Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Cliff Fletcher Fails as Maple Leafs' Interim General Manager

Leafs logoOf course, his time isn't finished yet. And he well may do something to improve the team and set the plate for whomever his successor turns out to be.

But as far as the all important trade deadline and the potential for increased returns because of the impending playoffs and the added pressure on the league's other 29 GMs, Cliff Fletcher failed like a senile old bastard who'd been out of the game for nearly 15 years and had lost all his hockey contacts and abilities to influence people. Oh, wait...

Let's take care of the requisite spreading of blame that is essential when assessing blunders in this truly hopeless franchise. The clods who hired Fletcher were as clueless as anyone regarding what it would take to make some immediate improvements. They looked at the last whiff of decency the team had emitted and went out and got the person who had some hand in those years of success.

Now, onto Fletcher's failed attempts to right this sinking ship. A goal that was unrealistic to start with but still provided some leeway for moderate gains and improvements.

The public tone set by Fletcher early in his current, temporary tenure was wrong-headed. If any market's media hounds can be used as a club to bludgeon players into seeing the light and waiving their "I'm a petulant mule and I ain't budging" clauses, then Toronto is it.

Fletcher essentially prostrated himself at Mats Sundin's feet and said "Hey big boy, I've got a kind of twisted man-love fixation for you, it thrills me to think I helped bring you here, and if the 80 million you've bagged as a member of this team ain't enough, I'll protect your ego from the slings of these nasty individuals who actually want a winner out of this dysfunctional franchise."

Fletcher introduced no strong story-lines into the melodrama. Nothing that fans and journalists could latch onto. Nothing that could be used to spin the fact that the very best thing for the Leafs as an organization was to convince Sundin that it was time to move on. Instead, it was the tiresome mewling about how everyone should respect the Swede who has grown sadly familiar and comfortable with chronic losing.

Yes, we all know it's his right to refuse to waive his no trade clause. No one's arguing that. And so too it is the right, nay the duty, of those in control of the team—who are charged with making it as competitive as possible—to put enough pressure on him so that staying is less comfortable than leaving.

But the meaningless narrative about respect, rights and tens of millions of dollars worth of loyalty ruled the day. Stoked by columnists who admit they are personal friends of Sundin, Fletcher's voice became almost non-existent in the whirlwind of saccharine and overly dramatic posturing.

No-trade and no-movement clauses are the antithesis of team sports. The ultimate act of putting the cart rammed full of cash and benefits before the tireless horses these prima donnas should become before they insist on being anointed icons and legends before they prove themselves. (No doubt this notion applies to varying degrees. A player such as Sundin has of course long since proven his worth and is one of the greatest Leafs players ever.)

They say, "I will not be subject to the vagaries of injuries, the shifting winds of team chemistry, declining play or the potential to acquire a reputation as an all-round nasty individual."

Of course, the fact that they have become relatively widespread is a testament to the strides made by players and their increasing leverage in negotiations. Who wouldn't leap at the opportunity to have more control over their future?

But the whole concept flies in the face of an organization controlled by an owner and manager determined to do whatever is necessary to build a championship team. And so they must be taken on by players with the full knowledge that the only time they will ever become an issue is when these situations arise. They are inherently contentious and conflict-creating instruments.

No doubt some blame has to be accepted by the general managers in the league who bend to the wishes of players out of the fear that they will bolt to another team. As many others have already pointed out, some of their excuse-making on the issue falls a bit flat.

John Ferguson Junior recently stated that he had no choice when it came to many of the players who demanded no trade clauses in their contracts. He claims that if he hadn't agreed...they would have gone elsewhere.

"You'd better give me a guarantee that I never have to leave this place I love and cherish so much...or else I'll leave!!"

The whole concept of playing with a desperation that makes it a moot point seems to be getting lost on both sides of the negotiating table.

If a player is willing to push for a no-trade clause, he must also accept the fallout if it comes to a showdown. Just as a player is tacitly stating, "My personal wishes supercede the goals of this organization and by association, many of its fans ," management must actively respond with whatever is in the best interest of the team. Just as a cop will continually ramp up the level of force when a suspect resists, with the logical end result being death, a manager must use threats of marginalization and potential humiliation or at least make it clear he is willing to consider such a direction.

Fletcher did neither and casually acceded to the wishes of the players whose refusal will now stall the Leafs' rebuilding. This fact seemed to have dawned on Fletcher (along with his now sadly inappropriate handle "trader Cliff") at a press conference, where he expressed some of the callousness and urgency that should have been present from the beginning.

Leafs fans better not dream of champagne anytime soon. The only thing they'll be sucking on for a long time to come is tired old sentiments and empty promises. And as they do, perhaps they can be at least satisfied in the knowledge that a handful of players were able to write the script for their final days in the league without concern for one of the great motivating forces that has long been part of professional sports.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Valentine's Day: The Perfect Script and Fan Loyalty

Many people, mostly of the female persuasion, seem to have a script in their minds regarding the potential love of their lives and how things should play out. One of the most important aspects is the initial meeting. The more quirky and memorable the better.

