Thursday, November 29, 2007

Performance and Mindset: The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Shootout

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

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

The Leafs are failing miserably in both performance and perspective.

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

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

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

Read the full article here.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Bloody Chiclets: Toronto Maple Leafs Melodrama and Hockey Radio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Fragments and Viscera from Around the NHL

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

Saturday, November 24, 2007

NHL Teams Give Thanks for the Power of Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 22, 2007

England's National Football Team and the Toronto Maple Leafs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

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

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

Eastern Conference


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Western Conference


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 19, 2007

Book Review: As the Puck Turns by Brian Conacher

As the Puck TurnsGiving up stability for a life of diverse experience has its advantages. The greatest benefit is probably the realization that moving on is never a bad idea. Work hard, stay positive and take on challenges with a smile and you're almost guaranteed to carve out a decent existence wherever you go. The episodic nature of your life provides the motivation to keep moving, knowing that another chapter will bring the seminal moments, numerous friendships and fresh outlook that staying in the same place never could.

Brian Conacher lived a colourful and varied life in hockey, observing some of the greatest moments in the game's history over the past 50 years. Player, coach, manager and commentator were all roles he occupied at various times.  While he was never one of the best, most influential or longest serving in any of those capacities, he was still present during some of the most historic and memorable hockey moments of the last half century. He details those experiences in his autobiography As the Puck Turns: A Personal Journey Through the World of Hockey.

Conacher was a fringe player on the roster of the last Toronto Maple Leafs team that won the Stanley Cup in 1967. He picks up the narrative of his life after the '67 Cup win. Following that memorable season, Conacher joined the NHL Players Association at its inception, which brought him the disfavour of Leafs' coach and general manager Punch Imlach. He was subsequently cut loose and then signed with the Detroit Red Wings where he closed out his NHL career shortly thereafter.

Fresh out of the game and with experience playing on the Canadian National squad before his NHL days, Conacher was asked to participate in the broadcast of the World Hockey Championships in Sweden and he readily accepted. He bounced around after that point, going back to play with the National team, then taking on a full time broadcasting career, then attempting a short-lived comeback with the Red Wings.

Conacher would continue to play in the minor leagues for a number of seasons and would also pen his first book, which detailed the state of affairs of hockey in Canada. This earns him the enmity of NHL management and, together with joining the player's association, sets the template for the rest of Conacher's life and the remainder of the book.

Never afraid to question the status quo or stand up for his belief in how the game should be played, this resulted in some natural conflict along the way. Conacher wasn't one of hockey's good 'ol boys willing to become a yes-man to whomever may have advanced his post-playing career. Still, his persistence, love of the game and just plain good timing saw him as a close observer of some of the more interesting and exciting hockey dramas of the past five decades.

Conacher is asked to add colour commentary to Foster Hewitt's play-by-play of the 1972 Canada-Soviet Summit Series and he happily goes along for the ride. The game by game descriptions and the slowly changing mood of the series and public as detailed by Conacher provides the first real in-depth section of the book and it's a great beginning.

He laments the only real blemish on the series, which was the slash by Bobby Clarke onto the ankle of Soviet player Valery Kharlamov. Conacher's distaste for the violence and thuggery of the game becomes a running theme throughout the book.

Conacher has aspirations of coaching and managing in the game and pursues his dream with the Mohawk Valley Comets in the fledgling North American Hockey League. What follows is a lengthy section that is rammed full of the kind of anecdotes hockey fans will love. The trials and tribulations of trying to ice a competitive team and keep the organization financially solvent (Conacher was both coach and GM during his first two seasons with the Comets) provide for some interesting situations and characters.

He confronts the state of professional hockey in the 1970's with the creation of the World Hockey Association (WHA), NHL expansion and the resulting pressure for more players able to play in the top leagues. The increasing violence and goon tactics were a natural offshoot of the demand for more bodies and the fact that not all of them could be of the highly skilled type.

He loathes what takes place many a night as his team travels around the eastern U.S. and Canada visiting opposing teams and being faced with intimidation and violence on the ice. The sad part for him is that in many instances it results in winning hockey for the teams who chose such tactics. He resists going down the same path and in part it costs his team any real success.

Ironically, Paul Newman and the crew for the movie Slap Shot come to town to shoot scenes for the Hollywood film. A movie that exaggerates, ridicules and to some degree glorifies the very aspect of the game Conacher dislikes, his team and others in the league take part and serve as extras. There are some interesting details about the inspiration behind many of the scenes and the not so fictional players as well as observations on the side-show aspect of a Hollywood movie being shot in a small town.

Never one to stay in a situation beyond a point where he wasn't being challenged and also wanting to chase his dream of being a general manager in the big leagues, Conacher makes his next move to the Indianapolis Racers of the WHA. Taking over the GM duties of the Racers, whom the Comets had been affiliated with, Conacher enters the madhouse that is the WHA. Maverick owners, franchises going bankrupt and relocating and a league that is the bane of the NHL, all ratchets the intrigue up another notch.

Conacher realizes the Racers are in deep financial difficulty, butts heads with head coach Jacques Demers and sees the league poised on the brink of dissolution. A handful of teams are doing well compared to the others and so he jumps at the chance to take on the role of general manager with the Edmonton Oilers, one of the clubs expected to make it to the NHL if a merger ever goes ahead. Under the dual ownership of Nelson Skalbania and Peter Pocklington, Conacher is brought in by Skalbania.

In another surprise move that typifies the WHA, Skalbania sells his interest in the Oilers to Pocklington and buys a controlling share in the Racers, the club that Conacher has just left. With Skalbania gone, Conacher knows the gig is almost up and also realizes his dreams of ever being a real player in the world of pro hockey management are almost over. It's almost fitting that Conacher left the Racers before Gretzky briefly came on board and then finally bows out of the Oilers organization before the Great One signs on to make history in Edmonton.

In another instance of fortuitous timing, just as Conacher thinks he will move away from the game for good, he is offered a job as marketing manager at Northlands Coliseum, where the Oilers played their home games (and still do, though the arena has since been re-named.) While now on the periphery more than ever, the final section of the book chronicles Conacher's career managing NHL arenas in Edmonton, Hamilton (just as Copps Coliseum is being completed) and then at the fabled Maple Leaf Gardens.

Still in a situation to observe many of the great hockey dramas of the 1980's and 90's unfold, in many ways these accounts are some of the most interesting of the book. The stories surrounding his time at Maple Leaf Gardens will be especially intriguing to many.

The wealth generated by the Maple Leafs creates a palpable greed that flows through and affects every subsequent layer of the organization. Conacher details the litany of union affiliations whose members worked in the Gardens and the unique position they were in to squeeze concessions from the then owners and management who were loath to ever let a work stoppage prevent a game from going ahead.

