Saturday, September 29, 2007

Bloody Chiclets: First Game of the Season and some Odds and Ends

NHL logoKings logoDucks logoSens logoFlyers logoI caught the first game of the NHL season online last night. A relatively poor connection meant I didn't see much uninterrupted action of the match-up between the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks but it was still good to see live hockey being played again. Initial reactions from the game are that Kings' goalie Jonathan Bernier could end up making the team far better than I (and many others) had expected. The Ducks looked fairly listless and are going to feel the loss of Selanne and Niedermayer.

The cliched narrative making the rounds this morning? No doubt it's "Cup hangover," in reference to the Ducks having less time to rest before starting this season.

Loads of penalties for each team, with the first 4 goals coming on the power play and the final tally a short-handed open netter from Los Angeles. Todd Bertuzzi had the first penalty of the game which could be a foreshadowing of things to come. Mike Cammalleri had two of the goals for the Kings.

***


Feeling a bit of empathy for Dean McAmmond as I mashed my head on a low hanging pipe a few days ago. Didn't really hurt my melon but felt my neck compress as I stepped up and into the pipe.


The 20 games levied against Steve Downie for his hit on McAmmond seems fair enough to me. The sociopathic lovers of all the borderline nastiness in the NHL are up in arms throwing around the usual cliches and empty rhetoric. You know, the type who gets a thrill out of issuing threats by proxy and can't fathom that without some restrictions and lines which shouldn't be crossed, it ceases to be a sport.


There is one mantra that has been thrown about for years has always bothered me. "He got caught admiring his pass." This is an effective line that helps youngsters playing the game learn about the dangers of keeping their heads up. But far too many literalists toss it around in reference to big league games under the belief that a player like McAmmond who got hammered, truly was admiring his pass. No, he wasn't actually congratulating himself with an internal conversation along the lines of "man, you're one smooth son-of-a-bitch, look at the visuals on that..." WHOOMPH!!


No, he was actually looking at what happened after he passed the puck to determine where exactly he would next position himself. Unwise, yes, but let's add some nuance to these tired bromides and make the whole discussion a tad more interesting.


As for the debate over whether he actually left his feet, is it really unclear to some people? And does the nonsensical qualifier that he only left his feet right before the hit actually rate any credibility? Does anyone launch themselves 5 feet away from an opponent they want to demolish? No, leaving your feet directly before a hit is the way to maximize the added upward force. In fact, would physics even allow such an aftermath as saw Downie sail through the air if he hadn't left his feet at all before the hit? Any hockey physicists out there?


***


Still on the Downie hit, I liked this quote from Tim Panaccio writing over at hockeybuzz.com:


" Don't kid yourself because you sit in Section 101, sipping on Sonoma Valley chardonnay between periods."


A less than subtle dig at people who just might attend games more for the status it affords than the actual pleasure of watching the action on the ice.


Yes, I do check in at hockeybuzz for the some of columnists, such as Panaccio and Howard Berger. Panaccio especially offers great insight on the Flyers and Berger pens a pretty entertaining column about the Leafs. I glance at the small box on the left with Eklund's lead-in but never go beyond that (I've heard that you have to pay to get complete access to his online acid trips...can this be true?) Always interesting to see if he can ram some skewed syntax and a few malapropisms into those few lines.


Speaking of Berger, man does that guy engage in some hyperbole. That's probably half the reason his articles are worth reading but sometimes I get the feeling he's just been snubbed regarding an interview or otherwise denied access to the Leafs and has stormed off and spewed some vitriol. This rant about Toskala is a classic example.

NHL 2007-08 Predictions: Western Conference

Sharks logoWings logoWild logoNucks logoDucks logoStars logoFlames logoBJacks logoAvs logoOilers logoPreds logoBlues logoKings logoHawks logoYotes logoFar less rambling to accompany my Western Conference predictions. Just a few notes on why I see various teams improving or regressing compared to last season.

1. San Jose Sharks
2. Detroit Red Wings
3. Minnesota Wild
4. Vancouver Canucks
5. Anaheim Ducks
6. Dallas Stars
7. Calgary Flames
8. Columbus Blue Jackets
9. Colorado Avalanche
10. Edmonton Oilers
11. Nashville Predators
12. St. Louis Blues
13. Los Angeles Kings
14. Chicago Blackhawks
15. Phoenix Coyotes

First, with the relative stagnation of Detroit I don't see them repeating as conference champions, though they will still quite easily capture the Central Division title. When I say "stagnation" I am only considering the moves made by division and conference rivals as compared to the lack of action by the Wings in the off-season. What the Wings have is still solid and in some cases spectacular, including players such as Nicklas Lidstrom on defense and Pavel Datsyuk as the top line centre. Time will catch up with netminder Dominik Hasek and defenseman Chris Chelios at some point, though we'll have to wait and see whether that's evident this season.

You might think that with softer competition from their division rivals, Detroit would have an even easier time of walking away with the most points in the conference. I'm going to hammer a knuckle ball into that theory and say that the lack of strong clubs in the immediate vicinity will be a disadvantage for the Wings as they drop more games with stronger teams from other divisions and may even let up with their Central division competitors. It's the old, "play golf with skilled players and your own game improves" theory.

