Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Hockey and Schadenfreude

"Schadenfreude" is an imported word from the German nihilist tradition that nicely sums up a common human sentiment. It simply means "to gain pleasure from someone else's misfortune." There's no single word in the English language that captures the meaning so perfectly. Which is probably why it has become one of those newly popular words with the mainstream media in the past number of years.

It's a logical emotion to experience. The rage that humans have always felt is still present as it was a thousand years ago. But the historical response of bashing in each other's skulls is no longer an option for most. The accumulation of slights, disrespect, and mistreatment at the hands of others in society needs an outlet.

It fits in nicely with another one of the most widely held beliefs. That somehow there is a cosmic righter of wrongs who makes sure everyone gets what they deserve. An absurd notion that people use to calm themselves when they have been screwed over by another, telling themselves that "what goes around comes around."

Of course, most people never stop to consider that if that's the case, then the misfortune they have just suffered is also well deserved and payback from something they must have done in the past. (For the most asinine sports related example of this type of thinking, check out the Glenn Hoddle story from a few years back.) This kind of world view is easily validated because inevitably every person will experience some kind of tragedy or setback.

Professional sports offer a never-ending litany of opportunities for the spectator to satisfy their shadenfreude instinct. The most common example and one that is not troubling, is the enjoyment a fan takes in seeing opposing teams become frustrated, make mistakes and lose.

Taken a bit further, satisfaction can be derived from the personnel or disciplinary side of things imploding for a hated rival. Management changes, fines and suspensions are the types of situations that fit into this category.

When schadenfreude veers into sociopath territory is when pleasure is taken from the sight of a player knocked out of a game with an injury. While some sports are premised on doing exactly that to achieve victory, I'm referring more to team sports such as hockey.

By far most fans don't like to see anyone injured during the course of a game but there are more than a few who will delight in the sight of a player from the opposite team being stretchered off the ice.

Some who seem to enjoy this recognize that it comes across as inappropriate and will seek ways to rationalize their feelings. With a huge database of hockey clips on public sites such as YouTube, a person can easily search for hits delivered by a currently injured player and hold that up as why they "got what they deserved."

Others are far too energized and thrilled to worry about what it says about their character. Take in an NHL game and witness the few who revel in being hard-core and unrelenting in their callousness. Better yet, patrol any number of discussion boards and witness the gloating over shattered limbs, ripped ligaments and bashed in faces.

You might think that one of the worst incidents in NHL history, which saw Steve Moore's career ended by a blind-side assault from Todd Bertuzzi, would result in universal sympathy for Moore. Not so. There is still a vocal contingent who think that, in fact, he "had it coming."

Who is worse? The fan who goes to lengths to explain away his views? Or the one who shamelessly luxuriates in the physical pain of professional athletes who happen to be on the other team?

Every serious injury in the NHL is accompanied with comments that "no one wants to see this kind of thing." I can only assume that those making these claims are trying to cast the game in the best light or live strictly in that world of the public face that is played out in the pages and on the airwaves of the most popular media outlets.

Revenge scenarios in the NHL are some of the strongest and most intriguing of any sport. It's hard not to get caught up in the frenzy of wanting to see your team damage their bitterest enemies with a lopsided victory. Some are simply unable to draw any reasonable boundaries and take things to their most twisted conclusion.

Ticket Prices, Profiteering and MLSE

NHL logoLeafs logoTicket prices for NHL games are noticeably higher than for the other major North American professional sports leagues because of hockey's lack of big television contracts. The money has to come from somewhere to pay for player salaries and make it a profitable enough enterprise for anyone to get involved and take all the related risks.

I knew the Toronto Maple Leafs had some of the most expensive tickets in the NHL and probably could have guessed that they are the dearest of the 30 teams. But I didn't know the difference was so great or that their increase in prices was close to the average in the league despite already having the costliest ducats. Check out all the numbers here.

You can at least accept the Anaheim Ducks hiking their prices after last season's Cup win. Bringing their rates more in line with the standard after boosting the popularity of the sport in a non-traditional market also makes their increases more acceptable. The Devils moving into their flashy new digs at the Prudential Center casts their steeper entrance fees in a more meaningful light as well.

But the Leafs, after missing out on the playoffs for the past two years and not icing a team that is significantly different this year, are utterly shameless. It's compounded by the fact that they are one of the few teams who do bring in decent revenue from their television contracts.

It makes the booing from fans at Air Canada Centre far more understandable. Whenever you cough up for some kind of outing, your expectations are inevitably in line somewhat with how much you've paid. A huge disappointment comes with the realization that it wasn't worth your effort or money and will never be filed away under "memorable" in your mind's archives of lifetime events. With the way the Leafs have been playing at home lately, it's not surprising that many fans are in a neck-wringing sort of mood.

When considering those who make the decisions to raise prices, the words "reptilian" and "bloodsuckers" come to mind.

It's not hard to imagine what a conversation between two members of the Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) board of directors would have sounded like after the team failed to qualify for the post-season in 2006-07:

"Well, we finished out of the playoffs for the second year in a row. What d'ya suppose we do about this?"

"Why, we jack up ticket prices . What the hell do you think we'd do? Something reasonable like leave things the way they are out of respect for the loyal and long-suffering fans? BWAAAAAHA! Ha!"

"I guess you're right. But what do we do come the end of next season? If the Leafs miss out three years in a row, that will be the first time that they've displayed such extended futility since 1928..."

"Of course, WE DRIVE UP THE PRICES AGAIN! Do you know how many malleable sycophantic apologists we have within Leafs Nation? For every fan who raises a peep about how we over-charge and continually raise prices without any improvements in the team, there are a few dozen others who will dutifully vomit forth the usual mantras about "supply and demand" while taking pleasure in the fact that they can afford such prices while others can't.

Luckily those same useful idiots don't have words such as "profiteering," "gouging," "decency" or "moderation" in their lexicon."

"But where does it all end?"

"It doesn't. Do you think I care about some meaningless piece of tin? All that matters to me is that generations from now we will be held up in business and economics circles as a never before seen anomaly that turns old theories inside out. One line showing an increase in profits and rising prices and another line showing the accompanying fall in quality! I LOVE IT!!"

"I suppose so..."

"Shut-up and pass me the caviar..."

Monday, October 29, 2007

New Jersey Devils New NHL Arena: The Prudential Center aka The Rock

Devils logoThis is the first example in the history of corporate sponsored arenas that I can remember, in which the rights holder (the insurance giant Prudential) has attached their famous tag-line (in this case, "The Rock") to the official name. Quite possibly it has been done before, but none could have been so appropriate and memorable as the one for the new home of the New Jersey Devils.

Some good reviews of The Rock around the hockey blogosphere. Over at AOL Fan House, there's a photo of a Devils' logo that appears atop the flushing mechanism in the arena bogs. Not sure if it's on top of a urinal or inside a stall. I would guess it's inside a stall, as my memories of using the facilities at the old Winnipeg Arena are of long troughs with po-faced, drunken schlepps emptying their beer-filled bladders between periods.

I've heard that the trough set-up is standard equipment in most other NHL barns. The logistics just wouldn't be feasible for any other type of arrangement. Thousands of mouth-breathing lunatics jacked up on alcohol and the excitement of the game they've been watching wouldn't work quite as well with individual urinals. The added waiting would be the main problem. And no doubt the porcelain would seem like an appropriate receptacle not just for rancid punter discharge but also for a good kicking on occasion.

The troughs always turned my guts mainly for the wretched miasma hanging over the whole spectacle and also because of the sickening potential for bacteria. I always made the effort to wait the extra few minutes for a private stall.

Years later while traveling through some of the nastiest back-waters on the planet, I wondered why anyone would ever use any kind of urinal in a public toilet. Standing vulnerable staring at a wall, just begging someone to bash your face into the concrete and steal your wallet. Add in the fact that leering and brazen deviants seem far more prevalent in some parts of the world and it's not worth the hassle.

I've slipped up a few times while in Thailand and opted for the urinal in what appeared to be a deserted restaurant toilet. There is a particular type of eating establishment in Thailand. Not in tourist areas, it's the kind that appeals to middle class Thais. It usually has outdoor tables with an attached bar and offers barbecue, seafood and a constant flow of pitchers of draught beer served up by sullen, underpaid staff. These kinds of restaurants often have a bathroom attendant.

The first time one of those loose-limbed, whistling little freaks ambled up behind me as I was standing at the pisser and started massaging the back of my neck in hopes of scoring a tip, I nearly flattened him with an elbow.

