Showing posts with label NHL Teams. Show all posts
Showing posts with label NHL Teams. Show all posts

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.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

New European Professional Hockey League

Put me down as a supporter of the European professional hockey league being proposed by Russian billionaire Alex Medvedev.

Competition is always good. It's great to see NHL brass squirm at the thought of losing total dominance over being able to offer the world's best hockey players the only viable league in which to ply their trade.

Bettman BurgersI don't buy the fear mongering about further erosion of the talent pool. I like to use the restaurant analogy.

A hamburger joint is the only eatery on a busy street. It builds up a good reputation and develops a large customer base. Many people in the area eat there because the food is decent. Others do it out of convenience and because there are no other options nearby.

After a while they start taking their success for granted. They let things slide here and there, try saving money with lower quality ingredients and begin showing the first signs of arrogance.

Then, almost simultaneously, two more restaurants open their doors within close vicinity of what has long since become a local institution. The owners panic, convinced they will lose customers. They may not even be conscious of their slumping standards but at least have a gnawing sense that they are in for a well deserved hit.

But the irony is that they probably don't have much to worry about. They may see a drop at first because of the novelty factor but traffic in the area will increase and in the end they'll probably be busier than ever. The competition will force them to pull their heads out of their asses as well, which will end up benefiting everyone involved.

Admittedly, the analogy is a bit weak. There is an endless supply of ground beef that can be cut with sawdust and fashioned into burgers for obese slobs to plug their guts with. On the other hand, world class hockey players are in relatively short supply. Still, the comparison has some merit.

In any new European league, there is going to be a reasonable amount of money available, at least for whichever teams are directly associated with Medvedev. Perhaps some marquee players can be enticed away from the NHL. That in turn may draw some other Europeans and North Americans into the yet to be established association of teams. Increased interest generated in Europe and on a worldwide basis is going to be good for the general health of the game.

Though it would be at least a dozen or more years in coming, a higher profile in Europe will bring more youngsters into the game. That can only improve the overall level of talent down the road.

Maybe it will force some well needed retraction within the NHL. Or, if there are to be franchises relocated, at least the realization that it's completely asinine to leave the most feasible market in North America untapped.

The NHL isn't likely to validate such a new endeavor with anything like exhibition match-ups or discussions on inter-league play. The only way any agreements or partnerships will result for both leagues is if the upstart demonstrates through some reasonable success that it's in for the long term.

Instead of seeing Medvedev and his plan as something to be feared, the NHL should be happy that someone else is doing the heavy lifting in the early going of expanding the popularity of hockey on a global level.

The current Russian Super League could possibly provide some teams for the new entity. Here's hoping they do some things differently than the Super League, which have drawn a lot of attention for their development of players and ability to lure some talent from the NHL but have been lacking in their marketing of the league outside of Russia.

There are many obstacles, assuming all the details get hammered out and things go beyond the planning stage. One of the biggest will be the local markets and the relative lack of revenue that can be tapped.

The talk from Medvedev and others is that a major television contract is important in attaining any kind of real success. There is a huge audience in Europe and some broadcasters with massive clout, such as Sky Sports, could do wonders for the popularity of the sport.

Hopefully the newcomers try to distinguish themselves from the NHL in some important areas to show that there really are other ways of doing things. At the same time, they will undoubtedly steal some plays from the most popular and successful league in the world.

In an attempt to broaden the appeal of the game, perhaps they could emulate the NHL geniuses and go into non-traditional areas.

I'm sure the Napoli Neptunes could turn on a whole new generation of football-weary southern Italians to the joys of hockey.

Monday, December 17, 2007

NHL Suspensions: Chris Simon Attack on Jarkko Ruutu

NHL logoIslanders logoPens logoIt's hard to commit an act of violence in the NHL that receives universal condemnation. A player can pour every ounce of energy into an explosive, premeditated, pivoting two-handed slash to the face of his opponent and someone, nay, a legion of people, will come screaming to the defense of the piece of filth.

It doesn't take much to provide the basis for such bizarro world rationalization. Any questionable action by the player who's been attacked is all it takes. A genuine foul or perceived slight that went unpunished, either earlier in the game or months previously, justifies the retribution that flows his way.

A barely concealed glee at injuries resulting from cheap shots is not a difficult-to-find sentiment amongst hockey fans. To be fair, it's the kind of bald-faced sociopathic ranting usually seen in the discussion board trenches, where the normal societal division of those who love to play the callous lunatic and those who love to be outraged is magnified a thousand times.