At least one intangible as well regarding the Wings. Though Scotty Bowman has professed otherwise, I still believe that he has been playing footsie with Toronto and any further developments on that front during the season could be a distraction.

I see the San Jose Sharks stepping up a notch this season. They still have one of the best top 2 line centers in Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau respectively. Thornton especially should continue to be a huge points producer as he goes for his third straight 90 point plus campaign. On defense, the Sharks lost Scott Hannan to the Avalanche but they also gained Craig Rivet late last season and with the added off-season and training camp to become even more familiar with San Jose's system, their defense corp. should be as strong as ever. Evgeni Nabokov is now the undisputed no.1 goalie as Vesa Toskala was shipped off to Toronto along with potential headache Mark Bell. As long as Nabokov stays healthy, this team is as solid as they come.

A kind of palpable rage develops within teams that are stocked with talent but have faltered come playoff time. This added motivation of showing everyone what they are really capable of should turn the Sharks into a wrecking crew to be reckoned with this season.

The Anaheim Ducks will still be a strong team this year, but not to the same degree as in their Cup winning campaign. Teemu Selanne and Scott Nidermayer are nowhere to be seen and without those two, the team chemistry will be markedly different. Add the enigmatic Todd Bertuzzi to the mix and the potential is there for a nasty brand of thuggery delivered by him and Chris Pronger. Without the regulating force of the departing vets discipline could be a problem.

I'm taking the Minnesota Wild to win the Northwest division and thus place third in the conference. The Wild haven't done much in the off-season but they were already exceptionally strong in 06-07 and they have a lot of young players that will continue to improve. Rock solid defense and the goaltending duo of Manny Fernandez and Niklas Lidstrom will help them to beat out Vancouver in the improved Northwest division this year.

Vancouver Canucks' goalie Robert Luongo is roundly hailed as the best player between the pipes and there's no argument here. The problem is that the lack of offense wasn't really addressed by the Canucks in the off-season, though they did pick up Ryan Shannon and Brad Isbister. No doubt GM David Nonis will try to address that lack of scoring at some point during the season. That the Canucks are still a solid team is a testament to the skill of Luongo and Vancouver's good defense.

Logic and a modicum of common hockey sense would dictate that the Columbus Blue Jackets won't make the playoffs, especially ahead of the Nashville Predators and even the improved Edmonton Oilers. But if I were to take the popular route, my picks would only be derivative of every other half-baked, two-bit prognosticating son-of-a-bitch out there. Columbus has to make the playoffs eventually, so this season's as good as any. Well, no...actually it's not. But, I'm sticking with my "to hell with it" pick.

In fact, Columbus did make some improvements to their team, the most notable being the signing of Mike Peca. Now, a 33 year-old centreman coming off a nasty season-ending injury might not be the player you would think could help push the B Jacks into the playoffs for the first time. But he is the type of individual who can have an immediate effect on a team, not just in terms of the skill he brings to face-offs and the penalty killing unit but also the motivating force he can have on younger players.

Ken Hitchcock in his second season as the Blue Jacket's coach together with the addition of new GM Scott Howson are both pluses in my opinion. Like most new GMs, Howson will likely look to make his mark with at least a few moves throughout the season.

Nashville has been gutted to some degree and together with the collective venom from Canadian fans clogging up their karma and hindering their mental game, they will fall completely out of the playoff picture. Kimmo Timonen, Paul Kariya, Tomas Vokoun and Scott Hartnell are all gone this season and that will hurt them. Rate both the Predators and Blue Jackets as my wild cards thrown in the mix for the sake of making things more interesting, though I think both picks could come to fruition.

I fought against my visceral dislike of Mike Keenan and slotted the Flames in at 7th place. The Flames were considered some of the biggest underachievers in 06-07 and Keenan's brand of nastiness could be just what they need. A shared loathing of their new coach could be a unifying force for the Flames and may spark them to more wins and some success in the playoffs.

I like the changes the Oilers have made but it's just a matter of the moves of other teams and mitigating factors conspiring to squeeze them out of the playoffs once again this season. I always like an underdog and the disrespect the Oilers have been absorbing from around the league makes me want to see them over-achieve. I just don't quite see the additions they have made being enough to result in a huge improvement over last year.

Again, my lack of familiarity with some teams means they are getting short shrift and for that I offer no apologies. That's just the way it is.

Now that we have the predictions out of the way, on to the REGULAR SEASON!!!!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

NHL 2007-08 Predictions: Eastern Conference

Sens logoPens logoTampa logoDevils logoSabres logoRangers logoThrashers logoLeafs logoFlyers logoCaps logoBruins logoHurricanes logoPanthers logoIsles logohabslogo.gifOK, here's the requisite prediction post wherein I make studied and reasoned comments (offer up a bundle of paraphrased rationalizing) on why I've placed various teams in my projected final standings. In the end I'm going to make at least some wild assed guesses with the knowledge that many well articulated forecasts are no more accurate than the looping swings in the dark variety. Regardless of how someone arrives at their choices, at least a few teams will surprise and insanely over-achieve while one or two clubs will disappoint.

