Tuesday, September 27, 2011

There's A New Sheriff In Town

He's got it! By George, I think he's got it! The NHL was in dire need of a sheriff who'd be willing to combine common sense, good judgement and a backbone to bring law and order back to a league that lost sight of justice. Enter Brendan Shanahan, and not a minute too soon.

Before preseason games began, Shanahan, with the support of the NHLPA's Mathieu Schneider, sent a detailed video to all the players and coaches in the league. In it, he explained with clip illustration, what would now constitute Rule 48, which now punishes any player who targets a player's head. This is regardless of any injury the guy getting hit might sustain, which is a revolutionary departure from the "Well, did it hurt him?" school of Colin Campbell discipline. The preseason video also makes clear how the league intends to enforce the boarding rule, especially when the targetted player is in a defenceless position. Shanahan left absolutely no doubt about what's allowed and what's not. He also said while he understands the game happens at high speed, there's always time for players to choose whether to run a guy or not.

So now, a week or so into the preseason, Shanahan has already handed out six suspensions (likely seven after he reviews the blatant boarding call on borderline Flyer Tom Sestito), with five of them carrying over into the regular season. The highest among them was James Wisniewski's nasty hit to Cal Clutterbuck's head. Wisniewski got eight games (with lost salary of more than half a million dollars) for the offence and Shanahan served notice that he's not taking any crap.

The beauty of what Shanahan is doing is in the video. Not only is he thinking logically about what kind of suspension is deserved, relative to the offender's history and intent, but he's laying it out in detail on video for everyone to see. This is ground-breaking stuff, and the NHL really needed it. It serves notice that Campbell's inexplicable Wheel of Justice has been mothballed.

After Max Pacioretty was very nearly killed or paralyzed when Boston's Zdeno Chara steered him into a rink stanchion at high speed last season, many people suddenly lost their appetite for on-ice destruction. The hit became bigger than the Habs or the Bruins. When Colin Campbell decided to let Chara go without a suspension, calling it a "hockey play," it turned the stomachs of a lot of long-time hockey fans and cast a cynical pall over the sport they love. It also got people, including those at the higher levels of the game, talking seriously about curbing head shots. The hit came in the same season as the one that sidelined Sidney Crosby (also without a suspension) since last January. The league recognized the urgency of the problem at long last and, incapable of introducing meaningful change with the old methods, brought in Shanahan.

This is a good thing for fans whose love of the game was waning because of the league's blindness to the damange players were suffering. We now can look at Shanahan as the guy who might be able to show players their antics won't be tolerated. Eight games to a guy like Wisniewski is a real tough-love start to a new world order in the NHL. That gives fans a reason to hope the trash is about to be taken out and the sport more like the one we've always respected.

Of course, it's early to judge Shanahan's long-term effectiveness. It's one thing to suspend Jody Shelley or Wisniewski for a few games. We'll know better the real story after the next Chris Pronger cheap shot. It'll become crystal clear when we see what Shanahan does when Alex Ovechkin or Corey Perry nails someone in the head. So far, the new sheriff is walking softly and carrying a big stick. If he can maintain consistency in his decision-making and continue to explain his calls clearly, he might be able to change the law while upholding the rules.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Preseason Blues

Of all the ways in which the Montreal Canadiens gouge their fans, from charging a third more for tickets to "premium" games, to adding a per-ticket service charge, to selling ten-dollar beer at the Bell Centre, one of the worst is charging regular prices to see preseason hockey games.

The hockey in these games is rarely great, with a mishmash of cautious veterns, hopeful rookies and a bunch of guys who'll never play in the NHL, but will serve as convenient cannon fodder to fill out the watered-down split squads that are par for the preseason.

The Canadiens in this case are thinking about the money, not about the fans. Imagine the Habs fans in Halifax last night, who paid $94 for a ticket in the lower bowl at the Metro Centre in the hope of seeing Carey Price or P.K. Subban. Maybe they were hoping for a glimpse of Michael Cammalleri, Tomas Plekanec or Brian Gionta. Instead, the best they got was Scott Gomez and Hal Gill. Not exactly the guys you have in mind when you spend a hundred bucks to see the Habs.

Of course, it's understandable that a team should want to get a close look at its prospects in action against NHL competition. It's also reasonable that NHL veterans should want to gradually work up to full speed without risking too much in the way of injury. The problem isn't the games themselves. It's that the NHL team, in this case, the Canadiens, charges through the nose for fans to see them.

The preseason is a great PR opportunity for teams like the Habs. When the regular season is so expensive, with its premium games and seat prices that go up every year, these meaningless September contests would be a good chance to slash prices and make it affordable for a whole family to go see at least some of their heroes. If tickets were $20 a pop, nobody would be too upset about seeing Gomez instead of Subban or Budaj instead of Price. Nobody would go away bitter after watching the Bruins destroy a half-hearted Canadiens split-squad. Disappointed, maybe, but not feeling bitterly ripped off.

