Showing posts with label Hockey. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hockey. Show all posts

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Book Review: Leafs AbomiNation by Dave Feschuk and Michael Grange

The Toronto Maple Leafs have more fans than any other single NHL hockey team. They also have more "followers" than any other team.  A follower is someone who enjoys the soap-opera quality of the team and all the related drama but does not necessarily want the team to win.

Followers are perplexing to true fans and are often labeled as "haters" (to which any good follower will simply respond with "If I'm a hater, then you're a fellater." Or to the equally ridiculous "Haters gonna hate"—one of the many clichés of the mindless discussion board simpletons who are flummoxed by nuance—"Fellaters gonna fellate.")

Like any good ongoing social experiment played out for the whole world to see, the Maple Leafs and their fans provide never-ending intrigue and insights into the human condition.

Both fans and followers of the Toronto Maple Leafs will enjoy Leafs AbomiNation by Dave Feschuk and Michael Grange. Despite the title of the book, the picture on the front (a Leafs fan with a paper bag over his head), and quotes that appeared from the book when it was released in 2009, this is not a book true fans should shy away from. While it will make for tough reading at times because of the realization of how good the Leafs could have been over the years, it is not the book-length screed that many fear.

It is simply a fascinating look at the Leafs and some of the reasons that have contributed to their ineptitude over the past 40-plus years.

Arrogance and Incompetence

The theme that emerges as Feshchuk and Grange look at numerous factors is that of mind-numbing arrogance and hubris. A long line of blundering, smug, self-satisfied individuals who have held the reins of the Leafs has resulted in long stretches of horrible play and no Stanley Cup since 1967.

One of the ways that this arrogance manifests itself is in the passing over of some of the greatest players ever to play the game.  It's as if the almighty egos that have soiled the Leafs team ownership and management over the years were affronted that anyone dare to suggest that a great player should be given the chance to play for such a club.

Imagine the player considered the greatest to ever play the game, who grew up worshiping the Leafs and would have given anything to play for them. Yet the moronic Leaf owners were so full of themselves that they let Bobby Orr slip away. This is Orr on why he never had the chance to play for the Leafs:
"Like all kids growing up in Ontario, I watched the Leafs play each Saturday on Hockey Night in Canada and listened to Foster Hewitt on the radio," Orr would tell Howard Berger years later. "They were my favourite team because I saw them every week. I hardly knew anything about the Bruins. So I'm sure my parents wouldn't have been too disappointed if Toronto had shown the same amount of interest in me that Boston did."

How did the Leafs miss?

"My people," Stafford Smythe would later fume, "were too goddamn stupid."

In today's salary cap world, the popular claim is that while the Leafs are by far the wealthiest team in the league, their spending power no longer results in any advantage (not that they were able to use this wealth to give them any leg-up when there was no cap).

But the ability to buy out players and invest in what should be the most comprehensive and far-reaching scouting system in the NHL puts the lie to that sorry excuse. What is even sorrier, however, is that the Leafs are not known to have any sort of advantage over their rivals when it comes to scouting.

Feshchuk and Grange write about this subject and raise it with Richard Peddie, President and CEO of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment:
For most teams it's not a huge expense. When scouts travel they aren't staying on Central Park South in New York—more like the Four Points by Sheraton in Kamloops. Logic suggests that the highest-revenue team in hockey, playing in a city that's mad for a Cup, would blow the rest of the league away when it came to spending on finding talent. The salary cap dictates that the Leafs can no longer out-spend their rivals on player salaries, but they can spend all they like on scouts and coaches. If you want to improve, according to the Peddie mantra, you measure. But suddenly the numbers escape him. "I can't remember where we're at," he says. "But I look at it."

Do the Leafs spend more than any other hockey team?

"No," he admits. "We haven't to date."

They go on to rip Peddie for the meddling that resulted in, among other things, the hiring of John Ferguson Junior as general manager of the Leafs. The authors make a pretty good case that Ferguson was hired because he was relatively inexperienced and therefore was more receptive to being manipulated by the likes of Peddie.

Dough Boy and the Cement Head

Players are not spared here either, as the celebrity culture that surrounds the Leafs is explored and some of the worst offenders over the years are skewered. Feschuck and Grange seem to have a special loathing for Tie Domi, and highlight him as an attention-seeking buffoon who was more concerned about promoting himself than the interests of the team. (And if there is any such thing as hockey karma, surely the pre-game celebration that the Leafs put on for Domi's 1000th NHL game will result in another 70 or 80 years of Cup-less seasons.)

Kyle Wellwood gets similarly ripped:
As a young kid it was a lot of fun, I definitely miss it. If Tie was bringing you out, you got a lot of attention, but it was nice. It was tough for the guys who were married or had a girlfriend.  .../That Wellwood could play three seasons in what is supposed to be one of the most demanding places for a hockey player to ply his trade, undergo three surgeries, miss the playoffs all three  years and wind up unceremoniously waived, and still say it was "funnest time of my life" makes a pretty strong case about the ancillary benefits of citizenship in Leafland.

A player with a conscience might feel differently.

Throughout the other chapters, readers are regaled with some great history and histrionics and numerous people are highlighted as the assholes they no doubt were/are. Consider Harold Ballard, a freakish anomaly who was one of the nastiest, most self-serving pieces of human garbage to ever own a sports team and proudly rode the Leafs into the ground during his reign. However, not sure if the amount of venom that Feschuk and Grange reserve for certain individuals is based on personal dislike or the degree of arrogance displayed by the person under the microscope.