I'm going with conference predictions for the simple reason that they're a helluva lot easier to post. But because of the heavily weighted intra-division play, the only way to make any kind of pick is to look at those groupings first and decide who improved the most and proceed from there. Of course, by working backwards, you could ultimately determine what my picks would look like if sorted into divisions.

You may have read an article I posted last month in which I described the various teams I have cheered for over the years. After a fairly long absence away from regularly watching games (which could continue this season depending on how the online viewing situation plays out) I come to this season as a hockey fan with relatively few biases. Some of you may consider this unthinkable, a bland, second-rate way to watch the game. I'm perfectly content to watch the season unfold in this way and I think it will make me a better observer who is relatively uninfluenced by emotion. At the same time, I'm looking forward to being drawn in by certain teams and situations and will no doubt have some favourites by the end of the season.

First, the Eastern Conference:

1. Ottawa Senators
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
3. Tampa Bay Lightning
4. New Jersey Devils
5. Buffalo Sabres
6. New York Rangers
7. Atlanta Thrashers
8. Toronto Maple Leafs
9. Philadelphia Flyers
10. Washington Capitals
11. Boston Bruins
12. Carolina Hurricanes
13. Florida Panthers
14. New York Islanders
15. Montreal Canadiens

The Senators haven't done much in the off-season but really, they had no need to. Coming off a season in which they surged in the last half and were dominant throughout the playoffs with the exception of the finals, they have every right to leave things as they are. Bryan Murray as GM will no doubt be looking to add the final piece before the trade deadline and John Paddock behind the bench as coach could provide a nice jolt. Ray Emery had his wrist and a new contract sewn up in the off-season but I wouldn't be surprised if Martin Gerber plays a more prominent role this season. A 52 save shut-out, regardless of whether it's in the pre-season, bodes well for his potential in 2007-08. Emery still has some technique issues to sort out before he's ranked as one of the league's elite netminders. He also has a tendency for off-ice antics and any further melodramas involving him together with average play could see his stock plummet.

Many have picked the New York Rangers as the most improved team in the entire league with the signings of Chris Drury and Scott Gomez. And the addition of Brent Sutter could improve the perennially solid and well-disciplined Devils. But I'm still going with the Pittsburgh Penguins to take the Atlantic Division and second overall in the Eastern Conference for no other reason than I like to be a contrarian son-of-a-bitch on occasion. But really, it's not much of a stretch to think they will in fact finish ahead of the Rangers and Devils. The explosive talent they have, has, in my opinion, the greatest potential for further improvement this season. Another year of playing together under their belts and the disappointment of an early playoff exit will spur them on to greater heights.

The Buffalo Sabres are going to see their "goals for" numbers take a hit with the loss of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere and that will cause them to slip somewhat but not as much as many are predicting.

I see Tampa Bay leapfrogging Atlanta for the Southeast crown and thus being positioned 3rd in the Eastern Conference. Just like last season, I believe the mediocre Southeast will field only one other playoff team with Atlanta taking the 7th position. I well may have ranked them higher but my research on the team has been abysmal. That lack of recognition factor alone is why I have slotted them in based on a quick look at last season's final standings. Sad, I know, but I'm doing this for kicks and can afford shameless admissions such as that. (Imagine one of the well-paid hacks at the Globe and Mail's sports section dropping a line like that?)

I must admit that I've bought into the rationalizing regarding the improvements made to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the off-season and have thus awarded them the last playoff position at 8th in the conference. Despite the 2 poor performances so far by Vesa Toskala in net during the pre-season, I can't help but feel they will see an improvement overall at the position, whether it's with shared duties or perhaps with the unexpected development that sees Andrew Raycroft step up. They have added some scoring with Jason Blake despite having been quite strong in that area last season. Unfortunately, they've already been hit with some pre-season injuries though it's unlikely things could be as bad in that regard as during the 06-07 campaign.

I can't see the Leafs missing the playoffs for a 3rd straight year, not only because of their mild improvements but more for the fact that there will be hell to pay if it even looks like a possibility approaching the midway point of this season. Pressure in the nasty pit of hockey insanity in which the Leafs lurch wildly about is surreal and larger than life.

At least 2 key individuals, GM John Ferguson Jr. and Leafs icon Mats Sundin, will be riding hell bent for success in their respective off-ice and on-ice roles this year. Ferguson will orchestrate at least one final Hail Mary if his job looks like it's in jeopardy and Sundin will haul the team into the playoffs alone even if he's jacked up on enough cortisone to kill a buffalo. Surprisingly, not much has been said as of late (relatively, relatively) by the Toronto media about Sundin's final quarter season slump in 06-07. It could either be painful or inspirational to see how Sundin winds up his career in Toronto this year.