The Canadiens can't do that, though. The chance to drag in every possible dollar is too tempting to think about the sensibilities of the fans who attend these games. Why not, they rationalize, when fans are only too willing to pay whatever the team asks?

That's where these philosophies start to become dangerous for teams, though. For some fans, there's a limit to how much they're actually willing to pay. When the games, including the crappy preseason ones, are shown on RDS in glorious HD, it's awfully tough to justify the rising cost of going to a live game. Sure, there's nothing as uplifting as the roar in the Bell Centre when the Habs are doing well, but there's also nothing as demoralizing as the grumbling quiet when they're not.

Last spring, I paid scalper's rates to see a "premium" game against the Capitals. The Canadiens played the most listless, uninspired 60 minutes of hockey I'd ever had the misfortune to sit through in person. They got shut out 2-0, and I couldn't help thinking the money to fly to Montreal, stay in a hotel, and get to the game could have been better used. Now friends are going to see the Habs and Bruins on October 29. Again, it's a "premium" game. This time, though, the thought of spending $150 for a nosebleed seat is distinctly unappealing. (Not that the scalpers' prices are the Habs fault directly, but when you start off with high prices, the re-sellers are going to add their pound of flesh on top of them.) I've reached the limit of what I'm willing to pay to see a hockey game. Maybe if the Habs had decided to make their meaningless, understaffed preseason games accessible to the average Joe, it would be a little easier to stomach the wallet drain of the regular season. The Canadiens would be showing a little goodwill toward the fans; a sort of apology for the unforgiving costs or running a pro hockey team. Instead, they continue to squeeze fans for every dollar they can get.

I'm sure Habs management could care less that I won't be going to see a game at the Bell Centre this year. It should, however, care about the fans like those in Halifax, who rarely get a chance to see big-league hockey. To send such a dismal team to play there, with such dismal results, yet charge full price for it, was shameful. The least the Canadiens could have done was send a Price or a Subban to entertain that crowd. That they didn't shows a lack of respect for the fans who still are willing to shell out and treat themselves to a hockey game. Sooner or later, that kind of gouging comes back to haunt even the most arrogant of teams.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Gone Bananas

I wasn't going to write anything about the "Wayne Simmonds incident" when I first heard about it. I didn't want to give the perpetrator any more fame than that for which he originally bargained. However, the idea that it should be called the "Wayne Simmonds incident" made me angry. Wayne Simmonds was nothing but the vehicle for a hateful message.

For those of you who are uninitiated into the ugly side of hockey and its fans, a person in the stands in a preseason game in London, Ontario, hurled a banana peel into the path of Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds, who's black, as he advanced in a shootout. The reaction in the face of such a blatant insult has been predictable. Fans, analysts and players have mostly all been shouting down the intention of such a gesture. Black players are good, they're strong and they're accepted on hockey teams the same as any player who's white, native or Asian. To the players, that is.

Fans, however, don't live up to such high standards. If there's any recent example in the NHL, it's that of P.K.Subban. Subban broke into the league with a bang last year. He was brash, bold, outspoken, and, above all, supremely talented. Yet, many people failed to recognize his skill in the face of behaviour some decried. Under the microscope, Subban's behaviour was nothing out of the ordinary. Subban loves celebrating goals. So did Teemu Selanne, Theo Fleury, Alex Ovechkin and countless others. Yet, when Subban did it, players suddenly found fault. Subban was "disrespectful." If he didn't stop, "something would happen to him."

The righteous among us, who would love to believe racism is a thing of the past, sneer at such a comparison of experience. Yet, fans throw bananas, and players look askance at a star of a different colour who faces them across the ice, while opposing fans jeer him.

We'd like to think sports are as well-adjusted as the rest of society, but we forget that we make these guys who they are. Fans set the standards of what they'll pay to see. Kids who don't measure up in skills learn how to fight, to entertain fans. We like brawls.

We're not sure about gay guys. Sure, it was nice that Brian Burke's kid broke some ground toward acceptance, but we're not sure we'd really want that guy on our team. We're equally unsure about black guys. They don't play hockey. They run, they jump, they race, they win Super Bowls and Olympic gold medals. They don't skate. At least in some fans' minimal world experience. So, when a guy who's black turns out to be a hell of a hockey player, some of us look at it as an exception. We...them...the separation continues in the closed-circuit world of hockey.

That's got to end. Hockey is a universal sport, with universal players. All fans need to learn to appreciate skill, regardless of colour, religion or sexual orientation. The sad part is, most of us do that already. We just love the game and we're in awe of those who can play it at a level to which we could never aspire. Still, the cretins, the one in a hundred who sees the world the way it used to be, find something to ridicule.