In the "public face" discourse of such incidents, the mainstream hockey media voices all the appropriate outrage, calls for punishment from the league and uses it as a segue to demand that the game be cleaned up. No doubt they are sincere in most cases.

But there are just as many references to the importance of "consequences" and that nebulous "code" that has never really been adequately articulated by anyone, ever. The proper and expected responses come when the glare of exceptional occurrences transcend the game and everyone is at their politically correct best.

So it is a rare instance that gutlessness is distilled into its purest essence and a moment of clarity is shared by all fans, including those of the offending player's team and those who normally take pride in celebrating cowardice and cruelty.

Chris Simon's insane stomp onto the ankle of Jarkko Ruutu's ankle seems to have achieved that rarest of unanimous loathing amongst hockey fans. Simon of the Islanders, in what was a clear and deliberate move, drove his skate blade into Ruutu's ankle, as Ruutu was lying prone on the ice.

That it was planned and Ruutu couldn't even see the attack coming makes it even more insidious and unforgivable. Add in the potential for the seriousness of the injury that could have resulted as well as Simon's track record and he is in for one record-setting suspension.

The odd thing about the incident is that, while it was obviously intentional, it almost seemed like an afterthought by Simon as he made his way through the gate onto the Islander's bench.

Here is the YouTube video of the attack

He wasn't involved in a fast moving, intense game situation. The "fog of battle" defense, that points to the speed and the near impossibility of pulling up in some cases, is irrelevant here. And yet it seemed so casual and pointless. The term "banality of evil" comes to mind (only the second Nazi reference I've made in the past week.)

And so the guessing game begins about the length of suspension the NHL will hand down to Simon. I really wanted to avoid checking in at Bob McKenzie's blog over at TSN because after doing so it's almost impossible not to be derivative of whatever he has to say on such issues.

He has an uncanny ability of putting his finger on the pulse of the league after every suspension-worthy incident and accurately predicting, within a few games, just how long the sentence will be. However, he hasn't commented on this most recent episode yet.

Following the attack with his stick on the New York Ranger's Ryan Hollweg last season, I believe Simon will get hit hard.

The rest of the season, with a less than subtle hope on the part of the NHL and many fans that he decides to call it a career.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

First Major Trade of the 2007-08 NHL Season: Doug Weight for Andy McDonald

Blues logoDucks logoThe first significant trade of the NHL season and not a single online fabulist even hinted at it before it came down the pipes.

The St. Louis Blues send Doug Weight, Michal Birner (an up-and-comer currently in the AHL) and a 7th round pick in the 2008 draft to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Andy McDonald. It's hard to argue anything other than the fact that the Blues got the better of the deal. Of course, there are people doing just that. The appeal of occupying the contrarian role is irresistible to many in such a situation.

McDonald's numbers are down significantly this year and some will attribute that to no longer playing alongside Teemu Selanne. His age and durability (he leaves the Ducks as the current team leader in consecutive games played at 276) still outweigh what the Ducks receive in return.

There is the apparent desire of many pundits and fans to attach Machiavellian-like qualities to Brian Burke. Once a GM has enjoyed some success in the NHL and won at least one championship, they are forever considered geniuses regardless of what their subsequent records show.

The first caveat mentioned when dissecting this trade by those wanting to be generous to Burke and the Ducks, is that it's all about managing team salaries in the cap era. Here there are some valid claims.

A Stanley Cup winning team naturally possesses more than its share of quality players who deserve to be rewarded with healthy contracts when the time arises. Ryan Getzlaf slurped up a well-deserved multi-year deal a few weeks ago and Corey Perry is in line for a fat pay increase before he becomes a free agent at the end of the season.

So McDonald's contract was unloaded in preparation for signing other more important players and freeing up room for the return of Scott Niedermayer. But that explanation disregards the blunders made by Burke in the pre-season.

His failure to re-sign Dustin Penner before he became a free agent--at a cost that would no doubt have been significantly less than what he received from the Oilers--meant that he had to bring in another player to fill that hole. That resulted in a bloated contract offer for Todd Bertuzzi. Bertuzzi has been a minor contributor at best when he's been in the lineup.

In perpetuating the idea that Burke has mythical powers and nothing is ever as it seems regarding his actions, many are speculating that this is only the first step in a well thought out multi-staged plan. That well might be true.