For example, Larry Tanenbaum, the largest share holder of MLSE stock after the Ontario Teacher's pension plan, doesn't come across nearly as badly as you would expect for someone who stupidly predicted that within a few years of taking the position as chairman of MLSE in 2003 that the Leafs would win the Cup. Also, he seemed to be quite the enabler for that same Domi that Feshchuk and Grange despise so vehemently.

One Passionate Owner Could be the Key

But Tanenbaum has a quarter billion dollars of his own money invested in the Leafs, and for Feshchuk and Grange he represents the best current example in MLSE of an interesting theory that they discuss in the book. Perhaps the Leafs' failures over the years aren't only down to the arrogance and stupidity of ownership.

Or rather, perhaps that certain blend of smugness that produces such raw, unfettered crap on the ice is due to the fact that no true owner who is accountable and who lays it all on the line has been around since the days of Conn Smythe. After all, there are plenty of arrogant and successful team owners out there in hockey and other sports.

For the current Leafs, while the arrogance is present and leads to numerous horrific decisions, the final conclusion by Feschuk and Grange is that the nebulous structure of the current ownership is what likely brings about repeated dismal seasons.

The authors point out numerous other sports teams in recent years whose owners were motivated by a love of the game and not only profits. The theory fits with the Leafs as well. In the past 25 years, the most success that the Leafs have had has been under Steve Stavro, who truly was a fan, and did try with all his might to put together winning teams. The '93 and '94 squads with Doug Gilmour leading the team made it to the conference finals, and were it not for the failed call of a certain referee, would have been in the finals in '93.

But a single passionate owner isn't the case now, and it doesn't seem to be something that will become a reality anytime soon.

Burke the Blowhard

The unanswered question through all of this is, does the organization create arrogant self-serving individuals, or are the arrogant smug bastards somehow drawn to the whole insane freak show? Hard to say, though if the final hopeful chapter on Brian Burke is any indication, the answer is: it's probably some of both.

As the book was written before Burke had ridden the Leafs to 29th overall in the 2009–10 season, this quote from the blowhard that appears in the final chapter is very telling:
"The system that I have put together, the system we used successfully in Anaheim, we stole a whole bunch of that from the Colts. I didn't want learn how to handle  a cap when it came in. I spent the better part of three years studying how other teams did it. Rule number one is, you better draft well, because if you have star players, you need entry-level players that are playing, not just taking up a uniform, but contributing. If you've got star players on your team—guys making $5 and 7$ million—you'd better  have guys who are dent making $700, 000."

While the Phil Kessel deal doesn't make Burke a complete hypocrite in relation to this quote, it does at least show how the pressure of being the GM for the Leafs can change things very quickly.

Great, readable style in Leafs AbomiNation. None of the sycophantic drivel that plagues some hockey books. The observations are sharp, rightfully harsh in places and yet still provide some hope that one day things might change.

Another great year of Leafs hockey is in store for the legions of the team's followers. For fans, probably not so much.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Ted Leonsis Responds to Claim about Ovechkin Contract

Washington Capitals logoAccess is the lifeblood of journalists. Without the ability to interview key people and maintain an inside track on breaking news, journalists are nothing more than glorified bloggers. This is especially true in the world of sports writers.

The need to maintain access means that sports writers will not always break news that could be damaging to the team on which they report. Perhaps they soften their coverage just a tiny bit here and there. At least until the herd mentality has taken over their fellow hacks, and a particular storyline is deemed safe.

Otherwise, they may find themselves frozen out of the first tier of writers who are given prime interviews, tipped off about impending trades, and made privy to narratives that GMs and/or owners want to float with the aim of strengthening the image of a particular player they want to move.

Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Capitals, suggests in this blog post, that Damien Cox has made misleading comments about Alexander Ovechkin's contract because Cox did not have the access he wanted when writing a book about Ovechkin.

Interesting claim and just about impossible to prove. But let's at least take a look at what seems to have set off Leonsis. Here's what Cox writes in a piece entitled Outlaw owners get their way in Kovalchuk deal:
Ted Leonsis, to name another, was a hawk during the last labour struggle and now drinks deeply and gratefully from the revenue-sharing trough. The president of his Washington Capitals, Dick Patrick, is part of one of hockey’s most famous families and a committed league man.

But when they wanted to give Alexander Ovechkin a 13-year, $124 million contract, one they knew Bettman wouldn’t approve of, they did it anyway. That encouraged others, like the bizarre Tampa twosome of Len Barrie and Oren Koules, to engineer a deal with Vinny Lecavalier that started with a $10 million salary and wound down to $1 million.

So, it seems as though Cox is suggesting that the Ovechkin deal paved the way for others to offer long-term, front-loaded contracts to players with the aim of reducing the cap hit for their team. When you give a player who is say, 35 years-old, a 12 or 14 year deal that pays him 7 or 8 million dollars a year in the early part of the contract, and then tapers off to 1 million or less per year as the deal approaches the final years, then yes, a fairly strong argument can be made that an owner is trying to game the system.

First, it is unlikely that the player will be playing when the deal reaches its conclusion, or perhaps the deal will be renegotiated at some point in the future before it expires.

Here's the main problem with grouping the Ovechkin deal in with contracts that pull the long-term, front-loaded stunt with a player in his early to mid-thirties: Ovechkin's contract is not front-loaded! Ovechkin will be paid 9 to 10 million per year for the duration of the contract.

Not only that, this is probably not the last contract that Ovechkin will sign. He was 22 when he inked the deal with the Capitals, and he will be 35 when it expires. Finally, the contract just doesn't feel off like some of the other ones do.

So, Cox's claims are misleading at best, and disingenuous at worst. As for the charge from Leonsis that Cox is bitter at not having access to Ovechkin when he wrote the book and that is why he took a swipe at Leonsis—simply impossible to know if that is true. Unfortunately for Cox, because of the absurdity of his claim, some will no doubt believe that he is bitter for just that reason.