In keeping with the popular romantic comedy plot-lines of the day, it doesn't take much for a person to steer a situation towards an appropriate starting point. Something that can be retold at family gatherings and starts the relationship off with a dramatic flair, convincing the woman that the whole narrative will play out according to plan.

When that initial encounter was too embarrassing or bland, the passage of time and revisionist history can set things right.

So too with sports fans, their first experience with a team can take on special significance. It doesn't have to be grand or extreme to become a tale worth re-telling. Just spun correctly.

Vicinity is the most obvious factor that brings a couple or a fan and his team together. But just as often it can be psychological and as a way of rebelling against authority.

"Me old man drove me head against a brick wall tellin' me I'd be a Millwall supporter for the rest of me bleedin' life. I started to see stars and then they formed the Arsenal crest. It was a match made in white trash heaven I tell ya'!"

Once the relationship is up and running, it's bound to become dysfunctional in no time at all. As with the male/female variety, the wheels start to come off because of assumptions, expectations and good old fashioned boredom.

When the times are good (i.e. a good job and success or the team is winning) those problems become insignificant. As with all relationships, however, the real test is when the bloated gut appears, the teeth fall out and others around you seem to be having all the fun. Many remain loyal to the bitter end, holding up sad mantras and the accumulation of years as some kind of badge of honour. The nasty, twisted aspect of the crumbling marriage becomes a sick joke that has its own certain appeal.

Others start to "get a little bit on the side" (cheering for a "secondary" team) just to make things somewhat tolerable while still keeping the primary relationship alive out of sheer habit. Perhaps the illicit affair provides more of what the person really needs but just as likely the seedy taboo aspect is what provides the real thrill.

Sometimes circumstance intervenes and what was a less than perfect set-up comes to an end because of practical reasons. A team goes bankrupt or is bought and moves hundreds or thousands of miles away to start again (the Winnipeg Jets or Quebec Nordiques.) The split is emotional but it seems to ignore the fact that things were probably doomed anyway if it had carried on as before.

It creates an instant nostalgia for a handful of wackos who can't let go and they are left to forever lament the loss and dream about an unlikely reunion. (Not sure of a good analogy here for husbands and wives...a temporary job overseas that slowly becomes permanent? A rich Arab lures the woman half away around the world, leaving her lazy oaf of a husband in his menial job? )

After years of futility, the long suffering fools who have remained loyal may get a burst of redemption with a championship. Then things settle back into their old patterns and the pleasure from that moment in the sun slowly recedes.

Some fans have no time for sentiment and will abandon their team for a younger club with more excitement and potential and not saddled with self-destructive habits that ultimately lead to long-term failure. They are scorned by others who stand by their haggard and well-used mates/teams. They have to attack those who left for greener pastures. To not do so would invalidate their own character and choices.

But there's more to the rage and disdain directed at the ones who have moved on. There's a small bit of envy and regret that they haven't taken the hard, purely self-serving approach that results in more short-term happiness.

Maybe the teams and people in life who take the ruthless, win-at-all-costs attitude do enjoy the most success, recognition and satisfaction while those who are always mired in mediocrity are left to offer up stale bromides and meaningless rationalizations.

Whether the relationship you have with your favourite sports team is healthy, obsessive, twisted, dysfunctional, masochistic or otherwise...

HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Former NHL Players and Life After Hockey: Dave Feamster

I decided to take a break from reading hockey or other sports related books for a while. So I picked up "Fast Food Nation" by Eric Schlosser, a non-fiction book I've been wanting to read for a few years. It's a well-written and researched look at the history and inner workings of the fast-food industry in the U.S.

I was barely one-third of the way through when I came upon this unexpected reference to a former NHL player, Dave Feamster:
Dave Feamster, the owner of the restaurant, is completely at ease behind the counter, hanging out with his Latino employees and customers--but at the same time seems completely out of place.

Feamster was born and raised in a working-class neighborhood of Detroit. He grew up playing in youth hockey leagues and later attended college in Colorado Springs on an athletic scholarship. He was an All-American during his senior year, a defenseman picked by the Chicago Black Hawks in the college draft. After graduating from Colorado College with a degree in business, Feamster played in the National Hockey League, a childhood dream come true. The Black Hawks reached the playoffs during his first three years on the team, and Feamster got to compete against some of his idols, against Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. Feamster was not a big star, but he loved the game, earned a good income, and traveled all over the country; not bad for a blue-collar kid from Detroit.

On March 14, 1984, Feamster was struck from behind by Paul Holmgren during a game with the Minnesota North Stars. Feamster never saw the hit coming and slammed into the boards head first. He felt dazed, but played out the rest of the game. Later, in the shower, his back started to hurt. An x-ray revealed a stress fracture of a bone near the base of his spine. For the next three months Feamster wore a brace that extended from his chest to his waist. The cracked bone didn't heal. At practice sessions the following autumn, he didn't feel right. The Black Hawks wanted him to play, but a physician at the Mayo Clinic examined him and said, "If you were my son, I'd say find another job; move on." Feamster worked out for hours at the gym every day, trying to strengthen his back. He lived with two other Black Hawk players. Every morning the three of them would eat breakfast together, then his friends would leave for practice, and Feamster would find himself just sitting there at the table.

