Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Dark Days

Has there been a darker time to be a Habs fan? The team is looking like it will claim the highest draft pick it's had since Sam Pollock raked in top-three picks on purpose. The games are the same toothache-inducing pattern of dump-and-chase-but-don't-quite-get-there-first futility every single night. The lame-duck GM is firing people and trading others in a manner bizarre enough to have impartial observers noting how odd it is, all in an effort to save his own job. Good players sit on the bench or stand in the net with tormented eyes while their bad teammates continue to grease the skids to the basement. And now, Jean Beliveau, one of the pillars of the Canadiens' history is seriously ill.

Mr.Beliveau himself is, of course, the epitome of class. That seems such a trite word, almost meaningless in its overuse, until you consider the stately gentleman with a gracious nod and smile for every person who greets him. When you realize he personally replies to every piece of mail he receives and has done for sixty years, and when you remember he could have been Governor General of Canada if he were a little less humble, "class" begins to make sense again. He's a lovely person who has managed, through good sense, empathy and excellent manners, to rarely have set a foot wrong in his decades-long public life.

Beyond what he is as a man, however, Jean Beliveau is also an institution. Through his brilliant playing career, his captaincy of the Canadiens in a glorious era and his presence in the community, Beliveau lent the sheen of success, dignity and respect to the organization he represented. What he earned as a person, he generously has shared with the Canadiens, so if he stood for the Habs, then the Habs must be successful, dignified and respectful. In a word, classy.

It's perhaps emblematic of this dark hour in Canadiens history then, that the person who best represents what the Canadiens used to be is suffering a dark hour of his own. Mr.Beliveau's illness brings home the stark realization that he is the finest remaining evidence of the Canadiens historic success. Without him, the Habs are nothing but another basement-dwelling, poorly-managed NHL team. They're nothing but a business, with success becoming smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror. Jean Beliveau's absence from his usual seat behind the Canadiens bench is symbolic of the hockey gods' desertion of this team.

For those who know Jean Beliveau personally, this is a very difficult time as they wait to see how the stroke that has brought him low will affect his long-term health. For those who only know him as the man who stands as a link between the Montreal Canadiens we see on the ice today and the ones who made the organization something special, his illness makes an already-difficult year even sadder.

While our team stumbles along through what's become a valley of gloom, we need Jean Beliveau more than ever. We, and the Canadiens, aren't ready to be without him.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Deal Or No Deal

Hockey fans love the trade deadline. It's the last chance for playoff teams to solidify their post-season lineups in the run for the silver. And it's the last chance for loser teams to unload some of the contracts that won't be extended, in the hope of bringing in some parts that will eventually turn them into teams that buy instead of sell on deadline day. Fans love the speculation, and the potential for a GM to steal something value for spare parts. One man's garbage and all that.

This is where I find myself diverging from the majority. I see the trade deadline a bit like the Druids used to see Halloween. They believed the veil between the natural and the supernatural became very thin on that night, and all manner of strange visions and phenomena were not just unsurprising, but expected. Similarly, deadline day thins the veil between "the game" and "the business." We fans want the romance of the game. We want to believe in miracle playoff runs and the guy who'll bleed for his team. We don't like to think about the guy who's willing to take the money and run to someplace where expectations aren't so high or he'll have a better centreman to play with. And we certainly don't like to recognize the callous nature of management that sees a player as an asset and doesn't really care that he was drafted and developed by the team or that fans have come to love the guy. If he can be swapped for a high pick or a bigger, younger guy, none of that matters.

The idea that Pierre Gauthier could even contemplate trading Tomas Plekanec brings the business side of hockey much too clearly into focus. Of course, it's not really clear whether Gauthier's been actively entertaining offers or inquiring about the likelihood of Plekanec's waiving his no-trade clause. Just the thought, though, that a guy the team signed to a six-year contract just last year, who was drafted by the Habs and spent his whole career with them, who works his butt off for the team every time he hits the ice and never complains about the shite wingers he's saddled with most of the time, can be expendable because some manager who's never won anything thinks he might get a bigger winger for him is disgusting. This is the part of the game we see when the veil thins on deadline day, and it's not a pretty picture.