However, Cox can't be too annoyed at the blog posting from Leonsis and the resulting attention. At the very least, he will receive a lot of free publicity for the book he wrote about Ovechkin that will be released in the fall.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Flyers Complete Historic Comeback Against Bruins

Flyers logoBruins logoThe Philadelphia Flyers have completed the greatest comeback in best-of-seven series history—not only in NHL history, but also in all major North American team sport history. While the 1942 Maple Leafs also came back from 3 down, the 1975 New York Islanders accomplished the same feat, and the Boston Red Sox came back from 3 down in 2004, this comeback from the Flyers tops them all.

Remember that not only did the Boston Bruins take a 3-0 lead in games in this series, but they also were one goal away from eliminating the Flyers as the fourth game went to sudden death overtime.

And on the wretched flipside, the Bruins can lay claim to the biggest collapse in best-of-seven history for all major North American team sports.

To compound the shame for the Bruins, the Flyers came back from a 3-0 goal deficit in the seventh and deciding game.

The Bruins came out flying and pounded in 3 goals within the first 15 minutes of the opening period. Milan Lucic had two of those goals, and together with the offensive explosion, the Bruins were hammering every Flyer in sight.

But Philadelphia stuck with their game, and slowly chipped away at the Bruins' lead. In many ways, the deciding game was a microcosm for the entire series. The Bruins didn't lay back after they took the lead so much as they just didn't have what it takes to keep up the offensive attack.

The stunning early assault on the Flyers' net by the Bruins yielded 13 shots in just under 15 minutes of play, yet in the remaining 45 plus minutes of the game, the Bruins would manage only another 10 shots.

And of course, the Flyers simply did not give up.

To cap off the monumental choke the likes of which we will likely not see in the NHL for years to come, the Bruins took a to0-many-men-on-the-ice penalty at 11:10 of the third period. That allowed Simon Gagne to score the winning goal with 7:08 left in the game. The biggest nightmare of a game for Bruins players, and one that will take them a long, long time to live down.

In the words of the great Freddy Shero, regardless of what happens in the remainder of the 2010 NHL playoffs, these Flyers will walk together forever.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Book Review: Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey by Todd Denault

The Man Behind the MaskJacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey, by Todd Denault, details the life of one of the sport's most colourful and controversial goaltenders. And, just as with any good biography, the book includes far more information than just its main subject. Readers will also learn about the Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1950s and 60s on which Plante played, and many of the all-time greats from those teams.

Jacques Plante was one of the first real renegades in the game. At a time when a players' union had just come into existence, and most players were simply happy to have a job, Plante stood up to absurdities and ushered in important changes in the game due to his force of will and refusal to bend to the criticism and mockery of others.

However, this is no hagiography. Denault includes plenty of criticism of Plante as a goalie and a person. Apparently Plante was one of the tightest individuals who ever played the game, and always made himself scarce when it was time to pay the tab in a restaurant or bar. A character trait that is no doubt due to the poverty he experienced as a child, and part of the thorough look into Plante's life that the book provides.

Fear of Change

Within the story of Plante and the Canadiens of the 1950s, there is the story of human nature, and how people respond to change. It is universal and never-ending in the history of the world: fear of anything new. The ridiculous, illogical resistance offered up by the most frightened individuals of the day and how Plante stands firm in his beliefs result in some of the best passages in the book. Some things never change. Disciples of Don Cherry, who like their arguments as meaningless as possible, will likely not see themselves in the critics of the past who cringed at the possibility of an NHL goalie donning a mask. However, everyone else with a shred of sanity will see the bloviating blowhard Cherry and all those who cheer him on in the mules of yesteryear who brayed the loudest that a goalie dared to protect himself from 100 mile-an-hour slap shots to the face.

Research and Writing Style

This book represents an impressive effort in research. The reader gets a genuine sense of Plante—both the player and person—and also gets a feel for the Canadiens teams on which Plante played. Most of the research here appears to be from newspaper reports from that time, various hockey books, and TV and radio game replays from the era. Denault also includes some primary research in the form of interviews with surviving players and commentators from the years in which Plante played.

Like many hockey books, the writing style does not dazzle. Call it workmanlike at best. At times, the clichés fly fast and loose. An entire paragraph of clichés is no easy feat to achieve:
With three consecutive Stanley Cups, they stood at the pinnacle of the hockey world, and there appeared to be no end in sight. They had set a standard for winning. However, it was in many ways a double-edged sword. They had cast a tremendous shadow over all those who came after them. Nothing less than a Stanley Cup was acceptable now, for them or those who followed in their footsteps in Montreal.

That, however, is an extreme example. In general, the book is very readable.

There are numerous great hockey factoids, stats, and records sprinkled throughout this book. The game was vastly different back then in many ways. For example, teams only had one goalie on their roster at any one time. This meant that when a tender went down with an injury in an away game, the opposing team was obliged to supply a backup goalie for the remainder of the game. A practice goalie usually sat in the stands for the primary purpose of stepping in if the home team's netminder was hurt, but would also fill in for the visiting goalie as well.

Nostalgia for the Game

While the passages that detail the games are vivid and nostalgic of the game as it was played then, it is not really evocative of the years in which Plante played the game. Some more colour and reminiscing about life and society outside the rink during those years would have added some entertainment value to the book. But that is a small criticism that will really be a red herring for most readers. The book is pure hockey, which is the reason most people will pick it up in the first place.

This is the first book from author Todd Denault, and it is a decent effort that fans of hockey history will enjoy.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Have Leafs Ticket Holders Finally Had Enough?