But if the goal was freeing cap space, picking up prospects and getting some added experience for the rest of the season with an older player who can still contribute, surely the Ducks could have gotten an even better return by bundling Ilya Bryzgalov together with McDonald. Of course, Bryzgalov was put on waivers and snapped up by the Phoenix Coyotes earlier in the season.

The Downside of No-Trade Clauses

No-trade clauses have increased in prevalence in the past few seasons. They are ultimately a burden for teams and provide a false sense of security for players.

Doug Weight had such a clause, refused to waive it at first and then eventually agreed. Which leads a person to think that they're just a recipe for some unpleasant psychological games and the kind of pressure that can turn a person's guts just enough to say to hell with it.

Some cryptic hints from Weight as to what went down in discussions with Blues' management leading up to this trade.

I suppose you can spin such tough actions from a team in two ways. The kind of hard-nosed pragmatism that does whatever it takes to win. Or, the type of behaviour that turns off at least a few players and makes them question what will happen when they are in the same situation.

Without any emotional stake in either team, unjust treatment of a player makes me hope he goes beyond any reasonable expectations and proves everyone wrong.

And that's one of the great things about trades. Regardless of how many people weigh in about who "won" the deal, it usually isn't until at least the end of the season that any real conclusions can be drawn.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Sidney Crosby: Canadian Athlete of the Year

Political pundits--those columnists and talking heads who discuss the government and issues of the day--often end up shaping the news themselves. Influential writers frequently make the move into politics or at the very least offer up their loving paeans to whichever party or individuals appeal to them the most. Their thoughts and suggestions no doubt have some influence on official decisions and policy.

Sports writers also have some clout within the world they write about. Not in the same incestuous way that political hacks court their subjects in the hopes of being asked into the inner circle. Sports journalists rarely, if ever, become part of a team in any other facet except professional sycophant.

But they do channel the thoughts and passions of numerous fans. And on occasion they help to stoke a wave of sentiment that leads to a move by management.

The sports media also chooses the recipients for a number of different awards. Winning such official accolades can boost a player’s profile and lead to consideration for hall of fame induction.

A major league baseball player, Curt Schilling, recently had a clause written into his contract that would add a million dollar bonus for garnering even a single vote for the Cy Young award,
which is given to the best pitcher of the year. The writers on the Cy Young voting committee convened a meeting and decided to disqualify from consideration any players who have negotiated such incentives.

A fair decision I believe. With the number of ethical questions already swirling around baseball, the game’s image doesn’t need to be further tarnished in the eyes of fans. Follow that path and how long before cries of “kickback” are made when a player with such a contractual provision receives a vote from a writer he is friendly with?

Beyond that, the whole notion of sports writers being handed the power to decide who is crowned the best, is fraught with at least a few potential pitfalls.

The Lou Marsh Trophy for the Canadian athlete of the year was given to the Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby last week. Crosby was in the running against various other athletes including Steve Nash of the NBA's Phoenix Suns and downhill skier Erik Guay.

A good discussion on Prime Time Sports with Bob McCown raised some interesting issues surrounding the whole voting process. McCown, who was one of the panel members, highlighted the criteria taken into account when voting on candidates.

One of the considerations is "depth of field," which makes it hard to fathom how any amateur sports or less popular athletic pursuits have athletes worthy of the prize.

However, it's not the only factor scrutinized when casting the final votes. It seems there are a number of qualifiers given more or less weight depending on whichever pick needs to be justified every year.

In the panel discussion on Prime Time Sports, those who were part of the process admitted the sentiment that "a hockey player hasn’t won it for a while and so it was due," received some play. Nice for hockey fans but ultimately irrelevant.

Beyond the fact that Crosby is a completely deserving winner of the award, his cause couldn't have been hindered by a few other aspects. First, he has the full marketing support of the NHL, who have anointed him as the chosen one. Also, besides his incredible talent and work ethic, he is just a very likable and mature individual.

Ostensibly outside the parameters of such awards, it's impossible to deny the effects personality and image have in what is partially a popularity contest despite the supposed "rules" involved. If Crosby were a nasty son-of-a-bitch with a handful of off-ice incidents under his belt, would he be such an easy choice?

Thankfully, it's not a question that needs to be answered. Like the other high profile ambassadors of the game who went before (Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr), Crosby seems blessed with that natural sense of honour and decency. (Another discussion worth pursuing: does exceptional character help build superior athletes or does it come after someone with talent has enjoyed the special privileges and treatment that society bestows on such youngsters?)