The GM sees the deadline differently from the fans, and he must do so. The problem is, unless he's Ken Holland or Peter Chiarelli, the average GM can become so blinded by the opportunity to wheel and deal, to swing a trade, that he sometimes loses sight of the consequences. Say Gauthier trades Plekanec for some winger. So, who takes Plekanec's place on the PK and shuts down the other team's top players? If Desharnais gets that role, does that mean he and his linemates end up playing defence most of the time? What happens if Desharnais or Eller or both slide next year and can't carry the offensive load? What if the new winger doesn't fit or doesn't produce? The risks of trading a guy like Plekanec, unless for a proven player who can reliably take on all the jobs Plekanec does, would greatly outweigh the benefits at the moment. And if a player of similar value is coming back, why make the trade in the first place? Better, by far, to keep the guy with ties to your team and city, who's proven himself an able warrior. Dealing him would leave a gaping hole in the lineup and many, many questions about how it would be filled.

Tomas Plekanec is the kind of player teams trade for at the deadline for a reason. He's the guy who can come to a strong team and play that vital shut-down role that makes the difference between Alex Ovechkin scoring in a 2-1 Game Seven or being held off the score sheet. He can kill the penalty that helps a team win a close one, and he's the guy who can get the shorthanded breakaway goal that puts his team over the top. If the Canadiens are to become a contender, they need to keep guys like Plekanec who have value. The urge to blow up the team after this dismal season must be strong, but it defeats the purpose if one guy is traded for another guy at the same level. Pierre Gauthier needs to keep his head down at the deadline and wait to see what the draft turns up. A good young player who can step in right away could make all the difference in the lineup.

It's a tense day when the veil thins at the deadline. In the height of trade fever, the unpleasant side of the business is very close to the game. It's too easy to make mistakes and much, much too difficult to fix them after the fact. Deadline deals might be for gamblers and armchair GMs, but when you're the seller, the business of selling off players to fix past mistakes can be ruinous.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Next Generation

Less than two years ago, Blake Geoffrion was on top of his world. He'd just graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in consumer affairs, and the Badgers hockey team he captained had made it all the way to the national college championship game. To top it all off, he'd wrapped up his university career as team captain and winner of the Hobey Baker award as the top college player in the United States. Life was good, and about to get better.

"After I won the Hobey Baker, I was so excited to take that next step in my life," he recalls of his anticipation of a pro hockey career. "I knew there would be a lot of adjustments, first being a whole lot more games than in college, but I was excited. I did a lot of things early on in my career that were really cool, and I was definitely confident."

For a boy who became a man in Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows and Sam McGee probably never heard of hockey, Geoffrion was a pioneer. The first kid from the state to win the Hobey Baker and the first to be drafted to the NHL, by his hometown Predators, no less, he blazed a trail for others to follow. His life was a hometown-hero-makes-good script all neatly packaged for the biographers. Then, suddenly, conflict entered his charming story.

"I wasn't having a good year personally," he admits now. "I came into camp full of confidence. I was playing really well, and then got hurt. Then I came back and was a healthy scratch. When I got to play again, I got hurt again. Then sent down to the minors, called back up. I just wasn't playing well."

Still, when his boss called last Friday to break the news that the hometown boy, the Tennessee trailblazer, was done in Nashville, Geoffrion wasn't prepared.

"When I got traded, I'll be honest, I couldn't believe they were trading me away from my hometown. I know they've got to win now and make sacrifices, and that's the business side of things, but I felt really shocked and really disappointed," he reflects after a pause to collect his thoughts on the matter. "I felt they gave up on me, just because they traded me. Maybe they thought, well he's an older guy, and we have other guys in the system who can do the same thing. Maybe Montreal wouldn't do the trade unless I was included. But I thought they gave up on me."