Just one more reason to avoid the urinals and head straight for a stall.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

NHL Suspensions: Randy Jones Hit on Patrice Bergeron

nhllogo.gifBruins logoFlyers logoThere's widespread relief at the news that Patrice Bergeron suffered nothing more than a concussion and broken nose after the nasty hit from behind by the Flyers' Randy Jones in the Bruins/Flyers game Saturday night. The fact that a head injury and broken nose are met with relief is a sign of how bad it initially looked and the length of time Bergeron lay motionless on the ice.

The guessing, spinning and closing of ranks began almost immediately after the game ended, accompanied by the contrite, humble apology from the perpetrator that has become a requisite part of each subsequent incident.

Bob McKenzie has offered up his take on the hit at TSN, concluding that the suspension that Jones is likely to receive will be far less than those handed out to his Flyer team-mates earlier in the year (Jesse Boulerice tagged with 25 for his cross-check to the face of Ryan Kesler and Steve Downie with 20 for his hit on Dean McCammond.)

McKenzie's sound and reasoned interpretation of issues and incidents in the NHL have made him one of the most respected hockey pundits in the game. To the point that he probably has the ability to influence those within the decision-making ranks of the NHL or at least give them pause for second thought on occasion.

However, I disagree with him somewhat regarding the hit on Bergeron and what the appropriate (and probable) response should (will) be. Mainly for the reason that he bases his analysis of what happened and the likely consequences on the prevailing reaction of players and GMs around the league following the incident. No doubt there is a collective understanding and wisdom about the game within that group that doesn't exist elsewhere, and the weight of that view can't help but have some effect on the final decision.

I sense a kind of annoyance and "here we go again" exhaustion from other players and GMs after their reactions to a number of previous incidents. The mostly genuine responses at the time came at least partly because of outside pressure. The extenuating circumstances, arguable lack of intent and relatively little physical damage have made it easier to offer up the traditionally callous, "that's the way it goes" response this time around.

There's a mentality within hockey and sports in general, that injury equals weakness. It's right there alongside losing and is seen as a shortcoming of those on the receiving end as much as anything done by those inflicting the damage. "It's the fault of the injured player," narrative gets more play in hockey than most other sports. Most such claims beg the question and rarely is there an articulated or detailed explanation of exactly what the player did wrong. McKenzie at least addresses this somewhat in his editorial:

"Bergeron contributed to his own demise by turning away from the hit and going low into the dasher board, which led to a broken nose and concussion. "

I have to say that in the video I don't see at any time Bergeron turning away from the hit. It appears he went in blind and if anything should have turned to increase his awareness and line of vision of opposing players following him into the boards. The turning away from a hit becomes an issue when a player is in a position of peripheral or full vision and turns away from that to avoid a potential collision. However, McKenzie is right regarding the going in low and stopping with that dangerous few feet of space between the boards.

So, the partial blame theory has some credence . But, if blame is to be assigned, far more has to be shouldered by Jones because of the position he was in, the recognition he must have for the potential danger of such situations and the responsibility he has for being able to pull up. Similarly, if the accidental nature of Jones's actions should be given weight when deciding on a punishment, surely the unintentional and accidental aspect of Bergeron's less than perfect positioning should further lessen any blame he has for his own injuries.

I believe the kind of thinking offered up by Allan Maki in his response to the hit will get more consideration from the league. The suspension to be handed down from the NHL is an opportunity to highlight the responsibility players have to play within some kind of limits and to recognize the increasing speed and potential for these situations to develop. The NHL seems conscious of the changing nature of the game and have made certain that suspensions mean something this season. An insignificant number of games for Jones will simply validate the "things happen" story-line.

While it's hard to argue that this fits in with a particular culture and style of play advocated by Flyers coaching and management, the optics still don't look good on the heels of the prior incidents. I expect at least some coded warnings in the language used by NHL brass to address this, though I don't see any fines being assessed.

I believe the suspension will be less than the ones handed down to Downie and Boulerice but more than the handful of games expected by others.

My prediction is 10-12 games.

Major League Pitchers and NHL Goalies

As the Boston Red Sox look set to win the World Series, if not sweep the Colorado Rockies in four straight, it's time for a look at the roles played by major league pitchers in comparison to NHL goaltenders.

Success at both positions relies on controlling a small hard missile that the opposing team is trying to drive forward with sticks or bats.

While pitchers are hurling 100 mile per-hour plus fastballs past, and sometimes towards, hitters, goalies are the ones facing the onslaught of rockets in hockey. Yet both represent the defensive linchpins in their respective sports.

pitcher.jpgIndividual pitchers play a far bigger role in terms of their impact on specific games. This is a fact demonstrated by the odds offered by book-makers on a team, which will vary a great deal depending on the starting pitcher. No doubt a goaltender can be the difference in many a game and outstanding performance at that position is often the key to a team winning the top prize. At the very least, solid play in the nets is necessary if a club hopes to go far into the playoffs.

But the entire flow of a baseball game hinges on the pitcher. He is the focal point and, while able to rest at the top or bottom of each inning, when on the mound his exertions are almost continual. A goalie goes in stops and starts and may stand idle for stretches at a time as his team-mates control play in the other end.

Pitchers hold more weight in terms of importance in the outcome of a game, but both they and hockey's puck stoppers carry a similar burden of responsibility to provide a solid foundation if their teams are to have a chance of winning.

Perhaps that's why the outward image of many goalies and pitchers is of the brooding individual, simmering at the constant flow of contempt served up to them. That is the very essence of the opposition. They are trying to show that they are better and capable of beating the defensive best the other side has to offer.

Pitchers and goalies often speak of the disrespect shown to them throughout the course of a game. It's natural that players on opposing teams consciously or otherwise degrade and/or set them up as enemies to be destroyed and dominated. However, the behaviour directed at both often goes beyond acceptable standards.

emery.jpgThis is most noticeable in hockey where players will takes runs at the most vulnerable player on the ice. In the far subtler and less aggressive game of baseball, there is nonetheless accepted conduct related to the positioning of batters when standing at the plate. The flouting of this code is the manifestation of the underlying antipathy pitchers feel from opponents. When pushed too far, a pitcher may nail a batter and a net-minder may lash out with his stick or fists.

Hitters in baseball and goal scorers in hockey will openly flaunt their success in the faces of goalies and pitchers, showing them up with over-the-top celebrations. Though perhaps it's in the inherent low-key nature of prevention and defense that results in pitchers and keepers rarely celebrating a single stop or strike-out in an animated way, they would probably attribute it to professionalism.

The ultimate individual triumph for pitchers and goaltenders is in shutting out the other team in victory. Only then will they allow their satisfaction to boil over into open celebration. They will inevitably be swarmed by their team-mates in recognition of how just important they are to everyone's success.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

NHL 2007-08: Week Four Headlines

JFJ Tries to Entice Tavares, Tlusty Tallies Two


Ferguson is thankful for the distraction that Tlusty's early pair provided. The Leaf's GM tries some creative coercion to improve his credibility.

Are Jerseys a Joke? RBK offers Patch, Pleads Patience


Still being discussed whether remainders from factory to be used.

Oilers Fans Push Penner to Produce


Does a lummox like Penner simply appear lethargic? Or is the "lazy" tag legit?

Visor Usage Vaults


50% of players now wear them. (When this son-of-a-bitch laced on skates in his first organized game at seven, shield use was scattered and still optional.)

Modano Yearns to be Top Point Scoring Yank of All Time


Needs five more to accomplish feat.

Two Swedes on Top in Scoring Race


Sundin at 36 is stunning.

Boys from Broad Street Head into Boston


Flyers and Bruins put their identically respectable 6-3 records on the line Saturday night. Two of the most improved teams so far this season, they've both shown toughness and determination in surpassing early predictions.

Sens Finish Siesta, Skate into Jersey Saturday


In the inaugural game at the new home of the New Jersey Devils, the Senators will play for the first time after a juicy seven day break. Will the Devils christen the Prudential Center with a win or will the Sens improve their league-wide best record?

Buds on Broadway


Two struggling teams with different problems tangle tonight as the Leafs take on the Rangers in New York.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Bloody Chiclets: Quotes, Shills, and Nasty Thrills

NHL logoA few quotes related to hockey that I've heard or read recently:

Rick Ball, a Vancouver radio host, on Colorado Avalanche forward Ryan Smyth: "He's done more crying than Tammy Faye Baker in the past six months."

Well, Baker's been dead for a while but it's still a good one.

Smyth certainly has been blubbering at will ever since he was traded out of Edmonton because of a difference of a couple hundred thousand dollars.

Great fodder for people who want to rip the guy but I reckon if you're not concerned about things like shedding tears in public on a monthly basis, you probably don't have much to prove in terms of your character, toughness, guts etc.

Or, it could also have something to do with lacking that acute sense of self-awareness that can make some people cringe at the sight of their own shadow.

At Fan House, Greg Wyshynski quoting Steve Farber from a Sports Illustrated article on Islander's player Chris Simon: "A man who has been suspended more times than disbelief."

