Monday, December 31, 2007

NHL Overtime and Shootout Points: Claims of Artificial Parity are Exaggerated

NHL logoWith the bunched up standings in both conferences in the NHL this season, talk has been about so-called "artificial parity." This is usually attributed to the frustrating overtime and shootout system that sees one point given to the loser in either post-regulation game situation, while the winner receives two.

Together with the more even distribution of talent due to the salary cap, the result is there are only five points separating 5th and 13th place in the Eastern Conference.

As a sop to owners and fans and in an attempt to keep playoff races tight, the system that awards extra points for losing once the game goes beyond regulation has been ripped by many. The claims of artificiality seem plausible as well. Surely that extra point skews the standings and makes things closer than they would be otherwise.

I assumed so also. But when I re-adjusted the standings using a system that still gives the ultimate winner in overtime or the shootout two points while the loser gets nothing, there is little change in terms of how close the race is in the Eastern Conference (for the sake of brevity I limited the analysis to one conference.)

Here are the current standings in the east, followed by the rankings without a point awarded to the loser:

Current Eastern Conference Standings

1. Ottawa 55
2. New Jersey 45
3. Carolina 43
4. Montreal 45
5. Pittsburgh 42
6. New York R 44
7. Philadelphia 42
8. Buffalo 40
9. New York I 40
10. Boston 40
11. Florida 39
12. Atlanta 39
13. Toronto 38
14. Washington 35
15. Tampa Bay 33

Adjusted Eastern Conference Standings: No Overtime or Shootout Points for Losing Team


1. Ottawa 50
2. New Jersey 42
3. Carolina 40
4. Pittsburgh 40
5. New York R 40
6. Philadelphia 40
7. Montreal 38
8. New York I 38
9. Florida 38
10. Atlanta 38
11. Boston 36
12. Florida 36
13. Toronto 30
14. Washington 30
15. Tampa Bay 30

Negligible difference in terms of the separation between teams within the top eight playoff positions and little effect on those struggling to get into the eligible-for-post-season spots.

The only real change is in the rank for a handful of teams who have fared poorly when games have gone beyond the normal 60 minutes of play.

It is also worth looking at how the standings would look if the NHL reverted to a set-up used a number of years ago when a tie was a tie and both teams received one point for their efforts.

Tie games: No overtime, No shootout, Each Team Receives One Point

1. Ottawa 52
2. New Jersey 41
3. Carolina 41
4. Montreal 41
5. Philadelphia 41
6. New York R 38
7. Boston 38
8. Buffalo 36
9. Toronto 36
10. Pittsburgh 36
11. Florida 36
12. New York I 35
13. Washington 33
14. Atlanta 31
15. Tampa Bay 31

Again, little difference. The division leaders still maintain their positions while there is some movement amongst the other clubs.

This example was arrived at by simply subtracting the extra points awarded to the teams that won in the 5 minute extra frame or the shootout. Obviously this re-jigging slightly penalizes those teams who, for whatever reason, are more proficient when the extra point is on the line (in the west, Edmonton would get hammered using this model.)

So it appears as though the extra point awarded to the team who actually "loses" in the two tie-breaking formats does nothing for parity. The limitation is that this only accounts for the first half of the 2007-08 campaign. The influence may be greater once the season is complete though this should be a good representation of the overall effect.

The simple conclusion is that there is no good reason to keep this rule, especially because of the feeling of most fans that it just doesn't seem right.

There's something fundamentally flawed in the notion that losing deserves some kind of consolation point. It's kind of a tacit admission by owners and management that they have their own doubts about the veracity of the whole set-up.

The most troubling aspect of the "loser gets a point"arrangement (and hence, the major shortcoming in this little experiment) is that there is no way to accurately measure how this affects the mentality of players when involved in close games and tight playoff races.

Instead of the desperation and frantic play that comes with the knowledge that a win is necessary to have a chance at the post-season, a team may let up to maintain a tie so that they are guaranteed at least one point.

Many have presented the hypothetical situation in which a team loses in overtime or the shootout in the last game of the season yet the single point is enough to get them the final playoff spot.

When you introduce variables into the basic premise of victory and defeat and advancing your own team's cause while halting your opponents momentum in the standings, there is bound to be some negative fallout.

Many fans seem to loathe the shootout though personally I have no problem with it. There is already a cliched criticism that it's "an individual skills competition in a team sport."

But there are many sports in which a player's specific skills are isolated in a way that highlights individual ability in a team competition. Often the final outcome of the game hinges on those situations. For example, free throw shots in basketball or field goal attempts in football.

Granted, those features exist throughout the entirety of the game in those sports. But so what? Simply accept that the shootout is a part of the hockey, albeit at the end of regulation and overtime. It has become an important part of the game with certain skills more important than others, just as different aspects of the game already require a shift in style and mentality.

Failure to address the importance of the shootout and giving players an out by whining about its presence are only counterproductive to a team.

There will be no return to the bland and unsatisfying tie games of the past. That doesn't mean alternative methods of overtime aren't worth investigating with the result that the shootout may ultimately end up taking place with less frequency.

However, it is a certainty that the NHL must eliminate the absurdity of a point being awarded to teams that lose, whether it is in overtime or the shootout.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

NHL Goalies: Andrew Raycroft and Ray Emery

Leafs logoSenators logoAndrew Raycroft has let in 13 goals in his three most recent starts for the Toronto Maple Leafs, dropping the team to 13th in the Eastern Conference with the Leafs' most recent loss, a 6-1 disaster against the New York Rangers.

Raycroft is another millstone around the neck of the organization courtesy of John Ferguson Junior. Over-paid, under-performing and a bit too comfortable with the notion of losing. The Leafs don't have a hope in hell of unloading him in a trade anytime soon.

A player just can't win regarding his reaction to losing, can he? Play it as smooth and professional as Raycroft and he comes off as flippant and not too bothered about whether things ever get turned around.

Dave Feschuk of the Toronto Star wrote a column at the end of last season that solidified the image of Raycroft in my mind as a goaltender who is somehow a tad too casual when the losses start piling up. Being able to look on the bright side of things is an admirable and helpful quality to have in most situations.

But "that's good enough," or "at least it wasn't 7-1" doesn't instill confidence or impress people in the world of professional sports. Especially when fat contracts have been slurped up and performances to match the accompanying dollars have been in short supply.

Whether the image projected by certain mannerisms or responses is an accurate indication of a person's character is often hard to determine. Personality traits and speech patterns elicit niggling feelings in others, though at first they may push such concerns aside or not even be conscious of them. It's when on-ice performance coincides with those suspicions that the initial feelings or hunches are validated.

Regardless of how much he's being paid, it's hard not to feel a certain amount of sympathy for Raycroft. He could be in for the defining, and quite possibly final, stretch of play in his professional career.

What Leafs management say about Vesa Toskala is essentially meaningless as they have shown that they flat out lie regarding player injuries. He will probably be out for at least a few more games. While Scott Clemmensen has been called up from the Toronto Marlies, Raycroft will likely get ridden into either passable play or see his limited skills further disintegrate.

Goaltending problems are plaguing the other NHL team from Ontario as well.

With the Ottawa Senators, their 25 year-old back-up goalie Ray Emery is lowering his stock with his fellow players and other teams that might have been willing to take him in a trade with the Sens. His situation is in many ways the opposite of Raycroft's.

Emery has proven he can play (though not at the level of an elite tender in my opinion). But when faced with the proposition of recovering from an injury and playing behind Martin Gerber, his less than professional conduct has him veering towards those reputation-killer tags in the NHL: "locker-room cancer," "selfish," and "undisciplined."

Some fans spin the over-the-top, near tantrums from Emery as the antithesis of Raycroft. Apparent proof that he hates being denied the opportunity to compete and win so much that he will stop at nothing. If Emery's work ethic and discipline matched this supposed desire to win, then such claims might have some credence. As it is, he's turning himself into a liability.

Loyalty runs out faster with players who are full of themselves and they become expendable a lot sooner than they might have otherwise. Especially when they can't always back up such arrogance with real results.

A happy medium between these two extremes would be the ideal.

A sometimes snarling, usually even-tempered piece of work who puts on the odd display of emotion, takes care of business on the ice, sucks it up when he has to take one for the team and somehow projects the feeling that he's thankful for whatever time he has in the NHL.

Oh, and a cool mask.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

CBC Hockey Night in Canada: Coach's Corner with Don Cherry and Ron MacLean

Hockey Night in Canada's Coach's Corner, aka the Don Cherry/Ron MacLean freak show, went beyond its usual bizarre level of awfulness on Saturday.

The desperate for attention Cherry, whose ostentatious camp outfits make the most over-the-top transvestites look withdrawn and tame in comparison, threw a petulant hissy fit on-air as MacLean interrupted his defense of eight-time loser Chris Simon.

Incoherence collides with regression into sulking infancy, alternately coddled and prodded by a professional sycophant.