So what does that have to do with the fast food industry? Feamster left the team before Christmas that season and his hockey career was finished. The book goes on to detail how he bought a Little Caesars pizza franchise a year later (the company is owned by Mike Ilitch, who also owns the Detroit Red Wings) and undertook the day-to-day duties of making and delivering pizzas and mopping floors. Within about 15 years he owned five of the restaurants with yearly revenues of $2.5 million.

Schlosser weaves Feamster's story throughout the chapter on fast-food franchisees and includes anecdotes about how the former NHLer makes a genuine effort to better the lives of the often disadvantaged employees who work for him.

I always find it interesting to read about the lives of former professional hockey players long since out of the game. If you remember them at all, it's through the haze of the past, with all the memories, regrets and changes you've experienced in between. And tales like Feamster's are what makes sports so intriguing beyond the game being played on the field or ice. An obvious microcosm of life, it offers up an endless string of tragedies and triumphs that permanently alter the players and often the fans as well.

Here it's the vagaries of the physical world and how they can hammer our hopes and dreams into sawdust. The suddenness of change and lost potential and whether you have what it takes to turn real personal defeat into something different than you expected but rewarding nonetheless.

And it relates to a feeling I've had for some time. While in the early part of our lives many of us may dismiss the cliched talk of honour and respect and all those vague ideas that add up to how we treat others, who we are and what becomes our reputation, in the end it isn't just a load of maudlin crap best dealt with by Hollywood movies.

Also more grist in there for people who want to talk of certain organizations of today and how those at the top influence and instill values and can create a culture that permeates entire teams.

And the fascination of wondering what repercussions will flow from the incidents and situations of today and how current players will be affected. Perhaps 15 years from now we will be reading about what direction Patrice Bergeron's life took after a potentially shortened NHL career.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

NHL Goalie Masks, White-Trash Tattoos and Black Velvet Paintings

The look of many NHL goalie masks has taken on a certain sameness in recent seasons. Somehow reminiscent of white-trash tattoos, black velvet paintings and mid-70's custom designed airbrush artwork on the side of vans (remember CARtoons?)

The knee-jerk reaction from most fans is "Oooooooh!" "Kewl!" Kind of like a group of people gathered around someone with a fresh tattoo. What else can you really say to a person who has branded themselves with a permanent piece of bad art? The shameless attempt to get attention somehow demands universal public approval (with the assurance that it was done strictly for "personal" reasons) and any deviation from the herd-mentality backslapping and congratulating elicits contempt.

Like with all these mediums that appeal to self-proclaimed mavericks, the same subject matter and themes show up time and again. Pop culture anti-heroes, unintentionally laughable images of horror and death and fierce caricatures of animals.

The only thing missing from the goalie masks are the nihilistic, self-loathing slogans. Instead of "Born to Lose," maybe a down-on-his-luck career backup can have his mask emblazoned with "Born to be Traded" or "FTN" (Fuck the NHL.)

While many of the renderings are gaudy and flat out ridiculous, they fit in with the image goalies have perpetuated for themselves over the years. A breed apart, wacked out individuals who have taken a few too many shots to the head, true eccentrics.

There was no goalie further out than Gilles Gratton. He was perhaps the first to customize his goalie mask with detailed artwork. He had a lion's head painted on when he played for the New York Rangers in the 1976-77 season. He probably would have been one of the first to adopt the elaborately designed masks of today. Until it became the thing to do, at which point he would have said to hell with it.

What started out as an interesting novelty has become the standard. Give me the clean, uncluttered masks of keepers like Chris Osgood. Timeless, minimalist, evocative of honour, pride and the determination to win. The sloppy sentimentality of these personalized helmets elicits images of well-paid and satisfied individuals preoccupied with trivial matters.

Just like the high-school kid who refuses to go along with the sheep who all dress in a similarly freakish manner to highlight themselves as "different," the goalies who don't adorn their masks are now the real rebels.

I'll admit I've praised them as well (goalie masks, not tattoos.) There is something in the collective weirdness of these out of place pieces of glorified graffiti. Maybe it's a conscious decision to grow the fan-base in the southern U.S. where NASCAR and professional wrestling are often mentioned as far more successful rivals to the NHL. Speaking of NASCAR, this example has got to be a celebration of kitsch and an attempt to be "so bad it's good."

Oddly enough, just as the trend has become popular, the demographic those kinds of images are most associated with is being priced out of attending live NHL games. Of course, they can still buy merchandise and there may even be a few sops to them along the way.

Word is that a video montage is being prepared to air before the NHL All-Star game. A group of NHL goalies heads out while wearing their helmets, stick-on tattoos, big nasty belt buckles and t-shirts with reprints of the top selling black velvet masterpieces currently being flogged from the trunks of cars in the southern U.S.