Ticket sellers on the take, the outdated and inferior Gardens and the fortunes of the Leafs both on and off the ice are some of the topics covered during one of his final and most memorable jobs in the hockey world.

Throughout his life in hockey, Brian Conacher encountered a wide range of people, both well-known and obscure. He lets us know who he respected and formed lasting friendships with. He also gives the reader a reasonable indication of who he thought less of, though without ever descending into insults or attacks.

An autobiography is obviously one person's version of events and Conacheer seems willing in most cases to not pass judgment too harshly on various individuals. The accuracy of his rendering is given credibility by the fact that he questions and criticizes himself almost as much as others. He accepts that he doesn't quite have the ruthless nature to make it as a GM and even admits to advising Skalbania against signing Wayne Gretzky (after Skalbania bought the Indianapolis Racers and maintained contact with Conacher.)

The writing style here goes beyond the average hockey book. While never too deep or weighted down by lengthy sentences, there are more observations, related topics and extrapolating than many of the slim hockey volumes out there that come across as rush jobs. A decent length that you can sink your bashed up teeth into, I nonetheless almost always wish there was more when reading books about hockey.

If there is any criticism, perhaps there could have been some more cultural flavouring of the times as Conacher takes the reader through the various decades. But after all, it is a hockey book, and anything beyond the sport may have been seen as superfluous by many.

Conacher quite possibly uses more exclamation points than are seen in any other book of this length, but by the end it's part of his positive personality that you've seen come through in the pages.

Surprisingly, he doesn't devote a chapter to the 1967 Stanley Cup winning season with the Leafs. Perhaps because he didn't play a significant role on the team (though he contributed five points during the playoffs) or maybe because the amount of information already out there would make another account seem redundant.

While never a superstar or influential manager, Brian Conacher was a journeyman participant and observer of the game of hockey like few others. His adherence to a particular outlook and his own personal honour code riled some and possibly limited how far he went beyond his playing days. But it also resulted in wide-ranging experiences from within and on the margins. That tendency for not always going with the flow lends itself to an interesting narrative and natural conflict. Together with the number of stops Conacher made along the way, fans of the game have the opportunity to read a unique perspective on the past 50 years of hockey in Canada.

Friday, November 16, 2007

NHL Hockey Fights: Milan Lucic vs. Mark Bell

Leafs logoBruins logoThe fight took place early in a game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins on November 15th.

With the Bruins already leading 1-0, perhaps Mark Bell sensed an opportunity to provide a spark for the Leafs and turn around the momentum. If that was his intention, he picked the wrong 19 year-old rookie to tangle with.

As the Bruins chased the puck into the Leafs' end, Bell and Lucic were jawing face to face as they headed into the corner. Mutual agreement and the gloves went flying.

The first few seconds of an NHL fight can determine the outcome as both players grab each other's jerseys and start swinging.

Milan Lucic tied up Mark Bell's punching arm with a rigid and unyielding gripful of sweater and that set the tone for this scrap. As they were positioning themselves, Lucic's helmet was pulled off by Bell.

Lucic hammers five or six body blows into Bell's side as Bell tries to gain leverage and get his right arm free. Lucic starts throwing some hooks, connecting a few glancing blows on Bell's face and then adds an overhand blow that lands solidly. They are up against the boards now and some re-positioning takes place.

Lucic shows his strength in controlling and moving Bell forward out into open ice. Bell is bent forward and being held down by Lucic. Bell straightens himself and now his helmet is slightly askance, tilted forward and possibly affecting his vision. Lucic backs Bell up against the boards and then Bell does throw one hard punch that connects on Lucic's face.

That's all he can muster for now. Bell leans away from his opponent as Lucic drives another fist into the side of Bell's head. Bell is clearly being overpowered but still manages to set himself and come up from his off balance, hunched over position and in one motion delivers another good overhand shot to Lucic's face.

Lucic quickly counters with another hard shot to the side of Bell's head. The two combatants are slowly pirouetting together as Lucic still has far better unfettered control of his punching arm. Bell's hold of his opponent's jersey is superficial and not hindering Lucic at all.

While holding some fabric near the collar of Lucic's jersey with his left hand, Bell manages a quick left jab into Lucic's face. Lucic drives a well placed punch into Bell's jaw, buckling his knees and ending the fight. The refs move in and break it up.

Definite TKO for Lucic in this one. With the poor set-up by Bell he still had the guts to stay in there and absorb some hard shots, all for the chance of getting in a couple of his own clean punches.

And he made those punches count as other reports indicate Lucic was cut, though of the two, Bell was the one who needed immediate attention after the fight was over.

A solid scrap, the kind hockey fight fans love. Both players willing and able to take a punch and unconcerned by any injuries they may absorb. They're only driven on by the desire to do damage to their adversary, get the win and give an edge to their team or at worst hold their own.

An impressive win by a 19 year-old in his first season in the NHL. Lucic showed some impressive power and was able to dominate Mark Bell in this fight.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u47FKpM2zDc

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Darcy Tucker vs. Sean Avery

Leafs logoRangers logoIn a sport where driving your fist into an opponent's face is tolerated, the uproar over the pre-game tiff between Sean Avery and Darcy Tucker the other night is a bit surreal. Such incidents always elicit responses from those who seem to have a hyper awareness of some kind of honour code that respects a certain "line" that they of course would never cross.

That line apparently applies to both actions and words. Where exactly is that line then, regarding what is allowable in terms of physical play? Does it stop in front of launching an assault against another player who is much smaller and doesn't want to fight? No, that happens all the time.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Da0exRn-xcw

How about continuing to hammer one's fist into an opposing player's face once he is down on the ice and prone? Again, no. That is a regular occurrence in the NHL. While many of these actions may be ostensibly prohibited in the NHL, everyone knows they are brazenly condoned. The reality is that there is an ever-shifting "code" that is invoked only when it suits the player wanting to issue threats and set up a good revenge scenario.

So why the outrage over a few words exchanged before the start of a game? With blunt actions go blunt words and vice versa. With expectations of an all out war against an opposing team, surely you bring out the heaviest verbal artillery as well. Why would you care what a detested punk on the opposing team had to say about you or one of your team-mates? Why let someone control your emotions and throw you off your game?

Unless of course you are secretly or subconsciously thrilled at the license it provides to act in a certain way and occupy a desired role (victim, avenger, etc.) It even supplies the freedom to openly issue threats in public, the kind which would spark a visit from the local police for most people (what a liberating sense of being outside the law it must be for many professional athletes.)