And then this one that can't be confirmed so I'll leave it unattributed:

"Johnny kept me in labour forever! It was horrible! He was already half-way into the world five days before that. So technically..."

***

Sometimes huge payouts from a sports equipment manufacturer can be a gamble for the player on the receiving end of the deal. Especially if it requires that player to change the equipment with which he's grown accustomed to using and most importantly, winning.

In his fantastic book The Majors, John Feinstein details the history of golf's four biggest tournaments and follows a number of players competing in them over a period of a few years.

In one section he discusses some examples of players who took fat endorsement deals from golf club manufacturers in exchange for using and promoting their products. The results have not always been worth the cash:
The golf world is littered with sad stories about players who changed equipment at a moment in their career when they appeared to be peaking and all of a sudden couldn't find a fairway, a green, or the hole. Corey Pavin, Payne Stewart, Davis Love, Lee Janzen and Nick Price are a few of the better-known names who took the money and eventually found themselves running from the equipment they were being paid to use.

It would be interesting to find out if there are any similar examples from the NHL.

The best case scenario for professional athletes is when a manufacturer comes knocking when they know that player already uses their equipment. But a huge contract can convince someone to change loyalties and in the process brush aside niggling concerns, superstition and years of preferred use.

Surely a custom pair of skates could be subsequently tweaked for a player who hadn't been used to that particular brand. But when comfort, reliability and years of routine have made something second nature, that out of place feeling could start to minutely affect real on-ice performance and get inside a player's head.

I would never suggest Sidney Crosby's relatively slow start (though he's crept up to 16th overall in points) has anything to do with equipment alterations (nor do I know if he has made any changes since last season.) I do believe he has at some point at least changed the stick he uses to suit the terms of his contract with Reebok.

Too bad the huge dollars involved and the likely terms regarding public comments means we would never get much insight if such a problem did exist.

***

Speaking of RBK, the controversy over the new jerseys isn't going away anytime soon. I thought I was reading the technology section instead of the sports page when I read that they are offering a patch for the new jerseys.

Apparently they have decided to foot the bill to alter the new sweaters at the request of individual players.

My earlier prediction just may come to pass...

***

There's an old saying that blood doesn't win boxing matches but the sight of crimson splashing on ice usually does signify a win in a hockey fight, even if it's only psychological and doesn't always correlate with who actually landed the most punches.

Of course, sometimes the blood is a clear sign that the poor sap leaking profusely as he leaves the ice did in fact receive an almighty bludgeoning.

Zdeno Chara thumps David Koci

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Magic Dust of NHL Coaching Success

Every NHL season is guaranteed to see changes within its fraternity of head coaches. Such are the ways of the big league hockey world with huge payoffs at the gate the further a team goes into the playoffs, valuable exposure and merchandise revenues that come with a successful season and glory for all those associated. Failure to bring these dreams closer to reality with a winning team will result in at least a few unceremonious sackings throughout the year.

Just what goes into making a good hockey coach? What are the different qualities, characteristics and skills that contribute to long-term success? What are the unique elements that are especially relevant at the highest level with all the attendant media pressure and exaggerated expectations?

To first get a shot at weaving his magic in the big show, a coach must possess a decent pedigree. Former NHL players who demonstrated a desire to further their understanding of the game are usually the ones who will follow the coaching path. Those who took the lead in practices and the dressing room as a conduit for hammering home important points. Not all coaches in the NHL were players in the league, though most played competitively to a reasonable level while growing up.

Coaching experience before entering the NHL at that position is mandatory. The years of playing and coaching before getting the big opportunity lead to the requisite hockey knowledge that every big league bench boss posses to some degree. This is pretty much a no-brainer. Without an extensive and nuanced understanding of the game, a coach can never hope to move beyond the theoretical stage.

The ability to take that knowledge and use it to implement a practical system is much more difficult. Organization, hard work and surrounding oneself with a competent supporting cast are the foundations. While some of the assistant coaches, trainers and other support staff may be hired at the whim of the GM, normally the head coach will have a say as well. It is here in the personnel he surrounds himself with that the first glimpses of a coach's inner workings are revealed. His input in assembling a team is also key and highlights the importance of being able to recognize existing and potential talent and who will play well together.

The communication and interaction with players is where the real test begins. A coach must be able to relay the set plays, strategies and overall focus that he wishes to establish in leading to a team identity. Burn those drills into instincts and make them operate in tandem with the clean, uncluttered narrative that has been preached regarding what will lead the team to success.

In seeking out that perfect game plan and approach to a season and each individual game, a lack of rigidity is essential. It's perfectly understandable that every coach has their own particular take on the game and what works best. Based on the current climate, the quality of opponents and past experience, a potential system for winning must be created with the players who are available, not the team a coach wishes he had. Skills can be improved, habits broken and new ones learned, but there has to be a realistic recognition of the talent that is currently in the room.

Fine-tuning and responding to changes and developments as necessary and addressing lapses in fundamentals when needed, comes from years of observations and a feel for the emotional state of the team. It's also necessary to recognize when things are ticking along nicely and not to interfere or over-think things too much at that juncture.

Conditioning, training and practice regimens are a critical part of how a coach relates to his players. In any type of coaching or instruction situation, it's important to create routine and expectation for players. Humans crave patterns, systems and logic. In teaching his system, a coach must break it down simply, make it effective and somehow maintain enthusiasm within the familiar.

A hockey coach's performance leading up to a match-up and in actual game situations is one of the most vital factors in establishing whether or not he will rise to the elite class. Pre-game preparations, goalie selection and line arrangements in expectation of an opponent's strengths and weaknesses are aspects that should be used to judge coaching skills.

When the puck drops, reacting to game situations, matching lines and communicating with players are skills practiced under the glare of 19, 000 fans and the media and with little time for hesitation or second guessing. Between-period blackboard sessions and pep talks start to take coaches into that netherworld of intangibles and a hard to define "something" that really separate the individuals who have started to master the psychological aspects of the position from those who are passing through on their way to oblivion.

In many ways, it's an individual's make-up as a person that determines how well he manages the motivational side of being a coach. His character, temperament and ability to deal with adversity are things that are seen and felt by the players, who will spend many of their waking hours with the man assigned to help them achieve their dreams.

Mood is contagious and weaknesses can rarely be hidden over the long-term. To create a sense of trust, respect and just enough fear of the consequences if game plans aren't followed and effort isn't exerted, is something that can only be accomplished by a rare few people. Understanding players on an individual basis is crucial for the successful NHL coach. Create a sense of fairness amongst team-mates while actually engaging in anything but. It's important that a perception exists within the team that the same standards apply to all.

But anyone who has worked as a coach knows that different people react to different methods of extracting their best. And so some must be coddled, others nudged and still others rammed head-first into dressing room walls. To achieve the holy grail of coaching by creating a sense of urgency and eliciting performances beyond expected limits is the ultimate goal.

At the NHL level, another component of the mental game is the relationship that a coach develops with the media. Players make some allowance for the difference between what is said behind closed doors and what is offered to the media hordes. In fact, it is expected. A smooth talking raconteur of a coach can be a valuable tool in shaping the message that is played out in the public domain.

The media too can be used to send coded messages to the team through a coach's scripted utterances. It's a risky proposition to call out players in public for poor performances. A relationship with hockey writers and broadcasters that is too cozy will create some unease and mistrust in the room and may shatter the "us against them" mentality regarding opponents, the media and outsiders in general.

For all the talk of team togetherness and the code of keeping it behind closed doors, coaches are aware there is always the risk of the dreaded "losing the room," where certain players, usually the highest paid untouchables, decide to openly challenge authority and spark a mutiny. In today's game, players know that they can manipulate a coaching situation far easier than they could in the past. It's natural for individuals on a losing team to want to avoid the hard questions that such situations create. A good coach will keep the focus on improving, recognizing destructive narratives in their infancy and castrating them appropriately.

At the same time, he may have to engage in some mind games of his own. For example, subtly playing certain players off against one another without having it come across as contrived nastiness or done for any other reason but for the good of the team.

So what kind of ideal prototype do those qualities and abilities result in? The thoughtful enigmatic coach who induces a strong sense of loyalty and respect? Whose respect and approval in turn becomes almost as important to players as their desire to win? A Roger Nielsen, Freddie Shero or perhaps from today's crop a John Paddock? Or a hard-nosed, disciplinarian along the lines of Pat Burns or Mike Keenan who simply won't accept losing?

Various elements don't just come together and conspire to create a winning group of players. Many a talented team has been squandered and more than a few over-achievers have been created because of the actions of a head coach in the NHL. The magic coaching dust that some seem to posses, that ability to push players beyond their normal level of performance, remains a singular and hard to define quality that will elevate some to the level of myth and greatness. In many ways it's all about the words a coach uses and the atmosphere he creates. It's one long rap, riffing on and hoping the players will buy into his system and ride his wave of wisdom all the way to the top.