They hop on Harleys and take a cross-country trek, stopping off at traveling carnival midways, head shops, biker conventions and new-age communes. They finally roll into Atlanta on January 27th, 2008, just in time for the all-star game. Reeling from the mind-altering substances they've consumed and accompanied by the human detritus they've picked up along the way, they stumble into the arena as Born to be Wild blares in the background.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

NHL Hockey Fights: Visors and the Unsportsmanlike Conduct Rule

I sometimes have a moment of clarity when watching a hockey fight. "This is bloody absurd," is what usually comes to mind.

An explosive spur of the moment dust-up between two middleweights isn't the kind of bout that invokes such thoughts. It's usually a pair of long-standing heavyweight goons who casually challenge each other while a faceoff is taking place and then doff their gloves and start throwing after the play begins.

A bit strange and no surprise it causes some hockey watching newbies to scratch their heads and wonder if this part of the game is on par with "professional" wrestling.

Another aspect of fighting that brings into question the mentality of the players involved, is when one or both are wearing visors while throwing punches.

This doesn't seem to be a habit practiced by only those individuals who rarely ever get engaged in a fight (see Sidney Crosby's recent scrap.) For someone like that it would be completely understandable. In the heat of the moment and focused on protecting yourself and flailing wildly, removing your helmet is the last thing to be considered.


Iginla fightJarome Iginla has been one player who has received a lot of criticism for repeatedly fighting with a visor on. I haven't personally seen many Flames' games this year nor seen Iginla in a fight. I am mainly going on second hand accounts posted on discussion forums. Though I have also seen him in fights without a helmet (which may have come off incidentally.)

The number of critical comments may also be due to his high-profile and the fact that he causes a lot of damage to other teams with his scoring and hence is singled out for those times when he keeps his helmet and visor on when fighting.

There is actually a penalty in the NHL rule book that addresses fighting with a visor:

Rule 47.6 states:
Face Protection - If a player penalized as an instigator of an altercation is wearing a face shield (including a goalkeeper), he shall be assessed an additional unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Should the player (including a goalkeeper) who instigates the fight be wearing a face shield, but removes it before instigating the altercation, the additional unsportsmanlike conduct penalty shall not apply.

I can't recall this penalty ever being called. It is contingent on a player being tagged with the instigator penalty first. With the fighting major and unsportsmanlike tacked on that would add up to nine minutes. Something that is rarely seen on a scoring summary. But the scenario that is given as an example in the penalty description rarely occurs because those players who wear visors are least likely to initiate such a confrontation.

visor fightPlayers who don't wear visors do so because of comfort, familiarity and at least some pride in shunning extra protection. While those who choose to cover part of their face with a shield have probably had something similar to protect themselves with since they started playing the game. And they are no doubt less concerned with things like their hard-case credentials and the abstract and nebulous "code" that seems to shift and change with every situation and incident.

It seems as if the laying down of helmets before a fight is more ritualized in the junior ranks where pressure may be greater to adhere to some fighting "rules." Also, in many of those leagues facial protection is mandated and so the situation is the same for everyone.

For the longest time in the NHL players did not wear visors and so it was not an issue. There was no need to remove helmets before a fight though misplaced punches still resulted in many a dislocated knuckle or broken finger.

As more and more players have started wearing visors and fighting has remained a condoned and accepted part of the game, it hasn't really been addressed too much beyond the obscure rule mentioned above.

Perhaps it's being left to the players in the hopes that simple common sense goes some way to reducing the number of slug-fests. Two players with shields who decide to battle and keep their lids on have to live with whatever hand injuries come their way. A player without a visor who goes after one with, is simply accepting the inherent disadvantage.

Regardless of whatever sense of honour there is in making it a fair fight, even if there is enough time to remove a helmet, there is something in-built that results in an aversion to exposing yourself to further danger. But a player with a visor who initiates or even mutually accepts an overture to start throwing haymakers, should have some obligation to remove his extra protection or face an additional penalty.

Unfortunately for those players who like the intimidation that the potential for some fisticuffs provides, they may have to accept that visored players enjoy some added insulation. Their decision to wear the shield increases the chances of hand injuries for opponents and reduces the likelihood that they will end up in a fight.

In fact, visors can and do also result in some face injuries for players who keep them on during punch-ups. But it's common sense that a player is better off with more protection when staring down a possible on-ice hammering and will probably avoid the kind of nasty season ending injury recently suffered by Mark Bell.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

NHL 2007-08 Mid-season Review

2008 is the year of the rat in the Chinese zodiac calendar.

Rats are tough, resilient creatures and often fearless when faced down by much larger animals. They're also despised filth that live in sewers and eat shit.

So the godfathers of the world's different species of vermin possess some of the qualities important for athletes to be successful. But they aren't amongst the more glamorous and prestigious beasts nor are they likely candidates for professional sports team names.

Still, there are examples of such teams in minor and recreational hockey leagues, though some kind of compound noun is usually used to soften the image.