Leafs logoCould things possibly be changing?

With the Leafs:
—well into their fifth decade of incompetence,
—on a winless streak to start the season that has them at the bottom of the standings,
—demonstrating that whoever occupies the position of GM is instantly enveloped in a haze of buffoonery and shortsightedness,

and most importantly, with the arrogance of ownership that

—truly doesn't give a damn,
—has the shameless, insidious gall to maintain the highest ticket prices in the league by a wide margin,
—raised ticket prices once again this year in the face of a long rebuild,
—and devotes more energy to keeping other teams out of "their territory" than actually trying to put together a winning team,

Leafs ticket holders may finally be waking up to the absurdity.

This Toronto Star article gives great hope to those who have been for years wishing for a colossal karmic bashing for the individuals who make up MLSE.
The legendary willingness of Leafs-loving Torontonians to dish out mortgage-payment-like sums to witness a perennial loser may have reached its breaking point.

Tickets to Maple Leafs games are being sold for unprecedented low prices on the open market – in what ticket brokers and resellers say is an early sign of a backlash against the club's league-topping ticket prices and basement-dwelling performance.

Sure, it's nothing that a two game winning streak won't solve. And of course, the seats are still full and the falling resale value of tickets doesn't have much of an effect on MLSE. (Though it would be interesting to find out if the Leafs get a cut from ticket brokers. Regardless, guaranteed they fret and fume about finding ways to get their mitts on some of the profits that scalpers make.)

The great thing about pressure is that those on whom it is exerted simply can't resist its effect. But in a situation where the possibilities for exerting pressure are almost non-existent, it can create nastiness, stagnation, and a lack of incentive to improve. Insatiable demand, and a loyal, hockey-mad fan base (like the shirt of the Leafs fan pictured in the article says, "still loyal, just upset") has, for years, sent the message to MLSE that fan fealty is unconditional.

So the news that the rabid devotion may be leveling off is a sign of hope. Imagine the support the Leafs would generate if they offered up a good will gesture like dropping ticket prices.

Genetic Manipulators from the Stars

Ironically, for those of us who aren't Leafs fans, but follow the team for the sheer social experiment/entertainment value, interest may be rising instead of falling.

Maybe the genetic manipulators from the stars who control the Leafs are finally sending the whole circus careening off in a new direction.

As for the current losing streak that the Leafs are on, the odds of breaking it inevitably increase as the schedule advances. On the other hand, no team wants to be the one to give up the first win of the season to the Leafs. The game against the New York Rangers on Saturday, October 17th at the ACC should be a good one. A blowout against the Leafs or a loss coupled with an obvious lack of effort, and the fan rage will ratchet up once again.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Georges Laraque and Scantily Clad Women

Georges Laraque has apologized for appearing in an advertisement with scantily clad women.

Apparently Laraque rocked up to a commercial shoot and was overwhelmed by the horror of it all. But he went ahead with it anyway. Nobody told him about the details beforehand.

So Laraque is contrite because he upset some people who don't like women wearing skimpy outfits. Here's a person who gets paid good money to break rules in a game. To lay aggravated assaults on opponents (granted, most are willing participants in the fights), to repeatedly drive his picnic-ham-sized fists into other people's faces.

But what's that got to do with anything? It's a bit of a stereotype to assume that what a person does off the ice is indicative of how he will play the game. Still, the kind-of contradictions are kind of amusing. And maybe that's what this is all about.

Just as his opponents are willing participants, no doubt the women in the commercial were willing as well.

There were people who claimed they were offended after the fact, prompting the apology from Laraque.

But there are numerous people offended at the ridiculous nature of what he gets paid to do. Is he going to apologize to them as well?

The Laraque dichotomy—the animal lover, vegan, good natured soul off the ice, and the thug on the ice—makes for great publicity.  People like the whole duality, contrast thing. And no doubt the birds lap it up.

But this whole episode seems somewhat contrived. As with all such manufactured controversies, there is a huge jolt of free advertising for the product that was being flogged. Plenty of indignant media outlets who are giving huge play to the entire absurd melodrama. And it's great exposure for Laraque.

But hey, maybe an ad that had been languishing in obscurity for weeks did suddenly prompt outrage from groups who monitor things like this. And as for the media response, who can blame them? It's got sex, outrage, and a great character in Georges Laraque—things that everyone can get their head around.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ron Wilson and Media Relations 101

Leafs logo"Don't get in a pissing match with people who buy ink by the barrel."

A saying that has long applied to politicians is also applicable in the hockey world. Even the most insignificant relationship between scribe and coach will guarantee that the coach gets an easier time of it in the morning paper.

It's a natural human tendency to feel empathy for those who are closest to you. But it's also amazing how much your attitude will change regarding a complete stranger if the smallest bit of good will exists. Which is why different industries spend billions a year in handing out trinkets to those with whom they want to do business.

Howard Berger has touched on this fact numerous times over the years, and had the guts to admit that criticizing a player like Mats Sundin was harder for the simple fact that Sundin is such a decent person and always had the time of day for the press.

Damien Cox gushes every time Wayne Gretzky's name comes up because the Great One has granted him a handful of interviews over the years. When Gretzky was getting hammered by many observers in the hockey world for his behaviour in the Coyotes fiasco, Cox dutifully played devil's advocate.

So it's perplexing that Ron Wilson is apparently one of the surliest, media hating coaches in the NHL. Toronto is one of the toughest markets in the league in which to coach. Primarily for the fact that any coach who ends up there is saddled by a freakish management outfit that seems to enjoy the whole sideshow entertainment value of watching others take the heat while they rack up the profits.