Add in the insulation provided by a few decades' worth of high ratings and you've got a pair of embarrassing clowns erroneously confident in the belief that they attract viewers based on something honourable, worthy of respect or representative of quality in any way.

Someone who yells, berates and becomes apoplectic at anyone who dares to hold an alternate viewpoint. Completely and totally bereft of skill in defending his opinion except for increasing the volume of his voice.

Legions of easily satisfied apologists regurgitate the same tired line whenever Don Cherry offers up another spectacle on par with public defecation: "He attracts the viewers, that's all that matters." Not surprising that such bland responses are offered up in defense of what is really a weak, wasted segment during the most watched television show in Canada.

The question is, how much better could it be and how many more people would tune in if there was real give and take by some of the clever and knowledgeable hockey media personalities working today?

The people who allow this to be aired week after week are simply demonstrating their lack of imagination. If CBC management really believes there aren't any other voices available or a different format that can be tailored to tap into one of the most consistent and captive television audiences in the country, then laziness and ignorance reigns at the nation's broadcaster.

Why exactly does Cherry remain so (apparently) popular? Regardless of his spluttering diatribes and decline in rationality, people sense that he is at least genuine in his beliefs and came to them through real experience in the world of hockey. And he wasn't always so absurd.

When he started out he was tame by comparison and actually made an attempt to present decent arguments. His opinions appealed to the young male demographic (and likely still do.)

He praised the kind of toughness that most kids aspire to when they start playing and watching hockey. He seemed confident in his opinions and not on the verge of a mental breakdown when someone lightly countered what he had to say.

Years ago I would watch Cherry during intermissions because he usually had some interesting comments on the issues of the day. Once, during a playoff game between the Jets and the Edmonton Oilers at the Winnipeg Arena, I held up a sign before the start of the first period.

Cherry and MacLean were doing the pre-game segment at ice level. It was a day after Easter and Dale Hawerechuk had improved his play in the previous game as compared to the start of the series. No one seemed to react to my "Hawerchuk has Risen" sign except for Cherry, who saw me waving frantically and gave me the thumbs up. Maybe that was before his religious phase.

A creeping mental stagnation and commentary full of contradictions and weirdness has turned him into an embarrassing sideshow schtick. His stable of "outs" invoked whenever he can't respond to a question with a modicum of logic is similarly pathetic.

The insinuation by many that if you criticize Cherry you are somehow against children, Christianity or "the troops" is, if not planned, then welcomed as a nice deflection. It means he rarely has to defend his point of view. He simply changes the focus to one of his safe topics.

In the episode on Saturday December 22nd, Cherry squealed like a spoiled child on the verge of crying because he didn't get his way, shrieking that "We're Hockey Night in Canada and we're talkin' about savin' the world here! Let's talk hockey! Now, DA TROOPS!"

Video of Coach's Corner on Hockey Night in Canada December 22nd, 2007


Outraged? Proving that the kind of controversy he generates does actually provoke discussion? Yeah, maybe. I'm all in favour of saying the most politically incorrect things possible, as long as they can back them up. I will keep watching too, in the knowledge that people who thrive on attention but are devoid of substance will eventually do whatever it takes to keep getting headlines.

The comical aspect of someone who yelps about respect but is the most disrespectful person around is, at some level, entertainment.

Just as the impending train wreck provides easy fodder for those who want to rip Cherry, the celebration of his ignorance and hypocrisy offers a thrill for many as well. Anti-intellectualism in its purest form and the comforting thought that bluster, personal attacks and generalizations often do trump respect, quality and thought provoking analysis.

Book Review: Higher Goals by Nancy Theberge

Higher GoalsHigher Goals: Women's Ice Hockey and the Politics of Gender is a book that looks at the inner workings of a women's hockey team through the lens of gender politics in sport. The author, Nancy Theberge, spent a few seasons with one of the top senior women's teams in Ontario in the early 1990's.

Academia, especially in the humanities, has always been plagued by the need to ram the often inexplicable sludge of life into neatly arranged and labeled explanations. The most recent and well-received ideas of the day are either revered or questioned by subsequent authors who then add their two cents. For sure, many of those attempts are downright intriguing and very plausible.

My criticism is that they often seem to conveniently ignore details that would cast their renderings of the world into a less convincing narrative. While mere hints that lend credence to their hoped for conclusions are given far too much weight.

This book mostly avoids that because it isn't overly ambitious in terms of advancing new theories. It mainly alludes to pre-existing literature within the field of sports psychology and gender studies and examines whether the author's case study of women's hockey fits within those frameworks.

I won't go into too many details of the intellectual minutiae presented in the book. It isn't so heavy going that the average person can't get their head around the concepts and interpretations. There is really only one chapter where the soup of scholarly double-speak gets thick enough to warrant a re-reading or three.

And isn't it always when attempts to re-order standard notions come up against universally held truisms that the most intricate and extensive verbal gymnastics are necessary?

Here, the belief held by essentially everyone in the world that men are physically stronger isn't so much challenged as cast into a different light. That this obvious and considerable difference in strength is the basis for men's higher level of sports competition and increased attention from spectators is because we choose to emphasize those aspects as the most worthy.

In other words, if people didn't only "celebrate the advantages men enjoy," and instead considered the attributes that favour women, such as "agility and long-term endurance" (this according to the book, though no evidence is given), things could be different (just to be clear, this is mainly the author referencing various writers in the same field.)

There are other situations in the book where meaning is squeezed out of unremarkable or pedestrian occurrences that really deserve no such significance. In discussing the structure of the team, the author examines the supposed irony of women who are defying stereotypes yet still play under a management structure dominated by men.

Many of the husbands and boyfriends of the players accompany the team on road trips and when the bus breaks down on one excursion, the men take it upon themselves to move the equipment to a replacement vehicle. This is kind of framed as "these independent, athletic women who play a violent, tough sport are still held captive by the standard societal stereotypes of male/female roles."

Maybe the husbands and boyfriends didn't want them to expend undue energy before the game? On the other hand, how would it have been spun if it was assumed the women should do the lifting? Definitely an interesting anecdote worthy of inclusion in a book that is concerned with such relations but hard to believe that it's so meaningful.

It's not too difficult to accept the basic assumption that all relationships are based on power and inevitably one side will possess or exert the most influence. There are a lot of thought provoking ideas here that you may or may not agree with but they are never presented in a shrill or insistent way. I won't risk bastardizing or simplifying other concepts in the book to the point of being unfair to Theberge.

The best parts of the book are in the player interviews and the simple observations where insight is provided into women's hockey. Each chapter covers a specific topic and some of the most intriguing include the prevalence and acceptance of lesbians on the team and within the sport in general, interaction within the locker room and physicality in women's hockey (incidental hitting as well as the allowed variety which existed in certain senior leagues before 1990.)

There is an analysis of a wide range of different situations on and off the ice and regarding the make-up of the team, its management and the world of women's hockey in general. This is very often looked at through the filter of how the women's game compares to the men's version.

The writing goes beyond the pedantic and mind-numbing academic style that is present in similar works, rendering them almost unreadable in many cases. While it is still a detached, almost clinical take on its subject compared to non-fiction solely intended for entertainment purposes, it somehow manages to remain interesting and compelling most of the time.

A slightly annoying aspect of the book is that it only uses pseudonyms, though this is no doubt accepted protocol for such studies and probably increased the likelihood of candour from those participating. Relatively short in length, the content presented is packed with detail representative of the efforts of two seasons of watching and interviewing.

Does it transcend the specialist audience it is aimed at (i.e. students or other academics) enough to make this a book hockey fans in general may enjoy reading? Somewhat, I would say.

This definitely won't appeal to most fans looking to pass the time with a light and entertaining read. Within the world of hockey fandom, the women's game receives short shrift and this is at least an introduction to the motivations of the players and some of the obstacles they face.

And for someone specifically interested in sports psychology and/or sociology, parents of young girls looking to get involved in the game or those who don't mind wading through some heavier passages, it well might be an enjoyable experience.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

New European Professional Hockey League

Put me down as a supporter of the European professional hockey league being proposed by Russian billionaire Alex Medvedev.

Competition is always good. It's great to see NHL brass squirm at the thought of losing total dominance over being able to offer the world's best hockey players the only viable league in which to ply their trade.

Bettman BurgersI don't buy the fear mongering about further erosion of the talent pool. I like to use the restaurant analogy.

A hamburger joint is the only eatery on a busy street. It builds up a good reputation and develops a large customer base. Many people in the area eat there because the food is decent. Others do it out of convenience and because there are no other options nearby.

After a while they start taking their success for granted. They let things slide here and there, try saving money with lower quality ingredients and begin showing the first signs of arrogance.

Then, almost simultaneously, two more restaurants open their doors within close vicinity of what has long since become a local institution. The owners panic, convinced they will lose customers. They may not even be conscious of their slumping standards but at least have a gnawing sense that they are in for a well deserved hit.