Wade Belak's fantasizing about what could happen to Sean Avery in the future if he provides the desired provocation is oddly reminiscent of gun lovers and their drooling over the thought of criminals giving them the opportunity to be heroes.

Aside from all that though, what I'm still trying to get my head around, is what exactly could Avery have said about Jason Blake's cancer (If that is in fact what his comments were about. And that story is losing credibility by the day.) "You like suckin' back those pills every day punk?"

As horrible as cancer is, it just seems there are better sources of insults for getting under someone's skin. After going through the shock of hearing the news for the first time and reconciling yourself to a life forever changed, I think any derogatory comments would come across as oddly meaningless.

There are much more effective ways to get people riled up. It's no coincidence that the nastiest insults in languages the world over are based on a person's mother and a certain part of her anatomy.

But despite the lack of any hard proof about Avery going after Blake for having the audacity to be afflicted with cancer, why did that rumour quickly gain traction? Because it doesn't take a genius to know what most people's vulnerabilities are. And we all have some unpleasant, if usually unarticulated, thoughts bouncing around inside our skulls.

That's part of the reason why in many instances words can come close to actions in sending people over the edge. And it's interesting how often words seem to cut deeper than actions. Getting knocked down and kicked in the guts is one thing. But being mocked and ridiculed is somehow even worse and stokes the fires of murderous rage.

Maybe being called a gutless maggot after you've been flattened compounds things a thousand times over because now there's some validity to the claim and the thoughts of self-doubt are more open to confirmation than ever before.

Except in cases where someone is physically injured, actions disappear into the ether the moment they occur. The rationalizing narratives that remain are designed to alleviate any discomfort about what really happened and helps us form opinions about ourselves. Someone getting inside our minds and churning things up with a well placed insult can be distressing and may force us to confront buried truths.

We all know that regardless of what was really said, Darcy Tucker is really most concerned about his opponents behaving in a more respectful way when they come to the Air Canada Centre. Tucker, Toronto fans and all those who love the game of hockey really don't want any villains that ratchet up the intensity and potential for an explosive rivalry between the New York Rangers and the Leafs.

There just wouldn't be enough "class" in a situation like that.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Sultans of Swap: Online NHL Trade Rumours

Rumour bloggers have become standard on most of the commercial websites that focus on the NHL.

Look at the transactions that have occurred in the NHL this season and you will find little of consequence.  As of today, the only trade that has taken place between two teams was on November 8th when the Colorado Avalanche acquired goaltender Jason Bacashihua from the St. Louis Blues for future considerations.  Colorado promptly sent him to Lake Erie of the American Hockey League.

Yet the rumour mongers are never lacking for any fodder to stoke their claims. And herein lies half the explanation regarding the proliferation of trade discussion in the internet age.

It's all about content.  In the never-ending quest for narratives, angles and column inches to be devoured by fans, rumours provide the foundation for some of the easiest stories to churn out.

It is important to note that within the fraternity of trade forecasters, there are those who engage in at least some due diligence and then there are those who offer up a never-ending stream of scenarios based on nothing concrete except for the desire to draw attention and provoke debate.

Speculation is really a better description for the kind of discussion the first group engages in.   They look at a team that is clearly in need of improvement at one position or more and use that as a starting point to ruminate on potential trades. The level of active discussion with other teams may be a fact confirmed by management, supported by leaks or simply assumed to be true based on the degree of urgency for making a move.

Sizing up possible trades in this situation is really a matter of matching up two teams in the market and looking at whether there is a logical fit for negotiating a deal.  The speculators rely on statements made by an expanding ring of influence moving outwards from the management of the team to those media insiders closest to each club, to un-named sources to the pronouncements of the most trusted pundits in the business.

Whenever any conjecture is verbalized by those with some credibility, the rumour mongers latch onto it and give it a good and thorough looking into.  Does it make sense for both teams?  Will either club have trouble absorbing the contract of the player rumoured to be coming their way?  What role would each individual have on a new team and how would they fit in with different team-mates?

The other type are best described as fabulists who air out their crack induced musings for  those undisturbed by lack of credibility or the absurd nature of lopsided proposals.   The appeal of their predictions is in the volume and the guarantee of more to come.  Each subsequent fiction disappears into the mist only to replaced by another, all with the intent of sending credulous dupes gibbering off into cyberspace to spread the word.

The only proviso in going public with such outlandish propositions, is that someone somewhere has previously uttered the names of the two teams and the supposed players involved in the same breath.  It is irrelevant whether that person was an NHL GM or an imaginary friend.

The very nature of rumours provides the best cover for any lack of success in breaking trade proposals that go on to become reality.  The dollars at stake and the risks involved means that the bulk of discussions between teams never results in any transactions being made.

But for those really interested in potential trade discussion, veracity doesn't really seem to matter all that much.  It's nothing more than a parlour game for most.  With the mention of each tantalizing possibility, fans start to consider what it could mean for their team.  Could it be the final piece needed to send them to the next level?  A new personality added into the mix, a change, something to talk about with your mates.

Like many pastimes in life, following professional sports is a kind of escape from reality (though some would say it is as real as anything in their lives.)  The minutes of the games in a season aren't enough for many and, just like fantasy hockey or reading books about the sport, rumours and gossip are a way to extend that passion further.

Together with filling that need, rumours also prey on hope and allows those following the news that to feel that they are in on some privileged info (despite the fact that thousands of others have read the exact same bit of shocking news.)

With the ever increasing number of media outlets, bloggers and sources for acquiring information and staying entertained, those who instigate, promote and report on NHL rumours aren't going anywhere.  As the online cesspool of speculation expands, there will always be those who try to bring some legitimacy and standards to the task while others will shamelessly feed on the demand with little concern for accuracy.

There's alway room for more.  If you have a shrewd sense of observation and the ability to cultivate contacts or if you own a trained ape and a set of darts, you can get started today.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Bloody Chiclets: NHL Points, Parity and Positive Thinking

The Toronto Maple Leafs are like that blundering oaf in the workplace who always seems to be on the brink of being sacked. He repeatedly screws up, pisses people off, comes in late and occasionally vomits on the secretary. And just as the collective weight of universal condemnation has him on the verge of being turfed, he does something to get back in everyone's good books.

The Leafs continue to rattle off two or three lousy games in a row followed by a couple of competitive efforts. One of many aspects of Toronto's game that has fans worried is their goals for and against differential. On the plus side, they are filling the net at a rate higher than almost all other teams. But that bright spot is obliterated by the fact that they have also given up the most goals in the league.