Aside from those questions, are there any conflicts of interest involved in the player/media relationship? What if a journalist follows a particular athlete closely, befriends him or her or is considering the possibility of writing a book about that individual? Should they be part of a particular panel when that player is in the running?

There are other awards decided by fellow players, management or even fans. It's unlikely that less bias exists amongst those groups of people.

Still, at least an open discussion of the voting process creates some pressure and a greater sense of responsibility for those involved. When these committees remain shrouded in secrecy, it creates the perception, rightly or wrongly, that politics and favouritism trumps merit.

And finally, congratulations to Sidney Crosby for being chosen as Canada's athlete of the year!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The NHL, NBA and NFL: League Management and Players Behaving Badly

Kind of surprising that the NHL would sign off on allowing four players to experiment with the new Thermablades during regular season games. Potentially an unfair advantage for that group of skaters, no?

I guess it's in keeping with a league that shamelessly tampers with their product, engages in asinine pre-season publicity stunts and gives a big fat screw-off to the most financially viable hockey region in North America in exchange for cycling through a litany of failed franchises in markets where the game has a marginal following.

Can you imagine the NFL giving a handful of players the privilege of being the only ones to use a new set of lighter and more protective pads or a new brand of stickem' that made one-handed catches the norm? How about a half dozen NBA players given the chance to experiment with flubber-like shoes in game situations?


On the other hand, NHL players seem to be relatively well-behaved compared to their counterparts in the NBA and NFL. What's the point in slinging mud at other pro sports leagues? Isn't the ranking of various sports' respective screw-ups getting old? Perhaps, but comparison is at the heart of observation.

Plus, for most people there's something uniquely appealing about the fact that all the success and material wealth in the world doesn't prevent those at the very top from blundering into monumentally self-destructive situations. Probably some of the old "not despite but because of" theory in there as well.

Michael Vick is to be banged up for 23 months for his role in financing a dog fighting ring and putting down half a dozen of the poor beasts who had the audacity to not have learned the art of killing to a sufficiently competent degree.

I was a bit surprised at the amount of time he was given however, especially considering how sentences for vehicular homicide are often in the same range or even lower. There really is almost nothing like the death of helpless animals to unify public opinion and create a sense of urgency in the justice system.

The Vick announcement comes following an NBA player (Jamaal Tinsley of the Indiana Pacers) getting shot at outside a downtown bar. Can't really imagine why that would happen. He only packed a group of his mates into three luxury cars and was likely loaded down with jewelry valued at four to five years of work at a menial job for some of those who didn't take kindly to the show of wealth.

That of course doesn't justify a confrontation (impossible to know how it played out) or use of firearms. Though Tinsely's brother was carrying a gun and squeezed off a few shots as well. Not that he had any reason to think such a situation would arise...

Somehow can't imagine a group of NHL good ol' boys rolling into a downtown bar in Toronto or New York decked out in bling, expensive threads and with a sneering entourage looking to let everyone know who's in charge. Wait a minute...I can.

But like with most things, it's about degrees. Because of a different vibe and perhaps fewer desperate people with nothing to lose, I can't see the same thing happening to a bunch of hockey players.

Beer bottles, fists and the odd fool looking to spark a situation that could result in a lawsuit is another story.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

NHL Hockey: Memories, Myths and Nostalgia

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a movie directed by Sam Peckinpah. It's about the end of an era and the gunslingers disappearing along with it.

The ghost-like figures at the heart of the film are being forced to accept changes to a society that is moving on. They lament the inevitable and do their best to adapt but are drawn back into old ways, regardless of whether it may end up costing them their lives.

They speak in a cryptic and fatalistic patois that pays tribute to an honour code that is also dying. They are wary of the contemporary breed of man shaping society and moving things forward. Those amongst them who try to reconcile with the new ways are conflicted with themselves and their die-hard brethren who can never truly conform.

The movie is heavy on style with a loose semblance of a plot. It is a series of vignettes stitched together, all highlighting the conflict between the outlaw and a world that is squeezing him further to the margins. The lack of a traditional cinematic trajectory is almost a precursor to the rock videos that were still a decade away when the film was released in 1973.

That feeling is enhanced by the Bob Dylan soundtrack (and a role by Dylan as well; quite possibly one of the worst acting performances that never saw the editing room floor. So utterly stilted, unnatural and horrid that it adds to what is already a somewhat surreal experience.)