I admire Wayne Simmonds. Last night, having seen the banana peel on the ice, he kept going and still scored in the shootout. Today, when pressed for a response to the incident, he replied, "I'm above that stuff."

P.K. Subban tweeted that he supports Simmonds for being so strong through all of this. Yet, you wonder, how many young black players weren't so strong? How many heard the taunts and saw the banana peels and decided hockey wasn't worth it?

This isn't something the NHL or any other league can fix. This is society. This is a decision made by one guy who wanted to hurt someone, but nobody else who witnessed it stopped him. Somebody has to be the guy who stops that racist guy. Hockey depends on it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

That's More Like It

The Buffalo Sabres brought pretty much what will be their opening-night roster to Montreal last night, and to many people's surprise, the half-staffed Canadiens gave them a serious challenge. There was so much to like about the way the Habs played last night.

Among the kids, Brendan Gallagher had a couple of nice chances, and played a very high-intensity game. Young Nathan Beaulieu made a couple of mistsakes, but he showed offensive flair and poise on the point during the PP, and he played nearly half the game.

Of the returning guys, P.K.Subban was flying, Max Pacioretty and Josh Gorges looked like they'd never been away and David Desharnais showed his typical tenaciousness and creativity. Peter Budaj made enough good saves to make us feel okay about him backing up Carey Price. Jaro Spacek appeared to have picked up a step.

All that is the good news, but, while it was great to see the Habs give Buffalo a good challenge, it didn't answer a few outstanding questions. For example, how much is Travis Moen still able to contribute? Moen has dropped another notch down the forward depth chart with the addition of Erik Cole this year. Last night, he looked awkward with the puck and didn't play a particularly physical game either. He needs to prove he can still make a difference on the ice for the Habs, and that means he has to be better than he was last year. He didn't look any better against Buffalo.

Also of concern is the failure of either Aaron Palushaj or Andreas Engqvist to step up and prove they deserve to be on the big team. There's a spot available, presumably for one of those guys or Brock Trotter, but none of them has yet proven they're ready to be NHL regulars. If none of them wins the job outright, Pierre Gauthier will have to go shopping in a very thinly stocked free agent market.

The hope had been that Engqvist in particular would stand out because the Canadiens desperately need a centreman who can win faceoffs. Again last night they were repeatedly booted from the circle and spent a lot of time chasing the puck after losing draws. With the departure of Jeff Halpern, either Tomas Plekanec and Scott Gomez need to get better on faceoffs pronto, or Gauthier finds a high-percentage centre somewhere. If Engqvist isn't that guy, the Habs could be in trouble. Faceoffs are important, and the Habs don't win very many of them.

All in all, though, last night's game told us a couple of things about our team. We know they're going to be super fast. We know they'll challenge any team they face. We know the PP will be deadly in a couple of years when Nathan Beaulieu and P.K.Subban are manning the points full time. And we know this is going to be a really fun season.

Thoughts on the Pre-Season

Well, I guess we know now what the Habs' defence would look like if Hal Gill were the only available blueliner with NHL experience. That was some rough D against Dallas in the first pre-season game. It was one of those games in which you just have to take a deep breath, forget about how excited you were to see hockey...any kind of hockey...and how much you wanted the Habs to dominate, and replace those thoughts with the mantra, "It's pre-season, it's pre-season."

Carey Price warned us before the game. He said he wasn't ready yet and he probably wouldn't play well. He was right. Four goals on 13 shots, two of which were simply cases of Price losing sight of the puck, was pretty bad. Unlike last season, however, Price's pre-season performance is of little concern, as was evidenced by the complete lack of booing from the Bell Centre rafters.

That's not to say there were no highlights. The Tomas Plekanec/Erik Cole/Michael Cammalleri line, even at pre-season's half speed, were buzzing on every shift and made some tantalizingly creative plays on the PP. Andrei Kostitsyn looked like he's getting ready to burst out of the gate next month and prove he deserves another contract. Alexei Yemelin looked poised with the puck and showed a nice ability to hold it in at the blueline. He also laid a couple of noticeable hits. Young Nathan Lawson made some nice saves in his allotted half game. The brief spurt of energy in which the Habs scored their three goals showed us a group of players who can really skate, when they want to.

What I found disconcerting about the whole thing, however, was the lack of "want to" from the prospects. Nobody really showed a great desire to make an impression. Maybe they're just nervous to be playing at the Bell Centre, or they know there's not much chance of making the big team, or maybe they're just not good enough. Either way, the Danny Masses and Alain Bergers of the world didn't do a whole lot to prove they want to make an impression. Brock Trotter, Aaron Palushaj and Andreas Engqvist, who are the front-runners to grab the last roster spot among forwards, showed a bit of speed, but not much else. Ian Schultz tried to showcase his toughness with an uninspired staged fight. Raphael Diaz showed some nice moves on offence, but looked confused on D. All in all, nobody among the Hab wannabes took his fate in his own hands like David Desharnais did last fall.