"Win together today, and we walk together forever."

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

NHL 2007-08: Game Day Previews October 23rd

Avs logoOilers logo

Colorado Avalanche at Edmonton Oilers

Prodigal son returns with a fistful of dollars and burning desire to massage his lagging reputation in his hometown. Loads of post-playing appearances, endorsements and perhaps even a future with the Oilers organization to be considered.

The Mulleted One, Ryan Smyth, spurned Edmonton for a shot to perhaps win a Cup with Colorado and at least slurp up another four and a half million dollars over the course of his contract as opposed to what he would have earned with the Oilers.

In his attempts to assuage the feelings of fans in the Alberta capital, he mentions that his heart is still in the city and he will bring the Cup back if he ever wins it with the Avalanche.

How soon do those kinds of comments start to grate on Colorado team-mates and fans?

With the Oilers continuing to struggle to score goals and the injuries mounting, the fans could have a lot to boo about in tonight's game.

Thrashers logoLeafs logo
Atlanta Thrashers at Toronto Maple Leafs

With a 1-1 record after former head coach Bob Hartley was sacked, Atlanta will be playing against another team in Toronto whose coach is starting to feel the heat. Look for the Leafs to ratchet up their effort a few notches in hopes of reversing the early season 3rd period disintegrations. Or not.

As the abuse rains down on the team while the "Maybe it's the coach?" narrative also starts to pick up steam, perhaps the players begin subconsciously latching on to that easy out and let up even more in hopes of a fresh beginning.

Rangers logoPens logoNew York Rangers at Pittsburgh Penguins

Relatively slow starts for both of these clubs. Especially the Rangers, who were widely touted in the pre-season as the most improved team in the NHL. It's far too early to label their free agent signings as busts but there has been little scoring from Scott Gomez or Chris Drury so far. Only three goals between them and a combined total of nine points.

The Ranger's Marc Staal in his rookie season in the league and his brother Jordan of the Penguins will get their first chance to play against each other in the NHL.

Overall, it's a game of potential breakouts, with Jaromir Jagr of the Rangers and Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins all looking to get back to a scoring pace they have been accustomed to in previous seasons (with Crosby and Malkin only in their 3rd and 2nd years in the league respectively.)

B Jacks logoHawks logoColumbus Blue Jackets at Chicago Blackhawks

One of the most exciting stories of the season so far is the play of Chicago rookies Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Kane at 18 and Toews at 19 are rare examples of teen-aged players entering the league and being able to immediately adapt to the pace and style of NHL games. It may not continue all season but they're helping the Blackhawks get off to a good start in the the post-Wirtz era.

Columbus have been up and down this season. They have blanked the opposing team in all three of their wins, been close in two others and dropped two lopsided contests. By many accounts they seem to be putting in a solid efforts on most nights and have benefited from the return of Mike Peca after he started the season injured.

Ducks logoBlues logoAnaheim Ducks at St. Louis Blues

A bit of an early season reversal of fortunes for these two teams as compared to last year. The Ducks have been struggling while the Blues have been showing improvement. Anaheim have played four more games than St. Louis but only have one more point in the standings.

The Ducks are having problems putting the puck in the net and only have one player in the top 50 for scoring league wide with Ryan Getzlaf at 18th place with ten points.

Remember also that the Ducks have played more games than any other team in the NHL.

Predators logoKings logo Nashville Predators at Los Angeles Kings

Two teams that have started poorly. Both have experienced five game losing streaks with Nashville still in the midst of theirs. Los Angeles started the season in London against Anaheim and like the Ducks have played more games than other teams in the league.

They are not nearly as disappointing as Anaheim have been this season but perhaps there is some credence to the claim that the overseas traveling and early schedule have somewhat accounted for the poor start.

The Kings at least rebounded with a win against Vancouver on Saturday while the Predators are continuing to let in boatloads of goals. It doesn't look as though that trend will change any time soon.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Offside: Anonymous Sports Bloggers and Libel

When I started this blog I decided to write in the open using my real name (if you follow the links in the "about" section you can find my full name.) I did so for a number of reasons.

First and most importantly, I feel it acts as a self-regulating mechanism against going overboard and spinning personal attacks and vitriol. We all have some nasty sentiments that flash in our minds on occasion. What better way to air them out and avoid the usual societal censuring than to blog under the cloak of anonymity.

The inherently passionate and competitive aspect of professional sports and the fans that devote their time and energy to the various games and dramas make it even more tempting to bash teams and players you dislike.

No doubt it can be a liberating feeling to unload on others under the guise of dissecting recent games and the on-ice character of certain players. If you write decently, can spin an original insult and are persistent, you will attract a core of readers in due time. But the fans of that kind of writing may give a false sense of how popular a blog or website is. They will cheer on the nastiness with passion in hopes that it continues, stoking the ego of the spewer of acidic verbiage.

But the logical end point of a blog guided by that kind of underlying sentiment is...nowhere. There's nothing further to explore when you deal in black and white. You may impress yourself and and a small following of readers, but you will turn off far more in the process.

A ruling from a judge in the U.K. addresses the hurling of abuse online. The case involved fans of the English team Sheffield Wednesday and attacks posted by fans against the executive board of the team. The owner of the website has been ordered to reveal the names of the offenders:

"Disgruntled fans of Sheffield Wednesday who vented their dissatisfaction with the football club's bigwigs in anonymous internet postings may face expensive libel claims after the chairman, chief executive and five directors won a high-court ruling last week forcing the owner of a website to reveal their identity.

The case, featuring the website owlstalk.co.uk, is the second within days to highlight the danger of assuming that the apparent cloak of anonymity gives users of internet forums and chatrooms carte blanche to say whatever they like."

And later in the article:

"Dominic Bray, of K&L Gates, Sheffield Wednesday's solicitors, said: "There seem to be quite a lot of websites that are using their anonymity to make comments about people and think that there shouldn't be any liability for it. But the internet is no different to any other place of publication, and if somebody is making defamatory comments about people then they should be held responsible for it. What these cases do is just confirm that's the law - the law applies to the internet as much as it does to anything else."

Read the full story here.

I think there is a growing realization amongst long-term web surfers about how little online privacy there really is.

Offhand I can't think of any hockey bloggers that seem to cross the line. Besides, I think most people who spend their spare time writing articles and discussing hockey online are pretty fair and want to be recognized as being as objective as possible.

Definitely something to keep in mind...

Sunday, October 21, 2007

NHL 2007-08 Week Three: Results, Changes and Stats

Habs logoOilers logoFlames logoYotes logoJets logoThrashers logoLeafs logo50 years since Maurice Richard became the first player in the NHL to score 500 goals. And with the commemoration comes that inevitable parlour game: would he have fared as well in the current NHL? Such discussions are interesting and yet another way for fans to rank their knowledge against one another.

Of course, it's totally hypothetical and rather meaningless. But because of the passion some invest in these "what if" scenarios, I'm always surprised that the most obvious qualifier of all is rarely mentioned.

If Richard were to have played in this era as opposed to in the past, he also would have come up at a different time and thus benefited from better conditioning, nutrition, coaching and competition. So, all other things being equal, he probably could have been a very good player in today's NHL.

***

The first battle of Alberta is in the books and it wasn't even close. Apparently the two teams are headed in the opposite direction with the Flames overcoming some early season collapses and the Oilers dropping most of their recent games except against other bottom feeders like the Phoenix Coyotes.

"It's still early yet," but Dustin Penner hasn't produced much offense during the first eight games. Which generally goes to show that most players are not of the impact variety and instead see their fortunes rise and fall depending on who they are playing alongside.

On the bright side, if Penner does become the largest and most expensive pylon ever, at least those dire predictions of overpriced offer sheets for restricted free agents might not come to pass.

***

Speaking of the Coyotes, has there ever been an NHL team that has experienced so many years of futility, first as the Winnipeg Jets and now in their current existence?

It's a bit ironic for Wayne Gretzky, considering the amount of regular season and playoff misery he inflicted on the team when they were located in Winnipeg.

Who would have believed it all those year ago? Imagine if someone had approached Gretzky in the visiting team's dressing room at the Winnipeg Arena after the Oilers had once again eliminated the Jets from the playoffs and said to the Great One,

"Hey, this is all well and good but one day you will be saddled with the very team that you've just beaten. While they are currently mired in this northern wasteland, at that distant point in the future they will be located in a desert."

Gretzky: "You don't say? That's interesting...Hey Mess! Ya got an extra bar of soap?!"