So as the Leafs are off to a horrid start, aggravated by some equally terrible expectations management courtesy of Wilson and Brian Burke, it's no surprise that Cox and others have started suggesting that Wilson is the weak link. Not outright beating the drum for Wilson's firing mind you, but it's only a matter of time. Cox planted the seed in the most thinly veiled ways, acting incredulous that anyone would dare suggest that Wilson was already in firing range while doing exactly that in the process.

Not that he is the only one in the media hinting at the need for someone to take the fall early on in what is shaping up to be one freakshow of a soap opera season even by Leafs standards. The aggravation at having been snubbed or insulted by Wilson will make many in the media gleeful at the prospect of seeing him get hung out to dry. And they will only be too happy to push the narrative along.

And once you go down the road of criticizing and ridiculing someone, especially in such a public way, there's no going back. Self-justification and dissonance ensure that any twinges of regret at ripping on the individual are set aside and the rationale always becomes, well, the son-of-a-bitch deserves it.

Does the criticism have anything to do with lack of results and the apparent inability of Wilson to motivate the Leafs to play better? No doubt. If Wilson were on better terms with the media, would they be willing to cut him more slack? It's a good bet.

As the Leafs get hammered once again, the need for an instant scapegoat mounts. Because of his self-defeating relationship with the media, Wilson has helped to ensure that they will target him as the likeliest candidate.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Book Review: McCown's Law: The 100 Greatest Hockey Arguments by Bob McCown

McCown's Law: The 100 Greatest Hockey Arguments by Bob McCown with David Naylor offers up 100 mini essays on some of the most common and divisive topics that spark discussion amongst hockey fans. It is one of the most entertaining and enjoyable hockey books that I have read in a long while.

Are all these arguments completely original thoughts put together by McCown and Naylor? I doubt it. Many of the arguments contain ideas I've been reading on discussion boards for years. But here they are more fully developed and fleshed out with numerous angles. All synthesized in one location, it makes for very good reading.

Some of the very arguments McCown preaches are ones that I've written about in this blog. Most of these are not arguments in the way that the word normally conveys. They are points of view strongly and convincingly delivered. In the instances where the opposing view on a topic is presented, it is sometimes weak and often veers into straw-man territory. But that doesn't really matter in a book like this. The entertainment value is in the different angles and the dismissive sneering asides about anyone who would dare to hold an opposing viewpoint.

But McCown also offers up compelling and nuanced arguments on numerous hockey-related topics that you may have never considered before. Like all good analysis, there are plenty of patterns highlighted and underlying rationales plainly and logically explained. In the way that a person who is knowledgeable about a subject makes something seem so eminently obvious that you're left wondering why the hell you didn't make the observation yourself. In fact, I can guarantee that within a week or so of reading this book, you will find yourself involved in a hockey debate and repeating McCown's words. Pray that it is with someone who thinks that Don Cherry is the last word on any hockey discussion.

McCown hammers the moronic non-arguments put forward by many of the mouth breathers who enjoy the sadistic side of the sport. He beautifully rips Cherry on numerous occasions and labels followers of the clown as "Cherry's disciples." Not that Cherry or anyone who supports his viewpoints ever offers up a rational or defensible argument, but McCown does such a perfect job of demolishing their absurd claims that they will likely splutter and experience more angst than usual when someone bashes their circular nonsense.

McCown presents a few different types of arguments in the book. Discussions of who was the greatest player (at various positions, during different eras, and of all time) team, and dynasty are some of the best. These are the instances where McCown presents evidence for all sides and then weighs in with his final decision. Discussions about the NHL during different eras rate the competitive and entertainment levels of each. The issues arguments—many of which are about violence or other odd, antiquated aspects of the game— are also very compelling.

And McCown offers interesting perspectives on claims that have become such clichés over the years that no one really stops to consider their validity. For example, in argument number 54, McCown takes on the declaration that "Canada is easily the greatest hockey nation on earth." He doesn't disagree with that statement, but instead explains why Canadians would have to be ashamed if it were any other way.
Consider that for a population of roughly 33 million people, Canada has 3,000 indoor rinks and another 11,100 outdoor rinks. That's one rink for every 2,357 Canadians. It's an astounding ratio when you think of it. In fact, we have a lot more rinks per person than we do hospitals.

Second on that list would be the United States with its 2,400 rinks, 2,000 of which are located indoors. On a per-capita basis, you're talking about one rink for every 123, 000 Americans.

The rest of the world doesn't even come close. According to the IIHF, Sweden has 445, Finland 253, Russia 145, the Czech Republic has 143 and Slovakia comes at 41—about as many rinks as in Toronto.


I won't dare to suggest that Canada isn't the greatest hockey nation on Earth. But when you handicap that debate against actual numbers of players and facilities in each country, you could make a pretty good argument that, pound for pound, Slovakia deserves the title.

With 100 arguments, some veer into the filler category. And some of the arguments McCown makes are just plain ridiculous. When he states that the women's hockey gold medal winner in the Olympics is a foregone conclusion for the foreseeable future, he isn't wrong. But to suggest that women's hockey shouldn't be an Olympic sport until other countries catch up with Canada is not very convincing. That would eliminate incentive for girls and women who play hockey in Canada and would reduce the sport's visibility elsewhere.

The 100 Greatest Hockey Arguments is written in a straightforward and conversational way that is reminiscent of McCown's radio broadcasts or a good discussion board rant. Well worth the read for those who love watching, playing, and most importantly, discussing the game of hockey.

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...


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.

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.