The Albany River Rats play in the American Hockey League (AHL) and are currently affiliated with the Carolina Hurricanes in the NHL.

As 2008 begins, perhaps a sign, however far removed, that the Canes could have a better and more consistent final half of the season.

Though many players have exemplified rat-like qualities over the years, one NHLer became synonymous with the label. Kenny "the rat" Linseman played in the NHL for 13 seasons and established himself as a world class agitator. He riled teams, tormented opposing players and on occasion would throw down the gloves. Though he would just as soon let those he badgered take a penalty for retaliation.

According to legend, he was actually given the nickname because of the way he skated leaning forward with his snout in the air as opposed to the tendencies he supposedly shared with rats.

No doubt there will be more than few incidents in the second half of the 2007-08 season that will see other players compared to the nasy little rodent.

And with most NHL teams having passed the half-way mark in the season, it's time to look at what's in store for the remainder of the campaign.
Eastern Conference

The Ottawa Senators have stumbled a few times in the first half but still maintain their relative dominance in the weaker of the NHL's two conferences. At times, goal-tending has been one suspect area for the Senators, with both Martin Gerber and Ray Emery each having played at least a few poor games.

Gerber is still the number one goalie while the Emery soap opera has become an unwanted distraction. The latest chapter in the tiresome yet eagerly lapped up melodrama involves Emery and his team-mate Brian McGrattan engaging in a scrap at practice.

A highly paid pro athlete who demonstrates this kind of continued behaviour has a limited shelf life. The cachet of having played in the finals last year together with the fact that Emery is still a pretty good netminder should be enough to allow GM Brian Murray the option of shopping him around at the deadline.

The New Jersey Devils got off to a disappointing start to the season but they have ridden Martin Brodeur's strong play and rattled off two months of consistent efforts to establish themselves as the current leaders in the Atlantic division.

The Carolina Hurricanes' 46 points (Edit: now at 48 points) would see them out of the playoff race if they were in the Western conference. But it gets them top spot in the league's weakest grouping in the Southwest division and the accompanying third place in the conference. One of the more exciting teams in the league, the Canes are only second behind the Detroit Red Wings in goals scored but have also surrendered more than 26 clubs in the league.

They also hold that uncommon distinction of having allowed more goals that they've scored while still holding onto a playoff spot.

The Toronto Maple Leafs began a road swing in California this week, with games against all three of the state's NHL clubs. Team President Richard Peddie is accompanying the team, with the tacit qualifier that he needs to be on hand if a trade request comes in for Mats Sundin (not sure how to break the logic of that one down--perhaps to lean on Sundin to waive his no trade clause or maybe because the Sharks and Ducks are two of the teams mentioned most often as being interested in a potential swap.)

With this news the public castration of GM John Ferguson Junior is almost complete. Ferguson could now walk away from the team without further humiliation and not many people would label him a quitter (as absurd as that seems.) While he has apparently been marginalized to a degree that he no longer has full control over the normal duties of an NHL general manager, it seems as though he will still have some say in any big moves made before the trade deadline.

A further example of the poor decision making wracking this organization. The likelihood that Ferguson will be around next season is almost nil yet he may have a say in pulling the trigger on moves that could affect the direction of the team for years to come.

The shortcomings of the Leafs were highlighted by the injury to Vesa Toskala and the team's record during that stretch was horrid. Many fans are now shamelessly pulling for Toronto to do poorly in the hopes that they will get a high draft pick and start the rebuilding process in the off-season.

That period in the teams' development can and should start early with a trade of Sundin before the deadline. As much as he means to the team and their fans, allowing Sundin to play out this season as a Leaf and become a free agent is too risky.

Of course there are obstacles to making such a trade. The biggest one being the availability of other teams with acceptable offers for the Swede. A skilled GM would be able to negotiate, entice and put together proposals to help pull off a deal that would benefit the team for years to come.

The nightmare scenario for Leafs fans is a move that sees the organization fleeced for their most prolific and enduring franchise player of all time.

For a team that many picked as winning their division and potentially going deep into the playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins got off to a disappointing start. Their young stars have been steady performers, if unspectacular by their standards, but goaltending has been a question mark for them. Circumstances provided a chance for Ty Conklin and he has responded well, rattling off seven straight victories and helping the Pens to an 8-2 record in their past 10.

The Flyers underwent more changes than any other club in the offseason and their strong start seemed to indicate it was paying dividends. Although they have been hit with a slew of injuries and went through one difficult stretch, it appears as though they will remain in the thick of the top eight standings in the east.

Steve Downie may be emerging as a strong NHL forward sooner than anyone expected. Despite all the Downie haters out there (I've offered my share of criticism as well) he has the potential to be more than a 3rd or 4th line grinder. The irony is that for all the scorn people heap on him, if he were to take that advice and develop some self-discipline in terms of his on-ice conduct, he would be far more valuable to the team.

If the Flyers make a move to pick up a solid goaltender before the trade deadline, they could be a real threat to wreak some havoc come playoff time.