Strange how things play out in life. With Gretzky's partial ownership of the Coyotes and his iconic status in the hockey world, he has stayed on far longer as head coach than most others would have.

Kind of a conundrum for Gretzky since he essentially can decide for himself how long he remains as coach. Remove himself and some will label him a quitter. Stay on and the frustration mounts. Fair play to him for sticking with it.

Looks like another painful season of "rebuilding" ahead for him and the Yotes. I’m sure he’s not taking bets on his team making the playoffs…

***

The Atlanta Thrashers sacked their coach Bob Hartley and then quickly got their first win of the season against the Rangers the next evening with GM Don Waddell behind the bench. A coaching change often results in at least a temporary jolt of momentum, though as Atlanta demonstrated following their lone win of the year when they got back to their losing ways against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday, it often takes far more to turn a season around.

***

The Thrashers will slump into Toronto on Tuesday for a game against the struggling Maple Leafs. If the Leafs can't put up a win against Atlanta or are listless and offer up another abysmal 3rd period, the winds of change are going to be blowing a lot stronger in the Big Smoke.

The Leafs 3rd period collapses only eight games into 2007-08 have been shocking. It's a carry-over from last season where they had one of the worst 3rd period team plus/minus records. Many people point to potential conditioning problems when such late game fades become a trend. But if you look at this season's 3rd period stats for the Leafs, it's probably more because of discipline than anything else.

So far this year the Leafs have a 3rd period team plus-minus rating of minus 2. But more importantly, they have taken 21 third period penalties that have resulted in six power play goals for their opponents. Add in another four overtime penalties with one game winner scored with a man advantage for the opposing team and it's not surprising Toronto are 1-2 in the extra frame.

Losing to the worst team in the league on Tuesday would not bode well for the fortunes of either GM John Ferguson Jr. or head coach Paul Maurice.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

NHL Officiating: Let 'Em Play

NHL logoGrowing up in the frigid wasteland known as Winnipeg, a common occurrence to alleviate the boredom was for someone in our group of friends to pull an outrageous stunt. In the process he would provide some entertainment for the others, create instant local legends to be re-told and embellished and gain the approval of his peers.

One such malleable sort would regularly take out one of the family cars when left at home alone. The rest of the lads would pile in, high on the coming adventure and thrilled at how easily they had manipulated the situation.

A quick ride to the outskirts of town and open fields so as to avoid detection from the police (we were well under the legal driving age) and the fun would begin. Everyone would get a chance to hammer the car into the ground. Hard turns that destroyed the alignment, grinding the gears at will and a competition to see who could drive the fastest and straightest in reverse without fishtailing.

It was all light-hearted fun done with the utmost of respect for the owners of the car. The individual who facilitated the free driving lessons no doubt assumed that because his parents implicitly trusted him with the run of the house, they also accepted his wisdom regarding whether to take the family car for a joy-ride. However, perhaps he did experience a shred of doubt about what we were doing.

Though he would have happily burned down the family house if he knew it would bring a long stretch of notoriety amongst his mates, Mr. Responsibility engaged in a desperate and pathetic bit of compensation for his misdeeds. As we careened around the field, he made certain to use the turn signal when he was at the wheel.

Yes, as he mashed the pedal to the floor and cut a swath through the waist-high wild grass, he made sure to indicate which way he was going to swerve. I believe he clicked on the right blinker just before he slammed into a copse of saplings and medium-sized trees, clear-cutting a path until coming to a rest against the one tree that wouldn't give way. The absurdity of his misplaced diligence ramped up our yelping, guffawing and back-slapping ever further.

It makes sense though. No, not the joyriding but the use of turn signals regardless of what situation you're in. It cuts out the need to waste mental energy and instead turns it into an ingrained habit that contributes to safety on the roads.  The same mentality applies to other situations as well.

***

I was listening to a recent podcast of Leafs Lunch in which the host Brian Duff was discussing the state of officiating in the NHL with former Leafs' assistant GM Bill Watters, who always sits in on the first half of the show.

Watters went off on one of his rants in which he lamented the new standard of reffing that has been evident in the NHL for the past few seasons. Since the league returned after the lockout in 2003-04, there has been a far stricter and more uniformed enforcement of all penalties, especially the type that fall under the category of "obstruction."

The result has been a better flow to the game and the inevitable whining from those who can't accept change. Watters' main point in criticizing the state of NHL reffing is that calls are not made with the consideration of "whether or not the penalty directly affects the game." Duff was left momentarily speechless before responding that the specific actions of the players in question and the subsequent non-call (from the Leafs/Panthers match-up on Thursday) of course affected the game.

It was a glaring example of poor officiating because calls in general have been more consistent since the changes. It stood out for that reason. Allowing too much leeway to referees means that calling penalties becomes far too subjective. Within such a free flowing, fast moving sport as NHL hockey, to require that refs determine whether or not an infraction affects the game, introduces far too much inconsistency.

The result would be a return to the days when certain refs carried reputations for how they officiated (which they still do but to a lesser degree.) And a shifting standard depending on what stage of the game the penalty takes place and at what part of the season the game occurs.

As with any debate where two options are being discussed, it comes down to which type of fallout comes with either choice and which is less detrimental. I'll take the situation as it exists today where there may be some poxy calls but they are all being made and a more entertaining game is the result. As opposed to having players unsure, pushing the envelope to see what they can get away with and the inevitable increase in officiating controversies.

You don't hear the requisite euphemism these days, the one that used to accompany situations where the officiating in a game had broken down completely, "They're really letting them play tonight..." Oddly enough, that same description could be used for the state of affairs today and be far more applicable.

It's much easier to have consistency when the only issue at hand is whether the infraction took place, not the more difficult to determine qualifier that Watters talked about. Sorry Watters, you lose this argument hands down.

The teams that can't get their heads around the fact that this is the way it's going to be will continue to take penalties and be rightfully labeled as undisciplined. In the meantime, NHL refs can continue devoting their energy to calling penalties by the book instead of carrying on an internal dialogue with themselves about if it's the appropriate time or situation. Just as I'm sure my long lost mate is still dutifully using that turn signal regardless of whether he's on a crowded city street or bashing through a desolated field in an off-road vehicle.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Bloody Chiclets: the Flames, Hockey Pools and the Words We Use

NHL logoFlames logoThat sound you heard last week may have been Mike Keenan ready to blow a gasket. After the Flames got off to a rough start to the season and then put a few wins together, they blew a 4-0 lead against the Avalanche to lose 5-4 in overtime in their game in Colorado on October the 16th. Last night however, they came out on top against the L.A. Kings 4-3.

Throughout most of their first seven games they have been competitive, with the majority of wins and losses being decided by one goal. Scoring in general has not been a problem for the Flames.

The most recent Flames Insider e-mail update included this interesting stat and new NHL record heading into last night's game against the Kings:

"The Calgary Flames set a modern day NHL record Tuesday in Denver when, for the sixth consecutive game to start the season, a player produced a two-goal game.


Daymond Langkow and Kristian Huselius both have a pair of two goal games, where Matthew Lombardi and Jarome Iginla each have one. "

And then Daymond Langkow extended the streak to seven games with another two goals against Los Angeles.

***

I'm registered in only one online hockey pool this year, hosted by Hockey's Future (I'm currently 33rd out of about 450 participants.)

Pools add a lot of excitement to the season. Kind of like betting but without any money involved (though there are many pools that do involve money and prizes.)

One thing that surprises me is that no one has yet come up with the mother of all online fantasy hockey sites. Something similar to what the English Premier League has been doing with football (soccer) for the past four or five seasons. The number of entrants has grown every year with about 1.4 million people taking part during the current campaign. But the huge numbers don't result in the feeling that you're lost in the shuffle, as you can set up as many individual leagues as you want. You're allowed one free trade per week and can make as many as you want with a cost of four points each, all depending on whether you have the money to make such transfers. The value of each player rises or falls with each subsequent week depending on his performance.

The team set-up is appealing as well, with all participants being able to select their team colours and each Premier League player represented by a uniform icon with mouse-over stats and current value.

I know there are some online fantasy hockey leagues that have attracted a large number of players, such as NHL.com and Yahoo! sports. And some of those appear to have similar features to the fantasy football site. But overall, they don't really seem to come close in terms of the wide-ranging accessibility and appeal of the Premier League site. In fact, I haven't even been able to sign up to the NHL website's fantasy league. Not sure if this is the reason but there are only two options for countries when signing up, the U.S. and Canada.

***

Interesting post at the Globe and Mail's hockey blog the other day about the evolving language of hockey. Writer David Naylor mentioned a few terms that are common nowadays but which were rarely heard in the past. This is a topic I have been thinking about since I renewed my interest in hockey a few years ago; something made possible because of the internet.