But the irony is that they probably don't have much to worry about. They may see a drop at first because of the novelty factor but traffic in the area will increase and in the end they'll probably be busier than ever. The competition will force them to pull their heads out of their asses as well, which will end up benefiting everyone involved.

Admittedly, the analogy is a bit weak. There is an endless supply of ground beef that can be cut with sawdust and fashioned into burgers for obese slobs to plug their guts with. On the other hand, world class hockey players are in relatively short supply. Still, the comparison has some merit.

In any new European league, there is going to be a reasonable amount of money available, at least for whichever teams are directly associated with Medvedev. Perhaps some marquee players can be enticed away from the NHL. That in turn may draw some other Europeans and North Americans into the yet to be established association of teams. Increased interest generated in Europe and on a worldwide basis is going to be good for the general health of the game.

Though it would be at least a dozen or more years in coming, a higher profile in Europe will bring more youngsters into the game. That can only improve the overall level of talent down the road.

Maybe it will force some well needed retraction within the NHL. Or, if there are to be franchises relocated, at least the realization that it's completely asinine to leave the most feasible market in North America untapped.

The NHL isn't likely to validate such a new endeavor with anything like exhibition match-ups or discussions on inter-league play. The only way any agreements or partnerships will result for both leagues is if the upstart demonstrates through some reasonable success that it's in for the long term.

Instead of seeing Medvedev and his plan as something to be feared, the NHL should be happy that someone else is doing the heavy lifting in the early going of expanding the popularity of hockey on a global level.

The current Russian Super League could possibly provide some teams for the new entity. Here's hoping they do some things differently than the Super League, which have drawn a lot of attention for their development of players and ability to lure some talent from the NHL but have been lacking in their marketing of the league outside of Russia.

There are many obstacles, assuming all the details get hammered out and things go beyond the planning stage. One of the biggest will be the local markets and the relative lack of revenue that can be tapped.

The talk from Medvedev and others is that a major television contract is important in attaining any kind of real success. There is a huge audience in Europe and some broadcasters with massive clout, such as Sky Sports, could do wonders for the popularity of the sport.

Hopefully the newcomers try to distinguish themselves from the NHL in some important areas to show that there really are other ways of doing things. At the same time, they will undoubtedly steal some plays from the most popular and successful league in the world.

In an attempt to broaden the appeal of the game, perhaps they could emulate the NHL geniuses and go into non-traditional areas.

I'm sure the Napoli Neptunes could turn on a whole new generation of football-weary southern Italians to the joys of hockey.

Monday, December 17, 2007

NHL Suspensions: Chris Simon Attack on Jarkko Ruutu

NHL logoIslanders logoPens logoIt's hard to commit an act of violence in the NHL that receives universal condemnation. A player can pour every ounce of energy into an explosive, premeditated, pivoting two-handed slash to the face of his opponent and someone, nay, a legion of people, will come screaming to the defense of the piece of filth.

It doesn't take much to provide the basis for such bizarro world rationalization. Any questionable action by the player who's been attacked is all it takes. A genuine foul or perceived slight that went unpunished, either earlier in the game or months previously, justifies the retribution that flows his way.

A barely concealed glee at injuries resulting from cheap shots is not a difficult-to-find sentiment amongst hockey fans. To be fair, it's the kind of bald-faced sociopathic ranting usually seen in the discussion board trenches, where the normal societal division of those who love to play the callous lunatic and those who love to be outraged is magnified a thousand times.

In the "public face" discourse of such incidents, the mainstream hockey media voices all the appropriate outrage, calls for punishment from the league and uses it as a segue to demand that the game be cleaned up. No doubt they are sincere in most cases.

But there are just as many references to the importance of "consequences" and that nebulous "code" that has never really been adequately articulated by anyone, ever. The proper and expected responses come when the glare of exceptional occurrences transcend the game and everyone is at their politically correct best.

So it is a rare instance that gutlessness is distilled into its purest essence and a moment of clarity is shared by all fans, including those of the offending player's team and those who normally take pride in celebrating cowardice and cruelty.

Chris Simon's insane stomp onto the ankle of Jarkko Ruutu's ankle seems to have achieved that rarest of unanimous loathing amongst hockey fans. Simon of the Islanders, in what was a clear and deliberate move, drove his skate blade into Ruutu's ankle, as Ruutu was lying prone on the ice.

That it was planned and Ruutu couldn't even see the attack coming makes it even more insidious and unforgivable. Add in the potential for the seriousness of the injury that could have resulted as well as Simon's track record and he is in for one record-setting suspension.

The odd thing about the incident is that, while it was obviously intentional, it almost seemed like an afterthought by Simon as he made his way through the gate onto the Islander's bench.

Here is the YouTube video of the attack


He wasn't involved in a fast moving, intense game situation. The "fog of battle" defense, that points to the speed and the near impossibility of pulling up in some cases, is irrelevant here. And yet it seemed so casual and pointless. The term "banality of evil" comes to mind (only the second Nazi reference I've made in the past week.)

And so the guessing game begins about the length of suspension the NHL will hand down to Simon. I really wanted to avoid checking in at Bob McKenzie's blog over at TSN because after doing so it's almost impossible not to be derivative of whatever he has to say on such issues.

He has an uncanny ability of putting his finger on the pulse of the league after every suspension-worthy incident and accurately predicting, within a few games, just how long the sentence will be. However, he hasn't commented on this most recent episode yet.

Following the attack with his stick on the New York Ranger's Ryan Hollweg last season, I believe Simon will get hit hard.

The rest of the season, with a less than subtle hope on the part of the NHL and many fans that he decides to call it a career.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

First Major Trade of the 2007-08 NHL Season: Doug Weight for Andy McDonald

Blues logoDucks logoThe first significant trade of the NHL season and not a single online fabulist even hinted at it before it came down the pipes.

The St. Louis Blues send Doug Weight, Michal Birner (an up-and-comer currently in the AHL) and a 7th round pick in the 2008 draft to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Andy McDonald. It's hard to argue anything other than the fact that the Blues got the better of the deal. Of course, there are people doing just that. The appeal of occupying the contrarian role is irresistible to many in such a situation.

McDonald's numbers are down significantly this year and some will attribute that to no longer playing alongside Teemu Selanne. His age and durability (he leaves the Ducks as the current team leader in consecutive games played at 276) still outweigh what the Ducks receive in return.

There is the apparent desire of many pundits and fans to attach Machiavellian-like qualities to Brian Burke. Once a GM has enjoyed some success in the NHL and won at least one championship, they are forever considered geniuses regardless of what their subsequent records show.

The first caveat mentioned when dissecting this trade by those wanting to be generous to Burke and the Ducks, is that it's all about managing team salaries in the cap era. Here there are some valid claims.

A Stanley Cup winning team naturally possesses more than its share of quality players who deserve to be rewarded with healthy contracts when the time arises. Ryan Getzlaf slurped up a well-deserved multi-year deal a few weeks ago and Corey Perry is in line for a fat pay increase before he becomes a free agent at the end of the season.

So McDonald's contract was unloaded in preparation for signing other more important players and freeing up room for the return of Scott Niedermayer. But that explanation disregards the blunders made by Burke in the pre-season.

His failure to re-sign Dustin Penner before he became a free agent--at a cost that would no doubt have been significantly less than what he received from the Oilers--meant that he had to bring in another player to fill that hole. That resulted in a bloated contract offer for Todd Bertuzzi. Bertuzzi has been a minor contributor at best when he's been in the lineup.

In perpetuating the idea that Burke has mythical powers and nothing is ever as it seems regarding his actions, many are speculating that this is only the first step in a well thought out multi-staged plan. That well might be true.

But if the goal was freeing cap space, picking up prospects and getting some added experience for the rest of the season with an older player who can still contribute, surely the Ducks could have gotten an even better return by bundling Ilya Bryzgalov together with McDonald. Of course, Bryzgalov was put on waivers and snapped up by the Phoenix Coyotes earlier in the season.

The Downside of No-Trade Clauses


No-trade clauses have increased in prevalence in the past few seasons. They are ultimately a burden for teams and provide a false sense of security for players.

Doug Weight had such a clause, refused to waive it at first and then eventually agreed. Which leads a person to think that they're just a recipe for some unpleasant psychological games and the kind of pressure that can turn a person's guts just enough to say to hell with it.

Some cryptic hints from Weight as to what went down in discussions with Blues' management leading up to this trade.

I suppose you can spin such tough actions from a team in two ways. The kind of hard-nosed pragmatism that does whatever it takes to win. Or, the type of behaviour that turns off at least a few players and makes them question what will happen when they are in the same situation.

Without any emotional stake in either team, unjust treatment of a player makes me hope he goes beyond any reasonable expectations and proves everyone wrong.