Ironically, despite the outward sense that these ragged mavericks represent a fraternity that adheres to a special code of ethics outside the corrupt establishment, almost every scene is highlighted by a singular and brazen act of gutlessness, many of them perpetrated by those same individuals.

And here is one of the themes that runs throughout the movie. That all people romanticize their lives and hold onto a time that never really existed as they remember. The alternative is to reach the end of life as a broken down son-of-a-bitch with a collection of unfulfilled dreams, fleeting victories and the inevitable realization that it doesn't mean a whole hell of a lot. When we package life into narratives flavoured with nostalgia and a belief that there was a better time (and the possibility that it could return), it makes living and dying easier.

There's nothing that hasn't been filtered through the rose coloured glasses of the past. (Next time someone is on about the better music of previous decades, pull up a few years of top 10 album sales from that era and take a look at most of the tripe that captured the imagination of the masses.) Hockey is no exception.

Perhaps because there is an ever-expanding number of media outlets providing employment for a host of aging commentators and former players, the lamentations of the past are at an all time high. It's difficult to read a day's worth of columns or listen to a few hours of radio talk shows without being subjected to the tired line about how good the game once was.

Any number of factors are held up as culprits regarding why NHL hockey has supposedly eroded over time. The instigator rule, the presence of helmets and visors and that oft-repeated mantra that "there just isn't the same respect that once existed."

Speaking on Leafs Lunch a few days ago, Bill Watters put forth the inane argument that if the NHL were to forbid the wearing of helmets, the league's revenues would skyrocket and the game would suddenly become much safer. He seemed to sense the absurdity of what he was saying as soon as he floated the idea. He likely received validation and was congratulated on his brilliance when making the claim amongst other like minded old-timers. It was embarrassing to listen to but once he had begun he couldn't back down.

The current number of stick swinging incidents, cheap-shots and other cowardly acts have probably not seen some kind of increase as compared to the past. The claims of greater recklessness in today's game are made without any hard statistical proof and just as often by the same people who reminisce about the mayhem that used to occur. Ah, the bench brawls of old where honour ruled and never an act of nastiness or disrespect took place!

Not that it's impossible to demonstrate that particular eras may have been qualitatively better (different) in certain ways. Just that the comparison is rarely taken beyond anecdotes and relies on hazy recollections and the knowledge that there will always be an audience for such musings.

The nature of such requiems demonstrates how it's about what your mind retains more than any objective reality. An indication of how you've changed, a microcosm of your own screw-ups, hopes and fears. As in the movie, it's about grieving a lost way of life but also about preparing for the ultimate loss. Exaggerations of bygone days are also about trying to avoid irrelevance and being forgotten. The hope that past myths and lives lived are recognized by a new generation already in the process of creating their own stories and memories.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Todd Bertuzzi Uses the Nazi Concentration Camp Guard Defense

I wrote that shamelessly over-the-top title for a few reasons.

First, whenever someone in the past 60 years has blamed his superiors for giving orders in an attempt to absolve himself of culpability in performing an insidious act, the WWII comparison has been a natural one. Especially in a high-profile public situation that involves testimony or court proceedings of some kind.

And, I'm invoking a variation of Godwin's law to demonstrate that the Todd Bertuzzi/Steve Moore incident has taken on the same qualities in online hockey forums. Any heated discussion that goes on long enough will inevitably see references made to the attack that took place almost four years ago.

In can be any hockey discussion on any topic. If it carries on, it will eventually go off on a tangent and someone will mention the on-ice assault that ended Moore's career and turned Bertuzzi into a dead-eyed zombie.

But back to the latest revelation that the Canuck's coach at the time, Marc Crawford, told Vancouver players that Moore "must pay pay the price."

In response, the ranting lunatics on discussion boards who are desperate to let everyone know that they're hip to the violent realities of the game and that such tough-talk is commonplace in hockey dressing rooms, once again succeed in getting to the crux of the most irrelevant aspect of the argument.

It doesn't matter that Crawford never intended or hoped for such a horrific final result. The fact both Bertuzzi and Canuck's GM David Nonis have verified this version of events lends credence to what Moore and his lawyers have been saying all along. That he was targeted, that an atmosphere of revenge was stoked by Vancouver coaches and that this contributed to the assault and thus the organization itself is partially responsible.

A judge or jury is not going to give a flying fuck about the "unique" elements that surround the game of hockey and whether or not some people think that players tacitly accept a special code of conduct by agreeing to play in the NHL. The chances of Moore winning a hefty payout just went way up.