The Montreal Canadiens have already surpassed expectations for many. Though demoted for the time being, Carey Price has been a strong back-up to Cristoabl Huet and there is not much doubt that he has a long and promising future with the team.

The Washington Capitals, Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning are essentially out of the playoff race already. There is still a tight grouping in the conference and they are only, respectively, four, five and eight points out of contention. But to close that gap becomes more and more difficult as the season progresses. A four or five game losing streak for any of those teams and it is basically over.

I had almost written off the Capitals earlier in the season but of the three teams I see them as perhaps the only one able to make the Herculean effort required to squeak in. Bruce Boudreau appears to have grabbed the brass ring and connected with his players in a way that is pulling something extra from the depths of their battered souls at just the right time.

A memorable run and qualifying for the playoffs would make the Caps' eventual offer to Alexander Ovechkin seem a lot more attractive as well. It would hopefully (for their sake) convince him not to become a restricted free agent at the end of a season that had looked like a wash in the early going.

That would make for one hell of an interesting opening round against the Ottawa Senators (assuming the Sens don't bottle it somehow.) The Capitals have had Ottawa's number this year, winning all three of their match-ups so far (with one yet to come) by a combined score of 18-10.

They will of course have to put together a long and consistent string of games to catch up with the pack and then emerge ahead of other teams such as the Boston Bruins, New York Islanders, Buffao Sabres, New York Rangers, Atlanta Thrashers and Florida Panthers.

Early in the season the Buffalo Sabres had a hard time adjusting to the loss of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. They have started to get points from the likes of Jason Pominville, Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek and as a team are in the top ten in goals per game. But without that huge "goals for" advantage they had last season, they haven't quite found a way to pull out as many of those games decided by fewer goals that are much more common for them this year.

After six straight wins starting in mid-December, the Sabres are currently in the midst of a nasty seven game winless streak (though they have three shootout loss points in that stretch.)
Western Conference

The Detroit Red Wings have run away with the conference and barring some late season disaster will coast into the playoffs as the league's best team and Cup favourite.

Since the Dallas Stars fired general manager Doug Armstrong and hired Les Jackson and Brett Hull to replace him back on November 13th, they have been one of the best teams in the league. With the exception of a four game losing streak they came out of this week, they hadn't lost more than two in a row after the switch and have a record of 18-9-1 in that span.

Whether or not the firing and hiring has had any real effect is hard to measure. If it has been felt, then no doubt the benefits are psychological, as the new duo have not made any significant trades (on December 10th defenseman Jussi Timonen was picked up from Philadelphia for a 2009 conditional draft pick) since taking over. The cap era limitations and the team's performance have made the need for changes less urgent though the two are likely eager to make their influence felt.

The Vancouver Canucks are rolling along under the superb puck stopping ability of Roberto Luongo. Anyone who followed the Canucks run in the playoffs last season and who has also witnessed the inconsistent performance of some of their top scorers this year (i.e. Markus Naslund) has got to think that Dave Nonis will pull off a trade before the deadline. A team just doesn't have that many years when they possess the potential to make a real run at the Stanley Cup.

In the first month or so of the schedule, the San Jose Sharks didn't look like the Stanley Cup favourites many had picked them as at the start of the season. Since that time they have been solid in front of the tireless and consistent play of netminder Evgeni Nabokov (41 straight starts this season and a 2.01 goals against average.) They too are mentioned as a team looking to make a move before February 26th (but then which club isn't with the proliferation of online rumour mongering?)

The Ducks have gotten their legs back and are once again one of the toughest teams to play against. The return of Scott Niedermayer, a healthy Todd Bertuzzi and talk of Teemu Selanne's comeback in the air are all reasons for the team and their fans to be optimistic. Another organization that shows up in trade rumours though Brian Burke is one general manager who is more likely than most to pull something off before the deadline.

The Calgary Flames are finally living up to some of their potential. Jarome Iginla has been on a blistering pace and depending where the Flames finish out this season, many are already mentioning him as a candidate for the Hart Trophy. Apparently Miikka Kiprusoff has shed his off-season flab, hasn't been sighted puffing cigarettes for some time and can concentrate on bringing down his goals against average and being one of the better goalies in the league now that he has sewn up a fat long-term contract.

The Minnesota Wild have apparently been sold mere moments ago with a press conference pending. Just the type of off-ice development that can spark a sense of excitement around a team. Perhaps it will prod the Wild out of the funk they have been in recently.

The Colorado Avalanche have been slumping lately with injuries to Joe Sakic and Ryan Smyth while the Nashville Predators have been surging.

With their play in recent weeks , the St. Louis Blues in eighth place could make a move in the standings in the second half of the season. With at least one game in hand on teams above them in the standings and as many as five, they have the opportunity to climb within their conference.

Andy McDonald was a little slow in starting to contribute to the Blues' offense after being traded from the Anaheim Ducks but he notched three points in a game against the Blue Jackets the other night. For the Blues it could be a sign of good things to come.