And that's one of the great things about trades. Regardless of how many people weigh in about who "won" the deal, it usually isn't until at least the end of the season that any real conclusions can be drawn.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Sidney Crosby: Canadian Athlete of the Year

Political pundits--those columnists and talking heads who discuss the government and issues of the day--often end up shaping the news themselves. Influential writers frequently make the move into politics or at the very least offer up their loving paeans to whichever party or individuals appeal to them the most. Their thoughts and suggestions no doubt have some influence on official decisions and policy.

Sports writers also have some clout within the world they write about. Not in the same incestuous way that political hacks court their subjects in the hopes of being asked into the inner circle. Sports journalists rarely, if ever, become part of a team in any other facet except professional sycophant.

But they do channel the thoughts and passions of numerous fans. And on occasion they help to stoke a wave of sentiment that leads to a move by management.

The sports media also chooses the recipients for a number of different awards. Winning such official accolades can boost a player’s profile and lead to consideration for hall of fame induction.

A major league baseball player, Curt Schilling, recently had a clause written into his contract that would add a million dollar bonus for garnering even a single vote for the Cy Young award,
which is given to the best pitcher of the year. The writers on the Cy Young voting committee convened a meeting and decided to disqualify from consideration any players who have negotiated such incentives.

A fair decision I believe. With the number of ethical questions already swirling around baseball, the game’s image doesn’t need to be further tarnished in the eyes of fans. Follow that path and how long before cries of “kickback” are made when a player with such a contractual provision receives a vote from a writer he is friendly with?

Beyond that, the whole notion of sports writers being handed the power to decide who is crowned the best, is fraught with at least a few potential pitfalls.

The Lou Marsh Trophy for the Canadian athlete of the year was given to the Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby last week. Crosby was in the running against various other athletes including Steve Nash of the NBA's Phoenix Suns and downhill skier Erik Guay.

A good discussion on Prime Time Sports with Bob McCown raised some interesting issues surrounding the whole voting process. McCown, who was one of the panel members, highlighted the criteria taken into account when voting on candidates.

One of the considerations is "depth of field," which makes it hard to fathom how any amateur sports or less popular athletic pursuits have athletes worthy of the prize.

However, it's not the only factor scrutinized when casting the final votes. It seems there are a number of qualifiers given more or less weight depending on whichever pick needs to be justified every year.

In the panel discussion on Prime Time Sports, those who were part of the process admitted the sentiment that "a hockey player hasn’t won it for a while and so it was due," received some play. Nice for hockey fans but ultimately irrelevant.

Beyond the fact that Crosby is a completely deserving winner of the award, his cause couldn't have been hindered by a few other aspects. First, he has the full marketing support of the NHL, who have anointed him as the chosen one. Also, besides his incredible talent and work ethic, he is just a very likable and mature individual.

Ostensibly outside the parameters of such awards, it's impossible to deny the effects personality and image have in what is partially a popularity contest despite the supposed "rules" involved. If Crosby were a nasty son-of-a-bitch with a handful of off-ice incidents under his belt, would he be such an easy choice?

Thankfully, it's not a question that needs to be answered. Like the other high profile ambassadors of the game who went before (Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr), Crosby seems blessed with that natural sense of honour and decency. (Another discussion worth pursuing: does exceptional character help build superior athletes or does it come after someone with talent has enjoyed the special privileges and treatment that society bestows on such youngsters?)

Aside from those questions, are there any conflicts of interest involved in the player/media relationship? What if a journalist follows a particular athlete closely, befriends him or her or is considering the possibility of writing a book about that individual? Should they be part of a particular panel when that player is in the running?

There are other awards decided by fellow players, management or even fans. It's unlikely that less bias exists amongst those groups of people.

Still, at least an open discussion of the voting process creates some pressure and a greater sense of responsibility for those involved. When these committees remain shrouded in secrecy, it creates the perception, rightly or wrongly, that politics and favouritism trumps merit.

And finally, congratulations to Sidney Crosby for being chosen as Canada's athlete of the year!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The NHL, NBA and NFL: League Management and Players Behaving Badly

Kind of surprising that the NHL would sign off on allowing four players to experiment with the new Thermablades during regular season games. Potentially an unfair advantage for that group of skaters, no?

I guess it's in keeping with a league that shamelessly tampers with their product, engages in asinine pre-season publicity stunts and gives a big fat screw-off to the most financially viable hockey region in North America in exchange for cycling through a litany of failed franchises in markets where the game has a marginal following.

Can you imagine the NFL giving a handful of players the privilege of being the only ones to use a new set of lighter and more protective pads or a new brand of stickem' that made one-handed catches the norm? How about a half dozen NBA players given the chance to experiment with flubber-like shoes in game situations?

***

On the other hand, NHL players seem to be relatively well-behaved compared to their counterparts in the NBA and NFL. What's the point in slinging mud at other pro sports leagues? Isn't the ranking of various sports' respective screw-ups getting old? Perhaps, but comparison is at the heart of observation.

Plus, for most people there's something uniquely appealing about the fact that all the success and material wealth in the world doesn't prevent those at the very top from blundering into monumentally self-destructive situations. Probably some of the old "not despite but because of" theory in there as well.

Michael Vick is to be banged up for 23 months for his role in financing a dog fighting ring and putting down half a dozen of the poor beasts who had the audacity to not have learned the art of killing to a sufficiently competent degree.

I was a bit surprised at the amount of time he was given however, especially considering how sentences for vehicular homicide are often in the same range or even lower. There really is almost nothing like the death of helpless animals to unify public opinion and create a sense of urgency in the justice system.

The Vick announcement comes following an NBA player (Jamaal Tinsley of the Indiana Pacers) getting shot at outside a downtown bar. Can't really imagine why that would happen. He only packed a group of his mates into three luxury cars and was likely loaded down with jewelry valued at four to five years of work at a menial job for some of those who didn't take kindly to the show of wealth.

That of course doesn't justify a confrontation (impossible to know how it played out) or use of firearms. Though Tinsely's brother was carrying a gun and squeezed off a few shots as well. Not that he had any reason to think such a situation would arise...

Somehow can't imagine a group of NHL good ol' boys rolling into a downtown bar in Toronto or New York decked out in bling, expensive threads and with a sneering entourage looking to let everyone know who's in charge. Wait a minute...I can.

But like with most things, it's about degrees. Because of a different vibe and perhaps fewer desperate people with nothing to lose, I can't see the same thing happening to a bunch of hockey players.

Beer bottles, fists and the odd fool looking to spark a situation that could result in a lawsuit is another story.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

NHL Hockey: Memories, Myths and Nostalgia

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a movie directed by Sam Peckinpah. It's about the end of an era and the gunslingers disappearing along with it.

The ghost-like figures at the heart of the film are being forced to accept changes to a society that is moving on. They lament the inevitable and do their best to adapt but are drawn back into old ways, regardless of whether it may end up costing them their lives.

They speak in a cryptic and fatalistic patois that pays tribute to an honour code that is also dying. They are wary of the contemporary breed of man shaping society and moving things forward. Those amongst them who try to reconcile with the new ways are conflicted with themselves and their die-hard brethren who can never truly conform.

The movie is heavy on style with a loose semblance of a plot. It is a series of vignettes stitched together, all highlighting the conflict between the outlaw and a world that is squeezing him further to the margins. The lack of a traditional cinematic trajectory is almost a precursor to the rock videos that were still a decade away when the film was released in 1973.

That feeling is enhanced by the Bob Dylan soundtrack (and a role by Dylan as well; quite possibly one of the worst acting performances that never saw the editing room floor. So utterly stilted, unnatural and horrid that it adds to what is already a somewhat surreal experience.)

Ironically, despite the outward sense that these ragged mavericks represent a fraternity that adheres to a special code of ethics outside the corrupt establishment, almost every scene is highlighted by a singular and brazen act of gutlessness, many of them perpetrated by those same individuals.

And here is one of the themes that runs throughout the movie. That all people romanticize their lives and hold onto a time that never really existed as they remember. The alternative is to reach the end of life as a broken down son-of-a-bitch with a collection of unfulfilled dreams, fleeting victories and the inevitable realization that it doesn't mean a whole hell of a lot. When we package life into narratives flavoured with nostalgia and a belief that there was a better time (and the possibility that it could return), it makes living and dying easier.

There's nothing that hasn't been filtered through the rose coloured glasses of the past. (Next time someone is on about the better music of previous decades, pull up a few years of top 10 album sales from that era and take a look at most of the tripe that captured the imagination of the masses.) Hockey is no exception.

Perhaps because there is an ever-expanding number of media outlets providing employment for a host of aging commentators and former players, the lamentations of the past are at an all time high. It's difficult to read a day's worth of columns or listen to a few hours of radio talk shows without being subjected to the tired line about how good the game once was.

Any number of factors are held up as culprits regarding why NHL hockey has supposedly eroded over time. The instigator rule, the presence of helmets and visors and that oft-repeated mantra that "there just isn't the same respect that once existed."