It's interesting to note the new words and idioms that have come into play to describe various aspects of the game. Naylor covered some of them in his blog entry and there are numerous other ones.

dangle--not sure how long this has been around but I don't remember it back in the day growing up in Winnipeg. "Stick handling" is what it was always known as before (and still is for the most part.) A word that is far too loaded in my opinion and one which seems to have come about after the increase in female reporters in the dressing rooms after games.

squeezing the stick-- used to describe overly anxious individual players and/or teams.

dressing-room cancer-- a rather nasty way to depict a player who is not well liked by his team-mates and contributes to an awkward, unpleasant or flat out poisonous atmosphere.

There are plenty more. I have been compiling a list of words, both new and old, related to the game of hockey and may end up posting them here in the future.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Ottawa Senators: Not a Bad Situation

Sens logoBut a situation nonetheless.

It's been nice to see Martin Gerber step up and play well with Ray Emery recovering from his wrist injury and surgery. Nice because of the fact that Gerber has patiently waited his turn without any whining, sulking or demands to be traded. He is number one NHL netminder material and he has been mature and confident enough to wait his turn, knowing that his chance would come again. Yes, the opportunity has arisen before with Ottawa and he disappointed. Which makes this impressive beginning to the season all the more valuable for Gerber personally and to the Sens as an organization.

Emery is back with the club after a reconditioning stint with Binghamton of the American Hockey League. The standard wisdom on a situation like this, is that the Senators will play the loyalty card, dance with the one who brought them etc., etc. It's pretty good logic. Emery was the go-to goalie in the second half of last season and throughout the playoffs until Ottawa lost in the finals.

But with the Senators' juggernaut set to roll on this week, John Paddock has announced that Gerber will start the game against the Montreal Canadiens in Ottawa on Thursday night. A signal to Emery that once he gets his chance, and no doubt he will within the next week or so, he will have to play as well or better than Gerber to retain the number one spot.

Having two solid goal tenders is a good situation for Ottawa to be in. The options are to trade one, unloading a sizable salary and getting draft picks or another player or two in return while opening up space for another move down the road. Or, hold on to both and reap the benefits of having two reliable players at the most important position on the team if they hope to return to the finals this year. A 1a-1b type situation with both tenders sharing duties (relatively) equally would leave both with more in the tank come playoff time.

Not making a trade too early also leaves the option of dealing one at the deadline to shore up any weaknesses due to injuries or to bring in a veteran or "missing piece to the puzzle" that may have emerged during the season.

If the trade situation comes to fruition, it well may be Emery who is the goalie shipped out to another team. While younger than Gerber and already having had the experience of playing in a Cup final, he still demonstrates flaws in his playing style at times and has an off-ice persona that won't age well.

Emery craves the spotlight, is a loose cannon and has not yet seen the light regarding the potential danger of lawsuit-hungry wackos baiting him into confrontations. When things are ticking along nicely and Emery is playing well, it's tolerable to a degree. But it's a potential distraction and the kind of unpredictability that could even increase with more success.

It will be an interesting story that plays out regarding the Ottawa Sentaors and their goal tenders. If Emery is relegated to back-up as Gerber was last season, will he handle it with as much class?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Florida Panthers at Toronto Maple Leafs: Hockey Game and Public Execution

Leafs logoI wouldn't want to be Bryan McCabe heading into the Leafs' Thursday night game against the Florida Panthers in Toronto. Well, OK, the 86, 000 plus dollars he will pocket for the match-up (at the 7.1 million he will earn this season in the front-loaded contract that averages 5.75 million per year, divided by 82 games) would make it more than tolerable.

But it's still going to be a gut churning affair for the Leafs' defenseman. McCabe has been abysmal this season and things got a whole lot worse when he scored into the Leafs' net in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday. It was a performance in which he otherwise made relatively few mistakes in comparison to the blunder-fests of previous games.

Toronto fans have been relentlessly raining down abuse to let the highest paid player on the team know that he has to improve. The only other possible aim of the boo-boons is to pressure McCabe to waive his no-trade clause and hope the Buds can pawn him off on another team willing to take a chance. Players rebounding with different team-mates who complement the new arrival and elicit dormant skills is certainly not unheard of.

The huge salary plus no-trade clause for McCabe is the prime example that highlights why John Ferguson Jr. is rarely praised as being a shrewd operator. The fact that there are more than a few contracts with no movement provisions on the team is a hard one to fathom. It's perplexing that the person in charge of an NHL team would strip away his own power by so casually removing his ability to trade a player in the future.

No doubt many players and their agents now head into negotiations asking for no-trade clauses. But I find it hard to believe that such demands are deal breakers if not acceded to by team management. Eliminating your own options and giving unnecessary leverage to players is just not astute or forward thinking.

It adds credence to the claims that Ferguson is unqualified, inexperienced and soon to be unemployed. It's been a difficult year for Toronto's GM and he has probably questioned his own abilities at times. Perhaps Ferguson's unlikely hiring has led him to subconsciously want to reward players beyond their abilities. In the process convincing himself that they will overachieve as he must at times also believe about himself, lest he self-destruct. Or maybe it's far simpler than that. Maybe it's done in the naive hope that it will make the players like him because of his generosity and thus try harder.

But, just like with the morbidly obese contracts awarded to certain players, it's hard to fault the person on the receiving end of a job offer that he is unqualified for. In both examples, incompetence has introduced factors into the story which otherwise wouldn't be so important. Aspects that have been unfairly amplified and focused on simply because someone further up the chain blundered ahead with no concern for perception or long-term goals. The bottomless pit of billions at the disposal of the Leafs organization can't help in such situations either. If things fall apart, just start over with no concern for taking a financial hit.

For McCabe, his salary is what everyone mentions first and what justifies for so many the ruthless nature of the personal insults. And for Ferguson, the fact that he wasn't ready to take on such a big responsibility. A decision which has ruined his development as a general manager. When he is eventually sacked by the Leafs, it will be a long time in coming, if ever, that he gets another shot at running a big league club.

The two issues are directly related, as without the unwise hiring of Ferguson, the McCabe contract never would have become a reality. And so their fates are similarly intertwined.

The looming on-ice massacre by a million boos is the kind of story that even the casual fan can get his head around. This is not a media generated narrative. It resonates and transcends the interest of hard-core followers and has taken on a nasty life of its own. McCabe is one of those players well-liked in the dressing room and even by some reporters (despite the piling on and recent headlines), so there is more than a bit of sympathy for him.

If things continue to decline and he is traded, those who participated in the repeated verbal assaults will know that their efforts got to him in a personal way and succeeded. For he will be the one that has to request or agree to such a trade. If, on the other hand, McCabe pulls out his best performance of the year, he will briefly silence his detractors and just may be able to use it as a turning point.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Mats Sundin: Leaf Number One

Leafs logoDespite having played in Toronto for the past 13 seasons and become the franchise's all-time leading scorer, Mats Sundin remains a bit of an enigma.

At the end of every season he retreats to the comforts of home in Sweden.

Mats SundinThough perfectly fluent in English with nary a trace of an accent and as obliging as any player is towards the media, it is well known that he is still quite shy. Sundin will segue into the stock cliches faster than most when giving an interview, always finding a way to deliver them with a thoughtful and genuine disposition.

One of the most popular and well-liked current and all-time Leafs players, there is still a small number of fans not completely enamoured of Sundin. This is mainly due to the absence of any Stanley Cups for Toronto during his tenure, his salary and his apparent "lack of emotion."

Criticism of any player is warranted, expected and quite often helpful. When you are number 4 in terms of cash raked in by NHL players (see "Fortunes Accumulated") over the last 18 years combined, that analysis naturally seeks out any and all possible vulnerabilities.

It's hard to get on Sundin for the lack of playoff success in recent seasons (especially the last two.) Though for some critics, not winning it all and Sundin's slightly less than a point-per-game production in the post-season warrant the barbs. Considering his relative lack of support in terms of team talent, the negative assessments don't gain much traction with the majority of fans.

It's the "lack of emotion" claims that you hear being spouted on occasion that I find the most unfounded.

A player lacking emotion wouldn't play for years surrounded by mediocrity and not ask to be traded. Make it even more basic than that. A player without that internal drive would never rack up such consistent totals over that time period.

My feeling is that most of these claims are based on a skewed perception. A perception that is largely cultural. When certain fans say that Sundin "lacks emotion," what they really mean is he doesn't display emotion. In that florid-faced, emoting, slightly cringe-worthy way that Canadians are known for.

Passive aggressiveness is an epidemic amongst Canadians in general. Scratch the surface of the placid, nonchalant persona of an average Canuck and they will turn into an abrasive, confrontational wacko thrilled at being granted the license to put on a public display. Not surprising that this is also an attribute seen as admirable in hockey players. I'm not referring to conduct within the flow of a game but after the whistle behaviour such as the little tantrums meant to show just how much the game matters. (For example, see Darcy Tucker's attempts to get at fans in the past couple of Leafs games. How convenient that there is always someone nearby to restrain him.)