As the shock eased, Geoffrion began to think of the trade as a chance to do for another team what he hadn't been able to do for the Predators. On the way to Hamilton to join the AHL Bulldogs, he says his spirits lifted and his outlook on the trade became more positive.

"I was excited at that point. The season wasn't going well, so coming here, it's like a new season for me. A re-do, a restart. To come here to Hamilton, my goal now is to play for the Canadiens at the Bell Centre, and play on a team that three generations of my family have played for. If that's not motivation, I don't know what is."

Ah, yes, the family legacy. Geoffrion might have grown up in Tennessee, but he was weaned on stories of Montreal. In his childhood home the puck his grandfather, Boom Boom, fired to become the second man in history to score 50 goals in a season was on display. So were the rings he won for winning five consecutive Stanley Cups and for his induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame. If that's not enough, Blake's great-grandfather, Howie Morenz is a legend; one of the four icons enshrined in bronze in the Bell Centre's Centennial Plaza. His dad, Danny, played for the Habs too; the first one in the family to face the pressure of living up to the Geoffrion name. It was he who helped Blake understand his hockey heritage, and put it into perspective at the same time.

"I think it was a little tougher on my dad. He grew up in Montreal and had the pressure of living up to the name," Blake reflects. "I was disguised in the South and nobody knew who I was. I was able to do my own thing down there and become my own player and not have that pressure my whole life. Now that I'm traded to Montreal and have a chance to play there one day, I'm just going to be my own self. I'm not going to try to do what they did. I'd like one day to win a Stanley Cup, but I probably won't win five Cups in a row or a Calder or an Art Ross and all these things my grandfather won. I promise I'll work my butt off every night, give my all and try my hardest to have half the grit my grandfather did."

It's a noble goal, and a sensible one. Still, Danny Geoffrion knows something about the questions Blake will be asked at least a thousand times, and he gave his son the simplest and best advice he could.

"Don't worry about the pressure and have fun," Blake laughs, when asked what his dad told him after news of the trade. Then he continues, "Having fun is the biggest thing. If you're not having fun, you should probably find something else to do."

Geoffrion is having a blast in Hamilton so far, with a goal and four assists in his first two games as a Bulldog. Even so, he's hoping this is just a pit stop. At 24, he knows he's got to make it to the NHL for good soon, or risk seeing the precious window of hockey youth close for him. Four years at college was good for his personal development, but it's left him playing catch-up when it comes to the game. Now finally injury-free this season, he's looking for a strong finish, then toward a summer of hard work and a real chance to play for the Canadiens.

"I wouldn't say I'm phenomenal at anything," he begins, when asked what part of his game is strongest. "I'm pretty good at a lot of things, but I don't really like talking about myself. The biggest things I need to get better are size and speed. Everyone can skate, everyone can stick handle. You have to work on getting bigger, stronger, faster every year."

That's the investment part of Geoffrion's new dream. There are many hours of sweat and labour to be logged before it comes true, but he can't help thinking ahead to the night when he sits in the Canadiens dressing room, wearing the sweater immortalized by the men whose hockey blood pumps through his own heart. He imagines looking up and seeing his grandfather and great-grandfather's pictures looking down from high up on the wall.

"I probably won't stop smiling the whole time. I'll say a little prayer before I go out and I know they'll be with me that night for sure," he says.

A lot has changed for the trailblazer from Tennessee in the last year. The path he was forging in hockey's suburbs has taken a sharp turn north, and he finds himself following a trail laid by his own family in the game's glory days. Less than two seasons after that memorable Hobey Baker-winning night he knows it's a special thing to be on top of your world, and he knows now it doesn't always come easy. As he says himself, though, he doesn't have to look far to find the inspiration he needs. It's already part of him.

Soundtrack For a Season

Remember when you were a kid, and the Habs were in the playoffs, and every song you heard on the radio reminded you of hockey? I think back to the '86 playoffs when "Rocky IV" was in theatres and "Eye of the Tiger," from the movie soundtrack, all over the radio. That song was the perfect accompaniment to the Habs' glorious playoff run. As a sentimental kid, watching Patrick Roy twitch nervously before settling into his crouch, I could hear "...rising up to the challenge of our rivals..." playing in the background of my mind.

