Saturday, August 25, 2007

A 2 Part Series on Fighting in the NHL

NHL logoFighting in hockey is a topic that always creates a lot of debate and discussion. Those in favour feel that it is a fundamental part of hockey while those opposed believe it is unsportsmanlike and detracts from the popularity of the game.

I recently wrote a 2 part series on fighting in hockey and posted the articles at my website, Sports Narrative.

Part 1: The Argument Against Fighting in the NHL

"The artificial boundaries that exist around sports allow us to engage in an other-worldly existence free from the constraints that bind us in real life. The narrow set of rules test our abilities to adapt. The absence of other rankist devices that exist in society means the only measure is our ability to compete and win. That is why a prison inmate can square off against someone from a more privileged background in a boxing match and compete in a ring where other societal determiners don't play a part."

Part 2: The Argument in Favour of Fighting in the NHL

"Fighting exists in hockey mainly because of the unique, elemental aspects of the game. The inherently violent nature of the sport together with the presence of sticks, are the 2 main reasons underlying this singular quality of hockey. To hold a stick, pipe or any other length of weaponry, imbues humans with a warrior-like mindset and creates an instinctive reaction to lash out whenever attacked or threatened. It's the stick. It's all about the stick."

I'll leave the articles archived at Sports Narrative for the time being though I may transfer them over here at some point.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Columbus Blue Jackets Sign Peca

B Jacks logoThis is a good move by the B-jacks. They've picked up a proven leader at a bargain salary.

Peca has worn the captain's C for 2 teams already. He can play an important role on the penalty killing unit, win a boatload of face-offs and the fans generally love the guy. For a team like Columbus who are going to be making an effort to scratch their way into the playoffs this season, the importance of having someone to give hope to fans who are sick of being cellar dwellers shouldn't be under-rated.

There is already talk about why Peca wasn't signed by another team if his going rate is such a great deal. There have been some insinuations that various teams didn't like what their medical staff had to say after looking at Peca's scarred and battered body. This is normal when there is less than full disclosure on the reasons a certain team may have backed out of a deal (the Rangers in this case). And of course this is the correct and often legal thing to do. But such speculation is as valid as flipping it on its head and saying, well, obviously the Columbus management and medical staff must not have been too bothered by it to make the signing.

Peca preferred to stay with the Leafs  but they were dragging their skates regarding him because they had other priorities.  He and his agent moved on to talks with the Rangers and were involved in at least 3 weeks of discussions with them.  Approaches, negotiations and the associated machinations all take time.  Cap space concerns mean that a player like Peca doesn't necessarily get snapped up as quickly as he once might have.  His measured and respectful comments to the press over the summer regarding his dealings with the Leafs and Rangers are an indication of his character.

I would love to see Peca have a great, injury-free season and help Columbus take a run at making the playoffs. It would be even more supremely satisfying for him if he played a role in handing a season-ending loss to one of the teams that passed him over.

Monday, August 20, 2007

2007/08 NHL Season Preview

NHL logoIt's a fool's game.

Making predictions or forecasts, that is.

Take the team as it appears on paper, use the previous season's performance as a solid starting point, rate the improvements of individual clubs as compared to their conference rivals and you go ahead and make a prediction about where they will finish the year.

The standings rarely work out as expected, however. Top picks often flesh out and end up conference champions and/or President's trophy winners. But there are always surprises, a slew of injuries that skew things and the unpredictable coming together of factors at just the right time that makes some teams better than anyone could have forecast. Similarly, some teams thought to be contenders heading in, plummet and have disaster seasons.

If I had a real independent and detailed take on every NHL club, I would post a team by team analysis in the lead up to the 2007/08 season. I would break predictions down by conference, starting with the team that I believe would finish #15 and ending with my pick for the conference champ.

Different points that would be covered for each team would include:

1. Analysis of strengths and weaknesses by position.

2. Improvements, such as off-season trades and incoming rookies.

3. Improvements as compared to rivals. A team may have made some trades but if they pale in comparison to what conference rivals have done, the effect may be minimal.

4. Potential-overall age of the squad plays a major part in this factor.

5. Intangibles (I always love this part of the pre-season debate, where you can take wild swings in the dark and attach significance to otherwise meaningless factors.)

However in the end, for practical reasons, a lot of the discussion on the strengths and weaknesses of many teams would ultimately come from the parsing of a great deal of online content on the subject together with my opinion thrown in. Nothing wrong with that to some degree of course, as the so-called experts engage in the same style of supplementing their own opinions and knowledge.