The columnists and journalists who weigh in on all things Leafs related have been braying loudly about everything else though. I believe the sports writers on the hockey beat at Canadian papers, especially the Globe and Mail, are so conscious of being branded as having a pro-Leafs bias, that they go ricocheting in the opposite direction as a way to compensate. Sure there are many informed and often prescient views offered up on the Leafs but so often it's a skewed picture that is presented in the sports sections in many rags. The shrill pronouncements are already flowing from some on the demise of the Leafs this season with the regular season not even underway. They are so extreme in some cases that a person can only lean at least slightly in the other direction and be confident that that is a more likely possibility.

And finally regarding the Leafs, I do buy into the argument that they were hammered beyond normal limits in the injury department last season. Look at where they were at about a month into the campaign in 2006-07. Sure they had some games in hand, but still, they were off to a fairly good start. If anything, I see a reverse of last year with them having a slow start and then improving during the final stretch.

Philadelphia could well be one of the most improved teams this years. It will definitely be a fight for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and if it isn't the Leafs, I'm sure the Flyers will be right there. The Flyers shipped out their favourite whipping boy (at least he was for some of the fans and a columnist or two) Joni Pitkanen in exchange for Jason Smith and Joffrey Lupul from the Edmonton Oilers. A big unrestricted free agent signing saw the addition of Daniel Briere. He should provide a boost to their scoring, which was horrid last season. The Flyers also grabbed another pair of players from Nashville who were set to become UFAs, when they inked forward Scott Hartnell and defenseman Kimmo Timonen. If not the most improved, the Flyers have at least altered the face of their team more than any other club.

However, they absorbed a bludgeoning in that pre-season game with Ottawa a few days ago, losing four players to injuries. It looks as though Scottie Upshall and Joffrey Lupul both damaged their wrists though only Upshall's injury is serious enough to require surgery.

Washington and Boston are 2 teams that have people throwing around that catchall phrase "You'll be surprised." Having been a Bruins fan many years ago, it would definitely be nice to see them break out of their years long average to terrible play. They've got a new coach in Claude Julien who has made it clear the Bruins will be a more physical team. For some real in-depth parsing of the Bruins at every position and the kind of substance and minutiae that can only come from years of following a team, check out this excellent blog.

Well, that's it for my Eastern Conference predictions. I'll offer up my Western Conference forecasts within the next day or two.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Looming Head Injury Crisis in the NHL

NHL logoFlyers logoSens logoThere are many theories as to why there has been an increase in head injuries in the NHL, but it’s hard to refute the reality that they are on the rise. Here are some statistics. The most recent example is the hit laid on Dean McAmmond by Steve Downie in a pre-season game between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Ottawa Senators.

The increased speed, strength and size of the players coupled with the stricter enforcement of various obstruction penalties is one of the main story-lines mentioned whenever the issue crops up. Replace a corroded and rotten length of pipe in a larger network and the result is an improved and speedier flow of water. But it can also put unexpected pressure on other areas within the system. Refuse to deal with the subsequent pressure points and the end result could be a total collapse.

These types of injuries aren’t going away anytime soon and not because of any lack of suspensions that will continue to follow. It’s mainly to do with the fact that most teams speak out of both sides of their mouths on the issue as well as the status afforded the nasty pieces of work known for such tactics.

When teams have a player dishing out illegal hits they often respond with subtle spinning laced with claims that it was unintentional, the speed of the game made it unavoidable and of course, it was the fault of the player on the receiving end for not keeping his head up.

Add in the praise for performance in battle that trumps any potential suspension and the tacit approval shown by teams towards players who can take out opponents and make the opposing teams more intent on revenge than winning games and you've got plenty of incentive. For many fans, the revenge scenarios that follow these types of hits are hard to beat in terms of intensity and further contribute to the validation certain players receive.

With the NHL desperate to improve its image and suffering under the delusion that it can market the game of hockey to a much wider audience, there is almost no need for any additional pressure to make them act on the problem of head injuries. At some point during the coming season they will address the issue. So, what is the solution?

Outlaw hits to the head completely. There will no longer be such a thing as a legal hit to the head. What about in cases where the height difference between 2 players means that a hit to the head is unavoidable? Well, it's true that this will fundamentally alter the nature of the game. Extremely short players will become the new untouchables and will be drafted in numbers never before seen. I’m kidding.

Despite the physics defense offered by players like Pronger in the past, height difference does not make head shots inevitable. Of course there will be cases where a player has his head down and is flattened by a full body check without having a shoulder directed into his melon, where a referee's judgement can play a part in making the final call. Anyway, this is more a case of a player running head first into his opponent as opposed to someone setting out with the clear intent to injure.

Any one of charging, boarding, use of elbows, leaving your feet or a late hit is enough to rate a body-check as illegal. But also, following through on a hit when a player becomes prone by lurching forward or falling off balance and putting his head into a dangerous position should classify any hit that follows as a penalty and possibly worthy of a suspension. The opposing skater who may have been lining up a hit on such a player must have the potential pulling-up instinct firmly engrained enough so that he can avoid delivering the hit or at least be able to lessen the impact.

The result? The awkward blundering skaters will become sought after players just like the runts. Their unpredictability and potential for drawing suspensions will allow them to skate undaunted through entire teams for easy goals and...