Still, it's pre-season. Most of these guys don't have a real shot at the big team anyway, and they'll have lots of time to build a case for themselves in Hamilton, junior or wherever else they end up. The regulars are easing into shape and are well aware none of this counts for anything. As fans, we know there's another bunch of prospects ready to show...or not...their stuff tonight.

It may not be great hockey, or very inspiring, but, hey! It's hockey.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Go, Spatcho, Go

About a year ago, I had the opportunity to ask Tomas Plekanec a few questions about his life and his hockey philosophies. As an afterthought, and out of curiosity, I asked him to whom in the Canadiens' room he feels the closest. He said, "I have no problems with anybody on the team, but I'd say I'm probably closest to Spacek."

Spacek just seems such a likeable sort of guy. He's never scowling or unpleasant. He works hard, and during the miracle playoff run last year, he raised his game a couple of notches, providing stellar coverage of some very tricky forwards. He also gives great quotes, whether he means to or not. (Anyone who's seen those "Get to Know Your Canadiens" videos on the team website and recalls Spacek saying his worst-ever Halloween costume was the pink Teletubbie...including purse...can vouch for that.)

This summer, Spacek reached a crossroads in his career. About to turn 38 in February, he's not quite as fast as he used to be. He's not putting up the points like he did in Buffalo or Columbus either. And sometimes when he's got to race for the puck on an icing, he takes the kind of hit that makes a 37-year-old slow to get up. So it must have been disconcerting for him to see Yannick Weber developing into an NHL defenceman and the arrival of Raphael Diaz and Alexei Yemelin from Europe, just as he's about to enter the last year of his contract.

Suddenly there were too many defencemen looking for too few jobs, while the prospects for a somewhat pudgy 37-year-old on the downslide weren't looking great. Spacek could have decided to collect his very generous paycheck and let the chips fall where they may. He didn't do that, though. Instead, he took a look at himself and his training regimen and saw room for improvement.

He says he improved his cardio with some extra running this summer, and he was on skates six weeks before camp, which is quite a bit earlier than in previous off-seasons. The result is a leaner, fitter Spacek who looks determined to hold onto his job, despite the younger competition.

All of this is good news for the smiling defenceman who's doing everything he can to revitalize his career and make his contract year a strong one. It's also very good news for the Canadiens. With the health of Andrei Markov's knee still uncertain and the departure of Roman Hamrlik's vetern workhorse abilities, the Habs have a need for an experienced D-man who can step up when needed. When contemplating possible replacements in case Markov's recovery is slower than expected, or if another big-minutes guy like Josh Gorges or P.K.Subbban gets hurt, most fans don't even consider Spacek, but if his better conditioning enables him to play a tighter game, he could be very valuable as the season progresses.

Spacek has been playing his off-side since his arrival in Montreal, during which time he was most often paired with Hamrlik. Now, with two right-handed shots in the lineup in P.K.Subban and Yannick Weber, there may be an opportunity for Spacek to play his preferred left side. One would imagine a fitter player working in his comfort zone would have a better chance to put up points. If Spacek is able to work the second wave of the PP effectively, it would increase the efficiency of an already-strong power play unit.

You have to admire a guy who's proud enough to want to make what's probably his last season in Montreal the best it can be, and who's determined enough to do the work to make that happen. While it might be strange to see Spacek without his accustomed second chin, it's easy to see why Tomas Plekanec likes him so much. I like him too.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Meeting of the Minds

The Scene: Jacques Martin's office at the Bell Centre. Martin sits behind the desk, Andrei Kostitsyn in one of two chairs before it. A stranger walks in and takes the second seat.

Martin: Andrei, I asked you to come here today so we could talk about our differences. I need you to be an important contributor to our group this season.
Kostitsyn: Shoot puck. Score goals.
Martin: Yes, exactly. And I believe you when you say the things you told that reporter this summer were a misunderstanding.
Kostitsyn: Yes. He just want story.
Martin: So, to avoid more miscommunication, I've invited Mikhail here to join us. English isn't my first language, or yours, but Mikhail speaks both French and Belarusian, and he'll translate for us. Is that okay with you?
Kostitsyn: Yes. Is good. I start?

Martin nods. Kostitsyn turns to translator and begins to speak.

Kostitsyn: Вы асёл. Вы ніколі не слухаюць. Вы носіце выродлівыя сувязяў. Вы губіце маю кар'еру.

Translator pales, fidgets, clears throat.