Monday, December 31, 2007

NHL Overtime and Shootout Points: Claims of Artificial Parity are Exaggerated

NHL logoWith the bunched up standings in both conferences in the NHL this season, talk has been about so-called "artificial parity." This is usually attributed to the frustrating overtime and shootout system that sees one point given to the loser in either post-regulation game situation, while the winner receives two.

Together with the more even distribution of talent due to the salary cap, the result is there are only five points separating 5th and 13th place in the Eastern Conference.

As a sop to owners and fans and in an attempt to keep playoff races tight, the system that awards extra points for losing once the game goes beyond regulation has been ripped by many. The claims of artificiality seem plausible as well. Surely that extra point skews the standings and makes things closer than they would be otherwise.

I assumed so also. But when I re-adjusted the standings using a system that still gives the ultimate winner in overtime or the shootout two points while the loser gets nothing, there is little change in terms of how close the race is in the Eastern Conference (for the sake of brevity I limited the analysis to one conference.)

Here are the current standings in the east, followed by the rankings without a point awarded to the loser:

Current Eastern Conference Standings

1. Ottawa 55
2. New Jersey 45
3. Carolina 43
4. Montreal 45
5. Pittsburgh 42
6. New York R 44
7. Philadelphia 42
8. Buffalo 40
9. New York I 40
10. Boston 40
11. Florida 39
12. Atlanta 39
13. Toronto 38
14. Washington 35
15. Tampa Bay 33

Adjusted Eastern Conference Standings: No Overtime or Shootout Points for Losing Team

1. Ottawa 50
2. New Jersey 42
3. Carolina 40
4. Pittsburgh 40
5. New York R 40
6. Philadelphia 40
7. Montreal 38
8. New York I 38
9. Florida 38
10. Atlanta 38
11. Boston 36
12. Florida 36
13. Toronto 30
14. Washington 30
15. Tampa Bay 30

Negligible difference in terms of the separation between teams within the top eight playoff positions and little effect on those struggling to get into the eligible-for-post-season spots.

The only real change is in the rank for a handful of teams who have fared poorly when games have gone beyond the normal 60 minutes of play.

It is also worth looking at how the standings would look if the NHL reverted to a set-up used a number of years ago when a tie was a tie and both teams received one point for their efforts.

Tie games: No overtime, No shootout, Each Team Receives One Point

1. Ottawa 52
2. New Jersey 41
3. Carolina 41
4. Montreal 41
5. Philadelphia 41
6. New York R 38
7. Boston 38
8. Buffalo 36
9. Toronto 36
10. Pittsburgh 36
11. Florida 36
12. New York I 35
13. Washington 33
14. Atlanta 31
15. Tampa Bay 31

Again, little difference. The division leaders still maintain their positions while there is some movement amongst the other clubs.

This example was arrived at by simply subtracting the extra points awarded to the teams that won in the 5 minute extra frame or the shootout. Obviously this re-jigging slightly penalizes those teams who, for whatever reason, are more proficient when the extra point is on the line (in the west, Edmonton would get hammered using this model.)

So it appears as though the extra point awarded to the team who actually "loses" in the two tie-breaking formats does nothing for parity. The limitation is that this only accounts for the first half of the 2007-08 campaign. The influence may be greater once the season is complete though this should be a good representation of the overall effect.

The simple conclusion is that there is no good reason to keep this rule, especially because of the feeling of most fans that it just doesn't seem right.

There's something fundamentally flawed in the notion that losing deserves some kind of consolation point. It's kind of a tacit admission by owners and management that they have their own doubts about the veracity of the whole set-up.

The most troubling aspect of the "loser gets a point"arrangement (and hence, the major shortcoming in this little experiment) is that there is no way to accurately measure how this affects the mentality of players when involved in close games and tight playoff races.

Instead of the desperation and frantic play that comes with the knowledge that a win is necessary to have a chance at the post-season, a team may let up to maintain a tie so that they are guaranteed at least one point.

Many have presented the hypothetical situation in which a team loses in overtime or the shootout in the last game of the season yet the single point is enough to get them the final playoff spot.

When you introduce variables into the basic premise of victory and defeat and advancing your own team's cause while halting your opponents momentum in the standings, there is bound to be some negative fallout.

Many fans seem to loathe the shootout though personally I have no problem with it. There is already a cliched criticism that it's "an individual skills competition in a team sport."

But there are many sports in which a player's specific skills are isolated in a way that highlights individual ability in a team competition. Often the final outcome of the game hinges on those situations. For example, free throw shots in basketball or field goal attempts in football.

Granted, those features exist throughout the entirety of the game in those sports. But so what? Simply accept that the shootout is a part of the hockey, albeit at the end of regulation and overtime. It has become an important part of the game with certain skills more important than others, just as different aspects of the game already require a shift in style and mentality.

Failure to address the importance of the shootout and giving players an out by whining about its presence are only counterproductive to a team.

There will be no return to the bland and unsatisfying tie games of the past. That doesn't mean alternative methods of overtime aren't worth investigating with the result that the shootout may ultimately end up taking place with less frequency.

However, it is a certainty that the NHL must eliminate the absurdity of a point being awarded to teams that lose, whether it is in overtime or the shootout.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

NHL Goalies: Andrew Raycroft and Ray Emery

Leafs logoSenators logoAndrew Raycroft has let in 13 goals in his three most recent starts for the Toronto Maple Leafs, dropping the team to 13th in the Eastern Conference with the Leafs' most recent loss, a 6-1 disaster against the New York Rangers.

Raycroft is another millstone around the neck of the organization courtesy of John Ferguson Junior. Over-paid, under-performing and a bit too comfortable with the notion of losing. The Leafs don't have a hope in hell of unloading him in a trade anytime soon.