If a team is on the negative side regarding the difference in tallies for and against, it's obviously an indication of how they have been playing and will normally be reflected in the standings. Similarly, a team that turns around their fortunes will also see their "for and against" numbers improve.

For example, Vancouver started out poorly last year and then had one of the best second halfs of the season. Their goal differential wasn't impressive to begin and slowly improved as the year went on, with the team going into positive territory in about mid-January.

The Ottawa Senators were another team from last year who saw their position in the standings rise dramatically after turning it on in the second half. Their for and against numbers were on the plus side even as they were languishing in the early stages of the season. As the Sens' explosive offense ramped up and their goal-tending improved, their place in the standings got better and the gap widened between the GF and GA columns.

While both the Senators and the Canucks had favorable goals for and against numbers as the regular season finished, Ottawa had a better positive differential . Both teams finished with 105 point records but the Senators continued further into the playoffs. After the two teams did little tinkering in the off-season regarding their line-ups, Ottawa have also had a far better start to 2007-08.

The Tampa Bay Lightning was the rare team last year who had a winning record and qualified for the playoffs while still scoring fewer goals than they gave up. The Atlanta Thrashers were on the cusp in 2006-07, notching just one more than they allowed and the New Jersey Devils had a relatively narrow margin, scoring 15 more than they gave up.

Such anomalies can be explained by strong defensive teams who were involved in numerous games decided by one goal (New Jersey) or perhaps teams that were receptive to being on the losing end of an occasional blowout. Those three teams have had poor starts in 2007-08.

On the other hand, the Colorado Avalanche were the only team to finish out of the playoffs in 2006-07 with more goals for than against--a decent 20 goal difference. So it's not surprising that together with the Ryan Smyth signing they are off to a strong start this year.

Two teams that made significant changes in the off-season and have seen an unwanted reversal of their goals for and against stats are the Buffalo Sabres and the Nashville Predators. They have both scored relatively few goals compared to the ones they have allowed and have poor records to go along with those totals.

There are always exceptions such as the ones mentioned above. And trades, coaching changes, injuries and other intangibles can lead to a big improvement or a drop-off over the course of a season. It wouldn't be sports and it wouldn't be interesting otherwise.

Still, all other things being equal, looking at current goals for and against is still a fairly good way to predict a team's future goal scoring and their place in the standings. As with all types of prognosticating, the best predictors of future results are trends, patterns and past performance.

And getting back to my original point, that's why things don't bode too well for the Leafs. Add into that mix the fact that two of their top three points leaders at the moment are 36 and 34 years old respectively and the potential for decreased offense as the season wears on is a distinct possibility.

***

Yet the glut in the standings still exists in both conferences and it's still not too late to say, "it's still too early to say."

A couple of things are contributing to the supposed post-lockout parity. The salary cap has put smart management at a premium more than ever before. While trying to spend their way to a championship didn't often work for many of the big market clubs in the past, not having that option can't help but even out the level of competition somewhat.

Many of those same big spending teams of the past are still futile but they no longer have as much of an advantage when it come to making deals and offering fat contracts to free agents.

The three point games contribute to the mid-standings clog up as well. When you lose a game and still get a point, the overall rankings start to get a bit artificial. In the 30 team league, it's got to be a sop to owners, 14 of whom get denied those juicy playoff revenues every season. Not like the 21-team league of the 1980s when only five were left out.

***

How about a consolation tournament for the also-rans? Great revenue for the owners and a second rate spectacle for the fans in cities whose teams didn't make it.

It would never fly of course. Even if games were played on days when the real playoffs had no scheduled match-ups, the embarrassing possibility exists that the ersatz Stanley might have more interesting pairings and better action.

The players would never go for it either. Playoff games have no cash incentive for players, except for some bonuses that go along with the final few series. With no loot or glory on the line and the potential for injuries, "for the love of the game" somehow wouldn't cut it.

***

Insanely optimistic quote of the week from Kelly Hrudey speaking on the Team 1040's Rick Ball show:

"Hockey has the potential to be the second most popular sport in the world behind soccer."

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Eric Lindros: Retirement, Legacy and Hockey Hall of Fame Consideration

Eric Lindros officially announced his retirement on Thursday. As he recounted his career, presented a 5 million dollar cheque to the hospital where the press conference took place and joked with the media, Lindros seemed more relaxed and content that he had been at any time during his playing days. An aura of relief seemed to surround him and there was a sense that the drama and controversy that dogged him as a player is finally at an end.

As Lindros steps away from the game far earlier than he probably expected way back on that draft day in 1991 when he snubbed the Quebec Nordiques and set the course for his career, the debate over whether he belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame heats up. It seems that more than most former NHLers, this will be decided as much by the perception people have of him as a player and a person as by any hard facts.

The Eric Lindros saga resonated from the beginning with anyone who has even a mild interest in the game. The response of fans and the media to many of the melodramas that surrounded him were visceral. The discussions over his legacy are just as often based on emotions as on any concrete statistics or evidence. Lindros is kind of like Neil Young, reality TV shows or marmite; you either love him or hate him.

For those arguing in favour of Lindros as being one of the game's great players, a few standard lines are brought up time and again. The most common is "During his prime, he was the most dominant player in the game."

I have a few problems with this statement. First, it is the kind of claim that is rarely quantified. That's because defining such a word is not easy. Even if an acceptable definition is agreed upon, getting consensus on whether individual players reached that level is difficult due to the fact that such a determination is not based solely on points.

Only those who watched Lindros play the game night after night over a period of numerous seasons can really weigh in on whether he was in fact a dominant player. The repetition of that line by others comes across as begging the question. Simply a convenient mantra that is rarely broken down and articulated by those who spout it. Of course, this doesn't mean there isn't any validity to the description of the Big E as a player who could control a game and single handedly make a difference.

A high scoring center who could also hit, fight and drive through opposing players, Lindros was the deciding factor in many games throughout his career. However, there are other elements that detract from the most oft repeated adjective used to describe portions of his career.

And that is the most important thing that takes away from highlighting him as such a pivotal and overwhelming force. He missed too many games in which he was eligible to play due to injuries that resulted from a fundamental flaw in his playing style. He was hammered and concussed on numerous occasions because he failed to keep his head up, a fact which he jokingly referred to during his press conference.

That is at the heart of his other major shortcoming as well. Lack of playoff success. If you aren't playing you can't help drag your team into the playoffs, can't help your team win the Cup and can't be dominant.

With the exception of 2002-03 when he was far removed from his prime, Lindros failed to play a complete season throughout his entire career. Other injuries that reduced his playing time but were no fault of his own are unfortunate but the "if he had been healthy," arguments are ultimately meaningless.