In fact, restraint is already part of hockey just as it is in every sport and in every situation in life. The fact that 2 people can look at the same video of a hit and disagree on exactly what happened is a testament to the speed of the game and the various aspects of the sport that appeal to those 2 individuals. Regardless of the unique speed element of the game as compared to other sports, the rules as well as the mentality surrounding hits to the head have to change.

Either that or keep ramping up the suspensions until they really matter.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

NHL 2007-08 Pre-season Review

NHL logoLeafs logoOilers logoIsles logo"It's meaningless," is the standard cry regarding preseason games, especially when your team is on the losing end of a good old down home whooping. But beat a hated rival in an exhibition match-up and it's reason to look forward to the regular season with anticipation.

The cliche that no meaning should be attached to what is essentially hockey's version of "friendlies" is pretty valid. It appears there is no standard number of games, with some teams playing as many as 9, while others suit up for a measly 5 (this based on last year's preseason.) While the outcomes themselves aren't much to get excited about, individual players can showcase their conditioning and potential for the beginning of the season. The result is line combinations heavy on experimentation with many skaters on the ice for the tryout of their lives. Of those, some will be long gone by the time games have any meaning.

With that belief firmly in mind for most fans, there's still an awful lot of scrutiny and a kind of faux significance that goes along with each meeting. As if it's a warm-up for the kind of reasoning and signature arguments fans plan on using with their fellow spectators once the goals and hits really matter.

Toronto Maple Leafs


Vesa Toskala's guts must have been percolating with bile during and after his debut with the Leafs. A first time appearance by a goalie in the Leafs nets demands a response from the Toronto media because of the insane interest surrounding the team. Especially for the type of event that can be classified under "first" "best" "last" "most" or "worst."

The result is an odd balancing act between knowing that the analysis will be devoured and delivering a kind of "hip to the absurdity of trying to extrapolate from one performance but doing it anyway because that's what everyone expects." I thought David Shoalts did a pretty decent job in his column about Vesa Toskala's first game as a Leaf, providing a specific critique of the netminder's performance while comparing it to a former Leaf goalie's (Ed Belfour) initial start.

Shoalts seemed conscious of the fact that his breakdown of Toskala's mediocre start would grate on some fans and spun a pretty interesting angle to make it more palatable. What, did you actually expect him not to address the play of Toskala?

Another article on the same Leafs game seemed to do just that. With a headline of "Toskala Shaky in Leafs Debut" the report by Tim Wharnsby went on to mention the goalie by name exactly zero times and instead concentrated on the new dehumidification system that has been installed at Air Canada Centre (to be fair, editors often write the headlines for stories.)

Edmonton Oilers


Though most people aren't paying attention yet, the ones who are want as much information as possible. Minor things take on huge import (as long as it's not anything as insignificant as final results.) Take for example the utterances of Ryan Smyth last week and the response from Edmonton fans. Prompted by some local reporter, Smyth put a clever twist on an old nick he once had and this caused a minor eruption over at the Oilers forum on HFboards.

I understand the loss of a player who was part of your team for so long. One who worked hard, never gave up, represented the pride of the organization. Maybe it also has something to do with him being a local boy. The mullet, the unique syntax, the fact he actually liked to live in town as opposed to the litany of players who have been slagging off Edmonton as of late. Hell, if he wasn't a pro hockey player, he'd just be another mulleted working class stiff. He would likely own a muscle car and on occasion would get into staring matches at traffic lights with mulleted individuals named Mike in other muscle cars. Sometimes they would get out and fight each other (I know all this because I grew up in Winnipeg which is similar in many ways, except that Edmonton is richer and has more people.) All these things endeared Smyth to Oilers fans and now that he's gone they're having a hard time letting go. Just remember that old cliche, "the opposite of love isn't hate, it's indifference."

The best way to get Smyth off their minds is with a strong start to the season. Dustin Penner running interference in front of the net and Sheldon Souray's big shot should go some way towards making that a possibility. Penner has probably enjoyed a more unlikely and whirlwind past few years than any other pro hockey player in recent memory. This article on Penner still ranks as one of the best off season hockey stories.

Injuries


Are there more injuries this preseason or is it just down to the lack of other news making those instances stand out? I've got no statistical evidence but it seems like there are an above average number this year. You've got to think that some players are either lacking in their conditioning, had lingering health issues or are just going balls out after the layoff. Perhaps the increased size, strength and overall fitness level as years go by has the inevitable effect of more bones, joints and ligaments giving way under the strain of collisions.

Must be a sickly feeling for any player after the anticipation and likely work they put in during the off-season. A signed player who has a history with the team and can expect to recover and see further play over a number of years is one thing, but for someone trying to make the cut, this must be like a kick to the guts (or the head.) That might have been a couple million dollar hit for Anson Carter, though according to reports on his off-season training (or lack thereof), he probably has to take some of the blame himself. Funny how often I feel sympathy for some of these characters who have already raked in millions and had some great experiences as players.

