most people will pick it up in the first place.

This is the first book from author Todd Denault, and it is a decent effort that fans of hockey history will enjoy.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Have Leafs Ticket Holders Finally Had Enough?

Leafs logoCould things possibly be changing?

With the Leafs:
—well into their fifth decade of incompetence,
—on a winless streak to start the season that has them at the bottom of the standings,
—demonstrating that whoever occupies the position of GM is instantly enveloped in a haze of buffoonery and shortsightedness,

and most importantly, with the arrogance of ownership that

—truly doesn't give a damn,
—has the shameless, insidious gall to maintain the highest ticket prices in the league by a wide margin,
—raised ticket prices once again this year in the face of a long rebuild,
—and devotes more energy to keeping other teams out of "their territory" than actually trying to put together a winning team,

Leafs ticket holders may finally be waking up to the absurdity.

This Toronto Star article gives great hope to those who have been for years wishing for a colossal karmic bashing for the individuals who make up MLSE.
The legendary willingness of Leafs-loving Torontonians to dish out mortgage-payment-like sums to witness a perennial loser may have reached its breaking point.

Tickets to Maple Leafs games are being sold for unprecedented low prices on the open market – in what ticket brokers and resellers say is an early sign of a backlash against the club's league-topping ticket prices and basement-dwelling performance.

Sure, it's nothing that a two game winning streak won't solve. And of course, the seats are still full and the falling resale value of tickets doesn't have much of an effect on MLSE. (Though it would be interesting to find out if the Leafs get a cut from ticket brokers. Regardless, guaranteed they fret and fume about finding ways to get their mitts on some of the profits that scalpers make.)

The great thing about pressure is that those on whom it is exerted simply can't resist its effect. But in a situation where the possibilities for exerting pressure are almost non-existent, it can create nastiness, stagnation, and a lack of incentive to improve. Insatiable demand, and a loyal, hockey-mad fan base (like the shirt of the Leafs fan pictured in the article says, "still loyal, just upset") has, for years, sent the message to MLSE that fan fealty is unconditional.

So the news that the rabid devotion may be leveling off is a sign of hope. Imagine the support the Leafs would generate if they offered up a good will gesture like dropping ticket prices.

Genetic Manipulators from the Stars


Ironically, for those of us who aren't Leafs fans, but follow the team for the sheer social experiment/entertainment value, interest may be rising instead of falling.

Maybe the genetic manipulators from the stars who control the Leafs are finally sending the whole circus careening off in a new direction.

As for the current losing streak that the Leafs are on, the odds of breaking it inevitably increase as the schedule advances. On the other hand, no team wants to be the one to give up the first win of the season to the Leafs. The game against the New York Rangers on Saturday, October 17th at the ACC should be a good one. A blowout against the Leafs or a loss coupled with an obvious lack of effort, and the fan rage will ratchet up once again.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Georges Laraque and Scantily Clad Women

Georges Laraque has apologized for appearing in an advertisement with scantily clad women.

Apparently Laraque rocked up to a commercial shoot and was overwhelmed by the horror of it all. But he went ahead with it anyway. Nobody told him about the details beforehand.

So Laraque is contrite because he upset some people who don't like women wearing skimpy outfits. Here's a person who gets paid good money to break rules in a game. To lay aggravated assaults on opponents (granted, most are willing participants in the fights), to repeatedly drive his picnic-ham-sized fists into other people's faces.

But what's that got to do with anything? It's a bit of a stereotype to assume that what a person does off the ice is indicative of how he will play the game. Still, the kind-of contradictions are kind of amusing. And maybe that's what this is all about.

Just as his opponents are willing participants, no doubt the women in the commercial were willing as well.

There were people who claimed they were offended after the fact, prompting the apology from Laraque.

But there are numerous people offended at the ridiculous nature of what he gets paid to do. Is he going to apologize to them as well?

The Laraque dichotomy—the animal lover, vegan, good natured soul off the ice, and the thug on the ice—makes for great publicity.  People like the whole duality, contrast thing. And no doubt the birds lap it up.

But this whole episode seems somewhat contrived. As with all such manufactured controversies, there is a huge jolt of free advertising for the product that was being flogged. Plenty of indignant media outlets who are giving huge play to the entire absurd melodrama. And it's great exposure for Laraque.

But hey, maybe an ad that had been languishing in obscurity for weeks did suddenly prompt outrage from groups who monitor things like this. And as for the media response, who can blame them? It's got sex, outrage, and a great character in Georges Laraque—things that everyone can get their head around.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ron Wilson and Media Relations 101

Leafs logo"Don't get in a pissing match with people who buy ink by the barrel."

A saying that has long applied to politicians is also applicable in the hockey world. Even the most insignificant relationship between scribe and coach will guarantee that the coach gets an easier time of it in the morning paper.

It's a natural human tendency to feel empathy for those who are closest to you. But it's also amazing how much your attitude will change regarding a complete stranger if the smallest bit of good will exists. Which is why different industries spend billions a year in handing out trinkets to those with whom they want to do business.

Howard Berger has touched on this fact numerous times over the years, and had the guts to admit that criticizing a player like Mats Sundin was harder for the simple fact that Sundin is such a decent person and always had the time of day for the press.

Damien Cox gushes every time Wayne Gretzky's name comes up because the Great One has granted him a handful of interviews over the years. When Gretzky was getting hammered by many observers in the hockey world for his behaviour in the Coyotes fiasco, Cox dutifully played devil's advocate.

So it's perplexing that Ron Wilson is apparently one of the surliest, media hating coaches in the NHL. Toronto is one of the toughest markets in the league in which to coach. Primarily for the fact that any coach who ends up there is saddled by a freakish management outfit that seems to enjoy the whole sideshow entertainment value of watching others take the heat while they rack up the profits.