Mikhail: Il dit qu’il souhaite que vous ayez un dialogue plus ouvert. Et il aime votre choix de cravates.
Martin: Regardes-toi dans le miroir, le clown. Ils doivent bien avoir des coiffeurs dans ton pays? Ou est-ce-que ton imbécile de frère te coupe toujours les cheveux avec des cisailles?
Mikhail: Трэнер кажа, што вы добра выглядаць. Вы павінны ўпарта працавалі ўсё лета.
Kostitsyn: Я ўпарта працую, каб атрымаць ад вас. Я спадзяюся, што вы страціце працу.
Mikhail: Ah, il dit que tant que tu es le coach et qu’il est un joueur, il t’écoutera.
Martin: Ça me rend fou quand tu croise la ligne bleue avec la puck, pis t’as l’air comme si quelqu’un te demandais de résoudre des équations quadratiques et tu perds la rondelle.
Mikhail: Трэнер лічыць, што вы вельмі творча з шайбай і здольныя да матэматыкі, занадта
Kostitsyn: Я хачу быць на першай лініі з Pleky.
Mikhail: Il aime bien jouer avec Tomas Plekanec et il pense qu’il a plus à offrir à l’équipe.
Martin: Tu seras sur la troisième ligne cette saison, et si tu n’aimes pas ça, ben j’ai entendu une rumeur que les Devils se cherchent un virtuose sous-performant pour jouer avec Kovalchuk. S’ils ont encore une équipe en novembre. Pis y’a toujours les Jets. Tout le monde veut jouer à Winnipeg, non?
Mikhail: Трэнер кажа, што вы універсальны прайгравальнік, і балельшчыкі ў Вініпегу будзе так рады цябе бачыць.
Kostitsyn: Я хачу, каб ён гаварыць ясна і скажыце, што ён хоча, каб я зрабіў.
Mikhail: En mots simples, qu’est ce que tu veux qu’il fasse sur la glace?
Martin: Je te demande de jouer simple. Si tu as la rondelle, tu la shoot. Si tu n’l’as pas, tu frappes des gens jusqu'à ce que tu la reçoit. Donne la pas en cadeau et prend pas des pénalités stupides.
Mikhail: Ён хоча, каб захаваць яго простым. Страляйце шайбу. Хіт гульцоў. Трымайцеся далей ад штрафной.
Kostitsyn: (excitedly)Так! Як я заўсёды кажу. Страляйце шайбу. Ацэнка мэтаў.
Mikhail: Il dit qu’il comprend et que c’est ce qu’il essaye de faire!
Martin: (smiling thinly) Dis donc, t’es sûr que t’as pas un autre frère? Quelqu’un dans la famille doit bien avoir quelque chose entre les deux oreilles!
Mikhail: Трэнер кажа, што вы родам з таленавітай сям'і. У вас ёсць шмат талентаў. Як вы думаеце, вы можаце зрабіць у гэтым годзе?
Kostitsyn: Я магу адзнака 30 галоў. Можа быць, больш. Я выйграю новы кантракт.
Mikhail: Il est excité. Il pense qu’il peut marquer 30 buts cette saison, peut-être plus. Et il pense qu’il peut signer un nouveau contrat.
Martin: Si tu réussis à marquer trente buts et l’équipe te donne un contrat à long terme, j’pense que j’vais peindre mon cul bleu-blanc-rouge et danser nu sur Ste-Catherine.
Mikhail: Трэнер кажа, што калі вы набралі 30 галоў, ён будзе апранацца ў колеры каманды і вазьму вас да-шоў на Ste.Catherine.
Kostitsyn: (beaming) Скажыце яму, што ён усё яшчэ асла, але я паклаў гнеў у бок і пачаць усё спачатку.
Mikhail: Il dit qu’il va mettre le passé de côté et voudrait faire un nouveau départ, si tu veux.
Martin: I agree. Let's shake on it.

Martin extends his hand and Kostitsyn takes it with a firm shake. The two leave the office with a new understanding. Mikhail takes the elevator to the executive offices.

Mikhail: Sir? I did my best.
Pierre Gauthier: So, they've agreed to let bygones be bygones?
Mikhail: More or less.

Gauthier hands over a thick envelope

Gauthier: Well, you've earned this. You're a bloody genius.
Mikhail: No problem. It's all in the translation.

*Thanks to Naila Jinnah for her French translation.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Be afraid, Habs fans. Be very afraid.

Yesterday, Pierre Gauthier announced Andrei Markov would not be ready to start the new NHL season. This is not good news. Gauthier signed Markov to a 3-year contract extension in June, banking that it would be okay to let Roman Hamrlik, who carried the bulk of the injured Markov's minutes for the last two years, walk. He also let James Wisniewski, who wanted Markovian money to stay in Montreal, go. Now, if Markov can't play, there's nobody with experience and applicable skill to step in for him.

There's no word on how much time Markov will miss. We don't know if it's just training camp exhibition games, or the first five games of the season, or the first twenty. That he's not ready, after having had his knee surgery nine months ago, is discouraging regardless. Josh Gorges had similar surgery just seven months ago and he's good to go. That Markov is not is of serious concern to Habs fans.