Kissing Babies


There's always some time for glad-handing and publicity work for players in the pre-season, as they play games in locations whose local residents will never get to know the experience of having their own NHL team. The result is the kind of situation that played out in Moncton, New Brunswick. Just as many cities end up taking their pro team for granted until it's too late, those without the ready access to big league games savour these kinds of opportunities to witness the competition live and interact with some of the players.

As for me, I'm still trying to see my first (online) pre-season game of the year. The life of an overseas hockey fan (especially in Asia) is not easy in terms of finding ways to see NHL games. I will be looking for every online opportunity to check out the action and with the time difference, it will be Hockey Morning in Thailand when I get the chance.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Another Take on the NHL Winter Classic

NHL logoSabres logoPens logoHere's Damien Cox at his not quite contrarian best with a column in which he tries to rip to bits the outdoor match-up this season between the Buffalo Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

I usually like reading Cox for the entertainment value though I don't always agree with his opinions. He enjoys ruffling feathers and being harsh in his criticism of the Leafs, other teams and the NHL in general. Conflict is the basis of all good writing whether it be novels, scripts or yes, even sports columns. There are other hockey writers who seem more intent on securing and maintaining their access to the good ol' boys network that is the NHL, with articles that at best put a positive spin on everything related to the team they cover or at worst are nothing more than hagiography. That's fine as well and while I read both, I'll take the guys who rip things with abandon over the professional sycophants.

Disagree with Cox on this one though. He has a nice set-up where he blasts the NHL for constantly experimenting on a whim only to reverse their original plans and then casually implement another gimmick or two. Beyond that there's not much of his criticism of the Winter Classic that stands up, in my opinion.

First, the analogies he offers regarding other sports really aren't applicable. He suggests that it would be ridiculous if an NFL game were to be played inside a hockey arena on a makeshift field, in reference to the fact that the Winter Classic will be played inside a football stadium.

NHL Winter ClassicWell, football never was played inside in its original form and the location for the outdoor NHL game is simply to accommodate the number of fans willing to attend (and make the game as profitable as possible.) That the stadium is normally used for football is irrelevant. As for the rink being "makeshift," according to this article, the rink set-up and its construction alone will cost well over a million dollars and will closely mimic the conditions in all current NHL teams' arenas.

He also provides a few more analogies that have little to no merit. The NBA staging a regular season game on an asphalt court in Compton or a major league baseball game in a corn field in Iowa? Though NHL games never were played outside, the fact is, hockey originated outdoors by necessity and this event is a throwback to that while maintaining the modern rink. For his comparisons to be applicable to the NHL scenario at all, the Pens/Sabres match-up would have to take place on a frozen lake without any of the expensive and high-tech installations that are going to be made. The far-fetched situations he offers are not really similar to the unique aspect of hockey being played outside in far colder weather as compared to its indoor version. Pro baseball is still played outside (and in the case of recreational basketball) with little difference in terms of climate or atmosphere as compared to hockey.

Even if you assume the respective sports leagues would see any merit in such proposals (they wouldn't because, again, there's no real comparison) the logistics of building a temporary diamond and sufficient stands in a cornfield render the analogy fairly worthless as does the lack of any nostalgia that would be associated with both examples.

The claim that this is risky for both teams involved in terms of the regular season points at stake and the fact the game could turn on weather related interference also holds little weight. Both teams have agreed to the game and will play under the same circumstances. Just as poor ice conditions, unpredictable rebounds off end boards or some kind of game delay due to arena malfunction, fan interference or other unexpected event can affect the flow and potential outcome of any indoor game, both teams in the Winter Classic will be subject to the same conditions. In fact, in the case of the al fresco tilt between the Pens and the Sabres, this is even less of a factor as no team has an edge regarding familiarity with the rink conditions.

As mentioned in the column, the concern for poor weather conditions causing the game to be canceled and the resulting logistical problems is an important issue. The NHL is working on a contingency plan and should have one in place shortly.

While it's easy to blast the NHL for its litany of problems and poor decisions, I see the Winter Classic as a positive event.

Now, are any players going to drop the gloves knowing that their hands may go numb as they smack the raw, frost-bitten flesh of each other's faces? Will a fog from the players' heavy exhalations and steaming sweaters and equipment hover over the rink like a surreal nostalgic haze? Will that magical sound of pucks clacking on sticks reverberate all the way up to those spectators in the last few rows? The fans in attendance will find out as they take part in a memorable experience and hopefully witness a great game in the process.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Let's Stay in Touch...

NHL logoYotes logoJets logoThe Toronto Maple Leafs and the Phoenix Coyotes played a pre-season game in Winnipeg yesterday, with the Leafs coming out on top 3-2.

The Jets slumped out of town in 1996 never to...oops, they do keep returning in their Coyotes incarnation for exhibition games and I believe they even played a regular season game there a couple of years back.

I doubt there is any other example of an NHL team that departed a city and then kept coming back for the sake of nostalgia. It's great for hockey fans in Winnipeg and decent of the Yotes owners to oblige them (of course the dollars have to be there to make it happen , but still) but I've got to believe at some point Phoenix will decide to bypass any further match-ups in the Peg.