Proponents of Lindros also seem to both dismiss points totals as a deciding factor in qualifying for greatness, or the very least Hall of Fame status, while at the same time pointing to the fact that he did have decent numbers. They are good without a doubt but definitely not great. There are others with higher totals who may not be inducted. Regarding his points production, the most positive spin is that his per game average is at least within the top 20 all time.

When passing judgment, detractors of Lindros are usually guided by the impressions of him that took root early and were validated throughout his career. Sullen, joyless, selfish and petulant are words that come to mind.

His off-ice behaviour, including the demands, melodramas and meddling by his family, were all distractions that did nothing to help the teams he played for. For someone who had so much potential and at times lived up to the hype, his lack of leadership skills are also a mark against him.

The Lindros story-line that was so compelling to fans contributes to a higher profile than many other players before him who accomplished far more. That increased awareness of him as evidenced by the amount of debate over his legacy probably will push him towards acceptance in the Hall of Fame sooner than it would have otherwise. That and the fact that the standard for inclusion really isn't that high.

The real question though, is how will he be remembered a generation from now? Will it be for his marginal accomplishments, both personally and through the teams he was part of, or will it be for the off-ice clashes, career shortening injuries and unfulfilled potential?

For the answer, simply ask yourself what images and thoughts rise in your mind when his name is mentioned.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

NHL Player Profiles: Teemu Selanne

Heading into the NHL's Hockey Hall of Fame weekend, it's a good time for many fans to look back at their favourite retired players of all time. Joe Pelletier at Greatest Hockey Legends came up with the idea to get as many hockey bloggers onside in posting profiles and memories of NHL players from the past.

My entry is in the de facto retired category. While Teemu Selanne may still end up returning to the NHL, he is already considered one of the game's great players.

***

Teemu Selanne exploded into the NHL with the Winnipeg Jets in the 1992-93 season at the age of 22. Though a 10th overall pick by the Jets in the 1988 entry draft, he played in his native Finland for four seasons after being selected by Winnipeg.

SelanneHis record setting year was something to behold for fans in Winnipeg. Playing on a line with Alexei Zhamnov and Keith Tkachuk, Selanne started filling the net early on and just kept scoring as the season progressed. He was also helped out by the play-making ability of defenseman Phil Housley.

I took in a handful of regular season games that year in Winnipeg. The one that stands out for me was a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs late in the season.

My room-mate at the time was a student from Ontario who had reluctantly come to Winnipeg to study at the only law school in the country that would accept him. He was a rabid Leafs fan and so we bought tickets for the game, one of two they played against the Jets in Winnipeg that year.

One thing that resonated for me during Selanne's rookie season was not only his speed and scoring but his ability to, on occasion, lay some crushing body checks against opponents. Though I was unable to watch him during most of his post-Winnipeg NHL career, I doubt that trend continued beyond his first few years in the league.

Selanne had a serious injury early on in his career and scoring was of course his real strength but boy did he hammer some opposing players in that first season.

During that game against Toronto, Selanne leveled two Leafs players in a single shift, sending most of the fans into a frenzy. As we looked down on the action in the Jets' end, Selanne took out a Toronto skater just as he sent the puck around the boards and behind the net to another Leafs player on the opposite side of the rink. Selanne flashed across the ice to crush the unlucky player as he touched the puck. The Jets went on to win the game 5-3.

The Winnipeg media seemed as thrilled as anyone that this good-natured, instant NHL superstar in the midst of setting a rookie scoring record was also willing to get involved in the physical side of the game. I still remember Selanne, who spoke with slightly accented English at the time, responding to a post-game question from a reporter who asked about his hitting. With his usual big smile and understated tone, Selanne responded that "when they kick you, sometimes you have to kick back."

Despite a great season for Selanne personally, the Jets were mediocre as usual and exited the playoffs in the first round. Selanne wouldn't see post-season action again in Winnipeg and not for another five years until he was playing with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Nor would he play another complete slate while with the Jets due to a torn achilles tendon in his second season, the lockout shortened 1994-95 campaign and the trade near the end of '95-96.

SelanneSelanne is probably the most talented NHL player ever to be dealt in two separate such lopsided trades. The first time was when he was shipped out of Winnipeg to Anaheim with Marc Chouinard and a fourth round pick in exchange for Chad Kilger, Oleg Tverdovsky and a third round pick.

Panned as one of the worst NHL trades ever, it was near the end of the Jets' last season in Winnipeg in 1996 before moving to Phoenix. Perhaps a colossal snub to the new owners who would take over the following year or more probably just a panic move from a group that was struggling financially and trying to lessen some of the damage.

Selanne had some hugely productive years in Anaheim playing alongside Paul Kariya. In 2001 when it appeared as though his career was on the decline, he was shipped out to the San Jose Sharks for Steve Shields, Jeff Friesen and a draft pick. With the Sharks he had some steady seasons, if unspectacular compared to his earlier efforts.

Teemu was being bothered by a wonky knee and that contributed to his worst output in 2003-04 while playing with the Colorado Avalanche, who he had signed with as a free agent before the start of the season.

He underwent knee surgery in the off-season and didn't play any professional hockey during the lockout 2004-05 season, which he had initially planned to spend with Jokerit Helsinki in Finland. He re-signed with the Mighty Ducks for the 2005-06 season and that marked the beginning of possibly the most impressive late career resurgence ever by an NHL player.

After that stunning rookie season, Selanne tallied 100 points or more on three other occasions, all coming during his first six season stretch with the Mighty Ducks (most of the '96 campaign spent with the Jets.)

He came the closest to reaching that level again in his final two seasons with Anaheim. The surgery, a year spent recovering and practicing hard and the effects of the league trying to eliminate interference in the NHL resulted in point totals for Selanne that were near his peak years.

SelanneIt would be hard to script a better finish for the Finnish Flash than the 2006-07 season. The newly christened Anaheim Ducks (no more "Mighty") won the Stanley Cup and Selanne was 11th overall in regular season points at the age of 36 and third in goals with 48.

The Winnipeg Jets had no real playoff success during their existence as a franchise. They made it to the second round of the playoffs only twice and never beyond that stage. A handful of good seasons, well played games and series and great players are the memories that fans of the former team hold on to.

The history of the Jets is also absent any major player awards with the exception of two Calder trophies for the NHL rookie of the year, presented to Dale Hawerchuk in 1982 and Selanne in '93.

So that rookie season by Selanne is without a doubt one of the highlights in the history of an ultimately disappointing and failed organization. His relentlessly upbeat and positive personality and his on-ice performance will have Jets fans reminiscing for years to come.