I quite like the extra side performances at times as well. It adds excitement to a game, likely acts as a motivator for the animated, gesticulating oaf engaging in such tactics and probably even spurs his team-mates on to perform better, if only for the hope that it will prevent further antics and subsequent embarrassment.

It should be noted however, that different cultures around the world place a much higher premium on avoiding such behaviour, even when taking part in sports. The justifiable "losing it" that seems to be more accepted in North American culture is considered a weakness in many parts of the world. In those societies, strength is in not showing your true feelings to opponents. Based purely on my own anecdotal experiences, and in an attempt to nicely wrap up this collection of generalizations, I'm going to say that Swedes tend to fit into that category.

So, rip Sundin for his salary if you must and compare his performance to the Herculean efforts of other players who single handedly drove their teams to playoff success. But when talking about emotion, consider the superficial aspect of many such claims.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Hockey and Alcohol: a Potent Mix

Rob Ramage was found guilty on Wednesday of drunk driving in the incident that killed former Chicago Blackhawk Keith Magnuson. The response from his coterie of supporters is an odd sort of incredulity that he may actually have to pay for what he did. It's a glaring example of the long-standing claim by many that athletes are so accustomed to being treated as special that they never learn what it means to take responsibility. More than that though, it's a reminder that the booze-soaked hockey sub-culture is alive and well.

***

One of the saving graces of growing up in a frozen hole like Winnipeg is the number of outdoor hockey rinks that are dotted around the city. Every neighbourhood has a few community centres where, from the beginning of November until the end of February, anyone can go and lace on their skates. You can join in a pick up game or simply coast around on the one ice surface that is usually reserved for both such purposes. As a youngster I spent many hours at the local rinks. By the time I was old enough that a curfew no longer restricted my movements, I would on occasion head out at 11:00 or 12:00 at night when the clubhouse was closed and the floodlights were off.

A perfect windless night for a lone midnight skate with a six pack chilling behind the gate on one of the benches. The ice-cold booze numbs the back of my throat and adds to the surreal atmosphere. Float around in a kind of meditative trance heightened by the effects of the alcohol. Hammer a few shots on net, try to improve my backward skating, enjoy the fact that for once I'm the best player on the ice.

Sit in the box and slurp back a few more leisurely drinks amongst the detritus of the rink. A few splintered sticks, wads of used tape, even a broken puck or two. Laugh about how such an image would play with most people...alone on a frozen night at a deserted ice rink relaxing with a few beers and contemplating life. I take another slug...

***

The old Winnipeg Arena was located on Maroons Rd. and St. James St. and shared the same patch of real estate with the city's biggest shopping mall, Polo Park. Running along St. James St, which faced the large parking lot and the side of the arena, were a handful of mid-sized wholesale businesses with the requisite loading docks in the back. A rail-line ran behind them and then further on some side streets that were perfect for parking for Jets games and other events at the arena.

Before tail-gate parties there were impromptu pre-game booze sessions that took place on one of the loading docks of the rarely used or deserted businesses. With the arena visible a few hundred metres away and the buzz of the game gaining energy, we whipped ourselves into an alcohol induced frenzy.

The trickle of early arrivers turned into a steady flow of people and then a surging crowd as the opening faceoff approached. Raging towards the game we would stop traffic as we crossed the street and join the throng wedging themselves into the arena. The swilling would continue with cans smuggled in and topped up with the overpriced beer sold at the concession stands.

***

Playoff hockey provided one of the year's greatest reasons for going on a six week to two months long bender. The rush of the alcohol high together with the excitement of following your team creates an addictive and powerful rush. Not only is the experience incredible but the validation of all those around you who are getting similarly shitfaced adds to the feeling. Even simple things like the barrage of beer commercials rolled out around the playoffs especially to honour committed drinkers, makes it a great time to be alive and drunk. Knowing that the brotherhood of boozers includes many of those players you are cheering for every night adds to the collective insanity.

***

It’s at once odd but completely understandable that no NHL club has yet enforced a team-wide ban on drinking amongst its players. With the millions at stake and the fleeting window of opportunity for any collection of players to challenge for the Cup, something as simple as eliminating the short-term detrimental health effects of even occasional alcohol intake, would no doubt be positive. Impossible to implement, of course. Beyond any other rationale, booze is legal. Just like the failure to compete and win, a player who can’t handle a few drinks is the one at fault and is simply demonstrating weakness.

Drinking is part of the teenage hockey sub-culture as it is within every other group of adolescent boys. For the simple reason that it feels good and creates incredibly strong and powerful memories. Especially in the early going of a young piss-head’s life, when those feelings are so new and more likely to create lasting impressions.

There are always a percentage of people who, for a variety of reasons, are sucked into the nastiness that is alcoholism and are unable to moderate or control their urges like most others. The NHL has had more than a few examples of players over the years whose careers and/or lives were cut short because of the bottle.

***

SandersonDerek Sanderson was a star player for the Boston Bruins (and a handful of other teams) and one of the earliest celebrities in the game. Because of all the glamour, accolades and hangers-on that came with success, Sanderson’s off-ice routine became one long alcohol-soaked party. As a way to keep himself plugged into, or insulated from, the non-stop lunacy of the off-ice distractions, he kept on pounding back the drinks.

Sanderson eventually reached the proverbial bottom of the bottle. A down and out skid row vignette straight out of the pits of despair, Sanderson woke up on a park bench hung over, with waves of nausea and self-loathing coursing over him.

Though his playing was greatly affected by his alcoholism, at least he salvaged his life and went on to have a second career as a sportscaster and businessman.

For a player like Sanderson, who reached a high level in terms of playing ability, his off-ice downfall was similarly spectacular and can be compared to other sports legends and their tribulations. Spurred on by the voyeuristic energy of those witnessing such a tragedy, it’s almost like a performance of another kind.

***

Bryan Fogarty stepped into a tragic role fueled by a cocktail of his inner demons and a river of booze that never stopped flowing until the day he died. It was a trajectory that was instantly recognized by others around him. Yet they were helpless to intervene and save what could have been a very good professional hockey career or at least a life lived beyond the age of 32.

Fogarty could never handle the pressure of a big league career and drank as a way to deal with it all. Just like sports, alcohol is one of those many things humans use as an escape from reality. It allows a person to hide from their problems while providing a whiff of already known or hoped for glory. Of course, the longer you use booze as way to avoid facing your weaknesses, the more tragic their effect on your life will be in the long run.

***

KordicJohn Kordic was a bruiser who played for a handful of NHL teams including the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs. As with many hard-core drinkers, he seemed to gain solace not only from alcohol but from the seediness and accompanying sideshow that is part of the drinking lifestyle. Perhaps it brought reality down to a place that was similar to the internal dialogue and thoughts he had about himself. It’s tempting to offer up half-baked speculation like that in an attempt to bring some kind of semblance of understanding to tragedies such as Kordic’s, though no doubt it’s more nuanced than that.

Like Fogarty, Kordic died at a young age as a direct result of his drinking (and drug use.) The two had apparently formed a brief friendship based on the shared understanding that they both had a serious problem.

***

Brian "Spinner" Spencer was another tragic case whose problems with alcohol and drugs led to an early death. Spencer grew up in the tough northern B.C. town of Fort St. James and developed a taste for alcohol at a young age.

The effects of alcohol are different for everyone. For every functional boozer there's someone for whom the drink latches onto one of their fundamental flaws, takes hold and never lets go. For Spencer, it must have somehow seemed appropriate to lead a reckless life on and off the ice. Perhaps he felt cursed after his father was killed in a shoot-out with police.

He had been enraged when his son’s first big league game as a Toronto Maple Leaf played on a Saturday night, a match-up originally scheduled to be shown on the CBC in his area, was pre-empted. He stormed off with a gun to the closest CBC station and minutes after arriving he was dead.

Spencer’s personal life included the usual string of self-made problems that come with out of control substance abuse. He ended up leaving hockey earlier than he might have otherwise and was murdered during a drug deal in Florida in 1988.

***

FleuryTheoren Fleury played in the NHL for 17 seasons and will best be remembered for his years with the Calgary Flames. Fleury was tough as nails, especially considering his stature, and could score goals as well. Probably as close to a functioning alcoholic as the league has ever seen, the drink still ended up costing Fleury a handful of suspensions and must have at least reduced his potential to some degree. Which highlights what he did accomplish as all the more impressive.

Fleury did not hit rock-bottom in such a dramatic way as some other players and he benefited from an increasing awareness within the league and the advent of a substance abuse program in the NHL.