I wish I had had the time and opportunity over the past few years to endlessly watch games played by each team, compile in-depth analysis and come to completely independent conclusions. Alas, that isn't the case.

The full-time hockey writers at various publications do a thorough analysis of each team and provide their predictions each year. There is alway some admirable accuracy due to the shared hockey knowledge at these outfits as well as the inevitable miscalculations. Regardless, the most important aspect is that it's entertaining to read.

As the new season draws near I will analyze at least a handful of teams in some detail. I will also offer up my predictions based on simple rankings for both conferences and give some rationale for choices others may consider sheer lunacy. But stirring up debate is half the fun of these kinds of stunts, isn't it?

I'll leave that for as close to the beginning of the season as possible owing to the potential for last minute trades or signings.

NHL Team E-mail Bulletins: St. Louis Blues

Blues logoI like this photo of Doug Weight that appears in the most recent e-mail update from the St. Louis Blues:

Weight Blues Sure it's only about flogging tickets, but it's clever and memorable.

Speaking of the e-mail bulletins that most NHL teams send out, as with the related websites, there is a wide variety of effort and quality concerning the content offered up by different clubs.

The look of all sites is slick and professional but there are varying degrees of creativity and a sense of how much concern and time was applied from what I've seen so far.

Indicative of how the teams treat their fans and how seriously they take their public image or simply down to the particular employees assigned to that task?

An interesting question I think and one worth exploring.

In the weeks to come I will be reviewing NHL team websites, e-mail bulletins, creative aspects and degree of effort involved and what it means for fans of those teams.

Years in the Wilderness

Bruins logoLeafs logoJets logoCanucks logo

Years in the wilderness…I’ve always liked that phrase as it relates to sports. It evokes the notion of a team that hasn’t won anything for years but keeps on persevering. It has a nostalgic feel to it. Images of beleaguered players with the thousand-yard stare, half empty barns and the significance of lesser things that otherwise get swept away when a winning aura surrounds a team. For the fans especially, it means someone who loves the game and rides out the storm no matter if it’s 4 seasons or forty.

The hardcore fans make a virtue out of losing. With the requisite rage, disappointment and heart break that goes with losing, they somehow grasp some remnants of enjoyment and pride from the depths of the accompanying shame and embarrassment. They learn to live with the possibility that they might die without ever seeing their team win it all.

The true, the proud and the never say die-ers who make the best of losing and standing by their team. The ragged warriors who cheer each little victory, whether it’s a hard-earned win, a thumping laid on an opposing team’s goon in a loss or simply limping into the playoffs only to be eliminated in the first round.

The phrase is part of the tradition of romanticizing the teams you follow and the path your own life has taken. It definitely reflects on my life for the past number of years as I’ve been in a position that has made it quite difficult to follow hockey with any degree of meaning. My own journey regarding hockey that brought me to this point started over 30 years ago.

That was the year I received my first Boston Bruins jersey, and for no other reason they became the first team I cheered for. The thin material and the stiff, felt logo stitched on the front had a far less authentic feel than the replicas of today but it was luxury to me. Even as a 7 year-old I considered it a special day when I donned my Bruins sweater in the morning before heading off to school. I continued to acquire various Bruins garb over my childhood years, including pyjamas, bedspreads and numerous jerseys.

A few years later, our family moved to Winnipeg and with the proximity and thrill of attending the occasional game, the Jets became my primary team. I still wore my Bruins jersey with pride and cheered for them once the Jets were eliminated in the playoffs (which was early and every year.)

At the same time, the Toronto Maple Leafs had drifted onto my horizon as a team with some kind of special attraction and mystique. We made the trip to southern Ontario to spend Christmas at my grandfather’s farm every few years. The atmosphere and surroundings helped those few Leafs games televised over the holidays take on a significance in my mind. In the lead-up to Christmas or in those few days before New Year’s, there was usually one or two games shown on television. The seriousness with which my grandfather would sit in his chair and watch the game while others were sure to remain silent or stay in another part of the house added to the mystery of this team with the royal blue jerseys that contrasted so starkly against the ice. I never became a Leafs fan in any sense of the word but those fleeting images are still burned in my brain.