So as the Leafs are off to a horrid start, aggravated by some equally terrible expectations management courtesy of Wilson and Brian Burke, it's no surprise that Cox and others have started suggesting that Wilson is the weak link. Not outright beating the drum for Wilson's firing mind you, but it's only a matter of time. Cox planted the seed in the most thinly veiled ways, acting incredulous that anyone would dare suggest that Wilson was already in firing range while doing exactly that in the process.

Not that he is the only one in the media hinting at the need for someone to take the fall early on in what is shaping up to be one freakshow of a soap opera season even by Leafs standards. The aggravation at having been snubbed or insulted by Wilson will make many in the media gleeful at the prospect of seeing him get hung out to dry. And they will only be too happy to push the narrative along.

And once you go down the road of criticizing and ridiculing someone, especially in such a public way, there's no going back. Self-justification and dissonance ensure that any twinges of regret at ripping on the individual are set aside and the rationale always becomes, well, the son-of-a-bitch deserves it.

Does the criticism have anything to do with lack of results and the apparent inability of Wilson to motivate the Leafs to play better? No doubt. If Wilson were on better terms with the media, would they be willing to cut him more slack? It's a good bet.

As the Leafs get hammered once again, the need for an instant scapegoat mounts. Because of his self-defeating relationship with the media, Wilson has helped to ensure that they will target him as the likeliest candidate.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Book Review: McCown's Law: The 100 Greatest Hockey Arguments by Bob McCown

McCown's Law: The 100 Greatest Hockey Arguments by Bob McCown with David Naylor offers up 100 mini essays on some of the most common and divisive topics that spark discussion amongst hockey fans. It is one of the most entertaining and enjoyable hockey books that I have read in a long while.

Are all these arguments completely original thoughts put together by McCown and Naylor? I doubt it. Many of the arguments contain ideas I've been reading on discussion boards for years. But here they are more fully developed and fleshed out with numerous angles. All synthesized in one location, it makes for very good reading.

Some of the very arguments McCown preaches are ones that I've written about in this blog. Most of these are not arguments in the way that the word normally conveys. They are points of view strongly and convincingly delivered. In the instances where the opposing view on a topic is presented, it is sometimes weak and often veers into straw-man territory. But that doesn't really matter in a book like this. The entertainment value is in the different angles and the dismissive sneering asides about anyone who would dare to hold an opposing viewpoint.

But McCown also offers up compelling and nuanced arguments on numerous hockey-related topics that you may have never considered before. Like all good analysis, there are plenty of patterns highlighted and underlying rationales plainly and logically explained. In the way that a person who is knowledgeable about a subject makes something seem so eminently obvious that you're left wondering why the hell you didn't make the observation yourself. In fact, I can guarantee that within a week or so of reading this book, you will find yourself involved in a hockey debate and repeating McCown's words. Pray that it is with someone who thinks that Don Cherry is the last word on any hockey discussion.

McCown hammers the moronic non-arguments put forward by many of the mouth breathers who enjoy the sadistic side of the sport. He beautifully rips Cherry on numerous occasions and labels followers of the clown as "Cherry's disciples." Not that Cherry or anyone who supports his viewpoints ever offers up a rational or defensible argument, but McCown does such a perfect job of demolishing their absurd claims that they will likely splutter and experience more angst than usual when someone bashes their circular nonsense.

McCown presents a few different types of arguments in the book. Discussions of who was the greatest player (at various positions, during different eras, and of all time) team, and dynasty are some of the best. These are the instances where McCown presents evidence for all sides and then weighs in with his final decision. Discussions about the NHL during different eras rate the competitive and entertainment levels of each. The issues arguments—many of which are about violence or other odd, antiquated aspects of the game— are also very compelling.

And McCown offers interesting perspectives on claims that have become such clichés over the years that no one really stops to consider their validity. For example, in argument number 54, McCown takes on the declaration that "Canada is easily the greatest hockey nation on earth." He doesn't disagree with that statement, but instead explains why Canadians would have to be ashamed if it were any other way.
Consider that for a population of roughly 33 million people, Canada has 3,000 indoor rinks and another 11,100 outdoor rinks. That's one rink for every 2,357 Canadians. It's an astounding ratio when you think of it. In fact, we have a lot more rinks per person than we do hospitals.

Second on that list would be the United States with its 2,400 rinks, 2,000 of which are located indoors. On a per-capita basis, you're talking about one rink for every 123, 000 Americans.

The rest of the world doesn't even come close. According to the IIHF, Sweden has 445, Finland 253, Russia 145, the Czech Republic has 143 and Slovakia comes at 41—about as many rinks as in Toronto.

...

I won't dare to suggest that Canada isn't the greatest hockey nation on Earth. But when you handicap that debate against actual numbers of players and facilities in each country, you could make a pretty good argument that, pound for pound, Slovakia deserves the title.

With 100 arguments, some veer into the filler category. And some of the arguments McCown makes are just plain ridiculous. When he states that the women's hockey gold medal winner in the Olympics is a foregone conclusion for the foreseeable future, he isn't wrong. But to suggest that women's hockey shouldn't be an Olympic sport until other countries catch up with Canada is not very convincing. That would eliminate incentive for girls and women who play hockey in Canada and would reduce the sport's visibility elsewhere.

The 100 Greatest Hockey Arguments is written in a straightforward and conversational way that is reminiscent of McCown's radio broadcasts or a good discussion board rant. Well worth the read for those who love watching, playing, and most importantly, discussing the game of hockey.