While already having financial difficulties and trying to look forward to ways to keep the team in Winnipeg, many fans probably saw that great season by Selanne as a sign of good things to come for the club but of course it wasn't to be.

Though still pondering a return to the NHL, if Selanne never plays another game in the world's premier league, he would be one of the few who went out at the very top.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Design Geniuses at Work for the Vancouver Canucks

Canucks logoAt the beginning of the season I did a review of some of the e-mail bulletins that most NHL teams send out to fans, who can sign-up for the newsletters on the relevant websites. Often there is a general update of goings-on as well as pre and post game reports. It's been a nice surprise to find that most don't mince words when writing up the post-game analysis for games in which their team played poorly.

The Islanders bulletin still stands out as one of the better ones for design, content and different features, such as their ongoing "pick and win" contest that they alerted subscribers to earlier in the season.

Some other bulletins haven't maintained the same standard.

The Vancouver Canucks don't exactly have a history that includes creating well-designed logos and team uniforms. Their current jerseys have that odd, pasted on "Vancouver" lettering that ruins what would otherwise be one of their better sweaters compared to past years.

Similarly, while their e-mail updates have had some good content, they've also included some of the worst possible banners.

This was the first one that appeared in the pre-season. What the hell is this all about? Who is the individual sitting there studying his notes? Is that Alain Vigneault the Vancouver head coach? There are some laser beams coming out of his face. There's a creepy looking individual lurking in the chairs behind him. Perhaps an accurate premonition of the early season play of the team and the desire of some to come up behind Vigneault and do some damage.

Canucks banner

Whoever designs and sends out the e-mails for the Canucks seemed to finally recognize that this wasn't the most effective effort. The following replacement popped up for the first time in October.

The piss poor job of cutting out player images when they were obviously on the ice and pasting them onto the dressing room background looks amateurish enough. The position of the stick of one Canuck's player was perhaps chosen to appeal to female fans. And the motivational words above the stalls are OK I suppose, though they just happen to be related to the areas in which the Canucks are most lacking this season.

Canucks banner

As the Canucks began slowly building up one of the worst home records in the league, the next banner showed up. What's the message supposed to be?

"Yes, we've got some of the most expensive tickets in the league yet we're sold out every game. With the putrid effort we've been serving up to our home fans, THIS is probably what we deserve..."

(It did occur to me that this is probably a photo of Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo. Perhaps he's pondering what happened to all the accolades from last season.)

Canucks banner

Lately they've been going with something a bit more relevant and to the point.

Canucks banner

"SHOOT THE DAMNED PUCK!!!!!!!"

This one featuring Alain Vigneault makes a person wonder what he's thinking in light of recent developments.

Canucks banner

"Which one of these s.o.b.'s am I gonna call out next?"

Maybe they're trying to maintain the great tradition of design associated with the team. Or perhaps just giving an opportunity to the cleaning staff to improve their lot in life.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The NHL and Advertising

NHL logoWatching old hockey clips on YouTube is great for a hit of nostalgia and also as a way to see how the game has changed over the years. It's also jarring due to the different appearance of the rink because of the lack of ads that were plastered everywhere back then. It all looked relatively pristine in comparison to today's commercialized boards and portions of the ice surface.

The rink isn't the only aspect of professional hockey that has been over-run by advertising. It seems every part of the game already has an advertiser's name attached to it. But some marketing genius always thinks up a previously untapped way to flog another call, segment or surface of an inanimate object (though at least the uniforms remain untouched, unlike their counterparts in European leagues.)

The most professional examples of this are seen on the big networks like CBC, whose production values are slick and barely seem to intrude on the presentation of the game.

Other regional telecasts and especially radio broadcasts reduce such parceled out pieces of sponsorship to unintentionally farcical levels.

"This icing call brought to you by Sid's Collection Agency. If you're stupid enough to blow thousands on NHL game tickets when you should have used the money to make payments on your new car, we're gonna make you sorry. Back to the game..."

"That shattered orbital bone is brought to you by Central Flower Shop, bringing some light into your otherwise nasty day..."

Periods, saves, intermissions, shots, goal posts, offsides...nothing is too inconsequential to include a sponsor's name. The constant spewing of obscure, mid-sized company names amongst the play-by-play and colour commentary reaches an absurd level during some games. You can tell that the announcers grow weary of it as well, as their voices take on that practiced pitch and speed up ever so slightly so they can get back to calling the action.

At some point, broadcast teams may bring in an announcer for the sole purpose of rattling off a steady stream of advertisements. When every last inch of the rink has been sold off and every call and play served up with a company name, they may turn on themselves in an attempt to churn up more revenue.

"And that's Mitch...no Bik...Biex, the Canuck's player with the puck..."

"That mistaken player identification brought to you by Sal's Memory Enhancement, the best way to improve your mental lapses as you **WHOOMPH** ...ah geez Bob, you didn't have to do that. That announcer on announcer assault was presented by Griswald Psychiatric consultation, experts in anger management..."

Apparently Thai boxers take company sponsorship to ridiculous heights by adopting the name of their sponsors when they fight. Perhaps with enough money on the line such insanity will one day come to the NHL.

"The fans are starting to throw objects onto the ice. This is getting out of hand. Labatts Blue is skating around trying to help the officials clean up the debris. Oh, and Labatts has taken a beer bottle in the head...and it looks like it's an empty bottle of Labatts. The fan who threw that really has no shame..."

Saturday, November 3, 2007

NHL 2007-08: Game Day Previews November 3rd

Leafs logoHabs logoThe Leafs skate into Montreal on Saturday, continuing one of the greatest rivalries in NHL history in terms of length, passion and polarizing effect. At least in Canada. More than just two hockey clubs playing each other, in many ways the rivalry is symbolic of the dual nature of Canada's founding and the ongoing struggles that involve Quebec and the rest of the country.

Earlier in the week there was another reminder of just how important the language issue is in Quebec when Habs' captain Saku Koivu was criticized for not learning how to speak French. The comments against Koivu came from a Quebec lawyer during public hearings about religious minorities in the province.

It's always ironic that any group feeling threatened (Quebec within Canada in this case) will usually end up taking out their frustrations on other minorities that have even less power in society. There have long been questions about how new immigrants to the province are treated and these hearings are looking at how new-comers are being discriminated against based on religion.

In an obvious attempt to shift the focus, the grand-standing lawyer launched a public attack on the Canadiens' Finnish captain.

Koivu took note and delivered the pre-game announcement of players mainly in French (albeit taped...he had done opening night's all in English which provided the kind of opening the language fascist lawyer was looking for) in the game against the Flyers on Friday.

He then promptly served up another response in the "actions speak louder than words" manner as he had a solid game and received well-deserved cheers from the Montreal crowd for both efforts.