Of course, not every player responds to surgery in the same way. Markov is older than Gorges and underwent his second operation on the same knee within a single year, which Gorges did not. Still, the thought that Gauthier has put all his GM eggs in one D-man basket is cause for concern, especially if the shells are cracked.

Maybe this is just a minor bump in Markov's road to recovery. We have to hope it is. If not, the bright, shiny season we were hoping for just a week ago may be at least a little tarnished today. Without Markov, Jaro Spacek will have to play bigger minutes, and one of Raphael Diaz, Yannick Weber or Alexei Emelin had better be ready to take a regular shift in the NHL. If they aren't, Gauthier will have to hit the free agent scrap heap for yet another temporary replacement or trade yet another second-round pick for one. He's got money to spend, but at this point there's little left on the free agent market. Brian McCabe is out there, but he is to Markov what Mikhail Grabovski is to Sidney Crosby. It's not an avenue the Canadiens really want to explore at this point in the year.

Worse, if Markov is going to be intermittently hurt for the next three years, the Habs won't able to make any concrete plans for the future. That's not fair to either the player or the team.

Andrei Markov is extremely valuable as a player and a person for the Canadiens. Unfortunately, if he's not able to play at the level we're accustomed to see him at, his value as a player is diminished. For a team that's banking on him to regain his all-star form, this is at least worrisome. At worst, it's a serious setback.

This has the potential to be very bad, Habs fans. We'd better cross everything and hope the Canadiens and Markov are just being careful. The alternative does not bear thinking about.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Rookie Camp


8:00am: Breakfast with Canadiens greats Jean Beliveau, Yvan Cournoyer and Dickie Moore. Rookies may enjoy the opportunity to talk with these Hall-of-Fame players, hear their stories about playing for the Canadiens and ask for tips. (Note: future fourth-liners and try-outs may dine with Yvon Lambert instead.) Biosteel protein shakes are optional, no matter what Mike Cammalleri says.

8:45am: Bus to rink.

9:00am: Recitation of The System Prayer. "On my honour, I swear to uphold The System, regardless of whatever temptation I may face to give in to offensive tendencies. I vow to defend my own zone at the peril of goals and to meekly ride the bench if ever I should lose my man and he go on to score. In the name of Jacques Martin, Amen." To be followed by a few moments of reflection on The System.

9:15am: Team White on ice for drills on defensive zone coverage. Team Red in gym for dry-land training. (NOTE: Do NOT pat Brian Gionta on the head, no matter how tempted you may be.)

11:00am: Teams switch, with the exception of any player taller than 6'1". Tall players stay in the gym and continue to "fill out."

12:00pm: Lunch, to be provided at arena.

1:00pm: Classroom sessions. All players must attend at least four.

Session A: How to Act Like You Really Mean to Learn French. Moderated by Scott Gomez.

Session B: When the Guy Who's Helping You Buy Your TV Might Be a Russian Mobster. (Alexander Avtsin attendance mandatory.)

Session C: Is She REALLY 16? Tips For Keeping Your Puck Bunnies Legal.

Session D: This Is a Great Bunch of Guys: Seven Phrases You Can Use to Answer Almost Any Media Query

Session E: Social Media and the Modern Hockey Player. Advice on Keeping Your Mexican Vacation Pics Off the Internet.

Session F: Nutrition. A Brief Introduction to Sushi (An NHLer's Favourite Food, Regardless of Whether He Grew Up On Kraft Dinner) and Related Montreal Area Restaurants.

Session G: Managing Your Finances: Vegas Is Not a Reasonable Investment Solution. Guest Speaker: Jaromir Jagr.

5:00pm: Bus to Bar-B-Barn for dinner. (NOTE: The Guillaume Latendresse Memorial Whole Hawg dinner is on special for the duration of rookie camp.)

6:00pm: Back to rink for evening scrimmage.

6:10pm: First round picks to play one shift, then sit on the bench for the remainder of the scrimmage. (NOTE: Better get used to it early.)

7:30pm: Media session. (Remember, this is a great bunch of guys!)

8:30pm: Evening entertainment

Option A: Sushi and a movie
Option B: Nickelback concert (NOTE: Those choosing this option may be at risk of bad tattoos and failure to complete high school diplomas.)
Option C: Seinfeld reruns with Tomas Plekanec
Option D: Drinking games with Guy Lafleur
Option E: Team bowling with Guy Carbonneau

11:00pm: Lights out. (NOTE: Perry Pearn will be available for lullabies and bedtime hugs if required.)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Dark Summer

What a difference a year makes. This time last year, our biggest concern was whether Carey Price would justify the Jaroslav Halak trade. That seems such a trivial worry today. Last year, the silent ice lay like an unspoken promise, slumbering unblemished as we waited for the game-time drama to unfold. This year, what happens on the ice is far from our minds.