For any Phoenix fans who are really passionate about their team, such games have got to have a slightly less than appealing odour to them. Kind of like former girlfriends who want to "keep in touch" if only for the possibility it provides to keep having a good sniff around to confirm that they made the right decision to leave in the first place.

With each subsequent return of the team formerly known as the perennial Smythe division chumps, the lobby for bringing the NHL back to Winnipeg gets a bit hornier than usual and starts rolling out what they consider are their undeniably sound arguments. These have been bolstered recently by what they believe is their new trump card...the salary cap and the apparent boon this is for small market teams. It definitely would be an added help to whatever pro team may eventually get a shot back in Manitoba's capital city but it would be no guarantee of long-term success.

Even the apparently pro-return columnists in Winnipeg, who have got to add at least a bit of nuance to their arguments compared to the core of rabid fans, aren't overly enthusiastic. Here is the less than blinding endorsement from a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press: "modest stability may be more financially attractive than sinking another drill into unfamiliar territory only to discover more dirt."

One argument against such a return is the impossible to deny fact that the Jets never enjoyed consistent fan support in terms of sell-outs, both in the regular season and playoffs. I went to many a game that was not sold out and never had problems getting tickets for playoff games. Often those regular season tickets were bought for 10 dollars each through a promotion at 7-elevens (hey, I was a university student) and even the seats in those sections were often not full. Remember too that there were some very good Jets teams during those years.

Winnipeg is a medium sized city of about 700, 000 people whose population has been almost stagnant for the past 25 years. There just aren't that many people who can be tapped to become new fans. I know, I know...there are thousands of people who are huge fans and likely many saw every Jets game ever played in Winnipeg. But it's more about money than ever before and to keep the beast fed there must be a wide swath of people who can slurp up tickets, blow money on merchandise and make advertisers and media outlets salivate.

It's also important to note that the city is notorious for producing some of the tightest bastards around. There was an urban myth that used to circulate in town. Usually delivered with a knowing sneer, it was said that market research companies regularly tested products in Winnipeg under the premise that if they could flog something there, they could sell it anywhere.

The price at which tickets would have to be sold to sustain a team compared to how much they cost when the Jets were around, would be far greater than the rate of inflation over that time span (7-eleven 40 dollar student tickets somehow don't seem likely.)

I would be the first one to cheer on such a move and would hope for their success. However, while the people of Winnipeg have been conditioned to deal with nasty soul-destroying winters, it would still be a bitter wind that would blow through town if they ever became two-time NHL losers.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Sal the Hockey Playing Sociopath

"How has it come to this?

You can be walking down the street and some son-of-a-bitch can curse at you, spit in your face, insult you with the nastiest of verbal assaults, and you are unable to respond with your fists. He knows that. He thrives on the thrill of antagonizing and mocking you. And if you dare to respond in the most logical and honourable of ways, you will be thrown in a cage.

This has raised the stock of gutless, insidious behaviour. The sneering roaches of the world have been handed a perfect set-up to ply their miserable tactics.

And if I challenge them to settle things in a fair, simple, easy to understand way I get labeled the criminal!

What kind of worthless society have we built for ourselves when a low-life can provoke you into snapping and then stand mocking you from the gallery as you're banged up for mashing his face into the concrete? We praise as shrewd the filth who manipulate and trick us into handing over our hard earned cash, we hold them up as businessmen and heap scorn on those who were taken, ridiculing them as unsophisticated for daring to think there should be any honour in the world, the basic decency that a person's word means something...

And without the cold simple deterrent of fists fracturing orbital bones, this insanity continues on unchecked!!

I'm getting sick of this...SICK OF THIS NASTINESS!! It's everywhere...you know you're being mocked by the filth everywhere you go..they can see it your face and you recognize the look they give off...they don't even have to speak...they know they've got the power over you because they don't have what it takes to settle things the right way...and when they take that path where they get inside your mind and start playing with you without even saying a word then THERE ARE NO MORE RULES...IT'S TIME TO SHOW THEM WHAT IT'S ALL ABOUT...I"M GONNA RATTLE SOME CAGES BOY!!! WATCH THOSE SMUG LOOKS GET WIPED AWAY AND REPLACED WITH THE SAME FEAR THESE SCUM HAVE FORCED ME TO EXPERIENCE.....I'M GONNA HURT EM!!!! SPLATTERED GUTS....INNARDS..."

"Sal! Sal! Sal...you screwed up again. You didn't time it right..."

"Wha...What?! Ah geez..."

"Anyway, there's too much nuance involved. What's all this build-up and talk with people coughing up their money and all that crap? There's got to be at least some genuine emotion in there. Simpler. Something that gets right into your nasty little reptilian brain and ramps up the rage. Anyway, it's the timing like I said before. You don't hit the ice for another 10 minutes. You peaked way too soon."

"Yeah. That's true. I've got to start the rap before we head out but those slivers of rage shouldn't start jabbing until we hit the ice and I can get some of those creeps in my line of vision..."

"Yeah! Those same creeps you play golf with!"

"You son-of-a-bitch! Don't remind me of that now! What's it gonna be then?"