Back to the Leafs/Canadiens game tonight. The Canadiens have been playing extremely well over the last seven games or so, earning at least a point in each of those contests. The story with these two teams is the contrast in special teams.

The Habs' power play is on fire at the moment, with a league wide best when it comes to converting extra man chances. When opposing teams are taking loads of penalties it usually is indicative of team speed and effort for the club being given the man advantage. A huge 21 goals on 68 chances for Montreal when on the power play.

The Leafs on the other hand are still having some problems when their opponents have a player in the box. They are at the bottom of the league when trying to make use of their chances. They have converted a measly eight out of 64 opportunities.

Add to that woeful stat the fact that the Leafs are worst in the NHL for coughing up short-handed goals with four. They gave up one against New Jersey on Friday night. The goal broke a tie, shifted the momentum towards the Devils and helped them to win 3-2 against the Leafs. Second loss in a row for Toronto after previously winning two consecutive games on the road. The Buds are taking plenty of bad penalties as well.

If those trends hold up tonight, it won't be good for the Leafs.

Bruins logoSens logoThe game in Ottawa could be an interesting match-up. While the Senators have been rolling along, they did let up the other night against the worst team in the league (Atlanta Thrashers) and the game ended much closer than it should have.

With the exception of the shellacking the Bruins absorbed from the Canadiens 12 days ago, they have been playing well and winning some close games, with an overtime win against Buffalo on Thursday.

However, Boston hasn't fared too well against teams higher than them in the standings and obviously this will be the best team they have faced this season.

An all important divisional game will make this a close one I believe.

Zdeno Chara versus Brian McGrattan in the fisticuffs department perhaps?

Devils logoRangers logoTwo disappointing under-achievers in the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils meet in the Big Apple. Both clubs have equally mediocre 5 and 6 records with the Rangers holding the dubious honour of being the lowest scoring team in the entire league.

The Devils have been putting the puck in the net at a better pace than the Rangers but have still been blanked three times this season. One of those shut-outs was delivered by the Rangers in a 2-0 win in the teams' first meeting of the season.

Maybe they should skip the preliminaries. Just head right to overtime instead of playing what's likely to be a bland, scoreless regulation.

***

Some other interesting match-ups amongst the eight other games being played on Saturday night. Phoenix coming off a big win against Dallas could highlight just how far the Ducks have fallen if they can handle Anaheim at home.

The Canucks must be thankful to get back on the road after they continued their dismal play at home in a loss to the Nashville Predators. Regardless, they'll still have to ratchet up their shots on goal (though they did manage 29 against the Preds) or they won't fare too well against a strong Colorado Avalanche team who are unbeaten at home so far this season.

The Sharks and Kings finish off a home and home series in Los Angeles tonight with the Kings winning the first leg 5-2 on Friday. Battle of California has some insight on that match-up and a preview of the Ducks and Coyotes game as well.

Pittsburgh travels to Long Island hoping that the re-energized Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can keep scoring the way they have in the past few games. Though they'll want a better result than they had in their loss to the Avalanche on Thursday.

Florida in Carolina, Atlanta at Tampa Bay, Calgary in Minnesota and Chicago visiting St. Louis are the other games being played.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Rick Tocchet Re-Instated by the NHL

NHL logoYotes logoRick Tocchet will be back behind the bench of the Phoenix Coyotes as an assistant coach in February. He was re-instated by Gary Bettman with a stern but forgiving public lecture and given a set of conditions that must be adhered to.

This seems odd to me on a few fronts. First, the requirement by the league that Tocchet must not have anything to do with gambling and also has to undergo examination by league doctors and agree to treatment if necessary. This is good. But is everyone forgetting the fact that Tocchet attended the World Series of poker only a few short months ago?

If you believe that the legal nature of his participation in that tournament makes such an example irrelevant, you are clueless as to what is at the crux of this issue. The fact that Tocchet got involved with questionable characters in setting up a sports book says all you need to know (the independent investigator hired by the NHL found that there were no links to "organized crime." But wasn't the gambling ring itself "organzied" and a "crime"?)

Like with any addiction, gambling skews your priorities and perception. That Tocchet couldn't see this as a potential problem demonstrates that. That it didn't register with him that showing up in Vegas to join a widely publicized orgy of gambling at a time when he was unemployed because he had been suspended for gambling, sort of confirms that notion.

I'm all for giving people second chances but this has potential jackassery of the highest order written all over it. It's like putting a former junky in charge of a methadone clinic. Tocchet will be back in that highly charged atmosphere that acts as an appetizer for the thrills and risks that gambling provides long after the game has finished. He'll also get a healthy increase in salary from the zero per month he was receiving for the past two years. He'll surely have some debts to pay off as a result and may even have some income to dispose of.

Most people can accept that gambling is an affliction like other compulsive and destructive habits such as drinking and drug use. The high from gambling is every bit as addictive as other vices and may even be stronger. Without the accompanying physical battering, it can have an energizing effect on a person. The risks involved and the hit to a gambler's ego when they succeed/get lucky heightens the rush. An added element to the challenge can be keeping the habit hidden and thinking you've put one over on others.

In the credibility-deprived NHL operating under the umbrella of other professional sports leagues hammered by scandal, the decision sends a message to both fans and other players and coaches. While the perception of those under the spell is filtered through their addiction, for fans of the game it becomes a trust issue with all the attendant possibilities and nastiness.

To others within the NHL with gambling problems, the message is "it's manageable." Keep it low key, don't bet on hockey and be secure in the knowledge that you're more clever than that anyway. Worse comes to worst and you get found out. Plead instant epiphany, claim you're cured, take a vacation to Vegas during the down time and return fresh and ready to go.

Convinced of your own prescience and skill in making the right picks together with your healthy salary makes money issues unimportant. Financial ruin is an impossibility and even if it came to pass your mates would bail you out. You wouldn't be ashamed enough to keep it quiet. And you certainly wouldn't be stupid enough to be receptive to others leaning on you. Persuading you to agree to just help out with a few things and in the process get out of that hole you're in...

Lacking any clear evidence that Tocchet's actions were more serious, the NHL apparently doesn't have much choice but to allow his return. They believe in his ostensible desire to give up gambling. Walking away from the World Series of poker after being sighted by the press has convinced them of this.

Hopefully this works out for everyone involved but if it blows up in their faces you can't say they really weighed the odds too well.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Book Review: King of Russia by Dave King with Eric Duhatschek

Dave KingLiving and working in a foreign country for an extended period of time opens your eyes to new ways of doing things. But more importantly, it shines the clear light of observation and comparison on your own culture. The experience is fraught with contradictions.