Speaking on Leafs Lunch a few days ago, Bill Watters put forth the inane argument that if the NHL were to forbid the wearing of helmets, the league's revenues would skyrocket and the game would suddenly become much safer. He seemed to sense the absurdity of what he was saying as soon as he floated the idea. He likely received validation and was congratulated on his brilliance when making the claim amongst other like minded old-timers. It was embarrassing to listen to but once he had begun he couldn't back down.

The current number of stick swinging incidents, cheap-shots and other cowardly acts have probably not seen some kind of increase as compared to the past. The claims of greater recklessness in today's game are made without any hard statistical proof and just as often by the same people who reminisce about the mayhem that used to occur. Ah, the bench brawls of old where honour ruled and never an act of nastiness or disrespect took place!

Not that it's impossible to demonstrate that particular eras may have been qualitatively better (different) in certain ways. Just that the comparison is rarely taken beyond anecdotes and relies on hazy recollections and the knowledge that there will always be an audience for such musings.

The nature of such requiems demonstrates how it's about what your mind retains more than any objective reality. An indication of how you've changed, a microcosm of your own screw-ups, hopes and fears. As in the movie, it's about grieving a lost way of life but also about preparing for the ultimate loss. Exaggerations of bygone days are also about trying to avoid irrelevance and being forgotten. The hope that past myths and lives lived are recognized by a new generation already in the process of creating their own stories and memories.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TSzhMwOk3vY&feature=related

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Todd Bertuzzi Uses the Nazi Concentration Camp Guard Defense

I wrote that shamelessly over-the-top title for a few reasons.

First, whenever someone in the past 60 years has blamed his superiors for giving orders in an attempt to absolve himself of culpability in performing an insidious act, the WWII comparison has been a natural one. Especially in a high-profile public situation that involves testimony or court proceedings of some kind.

And, I'm invoking a variation of Godwin's law to demonstrate that the Todd Bertuzzi/Steve Moore incident has taken on the same qualities in online hockey forums. Any heated discussion that goes on long enough will inevitably see references made to the attack that took place almost four years ago.

In can be any hockey discussion on any topic. If it carries on, it will eventually go off on a tangent and someone will mention the on-ice assault that ended Moore's career and turned Bertuzzi into a dead-eyed zombie.

But back to the latest revelation that the Canuck's coach at the time, Marc Crawford, told Vancouver players that Moore "must pay pay the price."

In response, the ranting lunatics on discussion boards who are desperate to let everyone know that they're hip to the violent realities of the game and that such tough-talk is commonplace in hockey dressing rooms, once again succeed in getting to the crux of the most irrelevant aspect of the argument.

It doesn't matter that Crawford never intended or hoped for such a horrific final result. The fact both Bertuzzi and Canuck's GM David Nonis have verified this version of events lends credence to what Moore and his lawyers have been saying all along. That he was targeted, that an atmosphere of revenge was stoked by Vancouver coaches and that this contributed to the assault and thus the organization itself is partially responsible.

A judge or jury is not going to give a flying fuck about the "unique" elements that surround the game of hockey and whether or not some people think that players tacitly accept a special code of conduct by agreeing to play in the NHL. The chances of Moore winning a hefty payout just went way up.

This saga and the reactions of many people continue to amaze me. Specifically, the number of sociopaths who see each subsequent step taken towards litigation by Moore and his team of lawyers as an opportunity to insult and ridicule the former Colorado Avalanche player. It's always those who most like to issue threats by proxy and thrill in claiming they possess a special understanding of the game.

Probably the same individuals who have never known the sickly and singular experience of being done over in such a gutless and life-altering manner. Most people haven't and could never empathize with Moore to any real degree. Many others have been victimized, used or cheated in far less severe ways and still been overwhelmed with murderous rage.

Perhaps that's the one aspect of this whole sad affair that sends the Moore-hating pukes off the deep end. They barely contain their glee at the vigilante nature of Bertuzzi's assault but are offended that Moore responds in the only way a civilized society allows.

If you begrudge Moore for going after as much as he can get, then you are devoid of imagination or haven't lived enough to know how this will affect him in ways more devastating and long-lasting than just the loss of livelihood.

In such a situation you aim as high as you possibly can, knowing that an eventual settlement will fall somewhere far below that. Whatever he receives in compensation, it will be cold comfort for never being able to play another game in the NHL.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

NHL 2007-08 : Spinning the Season

Sens logoFlyers logoLeafs logoFlames logoOilers logoThe Ottawa Senators are winless in seven games but have collected three points in that span and still sit atop two of the three standings' categories. They've got a decent lead within the Northeast division, though the New York Rangers are now nipping at their heels for the top spot in the Eastern conference. And with the Sens in the midst of this slump, the Detroit Red Wings have the best record in the league with a nice fat 40 points after 27 games played.

While it's been a difficult string of games for Ottawa, it's a testament to their early season dominance that they are still statistically the best team in the East. In fact, it's probably good for the team to encounter some adversity early on, have the chance to overcome obstacles, realize that it's going to take a huge effort to reach the next level and...

Ah, spin! You really take whatever you want from any particular situation, match-up or stretch of games.

Take the handful of Leafs' fans who are actually bemoaning the fact that their team has gone on a mini-tear with three wins in a row. The thinking on their part is that a few more dismal performances would have guaranteed some kind of change while this delusional burst simply lulls many into the false sense that a significant turnaround has occurred.

I say take wins any way you can and let everything else sort itself out.

***

A widespread rage against the Flyers from opposing teams' fans is apparent on most NHL discussion boards. The bland refrain from Philadelphia supporters when the wrath and threats flow their way? "I love being hated! It's a great feeling!"

I suppose that's the only way to deflect and spin the anger that is being directed at them as a result of the cheap-shots and the accompanying suspensions levied against five separate Flyers' players. It would be hatred well-earned if the team actually benefited from these tactics but it's hard to argue they have gained anything tangible.

Most of the illegal hits took place after the games were out of reach and they have now called so much attention to themselves that they are unlikely to receive the benefit of the doubt in any future incidents.

On the other hand, they haven't lost much either. Mainly marginal players delivered the hits and their absences haven't affected the team's chemistry. And in the most recent situations they've only had to sit out a handful of games.

While they have injured opposing teams' players and likely carved out some room for themselves on the ice through intimidation and fear, that too comes at a cost. As other teams look at the pros and cons associated with the style of play euphemistically classed as "on the edge," at some point they will consider payback in kind. A fist, stick or elbow named revenge could be directed at some top Philadelphia players just in time for the playoffs.

No doubt the perpetrators of such acts will argue, just as the Flyers organization and fans have, that it was unrelated to anything and took place in a kind of vacuum that repeatedly induces these odd coincidences. No, there's no pattern, culture or strategy evident here...

***

Spinning the battle of Alberta is all about expectations. Despite a nice win against the St. Louis Blues last night, the Calgary Flames have to rank as one of the biggest disappointments in the NHL so far this season. Bringing in the worn-out, outdated Keenan is looking like a bigger blunder by the day as the Flames continue to underwhelm.

The Edmonton Oilers on the other hand, have improved as of late with a 5-3 record in their last eight games and three wins in a row for the first time this season. And in the "looking for positives to build on" department, they are now one point up on their provincial rivals and lead the league in shootout victories with an insanely good 7-1 record.

***

Interesting article on goalie masks at USA Today.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Theoren Fleury: Rock Solid Reality TV Show

Theoren Fleury has approached TV executives with a proposal for a reality show about his concrete business. And they have apparently agreed that it would make for an intriguing real-life drama.

***

FleuryTentatively titled "Cement Head Chronicles," the one hour weekly show follows the former Calgary Flame and his struggle to dominate the cut-throat business world and fight off the demons that haunted him throughout his impressive NHL career.

The pilot show features a shot of a cement truck pouring out the foundation for a new hockey arena in Buddfug, Alberta. Fleury is standing to the side supervising. The camera pans in on his face.

His eyes have a glazed, thousand yard stare. No voice over is necessary to tell viewers what is going through his mind. Everyone who ever crossed him, doubted him, offered him that 33rd beer of the night...the perfect hiding place, never to be seen again...

A subsequent show details the linguistic roots behind Fleury's bizarre western Canadian redneck patois and how he once managed to say "y'know" 86 times in a two minute interview.

cementPuck sluts have been replaced by cement sluts; middle aged white trash women in polyester jump suits who waste valuable company time by phoning and asking for Fleury to provide on-site estimates.

Heavyweights in the industry take exception to the free publicity and advertising that the show provides for Fleury's company. They send around thugs to put foot prints in freshly laid cement.

The obsession to increase ratings causes Theo to romanticize and dramatize his life to dangerous degrees. In an emotional late night discussion with his wife, he tells her he plans to start boozing again for the powerful narrative it will provide for the show. Her face starts to quiver. The audience awaits what will surely be an explosive display of histrionics in which she tells him it's gone too far.