This summer, the deaths of three young men who died under shadows of depression and addiction haunt us. The announcements that Marc Savard won't play at all this year because of head trauma, and that Sidney Crosby's return is uncertain for the same reason, fill us with regret. And now, the very idea that an entire hockey team, more than thirty young men in the primes of their lives, with families, hobbies, loves, collections, pets, favourite songs, imaginations, tattoos, mothers, homes and dreams can be entirely wiped out in the breath of an instant horrifies us. This is a dark, dark summer.

One could argue it's been a dark year. The near-destruction of Max Pacioretty at the hands of hulking Zdeno Chara, and the NHL's subsequent virtual shrug, made many of us think hard about what we admire...and what we don't...about NHL hockey. The rash of concussions sustained by players on every team at every level has made us wonder if this is really the game with which we fell in love. The questions we've had to ask ourselves about why we're fans and why we continue to be are still unaswered for many of us. This summer's events have served to drain much of the enthusiasm for the coming season from even the most fervent of us.

In a way, though, the way we feel now might be a catalyst for the betterment of the sport, or at least the way we fans behave toward the sport and its practitioners. I know I can't blame Sidney Crosby for whining to the refs anymore, because I just want to see him play again. I can't hate the leafs because I think about the Minsk fans who probably hated to see Lokomotiv come to town, and now they're all dead. That stuff goes beyond hockey. That's real life, and as we know, sports are supposed to be an escape from real life. These athletes are supposed to be heroes who stand above our vices of addiction and depression and avoid our human tragedies. They're not supposed to die. This summer has proven they're not any of that. These players are people with the same needs and shortcomings as the rest of us, and that must change the way we, as fans, look at the game.

Now we know these guys are human beings who just happen to be really good at the game we love. That has to give us some perspective about what we expect of them. I know I don't want any of the Canadiens to goon it up until his brain is damaged or he becomes addicted to narcotics to handle the pain. I don't want any of them to sit at home feeling so inadequate and helpless that he becomes suicidal. At this point, whatever happens on the ice is secondary to making sure the young men who play for our team are healthy, happy and protected. That's a radical shift for a fan who used to only want a Cup, no matter what the cost.

It comes down to the fact that hockey is entertainment. Sure, we want to win, and Canadiens fans perhaps want to win more than anyone. This summer, however, we have learned we cannot satisfy our vicarious thirst for victory through young men who are all too human. They are people, and through the miserable events of this summer, player and fan are perhaps more understanding of each other than they've ever been.

Thursday, September 1, 2011


Sometime in the fall of 1957, a couple of NHL stars broke the unwritten rule against fraternizing with the enemy. Ted Lindsay of the Detroit Red Wings had been thinking for a while that it was unfair for team owners to keep players in the dark about how much they were bringing in at the gate, and how much they could expect to make when they retired from the game. The Canadiens' All-Star defenceman, Doug Harvey, was wondering the same thing. The two cautiously compared notes and agreed the only way players could expect a fair deal from the owners was if they joined forces and demanded one. They launched the first NHL players' association, but things didn't go well. The owners, predictably, feared any kind of interference from the players that might cut into their profits. So, Lindsay, Harvey and the other team representatives responsible for organizing the association were traded, demoted or otherwise diminished.

Ten years after that first attempt, the first incarnation of the modern players' association was born, led by the crooked Alan Eagleson. Since Eagleson's shameful departure in 1991, the NHLPA has seen one leader fired for stealing players' emails, another dismissed for murky reasons including mistreating staff, and one who took the players through a year-long lockout to avoid a salary cap, which ended in a salary cap.

The one thing common through the various versions of the NHLPA is money. Harvey and Lindsay formed the first one because they were sure they were getting shafted financially. Since then, it's been largely about how to get the most money for the players through negotiating collective bargaining agreements. To a great degree, the association has been successful in that regard. There will never be another superstar who leaves the game to spend his golden years selling fishing tackle out of his car trunk, as did Rocket Richard. Where the NHLPA has failed however, while it's been ensuring the best possible payday for its members, is in helping them cope with the psychological consequences of playing hockey professionally. That includes successfully leaving the game once the league no longer requires their services.

Perhaps there had been an early lesson in what the NHLPA's role should really have been in that very first association in 1957. Doug Harvey was a superstar and a very smart player, but he always liked to drink. When he was traded away from the Canadiens to the Rangers to become a player-coach in New York, the loss of that cameraderie with the other players was very, very difficult for him to accept. In the end, he was unable to find a life outside of hockey for himself and he died of complications of alcoholism.