"Old stand by. They raped your sister..."

"As good as any..."

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

RBK NHL Jerseys: New Coke Redux

It's got to be a well choreographed set-up by Bettman and his thugs at NHL head office. The whole jersey re-design campaign launched this season is nothing but a ploy to enrage fans beyond all comprehension, stoke the anger of players and sell a whole boatload of the bland, poorly designed (with exceptions of course) sweaters to the die-hards who would gladly shell out for burlap sacks with collars and arm-holes if that was the official offering.

And then.. there will be a huge mid-season mea-culpa (made by one of Bettman's flunkies.) There will be admissions of guilt (in the passive voice of course -- "mistakes were made," "certain issues were not considered," -- no need to make themselves look too much like buffoons while executing the final stage of their plan) and a commitment to return to a more "classic" look the following season.

The RBK jerseys from this coming season will become collectors items, hundreds of thousands of new classics will be churned out and NHL fans will be hailed in the sports world as really being able to make a difference. The NHL will be praised for truly caring about their fans and Bettman will congratulate himself for such forward thinking by unilaterally instituting a 2 point line.

At least one team, let's say the Bruins, will hold themselves out as mavericks and refuse to go back to the classics...wait a minute...

Hey, it's fun to rip new designs and developments. Not for the sake of it as many boosters of the new duds (appropriate word here considering its alternate meaning) characterize any such criticism, but simply because so many teams have aesthetically lacking final results.

If this report from the New Jersey Devils blog, Fire and Ice, is an indication of things to come, the design of the jerseys is not all that may be sub-par about them:

"Enforcer Cam Janssen might have injured his shoulder tonight because of the league’s new Reebok Edge sweaters. His sweater ripped during his two first period fights with Philadelphia’s Jesse Boulerice. That might have helped Boulerice pull Janssen’s jersey over his head in both altercations and win both decisively. Arron Asham also had his sweater tear during his fight with Riley Cote. "These new jerseys are supposed to make you faster, but what good are they if they tear that easily,” Mike Rupp said. "


Read the rest here.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Eklund the Hockey Blogger

Eklund toiletIn the past few years, many posts related to potential trades on hockey discussion boards have been qualified with statements along the lines of: “I know this is from Eklund but…” For some, a fatigue has set in and they might as well write: “I know I read this on a shithouse wall but…”

The hockey blogger known as Eklund has an air of farce about him these days. I sense he is approaching a kind of critical mass in terms of how much credibility he lacks and how many people consider him a fraud. His apparent willingness to lie about his credentials in the early going of his online career will turn off even more people. This article goes into some real detail in terms of just how insanely far away he is from being a journalist in any sense of the word. One only has to stop and ponder for a moment how it would be literally impossible to apply the necessary due diligence that serious reporters rely on to the sheer volume of his rumours.

He is nothing more than a clearing-house for all information related to trades in the NHL. Fair play to him for putting in the time and energy to make that a reality. However, far too often he insinuates that he is the one breaking the news. He is now simply one of the highest trafficked sites for people looking for information on the topic. That he is plugged into dozens of media outlets 24 hours a day (and has cultivated some real contacts because of his manic efforts) means that his site is the first place people may learn of a move, not necessarily the first place to report it.

There is still a large mass of people eagerly lapping up his postings as the recent announcement that the Montreal Canadiens have signed Patrice Brisebois attracted more than 700 posts to his comment pages in short order. Then again, for someone who has shown himself to be somewhat lacking in ethics when it comes to boosting his own profile, and for a person who obviously appreciates the truism that a crowded pub attracts more customers, how do we know if all those posters are legitimate?

It’s clear that he is shrewd when it comes to marketing himself, playing on people’s hopes and spinning himself as some kind of connected individual within the ranks of the NHL. His identity has been an open secret for some time and the whole "anonymous" schtick just comes across as puerile now. Perhaps that’s appropriate as his fan base appears to me to be somewhat juvenile, naive and lacking in a healthy sense of skepticism. Another element sees it as an intriguing human interest story and a glimpse into the psychology of spin, manipulation and the herd mentality of so many people (or perhaps they use that as a cover and are ashamed to admit they visit Eklund’s site...)

Dwayne Klessel (Eklund’s real name) knows the power of quantity over quality and shamelessly pads out his site with horrifically written blogs rammed full of grammar errors, spelling mistakes, malapropisms and skewed syntax. He also has some blogs penned by very good writers who are syndicated columnists in major newspapers. They too recognize the traffic that Klessel’s sensationalistic tabloid style speculation generates.

Most serious journalists will continue to ignore him while others may start to resent him and stick a few knives in, giving him more publicity along the way. Eklund, too, may sense a change in the wind and may move onto a new phase in the life of his celebrity status. Or, having found a shtick that creates more interest than anything else in his trick bag, he may stay with it to its logical conclusion, whatever that may be.

While followers of Eklund may not learn anything of significance about dealings in the world of professional hockey more than a few minutes before anyone else, at least they have learned that, in fact, a broken clock is sometimes not even right twice a day.

(originally appeared at sportsnarrative.blogspot.com)