You may be granted a kind of unearned respect and admiration simply because of where you come from and the Hollywood fueled set of myths and half-truths about western countries that exist everywhere in the world. You will be resented by others for the same reasons. You'll feel like a minor celebrity on occasion and an outsider much of the time.

Dave King was a celebrity in a foreign land in the real sense of the word as he became the first Canadian to coach a team in the Russian Super League. King spent one season behind the bench of Mettalurg Magnitogorsk and writes about his experience in King of Russia: A Year in the Russian Super League.

With some of the top Russian talent in the league at the time, including Evgeni Malkin, who has since moved on to play with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL, King offers up a first-person account written in the journal entry style.

While there are no great underlying themes or in-depth observations here, what you will find is a running narrative of King's reflections both on and off the ice as he guides his team to a record breaking season. Detailing his adjustment to life in a different culture and hockey environment, this book provides a good glimpse inside the emerging Super League. Outside of the NHL, the top Russian pro league boasts some of the best talent, most crazed fans and wealthiest clubs willing to throw around millions to develop and keep players.

In some of the promo material for King's account, I've read a quote regarding one of his earliest meetings with team officials (which also appears in the book), and reference to the team "bag man" who carries around a suitcase full of money to pay expenses and sort out any problems. It seems di rigeur in the past few years for all accounts of an outsider's life in Russia to latch on to some of that maverick, wild-west intrigue that the country has become synonymous with in the post-Soviet era.

However, King of Russia really isn't that kind of book. Simply for the fact that King is in the drab and polluted mid-sized city of Magnitogorsk for one reason and that is to win hockey games. Nor does he lead the kind of off-ice life that would result in rubbing shoulders with any real dodgy characters of the kind who provide such great fodder.

By his own admission, he's a pretty straight-laced individual. When not coaching hockey he really only occupies himself with two pastimes. Jogging and eating pizza. Seriously. Though there are still a fair number of characters who pop up throughout and various questionable ways of conducting business are hinted at, the real focus is the hockey and the simple discoveries of living in a new country. While including many amusing anecdotes, the language and style of writing King uses to describe his Russian adventure leaves a bit to be desired at times.

There is no standard procedure regarding how a ghost writer goes about taking the words of his subject and hammering them into readable prose. Perhaps some do extensive interviews. Others may require a rough draft from the primary author before they go over the manuscript, fine-tuning it and adding depth. Depending on the writing skill of the individual who is seeking the help of the more experienced author, the labour involved could be extensive or minimal.

It's not much of a stretch to say that Duhatschek was probably only involved in this project in a clean-up role (the "with" before his name on the cover of the book is also a giveaway.) The "Hat" is one of the best hockey writers in the business. Together with his extensive hockey knowledge, what sets his work apart is his turn of phrase and the absence of cliches.

However, in some parts of this book, stock phrases and sayings are in abundance. They are unavoidable to some degree in both speaking and writing. But in my opinion, there should be at least some attempt to purge the bulk of them from any ready-to-be-published work.

There are stretches of the book where bland and pedestrian observations are served up at a furious pace. "...he was just so good," "He's amazing," “Man, is he tough,” and "He's a real character guy," are just some of the opinions we are enlightened with.

After a hundred pages or so of anyone's writing, tendencies and patterns naturally appear. This can help to create expectations and increase that sense that you're really getting to know the author, especially in a first person, non-fiction book like this. Other times, it can make your eyes glaze over.

For example, King regularly uses "so"; that school-boy phrasing that is popular when trying to emphasize. In one page and-a-half span, he writes, "so proud," "so serious," "so excited" and "so interesting."

For some readers this may be a positive aspect of the book. It lends a conversational feel to the writing and probably is an indication of how King talks with people. Throughout the most interesting passages it works to good effect. Those most intriguing and engaging sections are when he writes about the Super League and the culture of hockey in Russia.

A handful of teams in Russia's top professional league spend at a rate close to NHL clubs, though King dispels the notion that there is anywhere near the type of funds available for most, nor do the revenue possibilities exist like in the North American game.

Some of the inexplicable holdover traditions from the Soviet era provide him with plenty to shake his head at as the season progresses. The constant struggle to keep top players like Evgeni Malkin from leaving for the NHL after teams have invested countless years and efforts in making them the athletes they are, is another interesting topic.

King and his wife Linda live in a simply furnished apartment within walking distance of the arena where the team practices and plays. His observations of life in the neighbourhood where he lives and in other parts of the country he travels to for games, add a nice touch to the book. He makes no bones about the fact that he has no desire to "go native," and the extent of many of his reflections on the ways of Russians is that they aren't quite up to western standards in many regards.

The perceived inanities of different cultures ring true. The catch-all answer to queries about bizarre and illogical practices is "This is Russia." Substitute "Russia" with any other country and that tired response sums up the frustration of trying to adapt in a place where people can't or don't always want to fully embrace newcomers.

Some other good "sub-plots" run throughout the book including his run-ins with the wacked out team pharmacologist and the stray dogs that he and his wife take care of.

My main criticism of this book is that it could have gone much further in terms of the descriptions and observations provided. King meets a player from the 1972 Canada/Soviet summit series in the street and it rates only a few sentences. His team plays Canada in the Spengler Cup final and, while the tournament garners a few pages, there is little on the championship game itself. Many players, such as Malkin, are mentioned on numerous occasions but you don't feel at the end that you really have a good grasp of who they are.

However, these types of criticisms are mainly due to my own expectations. The style of writing does grow on you and the cumulative effect of a multitude of brief musings also has its appeal.

King really hits his stride when discussing his coaching philosophy, his relationship with his players and how the team grows together and overcomes struggles as the season progresses. It's also a perfect backdrop for looking at the Russian system and style of coaching in comparison to how the game is played and taught in Canada.

I'm not sure if King planned to write the book regardless of the success he had in Russia, but things couldn't have worked out much better in terms of providing a good story-line.

The narrative peaks right at the appropriate time as Magnitogorsk enter the playoffs and make a strong run. The excitement builds up with detailed and well recounted games that latch onto key elements that swung the momentum either way (and I'm guessing Duhatschek worked overtime in helping out on these sections.)

As a counter to the lack of "character development" (even though it's non-fiction) King seems to excel at describing the strengths and weaknesses of various players on the ice.

This is a pretty entertaining read as far as it goes. I just wish it had gone a bit deeper and offered more insight. One thing it definitely left me with was a desire to learn more about the Super League. An easily accessible writing style makes this book appropriate for readers of different ages. While it may be on the light side for some, it still provides an interesting look inside the world of Russian hockey that many fans will appreciate.