The Phoenix Coyotes are the surprise of the season. Since they picked up Ilya Bryzgalov off waivers they have been on a real tear. Under the guidance of Wayne Gretzky the Yotes have really started to play with a lot of effort. They have knocked off some of the strongest teams in the NHL and currently have the best road record in the league.

The most important thing is that they leave everything they have on the ice most nights. Gretzky has spoken in a few interviews this year about how his coaching style has changed and the fact that he has taken a tougher approach towards his players.

Although the all-time scoring leader in the NHL and the player considered by many to be the greatest ever, he still has a knack for remaining as low key as someone with his past could ever hope to be.

The Columbus Blue Jackets' surprisingly good play in the early going has flattened out though they still have a realistic chance at one of the last two playoff spots in the west. They will need some more stellar play from their goalie Pascal Leclaire and offensive production from the likes of Rick Nash, who has gone through some lengthy scoring droughts this year.

The Los Angeles Kings are the only bonafide write-off of the season. While it's still statistically possible for them to pull off a miracle, it would require an unlikely run and the collapse of some teams above them.

Why Marc Crawford hasn't been sacked yet is a mystery (Edit: OK, I'll take a swing: he seems to have the confidence of his general manager through this rebuilding season.) Though any meaningful boost they could gain from a coaching change at this point would be lost in the futility of trying to qualify for the postseason.

The Chicago Blackhawks have slowed down after their impressive start and the knee injury to Jonatahan Toews is a disappointment in what was a probable Calder Trophy season. If he's out much longer, chances at being named rookie of the year will probably slip away. At least his performance and that of Patrick Kane are reasons for Hawks fans to be optimistic.

And yet, just as with the Edmonton Oilers, it's still reasonable for the fans of both teams to hope that they can make a second half charge and get in under the wire for the NHL's second and more important season.

The Oilers have that incredible overtime and shootout record that keeps them going and Dustin Penner has started showing some of the potential that had Oiler fans thinking positively in the offseason. They have been hit with a bunch of injuries as well and risk missing out on the playoffs for the second year in a row. But their fans more than most recognize the possibility of unlikely events and streaks and remain some of the most loyal and passionate in the league.

A sense of excitement is in the air as talks of possible deals percolate and ricochet around the blogosphere and in the mainstream media. Who will have enough creativity, guts or just plain desperation to pull the trigger on a big trade?

Regardless of any changes made before the deadline, it's guaranteed to be another tight finish in the NHL standings this season.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

NHL Hits and Suspensions: Derian Hatcher, Alexander Steen, Joffrey Lupul

Maple Leafs logoFlyers logoThe Philadelphia Flyers are at it again. This time, however, the attempt to inflict damage on an opposing player backfired.

The hit was delivered by the Philadelphia Flyers' Derian Hatcher, fresh off accusations that he bit the finger of the New Jersey Devils' Travis Zajac when the two teams played on January 4th at the Rock in Newark.

But this Downiesque attempt to take off an opposing player's head had unintended consequences during the game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Flyers on January 5th, 2008.

Hatcher hitIn the second period of the game, Hatcher lined up Alexander Steen with an open-ice hit, clearly launching himself at that crucial last second before impact, where the physics of such a move guarantee the most momentum and effect.

Unfortunately for Hatcher, and even more for his team-mate Joffrey Lupul, Steen's instincts kicked in and he hit the ice. Lupul took the elbow intended for Steen straight in the chops, going down under the full weight of the lummox Hatcher. Lupul was helped off the ice with images of cheese steaks and freight trains dancing in his head.

Hatcher Steen LupulThe spinning has already started with rabid denials of the reality staring people in the face in the form of video from multiple angles.

Considering the usual template that is applied in the aftermath of such incidents, there could be some synapses short-circuiting amongst the sociopath set.

Does Lupul deserve the (potential though unconfirmed at the moment) injury he suffered because he didn't anticipate the hit?

What about that tiresome cliche that was being spewed with regularity by certain fans early in the season? Does it get tweaked slightly?

"It's great to be feared again to have our players scared of getting their heads taken off by one of our own goons!"

It also presents an interesting conundrum for NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell. Do you suspend a player clearly engaging in the type of behaviour that has been suspension-worthy this season? Or do you let the fact that the hit took out one of the Flyers' own players stand as punishment enough?

Contact and degree of injury are two of the obvious tests for the league in determining whether they will hand down further punishment for an illegal hit. It would be remarkable if the NHL expressed their displeasure for Hatcher and the Flyers by doling out an official sanction in this case.

Campbell and Gary Bettman have both hinted recently that the next incident from the Flyers would result in fines against the team.

If anyone had doubts about whether the series of attacks and illegal body checks (some blatant, some border-line) that resulted in suspensions to Philadelphia were unfortunate "coincidences," there has been little question for some time now that they are part of a conscious and deliberate approach to the game.

As for the match-up between the Leafs and Flyers, Steve Downie's style of conduct was on display again with a sucker punch to Jason Blake that resulted in two minor penalties and allowed the Leafs to get back in the game with a power play goal. Downie's actions may well be in for a review by the league as well, especially considering his antics earlier in the season.