This saga and the reactions of many people continue to amaze me. Specifically, the number of sociopaths who see each subsequent step taken towards litigation by Moore and his team of lawyers as an opportunity to insult and ridicule the former Colorado Avalanche player. It's always those who most like to issue threats by proxy and thrill in claiming they possess a special understanding of the game.

Probably the same individuals who have never known the sickly and singular experience of being done over in such a gutless and life-altering manner. Most people haven't and could never empathize with Moore to any real degree. Many others have been victimized, used or cheated in far less severe ways and still been overwhelmed with murderous rage.

Perhaps that's the one aspect of this whole sad affair that sends the Moore-hating pukes off the deep end. They barely contain their glee at the vigilante nature of Bertuzzi's assault but are offended that Moore responds in the only way a civilized society allows.

If you begrudge Moore for going after as much as he can get, then you are devoid of imagination or haven't lived enough to know how this will affect him in ways more devastating and long-lasting than just the loss of livelihood.

In such a situation you aim as high as you possibly can, knowing that an eventual settlement will fall somewhere far below that. Whatever he receives in compensation, it will be cold comfort for never being able to play another game in the NHL.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

NHL 2007-08 : Spinning the Season

Sens logoFlyers logoLeafs logoFlames logoOilers logoThe Ottawa Senators are winless in seven games but have collected three points in that span and still sit atop two of the three standings' categories. They've got a decent lead within the Northeast division, though the New York Rangers are now nipping at their heels for the top spot in the Eastern conference. And with the Sens in the midst of this slump, the Detroit Red Wings have the best record in the league with a nice fat 40 points after 27 games played.

While it's been a difficult string of games for Ottawa, it's a testament to their early season dominance that they are still statistically the best team in the East. In fact, it's probably good for the team to encounter some adversity early on, have the chance to overcome obstacles, realize that it's going to take a huge effort to reach the next level and...

Ah, spin! You really take whatever you want from any particular situation, match-up or stretch of games.

Take the handful of Leafs' fans who are actually bemoaning the fact that their team has gone on a mini-tear with three wins in a row. The thinking on their part is that a few more dismal performances would have guaranteed some kind of change while this delusional burst simply lulls many into the false sense that a significant turnaround has occurred.

I say take wins any way you can and let everything else sort itself out.


A widespread rage against the Flyers from opposing teams' fans is apparent on most NHL discussion boards. The bland refrain from Philadelphia supporters when the wrath and threats flow their way? "I love being hated! It's a great feeling!"

I suppose that's the only way to deflect and spin the anger that is being directed at them as a result of the cheap-shots and the accompanying suspensions levied against five separate Flyers' players. It would be hatred well-earned if the team actually benefited from these tactics but it's hard to argue they have gained anything tangible.

Most of the illegal hits took place after the games were out of reach and they have now called so much attention to themselves that they are unlikely to receive the benefit of the doubt in any future incidents.

On the other hand, they haven't lost much either. Mainly marginal players delivered the hits and their absences haven't affected the team's chemistry. And in the most recent situations they've only had to sit out a handful of games.

While they have injured opposing teams' players and likely carved out some room for themselves on the ice through intimidation and fear, that too comes at a cost. As other teams look at the pros and cons associated with the style of play euphemistically classed as "on the edge," at some point they will consider payback in kind. A fist, stick or elbow named revenge could be directed at some top Philadelphia players just in time for the playoffs.

No doubt the perpetrators of such acts will argue, just as the Flyers organization and fans have, that it was unrelated to anything and took place in a kind of vacuum that repeatedly induces these odd coincidences. No, there's no pattern, culture or strategy evident here...


Spinning the battle of Alberta is all about expectations. Despite a nice win against the St. Louis Blues last night, the Calgary Flames have to rank as one of the biggest disappointments in the NHL so far this season. Bringing in the worn-out, outdated Keenan is looking like a bigger blunder by the day as the Flames continue to underwhelm.

The Edmonton Oilers on the other hand, have improved as of late with a 5-3 record in their last eight games and three wins in a row for the first time this season. And in the "looking for positives to build on" department, they are now one point up on their provincial rivals and lead the league in shootout victories with an insanely good 7-1 record.


Interesting article on goalie masks at USA Today.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Performance and Mindset: The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Shootout

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

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

The Leafs are failing miserably in both performance and perspective.

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

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

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

Read the full article here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Bloody Chiclets: Toronto Maple Leafs Melodrama and Hockey Radio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Fragments and Viscera from Around the NHL

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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