I continued to follow the Jets through the years they iced some truly competitive teams but had the misfortune of sharing the Smythe division with the Oilers. Hawerchuk came and went and then Selanne arrived and with him a new sense of hope. I left Winnipeg in 1994 and have never been back since with the exception of a brief few days almost 10 years ago. I watched from a distance as the Jets packed up and left town for good as well.

I was living outside of Canada and had little opportunity to follow hockey. I worked in Switzerland for a few winters during that time, lacing up the skates on one occasion as the employees from the mountain where I worked played another group of workers from a neighbouring town. I witnessed a great international game played between the Swiss team and Slovenia one evening in Chur, a medium sized town in Switzerland. Those were my only connections to the game at that time.

The internet wasn’t in full swing yet so no real outlets existed for the overseas fan, especially one not remaining in the same place for any length of time. Together with the departure of the Jets I told myself that I wasn’t really interested anyway. I mouthed the usual platitudes about the game changing, “it’s all about the money,” etc. but it was probably just a way to deal with something that I actually did miss.

In 2000 I returned to Canada and lived in Vancouver. With the hassle of getting settled and finding a job, funds were tight and during my 2 years there I failed to see a game at GM place where the Canucks play. I watched NHL games on the big screen at a few pubs I frequented but it was hard to feel the passion I once had for the game. A few years later I left Canada and haven’t been back since.

This past season I started to take a renewed interest in big league hockey. Watching games online and the wide availability of quality websites and discussion boards devoted to the game helped things along. In the interim, during the time when I first left Canada almost 15 years ago until now, other things that were once important to me have fallen by the wayside.

I haven’t looked forward to a hockey season with this much interest for a long time.

It’s good to be back.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

You Never Know How Good You Have it...

Leafs logoJets logo

Until it's gone.

That's what I'm thinking this year as NHL training camps are only a few weeks away.

Years ago when I lived in Winnipeg and the Jets were still alive, I went to an open training camp at the now non-existent Winnipeg Arena. It was free to watch yet there were only 100 fans at the most in the seats at that early morning session.

It was a chance to see and hear the veterans, rookies, no-hopers and coaches in a relatively intimate setting as they went through drills and then scrimmaged. The lack of crowd noise gave the whole experience an unreal feeling. I remember 2 players who were trying to make the team squaring off and engaging in a fight during the scrimmage. The dull smack of fists against flesh echoed throughout the nearly empty arena.

In all those years I only attended one such training camp open house, though there were numerous others. I suppose I had other plans, or it was too early in the morning or it didn't have the cachet of a real season game with all the glitz, spectacle and relevance in the standings.

If you live in an NHL city and have an opportunity to watch your team prepare for the upcoming season, make the effort. You'll have a chance to see things in a more informal atmosphere, hear the banter between players, get a look at how the coaches work the players and how they address them with commands, praise and the good natured insults many teammates and their drill-masters engage in. You might even be able to get involved in a few impromptu conversations with some of the players.

*********

On a related note, though normally the Globe and Mail has some of the best hockey writers and coverage around, this article mocking the Toronto media for spotlighting the upcoming Leafs training camp came across as strangely petty. Not sure what point he was trying to make except that a core of fans definitely are interested in such events.

There are far more positive things Maki could have written about in relation to training camp and the desire of fans to get a glimpse of the action. As I mentioned above, not only is it an interesting outing but probably the only chance many Toronto area fans will ever get to see Leafs players up close in a hockey setting.

Book Review: Open Net by George Plimpton

Open NetThe thought of playing professional sports ranks up there as one of the most common childhood fantasies. It’s one that continues long after a person has grown and often takes on other elements including regret and longing. To even have a brief chance to know the thrill of competing at the highest level in front of thousands of people is one of those dreams that can fuel adolescence and keep us sports fans long after.
George Plimpton was an author who, amongst other more literary endeavors, carved a niche out in the 1970’s and 80’s by playing alongside professional athletes and then writing books about his experiences. Open Net details Plimpton’s brief time with the Boston Bruins in the late 70’s, as he trained with the team and played as a goaltender in an exhibition game against the Philadelphia Flyers.

From the eyes of a relative neophyte as both a spectator and player, Plimpton offers a detailed rendering of all appealing aspects of the game. The visual aesthetics, the sounds, atmosphere, the feel of the equipment, sticks, pucks, ice and the fittings in arenas. Plimpton articulates things life-long fans may not consciously reflect and the result is likely to be captivating for those who have always loved to watch and read about the game and those who may be new to its attractions.