The Flyers went on to win the contest 3-2. Though it helped them little in this game, their fans will likely brush aside criticism of their style of play with the claim "winning is the most important thing, no matter how you do it."

Video of Derian Hatcher's Mistaken Hit on Joffrey Lupul

Friday, January 4, 2008

NHL Hockey Fights: Jarkko Ruutu vs. Darcy Tucker

Leafs logoPenguins logoListening to the Toronto Maple Leafs/Pittsburgh Penguins game on radio, I didn't get a clear sense of who had won the fight between Darcy Tucker and Jarkko Ruutu. Shameless homerism by announcers has been known to result in less than objective descriptions.

This fight took place during a game between the Leafs and Penguins in Pittsburgh on January 3rd, 2008.

It starts out at about the midway point of the second period with the game tied 1-1.

Ruutu lays a hit on Tucker in the Pittsburgh zone. Tucker starts yapping, goes after Ruutu and both players throw down their gloves. They grab hold of each other and Tucker starts throwing the right cross, three ineffectual shots barely making contact with Ruutu's face.

Ruutu gets a hold of the sweater behind Tucker's head, pulling his head down and knocking his helmet off. Tucker continues throwing blind shots, his right hand landing behind his opponent's head and having little effect.

The two are now in a momentary standoff , circling and trying to get their arms free. Tucker's face is an almost comical beet red from exertion and rage. Ruutu tries to get his right hand up and over to land a punch but Tucker has a strong hold on the sleeve of his adversary's right arm.

Now in an almost identical reply, Tucker tries to throw a right but Ruutus's grip renders the punch meaningless. Tucker shows some fighting skill and instantly counters with a left hook that doesn't connect but the force of his swing knocks Ruutu slightly off balance. Once again a mirror image response as Ruutu throws a looping left hook that is way off the mark and the two fall towards each other.

Tucker eye gougeThe natural physics of any fight will force the combatants to adopt similar tactics to counter whichever situation develops and the attack style of whomever has the upper hand. Hockey fights are no different--and probably more so because of the logistics-- but this bout is uncanny in the near simultaneous actions of both players.

Ruutu Tucker fightIt couldn't have been choreographed to coincide more perfectly as both players rake their clawed hands across the other's face at the same instant, with Tucker perhaps getting in an eye gouge in the process.

Both come out of that nasty bit of intimacy and get their right hands free at the same time. Ruutu throws a right hook that lands behind his opponent's head and then brings his arm down and pistons a few shots into Tucker's guts.

Tucker Ruutu fightNow they both have their right arms up and identically timed right hooks glance off both of their faces. Another pair of right hooks at the same time. Tucker throws another that knocks off Ruutu's helmet while Ruutu leans away to adjust to having his lid removed and manages one weak right cross at the same time.

Tucker throws a few more quick right hooks but only one more lands, giving him three out of six since this recent flurry began.

A brief let up from both. Now Ruutu throws three solid right hooks, all landing. Tucker stops the barrage by getting his left hand over top of Ruutu's head and briefly holds onto the back of his sweater. Ruutu is looping punches around Tucker's arm however, a few of them crunching into the Leaf player's skull.

While maintaining a slight edge to this point, the momentum now clearly shifts to the Penguins' player. Ruutu rattles off 2, 3, 4 5, 6 right hooks to the side and back of Tucker's head, some of them hitting home harder than others.

Now Ruutu gets his right hand completely free and throws at will, landing nine solid right crosses directly into Tucker's face. Hard meaty blows into Tucker's blazing red mug. Tucker takes them all and doesn't waver once, gamely flailing with his right but connecting with none except for perhaps the last punch of the fight that may have hit its mark.

The body language says it all as the refs come in and separate the two. Tucker nearly collapsing into the safety of the penalty box, spent and thoroughly destroyed by Ruutu. It appears Tucker is almost out of it, the look of of a deer in the headlights that just got run over, conscious that a linesman is conversing with him but likely unaware of exactly what is being said.

Ruutu is loose, relaxed and confident in the knowledge that he has won handily. Praise from his teamamtes for success in battle will come when he rejoins them on the bench and later in the locker-room.

Though Tucker clearly lost this battle, his fearless approach to the fight is the only reason Ruutu could score such a victory. Remember also that Ruutu has 3 inches and at least 20 pounds on the Leafs' player, with the added advantage in reach that goes with such a size difference as well.

It's of course easy to dissect a fight after it occurs. In the heat of the battle the announcers are calling it in real time without the advantage of repeated replays. Still, the bias in this one is glaring.

YouTube Video of Fight Between Tucker and Ruutu


It's admirable that Tucker didn't go down under such a bludgeoning. But the long term effects after that kind of beating can be significant, especially for someone like Tucker who has to play with an edge to contribute to his team. It will be interesting to see how he bounces back in subsequent games and how willing he is to throw down the gloves in the near future.