***

There is a litany of other second or third tier players who will be remembered as much for their off-ice imbibing and related antics as for anything they did on the ice. In many of those cases, the individuals engaged in a fearless and nasty style of play that fit in well with the hard-drinking desperado image. The likes of Steve Durbano, Link Gaetz and Billy Tibbets fit in this category.

***

With growing societal awareness and stricter enforcement of laws related to drunk driving, many of the most recent examples of NHL players and drinking problems have come to light only after the law got involved. See Mark Bell and Jay Bouwmeester for such unfortunate situations. Both however, seem to have a shot and leaving their problems behind them and continuing on with their hockey careers.

These are only a sampling of the players whose drinking problems destroyed their lives or affected their careers. Others have been social drinkers able to keep their lives relatively stable and unaffected by alcohol up until one tragic mistake that resulted in the death of themselves or innocents (for example, Steve Chiasson and Craig MacTavish.)

When a case involves a well-known player, it will of course have a higher profile. Add in the intrigue of public melodrama and death and the voyeuristic appeal ramps up even more. Do hockey players abuse alcohol more than the general population? Probably not, though I feel it’s at a higher rate than other professional sports played in North America.

What’s the reason? Perhaps it’s the Caucasian-centric nature of the NHL and the Anglo Saxon roots of the drinking subculture and the connections to preparing for battle. The game of football (soccer) as played in Britain seems to have the same boozing narrative and examples of tragic cases of players stoked by the surreal media glare and lapped up by a sympathetic audience.

Or maybe it’s because after being immersed in the ongoing drama that is a boozer’s life, there’s a realization that the trade-off isn’t all that bad. Reliving the moments of glory within the drunken haze of the endless celebration together with being feted as a true raconteur in exchange for the occasional dark night of the soul, potential ruin and early death. Throw in the sympathy, interest and energy of the fans who watch as your life becomes a real-life soap opera and the alternative, which is the drudgery of even temperament, obscurity and a safe, uneventful personal life, just isn’t enough for some.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Return of the Broad Street Bullies?

NHL logoFlyers logoCanucks logoThe uproar over the Steve Downie hit had just started dying down when another two-bit punk playing for the Philadelphia Flyers, Jesse Boulerice, cross-checks Vancouver's Ryan Kesler in the face ( see video here.) He then stood over Kesler as he lay prone on the ice and challenged him to a fight. And the Flyers were winning 7-2 at the time.

It's close to the point with the Flyers where it can no longer be passed off as a few undisciplined players. It's starting to reek of a culture of nastiness that's being drummed into the soft malleable heads of less than bright lights like Downie and Boulerice. Both of these individuals had reputations as borderline sociopaths during their junior hockey days. It seems this is the type of player thug the Flyers want.

Considered by many to be someone willing to use questionable tactics during his playing days, Bobby Clarke was handed the keys to the Flyers' organization for the better part of two decades. So it's not surprising that the notion of doing absolutely anything to win and gain an edge still permeates the club and has an influence on younger players to a degree.

That there is a tacit consent to go over the line may be a misperception on the part of some players. It's also fair to point out that there have been far dirtier players in the NHL than Clarke. That some incidents he was involved in continue to get so much attention years later is no doubt due in part to the fact that he was also a great points producer and leader for the Flyers.

The current Flyer's GM, Paul Holmgren, played for Philadelphia for years and was also a tough character who amassed huge penalty totals (he also had a few decent seasons in terms of points.) If I remember correctly, Holmgren squared off against Dave "the hammer" Schultz when the former Flyer returned to the Spectrum playing for the Los Angeles Kings in the 1976-77 season. Holmgren was the one who laid a hammering on Schultz that night and so his reputation was further cemented as someone to be feted and held up as an example of what it means to be a true Flyer.

The unfortunate aspect of these two incidents is that the Flyers are off to a good start as a result of the moves they made in the off-season. This crap is unnecessary. I'm not trying to claim that players are being taken aside and told to engage in these kinds of tactics. In fact, no coach would ever be so explicit.

Even if the mindset of Downie and Boulerice is solely the result of their pre-NHL psychopath apprenticeship in junior hockey and was not influenced by subtle validation and a culture that celebrates nastiness, at some point the Flyers have got to take a hit for bringing players like this into their organization.

Boulerice and the Flyers deserve to have the proverbial book driven into their faces for this one. I'm going to make a prediction regarding the suspension...25 games plus a hefty fine for the organization.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Sports Predictions: the Art of Covering your Ass

Predictions are a big part of sports reporting and journalism. Fans expect that long-time writers have built up a wealth of knowledge over the years and should be able to offer credible forecasts backed up with detailed and believable reasoning. The writers themselves do little to dispel that notion and will on occasion play up the myth that "it's really not as easy as it seems."

A necessary and almost subconscious practice of those in the non-technical professions is to validate their own worth by hinting at what a rarified field they operate in. However, the unpleasant reality that gnaws away at all spewers of half-baked predictions is that the nature of the game makes consistent accuracy almost impossible. Which is why hedging is such an important part of the hockey writer's arsenal.

When the reality of your guesses are shown to be equivalent to that of a retarded baboon randomly plucking teams and numbers out of a hat, you can legitimately refer to the litany of qualifying statements you've made along the way.

Here, then, is a hockey writer's guide for covering your ass and laying down as many escape hatches as possible.

First, point to things such as randomness, luck, parity and the much loved "intangibles" as a way to insulate yourself against the inevitable results that see your prognostications driven face first into the boards.

Make sure to lace your predictions with as many of these types of words as possible: should, could, might, may, can, probably, possibly and likely, to name a few of the best.

Almost as important as those words are conditional statements, with the small but mighty "if" providing a wide range of face-saving possibilities.

"If, on the other hand, the Bruins do what many have expected for a long time, you can discount my previous prediction."

"If Player X returns to form, it's a whole different hockey game..."

"If I weren't such an equivocating son-of-a-bitch, you might actually have a real statement you could hold me to..."

These types of rationalizing, mealy-mouthed utterances are also good for laying an over the top lambasting on whichever team you may have a serious hate-on for. Spew all the vitriol necessary and then end the rant with something along the lines of:

"Don't get me wrong, I hope they do perform to their potential and start racking up some wins. If they turn things around in the next ten games, I'll be the first one to admit I was wrong."

Y'see, it 's all in the spirit of helping them to improve. A stern, tough-love dismantling of the team in question that allows the acidic verbiage to flow with abandon.

Together with ramming any particular column full of enough weasel words to make a politician proud, it is essential to drop at least a few self-deprecating comments to let your readers know just what a good natured, down to earth good 'ol boy you really are.

"Not that my record in these matters is anything to be proud of but I'll plow ahead with my picks anyway..."

The overall goal when making predictions is to create as many possible outs so that when you're predictions fail miserably, you can credibly absolve yourself of complete ineptitude.

Never return to specific picks that highlight you as a jacked-up amateur with a serious drinking problem. Instead, only offer up jesting, good-natured general comments about your questionable predictions. The kind of statements that make people think you don't take yourself too seriously.

Close with a positive statement that creates a sense of anticipation for the coming game, series or season while further shrouding your picks in a kind of vague and hazy mist of secondary importance. It is unlikely you will ever reference the predictions you made, except in the rare instances when they somehow pan out.

Relegating your blunders to the fog of the past is important for the hockey forecaster. Just as crucial though, is that when the law of averages shines favourably on your wild swings in the dark, remind your audience of those instances at every possible opportunity.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

NHL 2007-08: More Firsts

Canes logoLeafs logoFirst real blowout of the season.

tocanesfinal.jpg

The Carolina Hurricanes lay an almighty shellacking on the Toronto Maple Leafs 7-1.

Yesterday when I wrote the post about some firsts of the season, I had wanted to include at least one lopsided game but so far there hadn't been any that qualified.

The game in Toronto against the Hurricanes that wrapped up a few minutes ago satisfies all the requirements however. A listless, uninterested Leafs squad and a Hurricanes team clicking on all cylinders and the result is the kind of game that will have the hounds baying for blood in Toronto.

The early season stand-by cliches will start falling by the wayside pretty soon. "It's only 3, 4, 5 (insert number here) games..." will start to become meaningless shortly and the Leafs will have to do something to quell the rising tide of media-stoked fan rage that has less patience than seasons of the past.

No doubt the blowout mantras will accompany this one as well. "If you're gonna play poorly and lose, sometimes a lopsided result isn't as bad as you might think. Get it out of the way and move on, as opposed to when you lose a close one it can blah blah blah etc."

I caught the game on the radio and by all accounts Vesa Toskala in nets was solid despite letting in seven. No doubt the goaltender debate will ratchet up again.

Should be some interesting discussion in the Toronto media in the days to come...