"You..you...how? You...you read my mind. It's not about us at all! If we can help even one person, that's the only thing that matters!"

"Close. It's all about the children..."

The action cuts to a scene of him draining 40 ouncers of rye while breaking empty beer bottles over her head. She seems strangely gleeful.

LabattsThe show officially jumps the shark when, in a further attempt to churn up some on-camera emotions, Fleury contacts some of the greatest NHL boozers of all time. They form a hockey team called the Piss Heads, dedicated to raising funds for themselves. They debate whether to accept sponsorship from Labatt's.

They quickly decide there is no conflict of interest involved. The beer company delivers a few skids of their finest to the Piss Heads' dressing room before they are to play in an exhibition game against a group of 11 year-olds.

The rest of the team simultaneously fall off the wagon and join Fleury in an almighty piss-up.

They take to the ice and beat seven shades of shit out of the 11 year-olds.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Performance and Mindset: The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Shootout

Leafs logoThe shootout is currently an important part of the NHL. Rip it all you want (and it is rip-worthy) but the ability to do well in the one-on-one tie-breaker represents the number of points that will decide whether many teams reach the playoffs.

With a dozen or so opportunities for most clubs in the regular season, failure to attach significance to players' effectiveness at scoring goals in the shootout indicates a serious flaw in thinking on the part of coaches and management.

The Leafs are failing miserably in both performance and perspective.

The philosophy starts with coach Paul Maurice, who has a bizarre habit of ridiculing the shootout as well as flippantly dismissing his team's ability to determine its outcome.

The thoughts and mood of a coach are contagious and influence the players a great deal. Here are some comments from Paul Maurice following the Leafs' shootout loss to the Montreal Canadiens last night:
Coach Paul Maurice has little patience for questions about the shootout. He acknowledges the entertainment value of the format, but little more.

"It's part of our practice, sometimes the guys do it on their own at the end. Sometimes the goalies want them. It's not something you want to do every day with a goaltender, one shot right after the other after practice," said Maurice.

Read the full article here.


This comes following a previous Leafs shootout loss against the New York Rangers on November 10th. Maurice was both sullen and derisive in the press conference after that one. He mocked the format and suggested it was good for nothing more than "novelty value." He forgot to mention that besides that, shootouts are worth valuable points that will help determine his team's regular season place in the standings.

You can see the trickle down effect that his frustration has on the team. In the same Toronto Star article, a number of players indicate their failure to get a grasp on the shootout. They essentially come across as flummoxed and annoyed at having to participate. They seem to have no focus or game plan heading into each shooter/goalie showdown because that's the message they are receiving from their coach.

It's hard to overstate the effect that repeated statements from managers and coaches have on players. In effect, those declarations become the team's operating procedure on any number of issues. Players pick up on these beliefs and make them part of their overall opinions and understanding about the game. And then it affects their behaviour.

Just yesterday, as John Ferguson made the rounds on Toronto radio stations responding to some of the criticism he has faced recently, he repeated a rehearsed statement about "the fine line between winning and losing." Lo and behold, today Toronto players are regurgitating that remark almost word for word. You give your players a subtle out shameless excuse to explain away their failures and they will latch onto it, subconsciously or otherwise.

I'm surprised Maurice hasn't been leapt on by the Toronto media for such a deficient approach to a part of the game that many teams are taking advantage of. There's no guarantee that a more positive outlook and more practice for shootouts will improve the Leafs' record but it would be a step in the right direction. With much of the focus and scorn being heaped on Ferguson, Maurice is getting a free pass on this one.

Mike Peca, who wasn't re-signed by the Leafs in the off season and ended up with the Columbus Blue Jackets instead, recently got in a few digs on his former team regarding their poor shootout record. Columbus haven't had much more success than the Leafs but they did come out on top during their most recent attempt against the Red Wings.

Further preventing the Leafs from grabbing any extra points is the performance of Vesa Toskala. He has been in goal for all Leafs' shootouts so far this season and his play is part of the reason for the team's 0-3 record in those situations.  Toskala is 0-7 in shooter on goalie challenges since the NHL adopted the current tie-breaking procedure.

Paul Maurice summed up his most recent musings on a part of the game that has Leafs' players and fans shaking their heads with this quote: "I don't know how much is chance."

A set play that can be practiced, improved upon and tailored to the strengths and weaknesses of each particular opposing goaltender and involves probabilities and odds that go up based on shot type and shooter; that can be accompanied by a focused and positive outlook and embraced as an opportunity to pick up a good chunk of extra points in the race to get into the playoffs, is essentially written off as nothing more than pure luck...

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Bloody Chiclets: Toronto Maple Leafs Melodrama and Hockey Radio

Leafs logoA simple, half-baked explanation used to describe the psychology behind the habits and style of business managers, is the "first rater, second rater" theory.

The first rater is the manager who is competent, motivated and concerned only about surrounding himself with the best possible people and achieving results. He will hire other first raters in an attempt to accomplish these goals, unconcerned by such petty things as internal competition or the possibility that he may not be the smartest person in the room.

The second rater, on the other hand, is a bundle of fears, insecurities and complexes. His every move and utterance is motivated by the desire to protect himself from criticism and at all costs, maintain his tenuous control over whatever situation he has blundered into.

The biggest threat to the second rater is the competence of others, for it highlights his shortcomings and risks unmasking him for the fraud that he is. To avoid such a catastrophe, the second rater will only hire those less capable than him, guaranteeing that he is the lead buffoon amongst a collection of screw-ups, failures and degenerates.

At least in the hockey side of operations at MLSE, the recent comments from Richard Peddie certainly hold him up as a second rater candidate. That he doesn't recognize his admissions put the focus on his failings as much as anyone else's, at least demonstrates he is out of his depth.

He was thrilled at the notion that John Ferguson Junior was almost completely inexperienced? Scotty Bowman, the coach with the most successful record in NHL history, was deemed unworthy as a potential GM or president? Add in the statement that the hiring of Ferguson was a "mistake," and it seems that he is more concerned with trying to stage-manage his own image (and failing miserably) than with the Leafs' on-ice performance.

Listening to Peddie on a recent edition of Leafs Lunch discussing these comments, he came across as a smug, dismissive dilettante thrilled at the position he occupies. Luxuriating in the fact that he is part of the board of directors of MLSE while apparently unperturbed by how ridiculous he makes himself and the organization look, more than a few people must have wished they could have reached through the radio and wrung his neck.

As for Ferguson, it's unfortunate that he has to face this kind of public criticism from the people who hired him. There is no way for him to respond in kind if he has any hope of finding another job in the NHL after this disaster reaches its conclusion. Nor can he resign without being attacked for being a quitter. He has to ride out whatever number of weeks or months remain in his time as Leafs' general manager. Regardless of how you feel about Ferguson and his record with the Leafs, this benefits the team in no way and only serves as a distraction.

Ferguson also spoke on the same radio program and it was a rambling, semi-coherent defense of a situation that has slowly spiraled out of control. While verbal skills may not be the most important aspect of being a successful GM in the NHL, the inability to articulate oneself in such a situation only increases the sense of desperation.

***

Speaking of hockey radio, there are some very good programs out there, many of which can be downloaded as podcasts. There are a few common patterns that show up on many of them.

On each show there is at least one dyspeptic old bastard who been around so long no one quite remembers when he was hired. He is usually very knowledgeable about the game and has a history as player, coach or manager. Mixed in with the interesting comments is the occasional flash of genuine annoyance or momentary lapse from old age.

A musty, rancid miasma oozes out of the speakers and elicits images of decades-old wardrobes, pharmaceutical cocktails and impending dementia and leaves a person feeling slightly wretched though entertained.

A younger host with his own stockpile of information and experience in playing or covering the game is usually present. Often there is good give and take between the two and even some exaggerated exchanges. While most of the program hosts avoid veering into sycophant territory, without fail they all possess a brittle, fake laugh offered up whenever the old bastard or another guest makes a pointed attempt at humour.

The conscious decision must be made by these broadcasters at some point to develop such a staged response. Perhaps they realize how unfunny most people are or that the uncomfortable silence would be a worse option. This is contrasted with the unexpected bark of real laughter when something spontaneous sets them off.

The speaking style of sports radio broadcasters varies a great deal. Many are satisfied with a simple and to the point delivery. Others use a variety of words with ease and in a natural style that makes for good entertainment.

There are still others who have decided at some point that they too must improve their vocabulary beyond the bare minimum if they are to stay competitive and keep their listeners coming back.

Listening to some of these individuals, I always have the mental image of words being rammed down the barrel of a gun and then blown onto a wall where they are read out at random without concern for the skewed syntax, malapropisms and generally weird effect that results.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Fragments and Viscera from Around the NHL

NHL logoWith few or no consequences there is little motivation to change or moderate behaviour.

On the heels of the season-ending injury to Patrice Bergeron, a Philadelphia Flyers' player has once again laid an illegal hit on a member of the Boston Bruins.