A player just can't win regarding his reaction to losing, can he? Play it as smooth and professional as Raycroft and he comes off as flippant and not too bothered about whether things ever get turned around.

Dave Feschuk of the Toronto Star wrote a column at the end of last season that solidified the image of Raycroft in my mind as a goaltender who is somehow a tad too casual when the losses start piling up. Being able to look on the bright side of things is an admirable and helpful quality to have in most situations.

But "that's good enough," or "at least it wasn't 7-1" doesn't instill confidence or impress people in the world of professional sports. Especially when fat contracts have been slurped up and performances to match the accompanying dollars have been in short supply.

Whether the image projected by certain mannerisms or responses is an accurate indication of a person's character is often hard to determine. Personality traits and speech patterns elicit niggling feelings in others, though at first they may push such concerns aside or not even be conscious of them. It's when on-ice performance coincides with those suspicions that the initial feelings or hunches are validated.

Regardless of how much he's being paid, it's hard not to feel a certain amount of sympathy for Raycroft. He could be in for the defining, and quite possibly final, stretch of play in his professional career.

What Leafs management say about Vesa Toskala is essentially meaningless as they have shown that they flat out lie regarding player injuries. He will probably be out for at least a few more games. While Scott Clemmensen has been called up from the Toronto Marlies, Raycroft will likely get ridden into either passable play or see his limited skills further disintegrate.

Goaltending problems are plaguing the other NHL team from Ontario as well.

With the Ottawa Senators, their 25 year-old back-up goalie Ray Emery is lowering his stock with his fellow players and other teams that might have been willing to take him in a trade with the Sens. His situation is in many ways the opposite of Raycroft's.

Emery has proven he can play (though not at the level of an elite tender in my opinion). But when faced with the proposition of recovering from an injury and playing behind Martin Gerber, his less than professional conduct has him veering towards those reputation-killer tags in the NHL: "locker-room cancer," "selfish," and "undisciplined."

Some fans spin the over-the-top, near tantrums from Emery as the antithesis of Raycroft. Apparent proof that he hates being denied the opportunity to compete and win so much that he will stop at nothing. If Emery's work ethic and discipline matched this supposed desire to win, then such claims might have some credence. As it is, he's turning himself into a liability.

Loyalty runs out faster with players who are full of themselves and they become expendable a lot sooner than they might have otherwise. Especially when they can't always back up such arrogance with real results.

A happy medium between these two extremes would be the ideal.

A sometimes snarling, usually even-tempered piece of work who puts on the odd display of emotion, takes care of business on the ice, sucks it up when he has to take one for the team and somehow projects the feeling that he's thankful for whatever time he has in the NHL.

Oh, and a cool mask.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

CBC Hockey Night in Canada: Coach's Corner with Don Cherry and Ron MacLean

Hockey Night in Canada's Coach's Corner, aka the Don Cherry/Ron MacLean freak show, went beyond its usual bizarre level of awfulness on Saturday.

The desperate for attention Cherry, whose ostentatious camp outfits make the most over-the-top transvestites look withdrawn and tame in comparison, threw a petulant hissy fit on-air as MacLean interrupted his defense of eight-time loser Chris Simon.

Incoherence collides with regression into sulking infancy, alternately coddled and prodded by a professional sycophant.

Add in the insulation provided by a few decades' worth of high ratings and you've got a pair of embarrassing clowns erroneously confident in the belief that they attract viewers based on something honourable, worthy of respect or representative of quality in any way.

Someone who yells, berates and becomes apoplectic at anyone who dares to hold an alternate viewpoint. Completely and totally bereft of skill in defending his opinion except for increasing the volume of his voice.

Legions of easily satisfied apologists regurgitate the same tired line whenever Don Cherry offers up another spectacle on par with public defecation: "He attracts the viewers, that's all that matters." Not surprising that such bland responses are offered up in defense of what is really a weak, wasted segment during the most watched television show in Canada.

The question is, how much better could it be and how many more people would tune in if there was real give and take by some of the clever and knowledgeable hockey media personalities working today?

The people who allow this to be aired week after week are simply demonstrating their lack of imagination. If CBC management really believes there aren't any other voices available or a different format that can be tailored to tap into one of the most consistent and captive television audiences in the country, then laziness and ignorance reigns at the nation's broadcaster.

Why exactly does Cherry remain so (apparently) popular? Regardless of his spluttering diatribes and decline in rationality, people sense that he is at least genuine in his beliefs and came to them through real experience in the world of hockey. And he wasn't always so absurd.

When he started out he was tame by comparison and actually made an attempt to present decent arguments. His opinions appealed to the young male demographic (and likely still do.)

He praised the kind of toughness that most kids aspire to when they start playing and watching hockey. He seemed confident in his opinions and not on the verge of a mental breakdown when someone lightly countered what he had to say.

Years ago I would watch Cherry during intermissions because he usually had some interesting comments on the issues of the day. Once, during a playoff game between the Jets and the Edmonton Oilers at the Winnipeg Arena, I held up a sign before the start of the first period.

Cherry and MacLean were doing the pre-game segment at ice level. It was a day after Easter and Dale Hawerechuk had improved his play in the previous game as compared to the start of the series. No one seemed to react to my "Hawerchuk has Risen" sign except for Cherry, who saw me waving frantically and gave me the thumbs up. Maybe that was before his religious phase.

A creeping mental stagnation and commentary full of contradictions and weirdness has turned him into an embarrassing sideshow schtick. His stable of "outs" invoked whenever he can't respond to a question with a modicum of logic is similarly pathetic.