There have been so many stories like Harvey's even since the formation of the players' association. Bill Gadsby, another Hall-of-Famer of the '50s and '60s era, endured a long struggle with alcoholism, saved only by a family intervention. Theoren Fleury plunged into drugs, booze and despair despite his talent. Rob Ramage is serving 15 years in prison for killing Keith Magnuson while driving drunk. Tim Chaisson, Tim Horton and Pelle Lindbergh are all dead before their time. Craig MacTavish spent a year in jail after taking a woman's life while drunk. John Kordic died at 27 after years of booze and drug abuse. Bob Probert's post-mortem brain at 45 showed signs of deep trauma that likely came from his hockey career and was exacerbated by drug and alcohol abuse. The great Terry Sawchuk died under strange circumstances after a lifetime of dealing with depression. Their experiences are, sadly, far from unusual. Although the salaries are better today, nobody's taking care of the players' other needs.

With the terrible news yesterday that Wade Belak has become the third player or former player this summer, after Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien, to die young, the issue of player support is on many people's minds. That all three of the players involved played a fighter's role may or may not have been relevant in their deaths. One thing is certain though. All of those players needed help. In the closed circle that is NHL hockey, you can be sure other people knew about it. The question is, how much did they do to get these guys the support and health care they needed?

In the wake of Rypien's death, TSN interviewed a former Canucks teammate and asked him about Rypien's mental health. The player looked decidedly uncomfortable when he talked about how he was "sure Rick tried to get help for dealing with all that stuff." In the testosterone-driven world of NHL hockey, weakness...and mental illness is certainly still perceived by many as being weakness...is intolerable.

With that in mind, the NHLPA can't just provide counselling services. It's got to talk about mental health and teach players that it's okay to seek help. Hockey builds its fraternity on toughness and team bonding, and players grow up in that culture. When it all comes to an end; when suddenly grown men who've never had to stand alone must find an identity of their own, it can be psychologically devastating. When a player who's always been the best on his team until he hits junior recognizes that he'll have to sell his self-esteem for a diminished role as a tough guy if he wants to make it in hockey, it costs him mentally. When a man who's sustained physical and mental injury in a very tough, fast game gets older and the game is gone while the pain remains, he might not know how to cope with that.

Today, after the third young player in a matter of months has died, some NHLers are starting to say the same things. Former NHLer Tyson Nash tweeted "Ur entire life is dedicated to hockey and then one day it's all over and ur kicked to the curb! And the NHLPA does nothing to prepare u." Theo Fleury responds, "Amen, brother."

Brent Sopel, having been unsigned by the Habs this summer, went to Russia. He tweets: "It's true when you're gone from the NHL it's like you never played. We're all just pieces of meat."

One might look at those sentiments with a jaundiced eye and say it's the same in any job that ends. You're part of a team, then, suddenly you're not. It's not an easy thing for anybody to deal with. The argument in sport, however, and especially in hockey, is when you make your living with your body, your self-esteem and happiness revolve around your physical performance to an unnatural degree. Consider also the idea that these players spend all their strength, training and focus from childhood, often to the detriment of outside interests, to developing as a hockey player. Not many salesmen or factory workers can say the same. Then there's the drinking that's just as much a part of the off-ice game as fighting is on-ice. Add a player's reliance on constant approval from spectators and teammates and you've got the ingredients for a volatile emotional cocktail. Those factors mean hockey isn't just a job like any other. Players who need help in or after hockey may not either recognize the fact, or feel comfortable seeking it if they do.

The players' association does, of course, have an employee assistance program. Each player has a card with contact numbers should he need to call someone for help. The program is secret, and provides doctors and professionals who can help a player deal with any number of issues. Deputy Commissioner Bill Daley says the program is becoming more widely accepted among players these days, and family members and friends are referring players more often. Still, one has to wonder, if a guy has reached his breaking point and he's sitting in a hotel room all alone, whether he'll think to pick up that card and phone someone.

Last March, just five months before he died, Rypien was able to talk a little about his own struggles with mental health, and how he saw a need to provide extra help for players.

"The more that I go on, the more I can talk about it,"he said. "Hopefully, one day I can help other hockey players that might be experiencing difficulty with whatever they're dealing with off the ice."

Rypien never got the chance to be proactive in his wish to help other players deal with their troubles. His death, however, has underlined the need for the players' association to step in and shine a light on what has been a culture of macho disregard for anything considered "soft." Maybe it needs to actively include psychological counselling along with physical assessment for every player, whether he asks for it or not. After all, if everybody sees the shrink, nobody has to be the one saying "Yeah, I had to call for help." In a herd mentality like a hockey dressing room, an "everybody has to do it" approach might make all the difference.

When Doug Harvey and Ted Lindsay tried to start a players' assocation in 1957, they wanted life after hockey to be better for hockey players. They were talking about money, but the "chew 'em up and spit 'em out" character of the game was part of it too. These days, the NHLPA makes sure players get the most money they can from the game while they play, and ensures their pensions when they quit. A superstar like Doug Harvey will never have to live in a railway car again, if he doesn't choose to do so. Sadly, though, a player can still die early and many of them feel their association doesn't do enough to help prevent that.