There was at least some valid defense of the Randy Jones check from behind on Bergeron. But this recent incident, in which Scott Hartnell drove the head of Andrew Alberts into the boards, together with the Steve Downie and Jesse Boulerice gutlessness, adds up to some habitual nastiness that deserves punishment. No longer can it be brushed off as incidental and unintentional.

And more importantly, it is becoming difficult to say that this reckless style of play doesn't represent a pattern. It's still hard to argue (and even harder to prove) that there is a specific Flyers' strategy to cheap shot opposing players and intentionally injure them. But it does appear that a lack of control and respect for opponents exists to a dangerous degree.

The lunatics will offer up the usual crap that "never respecting your opponents is a sign of a real competitor. " That notion taken to its logical conclusion would mean that absolutely anything goes without regard for restraint, limits or rules.

The NHL should sort Hartnell out with a reasonable suspension and assess the Flyers a fine that sends a message about this latest cheap shot. Fail to ramp up the official response and the on-ice payback will inevitably turn uglier

***

Crap jerseys don't seem to be negatively affecting the play of many of the teams wearing them. Maybe the designs are so boring that they're putting opponents to sleep.

Dallas and Anaheim have two of the blandest get-ups in the league yet the Stars are leading their division and the Ducks are within the top eight teams in the Western Conference. Similarly, the Canucks and their awkward looking threads are at the top of the Northwest division.

But the Florida Panthers and their capes are currently out of the top eight in their conference, as are the Edmonton Oilers and their apron strings and the Maple Leafs and their sweaters, which are devoid of any design whatsoever.

Damien Cox of the Toronto Star pointed out a few weeks ago that the Leafs' white jerseys look like the untucked shirts of the frazzled suits who attend Toronto games after a hard day at the office.

***

13 Canadians, 3 Russians, 3 Swedes and 1 Czech make up the current top 20 point scorers in the NHL.

***

In the "attributing diabolical genius to make life more exciting" department, is the claim that Brian Burke released goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov knowing that the Phoenix Coyotes would pick him up off waivers, thus allowing the Coyotes to move beyond the Oilers in the overall standings. And that in turn would increase the quality of the draft pick the Anaheim Ducks will get as compensation for not matching the Dustin Penner offer sheet.

Well, Burke is known as a crafty and knowledgeable manipulator able to fleece lesser mortals within the ranks of NHL GMs. But this stretches plausibility just a bit. If it is an incidental consequence of letting Bryzgalov go, he certainly won't be unhappy. But let's not dramatize things beyond what is the more plausible and likely explanation.

On the other hand, if that's actually what he had in mind...

Saturday, November 24, 2007

NHL Teams Give Thanks for the Power of Change

Leafs logoDevils logoThe Atlanta Thrashers reacted to their horrific start by firing their head coach. With GM Don Waddell behind the bench they have responded unbelievably well.

The Dallas Stars saw their mediocre beginning as unacceptable and replaced their general manager with the duo of Brett Hull and Les Jackson. While hard to attribute that specific move to better play by the team, the psychological aspect of making it known that lack of results won't be tolerated can't be discounted in the Stars' 4-0-1 record since that time.

The Phoenix Coyotes have been at the bottom of the league standings but have made it clear that they will make moves in an attempt to get better. They picked up goalie Ilya Bryzgalaov off of waivers and have seen him play well in his first two starts, collecting wins in both games.

The Washington Capitals took the unfortunately timed but necessary move of firing Glen Hanlon and bringing in interim head coach Bruce Boudreau. Far to early to judge how it will play out but at least his first game was a victory for the Caps.

And the Toronto Maple Leafs? In the bizarro world of Leafs hockey, there are few consequences for losing. In fact, Toronto players were rewarded for their poor play so far this season with a luxury box at an NFL game between the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Jets on Thursday.

A nice little outing for the team as they were in Texas to face the Dallas Stars on Friday night. There was a great deal of enthusiastic gushing and expectant musings from Leafs players in the lead up to their little quarter season treat.

To be fair, this was no doubt something arranged before the season began. And the Toronto press talked up the story with the players numerous times. They can hardly be faulted for accepting the offer to attend the football game or for talking about it when asked.

Still, is there truly no comprehension amongst coaches and management of reward and punishment associated with the kind of effort and results that are offered up by the hockey team? Perhaps, canceling such an excursion as a way of showing the team that repeated failure will not be accepted might have been a consideration.

Riding the buzz of having watched the Cowboys hammer the Jets in the comforts of a luxury box and likely having plugged themselves with all the grub they could get down their necks, the Leafs offered up another forgettable performance in a 3-1 loss to the Stars the next night.

No one would be silly enough to claim that the players yuk it up amongst themselves and congratulate each other on coasting along without having to pay any real price for their dismal performances. But when losses are not accompanied by any angst or fear of being benched for repeated mistakes or lack of effort, the effects of such subconscious psychological conditioning are hard to measure but undoubtedly exist to some degree.

***

Devils TurkeyIn the latest batch of e-mail updates, many NHL teams included holiday wishes for the Thanksgiving weekend in the U.S.

The New Jersey Devils e-mail featured this nice holiday bird with the Devils' logo emblazoned on its chest.

Perhaps the office intern slapping together the bulletin in a hurry before heading out to celebrate the holidays with his or her family didn't consider the potential for embarrassment.

Luckily, the Devils have been playing well in their past few games and have put together a three game winning streak.

In their holiday match-up against the Atlanta Thrashers they weren't roasted, skewered or feasted on and they didn't lay any eggs. No one could call them turkeys after their 3-0 win over the Thrashers.

If anything, Devils' goalie Martin Brodeur stuffed the Thrashers with his first shutout of the season and added another feather in his cap following career win 500 in a game against the Flyers on Nov.17th.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

England's National Football Team and the Toronto Maple Leafs

As England failed to qualify for the 2008 European football championship (Euro 2008) with a loss to Croatia last night, it raises the question of whether similar conditions surrounding two teams in different sports can lead to the same kind of results. Specifically, the Toronto Maple Leafs and England's national squad.

There are many similarities between the two teams' histories, fan bases, management, media coverage and lack of success in the recent past.

The last time England won the FIFA World Cup was July 30th 1966, as they beat West Germany 4-2 in the final. Less than a year later the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup in the spring of 1967. Neither team has claimed the top prize since. The attention, hype, drama and failure that have dogged the Leafs and the English squad have similar qualities and perhaps can explain to some degree the elusive nature of again hoisting one of the most important trophies in both sports.

Both teams play in proximity to the birthplace of their respective sports. The tradition and love of the game for fans of both teams results in a constant demand for information about their team and players. The media circus surrounding both teams continues throughout the year and raises the profiles of marginal players to the degree that, as one British journalist put it recently, some will be remembered as "celebrities who just happened to be football players."

Nothing can come close to the nastiness of the British press as they fabricate, ridicule and sensationalize to an insane level. Building players up and then bashing them into the ground at the slightest opportunity is one of their tricks. Or simply reporting on the tawdry private lives of a few individuals who also happen to possess great playing ability.

The Toronto press are well mannered and tame in comparison though they still take up issues that are questionable and see players' lives as potential fodder for gossip and rumours. While the British scribes are reporting on the sordid sex lives of English football players, Toronto writers usually focus on more bland subjects such as Darcy Tucker relaxing at his Muskoka cottage in the off-season. Though they will report on more titillating issues when they become impossible to avoid.

The core of writers who follow both teams and are most concerned about games, results, skills and playing ability are a large group who exhibit a herd mentality that ricochets in the opposite direction at the merest whiff of disaster or success. The demand for narratives, analysis and predictions means that each small development is leapt on by a journalist eager to be the first to report on what could be the next big story. The combined output of any one writer is often more schizophrenic than the play of the team they cover.

Regarding the specific makeup of management and individual players, the current incarnations of both squads have a number of similarities as well. With the exception of one older and fading superstar on both teams (Mats Sundin and David Beckham), the rest of the players can be classified as overhyped and overpaid disappointments (though obviously players on the English team don't get paid for international competition, they receive huge sums from their club sides and endorsements.)

There are also some parallels between Sundin and Beckham's style and performance. While Beckham is a world-wide icon who often seems more concerned with boosting his image and racking up endorsement contracts as opposed to concentrating on his play, he is still noted for his effort and ability to perform at an advanced age (in football terms.) Sundin as well delivers night after night while he is surrounded by others who don't pull their weight nearly as consistently.

Sundin is but a blip compared to the visibility Beckham enjoys. Despite that fame, Beckham retains a surprising level of ostensible modesty and has a soft-spoken demeanor not unlike Sundin.

The management of the Leafs and England's national side are, at this point in time, very comparable (though of course the role of a hockey general manager and football manager differ somewhat.) Steve McClaren has but minutes left in his brief tenure as England's manager (correction: it's already over) and unless a miracle is on the horizon, John Ferguson Junior's days as Leafs' GM are also numbered. Both men have been lambasted in the media as underqualified and nearly incompetent in their performances. Press reports for both have long since veered into mockery and the caricature that resonates is of pitiful, desperate buffoons.