Many of the legends detailed in the book come to us via the use of dialogue between Plimpton and various Bruins’ players and the coach at the time, Don Cherry. Plimpton has that skill that so many writers lack; writing crisp, realistic exchanges that make you feel you are reading exactly what was said, though no doubt things are polished up and “narratized.” Reading the quotes from Cherry alone are a reminder of the same kind of statements he makes today, though with the luxury of not having to listen to his loud abrasive voice.

Though not formally divided as such, there are 3 sections (periods) to the book. The lead up and preparation with the Bruins for the exhibition game, the game itself and an extended period following his experience where Plimpton interviews numerous people and players involved in the game.

While essentially a publicity stunt that gave the Bruins some exposure and allowed Plimpton to write the book, he no doubt went through some serious anxiety and angst in the process. His good nature and self-deprecating view of the whole affair make the farcical aspect of his lack of any skill and comical performance part of the enjoyment of the book.

The pre-game preparation and his 5 minutes in net are written about with a tension and attention to detail that will make readers feel they are right there. After Plimpton completes his 5 minutes in net he vacates to a lounge in the Boston Garden to talk about his experience with other sports writers. As he sits there sipping a beer, a massive brawl breaks out between the Flyers and Bruins. When Plimpton learns that he missed the spectacle he curses himself and this regret is mentioned throughout the rest of the book, almost as a metaphor for the bitterness of lost dreams that is so much a part of professional sports.

The 3rd part of the book spans a number of years as the author offers some reflections on his experiences and has time to seek out those he briefly trained with now that they are out of the game. A great section on player’s wives offers insight into that rarified world. Again, the ability of Plimpton to relay people’s thoughts in entertaining prose and dialogue is one of the most memorable aspects of Open Net. A multi-page discussion with Harry Sinden offers some concise musings on what it takes to make a great hockey player. Finally, things come full circle in a nice satisfying way .

During the early part of the book, tales of Bobby Orr were relayed to Plimpton on numerous occasions though the Bruins’ legend had long since retired. Plimpton finally gets a chance to interview him in the closing pages. He also straps on the goalie equipment again and practices with the Oilers and Wayne Gretzky. It’s a fitting way to wrap up the book in recognizing that the mantle of hockey greatness has been passed from Orr to Gretzky.

A subtle underlying theme throughout Open Net is the appeal of ice hockey as an antidote to the existential drudgery of everyday life. The bland minutiae of life often doesn’t match the dreams and fantasies that occupy our minds. Hockey as a spectator sport (as with many other pastimes) goes some way in bridging that gap. When even the sport itself falls short, the anecdotes that get embellished and passed on and the books and columns that record them take up the slack.

Plimpton tips his hat to this notion with a tale relayed to him by a Bruins hockey player about, strangely enough, NFL linebacker John Matuszak. When Plimpton phones Matuszak for confirmation, he is told the tale is nothing more than an urban myth but agrees it should be kept alive in the spirit of posterity and boosting his own reputation.

The meta aspect of including the tale --- a yarn about the retelling of a sports legend, (in a sports book that is in a large part about the telling of yarns) that in the end details the agreement to keep the myth alive but in the process really dispels it --- is as close as Plimpton comes to telegraphing to readers what appeals to him about the whole subculture of sports.

The double filter, of athletes who exaggerate tales, and writers of non-fiction books who engage in the same practice to mythologize and entertain, likely results in something less than the absolute truth. But it doesn’t matter. It’s all about contributing to the magic and lore of the games that we love to watch.

This book will be especially interesting to those with an affinity for goaltenders or anyone who may have actually played the position. I can’t help but thinking that Plimpton captures some of the visceral aspects involved in such a unique position in professional sports. Open Net is already 20 years old and is now a nostalgia piece at the same time as evoking the aesthetics and emotions of the game. Not often mentioned when a discussion of hockey books come up, it is well worth a read for all fans of the game.

(While I don't usually clutter reviews up with tales of how I bought the book, this one was too good to leave out. Heading into Bangkok one day with the sole intent of buying a book about hockey, I didn't hold out much hope. After scouring some of the big high-end bookshops with no luck, I walked into a used book store in the centre of the city. As I was ready to give up I noticed the spine of a book with "Plimpton" in bold letters. Knowing the sports books he was famous for, I pulled it out and there he was in the Bruins jersey. Beautiful!)