The insinuation by many that if you criticize Cherry you are somehow against children, Christianity or "the troops" is, if not planned, then welcomed as a nice deflection. It means he rarely has to defend his point of view. He simply changes the focus to one of his safe topics.

In the episode on Saturday December 22nd, Cherry squealed like a spoiled child on the verge of crying because he didn't get his way, shrieking that "We're Hockey Night in Canada and we're talkin' about savin' the world here! Let's talk hockey! Now, DA TROOPS!"

Video of Coach's Corner on Hockey Night in Canada December 22nd, 2007

Outraged? Proving that the kind of controversy he generates does actually provoke discussion? Yeah, maybe. I'm all in favour of saying the most politically incorrect things possible, as long as they can back them up. I will keep watching too, in the knowledge that people who thrive on attention but are devoid of substance will eventually do whatever it takes to keep getting headlines.

The comical aspect of someone who yelps about respect but is the most disrespectful person around is, at some level, entertainment.

Just as the impending train wreck provides easy fodder for those who want to rip Cherry, the celebration of his ignorance and hypocrisy offers a thrill for many as well. Anti-intellectualism in its purest form and the comforting thought that bluster, personal attacks and generalizations often do trump respect, quality and thought provoking analysis.

Book Review: Higher Goals by Nancy Theberge

Higher GoalsHigher Goals: Women's Ice Hockey and the Politics of Gender is a book that looks at the inner workings of a women's hockey team through the lens of gender politics in sport. The author, Nancy Theberge, spent a few seasons with one of the top senior women's teams in Ontario in the early 1990's.

Academia, especially in the humanities, has always been plagued by the need to ram the often inexplicable sludge of life into neatly arranged and labeled explanations. The most recent and well-received ideas of the day are either revered or questioned by subsequent authors who then add their two cents. For sure, many of those attempts are downright intriguing and very plausible.

My criticism is that they often seem to conveniently ignore details that would cast their renderings of the world into a less convincing narrative. While mere hints that lend credence to their hoped for conclusions are given far too much weight.

This book mostly avoids that because it isn't overly ambitious in terms of advancing new theories. It mainly alludes to pre-existing literature within the field of sports psychology and gender studies and examines whether the author's case study of women's hockey fits within those frameworks.

I won't go into too many details of the intellectual minutiae presented in the book. It isn't so heavy going that the average person can't get their head around the concepts and interpretations. There is really only one chapter where the soup of scholarly double-speak gets thick enough to warrant a re-reading or three.

And isn't it always when attempts to re-order standard notions come up against universally held truisms that the most intricate and extensive verbal gymnastics are necessary?

Here, the belief held by essentially everyone in the world that men are physically stronger isn't so much challenged as cast into a different light. That this obvious and considerable difference in strength is the basis for men's higher level of sports competition and increased attention from spectators is because we choose to emphasize those aspects as the most worthy.

In other words, if people didn't only "celebrate the advantages men enjoy," and instead considered the attributes that favour women, such as "agility and long-term endurance" (this according to the book, though no evidence is given), things could be different (just to be clear, this is mainly the author referencing various writers in the same field.)

There are other situations in the book where meaning is squeezed out of unremarkable or pedestrian occurrences that really deserve no such significance. In discussing the structure of the team, the author examines the supposed irony of women who are defying stereotypes yet still play under a management structure dominated by men.

Many of the husbands and boyfriends of the players accompany the team on road trips and when the bus breaks down on one excursion, the men take it upon themselves to move the equipment to a replacement vehicle. This is kind of framed as "these independent, athletic women who play a violent, tough sport are still held captive by the standard societal stereotypes of male/female roles."

Maybe the husbands and boyfriends didn't want them to expend undue energy before the game? On the other hand, how would it have been spun if it was assumed the women should do the lifting? Definitely an interesting anecdote worthy of inclusion in a book that is concerned with such relations but hard to believe that it's so meaningful.

It's not too difficult to accept the basic assumption that all relationships are based on power and inevitably one side will possess or exert the most influence. There are a lot of thought provoking ideas here that you may or may not agree with but they are never presented in a shrill or insistent way. I won't risk bastardizing or simplifying other concepts in the book to the point of being unfair to Theberge.

The best parts of the book are in the player interviews and the simple observations where insight is provided into women's hockey. Each chapter covers a specific topic and some of the most intriguing include the prevalence and acceptance of lesbians on the team and within the sport in general, interaction within the locker room and physicality in women's hockey (incidental hitting as well as the allowed variety which existed in certain senior leagues before 1990.)

There is an analysis of a wide range of different situations on and off the ice and regarding the make-up of the team, its management and the world of women's hockey in general. This is very often looked at through the filter of how the women's game compares to the men's version.

The writing goes beyond the pedantic and mind-numbing academic style that is present in similar works, rendering them almost unreadable in many cases. While it is still a detached, almost clinical take on its subject compared to non-fiction solely intended for entertainment purposes, it somehow manages to remain interesting and compelling most of the time.

A slightly annoying aspect of the book is that it only uses pseudonyms, though this is no doubt accepted protocol for such studies and probably increased the likelihood of candour from those participating. Relatively short in length, the content presented is packed with detail representative of the efforts of two seasons of watching and interviewing.

Does it transcend the specialist audience it is aimed at (i.e. students or other academics) enough to make this a book hockey fans in general may enjoy reading? Somewhat, I would say.

This definitely won't appeal to most fans looking to pass the time with a light and entertaining read. Within the world of hockey fandom, the women's game receives short shrift and this is at least an introduction to the motivations of the players and some of the obstacles they face.

And for someone specifically interested in sports psychology and/or sociology, parents of young girls looking to get involved in the game or those who don't mind wading through some heavier passages, it well might be an enjoyable experience.