Recent success has been limited. England reached the semifinals of the 1990 Football World Cup but have had little else to cheer for since their victory in '66. In the European Championship they have reached the semi-finals twice, in 1968 and 1996, but have never advanced beyond that point.

The Maple Leafs have made it to the playoff semi-finals five times since their last Stanley Cup in 1967 but have not made it to the finals once during that 40 year stretch.

The fan bases for the Leafs and England are huge, rabid in their support and apparently loyal to the end, regardless of how long the losing continues. While the vast majority are decent individuals who enjoy supporting their side, it's fair to say that a misplaced arrogance also permeates a significant portion of each team's supporters. Perhaps unbridled rage at how such limitless resources and attention to the game can result in few positive outcomes? I've experienced nastiness from both.

Years ago while traveling in Spain, I landed in Barcelona on the eve of a big match-up between one of the city's top sides and Manchester United. We attempted to get tickets but the game was sold out so we settled for a small pub in the shadow of the huge stadium. Man U were hammered 4-0. Enraged Brits in their team's colours were stalking the area after the game looking for trouble and the following day the papers were filled with accounts of violence and vandalism.

While living and working part-time in London pubs a number of years ago, I witnessed the booze-soaked post match gutlessness of the fringe minority who sought an outlet for their impotent rage.

Only one tale regarding a Leafs' fan. It must have been about 2002 and I was sitting in a pub in Vancouver. There was a playoff game between the Leafs and another team on the big screen. Not sure if it was the game in which Toronto were eliminated but regardless, they lost.

There was an emaciated individual in a Leafs jersey sitting alone and pondering the cruelty of life and the realization that it was all over for another year. I was having a pint with a friend and discussing the game. While I don't recall inviting the Toronto fan, who looked like a junky who had crawled in from Hastings and Main, to listen in on or join our conversation, at the merest mention of the word "Leafs" this wacko was in my face.

I seriously considered battering the fool into the concrete but I settled for laying a verbal assault on him as he shrank back into his seat, shut his gob and proceeded to profusely apologize. In the heat of the moment he seemed to recognize that he had erred and had the decency to say sorry. I guess a person could admire his commitment and the willingness to take such an unwise risk in what he thought was the defense of his team.

Comparisons between the two are a bit limited of course. The English national team play in a small number of major tournaments and players can be invited to participate without regard for financial concerns or other teams competing for their services. But the Leafs also have no real financial obstacles and still fail to hire the best managers, scouts and apparently, coaches.

So what's the reason for such limited success in the midst of endless enthusiasm, finances and, at least in England's case, a culture that results in widespread participation and layers of player development? Is the pressure so intense and the dreams of glory so enchanting that no one can play or manage to their potential? Or maybe a subconscious sense of entitlement and assumption stoked by the surreal media coverage? Hard to say.

One thing is clear however. Both the Toronto Maple Leafs and England's national football team have little hope for any real success in the near future.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

NHL 2007-08 Regular Season: Quarter Pole Standings and Review

nhllogo.gifWith most teams in the NHL having played 25% of their schedule, it's time for a look at how things have played out so far.

Eastern Conference


The Ottawa Senators are in a class by themselves in the Eastern Conference and show no sign of letting up. On the few occasions the team have played poorly, they have quickly bounced back and returned to their winning ways.

The Washington Capitals are about the only team whose season is already looking close to an unsalvageable disaster. That they haven't made some kind of move yet is perhaps a testament to the lack of other clubs willing or able to shift players. You've got to think that head coach Glen Hanlon will be walking the plank any day now. A coaching change can jolt a team in the right direction as demonstrated by the Atlanta Thrashers.

The Thrashers have gone 10-4 since sacking Bob Hartley and are suddenly a tough team to beat. They are now nipping at the heels of the hapless Leafs and within a few points of the 5th to 8th place glut in the Eastern Conference.

More than just trying to turn around their season, the Capitals have got to be thinking about Alexander Ovechkin and his looming free agency that will become a reality at the end of the season. No doubt the Caps' potential in the next few seasons will affect his decision about where to play.

Ovechkin will be a Group 2 free agent, so if he does accept an offer from another team and the Caps don't or can't match, at least Washington will get four first round draft picks in return from the organization who lures him away (the prescribed compensation for the salary range Ovechkin will no doubt command.)

Regarding a change behind the bench, what exactly have the Caps got to lose besides more games?

Speaking of the Leafs, they offered up another classic third period collapse in the game against the Bruins last night. The fans at Air Canada Centre had to feel a bit queasy at the sight of goalie Tuuka Rask performing at least as well as his Finnish compatriot in the Leafs net. Most importantly, he got his first start and win in the NHL against the team who traded him away for Andrew Raycroft.

The Leafs now sit in ninth place in the conference. All the teams above them in the standings have at least one game in hand on Toronto and most of those clubs have played two or fewer matches. No sense of urgency seems to grip the organization at the moment.

The Philadelphia Flyers have flattened out a bit after their strong beginning. After going 6-1 with 28 goals to start the season, they have followed up with a rather mediocre 5-6-1 with only 29 goals during that stretch. To this point it has still been an impressive turnaround from last year. The Flyers have a tough run in front of them in their next 8 games as they play the Senators, Bruins, Wild, Avalanche and the Hurricanes (twice), amongst others.

The two most disappointing teams in the East are the Buffalo Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Sabres plummet is not as much of a surprise since their team scoring was gutted in the off-season with the departure of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. But most fans didn't expect their drop-off to be as sharp as it has been. Head coach Lindy Ruff has built up loads of capital with the Sabres and despite the team's woes, I can't see his position being in jeopardy any time soon.

The Penguins on the other hand, have got to be the biggest under-achievers of the season. They could be in the market for a number one goaltender or a new coach in the next little while. Rammed with talent and coming off last year's impressive regular season, it will be a bit hard for fans to tolerate the losing much longer.

Two other teams that have swapped places in the standings as compared to last year are the New Jersey Devils and the Carolina Hurricanes. The Devils are getting hammered this season. They have yet to win more than two games in a row and the last time they did that was in mid-October.

The Canes on the other hand are off to a great start after their disappointing campaign in 2006-7 and have scored more goals than any other team in the league with 71.

Western Conference


The Western Conference is even more of a mash-up, with the Detroit Red Wings at the top, the Los Angeles Kings, Edmonton Oilers and Phoenix Coyotes at the bottom and every other team clogging up the middle. A whopping four points separates 2nd place from 12th.

The grouping at the bottom looks similar to the end of last season with the exception of the Chicago Blackhawks who have exited the cellar. The Blackhawks are a rejuvenated club with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews off to good starts. The ongoing restructuring of their front office is a positive sign for Chicago fans as well.

The biggest non-story of the season is still the expectant Calgary sports writers waiting for Mike Keenan to blow a gasket as the Flames continue their underwhelming start. The standard lament from everyone who follows this team closely is that they seem to have a talented club with all the potential pieces to do well but they continue to offer up sub-par efforts. Keenan's got to be wondering if he should shelve his new milder approach and once again start throwing wild haymakers (metaphorically) in the dressing room.

It's been frustrating so far for the Edmonton Oilers, though their fans at least can take some solace from the fact that they're not too far behind the Flames in the standings. It's safe to say that Dustin Penner is the biggest bust of the off-season free agent signings.

On pace for only 16 goals, that's far from what the Oilers were probably expecting from the lumbering forward. Most fans of the team will say that it's a signing whose worth can only be accurately judged after Penner's 3rd or 4th season with the team. Fair enough. But in the short term, it's certainly not looking too good.

The Detroit Red Wings keep blazing along with consistent play and plenty of offense. Second in goals scored in the league and second in goal differential (with 19 more tallies than they have given up), the Wings are still one of the toughest teams in the league to play against.

The Anaheim Ducks have put together six wins in their last eight starts after a dismal start to the season. The Vancouver Canucks have been improving lately but are still having trouble with consistency. The Columbus Blue Jackets have come back to earth with only two wins in their last nine games (and three shootout loss points) after their impressive beginning.

The St. Louis Blues are in the midst of their second four game winning streak of the season. Though they are a bit lean in the scoring department they have found ways to win. The goaltending from Manny Legace has been solid if unspectacular, though he has only faced 389 shots. Based on play in 15 of the Blues' games, the number of shots directed at him is lower than for most other goalies in the league with comparable minutes played.

A definite sign of good defense and also borne out by the fact that St. Louis have allowed only 40 goals. This has also been helped by having had the lightest schedule in the league so far. With only 18 games played to this point, they have at least two games in hand compared to all other teams above them in the conference standings.

As much as I dislike that qualifier "It's still too early/close to count anyone out," it has a lot of merit for most teams with three quarters of the season yet to play.