It's kind of like when you're a teenager in love, and music speaks to you in a way it doesn't at most other times in your life. Songs become infused with a meaning that helps us quantify the unexplainable. Why does she love me? How do I explain this feeling? The euphoria of emotion needs the visceral touchstone of music to express itself. You might not be able to put that feeling into words, but you know you feel it more deeply when the right music is playing.

This Canadiens season is as affecting in its way as a great playoff run. Instead of the excitement, eagerness and outright joy we experience when things are going well, though, we have all sorts of anger, disappointment and sadness we've got to deal with. These days, it feels like every breakup song is really about missing the playoffs and not knowing if things will improve in the foreseeable future. Perversely, the more melancholy the music, the better it makes us feel. Somebody out there, some songwriter with a better sense of expression than we have, understands and keeps us company in our misery. With that in mind, the soundtrack of this season, for me, is highlighted by this one.

Thanks, Jim Cuddy. You said it all better than I can.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Into the Void

There's an old Sam Pollock quote about guys who are "good in the room." The straightforward GM, when told a guy was "good in the room" tersely replied, "Then he should stay in the room." Leadership off the ice, in other words, isn't worth much if the guy isn't able to bring it on the ice as well. Sadly, that's what happened to Hal Gill in Montreal. While nobody is saying he's not a warrior or not a great teammate, the truth is that this year the already-slow defenceman lost another step. He's still money on the PK, expecially 5-on-3s, but his ice time at even-strength dropped this year, for good reason. So, good guy or not, as a hockey player, Gill likely wouldn't have been back next year. In that case, Pierre Gauthier was right to trade him and get some return before letting him go for nothing in the summer.

That doesn't mean it's not really sad to see him go. Gill has been an alternate captain since his arrival in Montreal because everybody respected him. He was one of the guys who stood up in the room before Game Seven against the Caps in the 2010 playoffs and told his teammates he believed they could win that game. Then he went out and helped shut down Alex Ovechkin and mates. His departure takes away another piece of the team that was so much fun to watch because the players believed in themselves. There was a little bit of magic in the air in those playoffs and Gill was a big part of that. That edition of the team didn't win, but they made us believe they could, and that winning was close. Gill's trade further diminishes the sense of optimism we had then. It leaves a void in the room as well.

When Bob Gainey overhauled the Canadiens three years ago, he brought in intesnse, focused veterans who knew about winning. Hal Gill, Brian Gionta, Travis Moen and Scott Gomez were proven competitors with Cup rings stashed away in their home safes. Michael Cammalleri and Jaroslav Spacek were dedicated pros as well, even though they hadn't yet had their names inscribed in silver. Together they formed a core group of leaders who were able to pull the team together and steer it on a steady path. This season has destroyed that group, and lack of leadership is likely a contributing factor to all the blown leads we've seen drive the Habs lower and lower in the standings.

With the trades of Spacek, Cammalleri and now Gill, with the departure of Jeff Halpern and Roman Hamrlik last summer, with the long-term injuries to Gionta and Andrei Markov and the diminished on-ice contributions of Gill and Gomez, the leadership group is mostly gone. That's not to say Josh Gorges and Erik Cole aren't as intense and dedicated as Gill and Gionta, but they're two guys in a room full of youth and inexperience. Tomas Plekanec is a quiet leader, but sometimes a team needs a big man with a big mouth to spark it in the room, and with Gill's departure, that element of team leadership has disappeared.

Even though guys like Gill and Spacek were losing it on the ice somewhat, they were important in the team's leadership structure. The void they leave behind must now be filled by the guys who are still feeling their way on the ice. It's a good thing, in a way, because it gives young players who would otherwise have stayed quiet in deference to the veterans a chance to develop as leaders. It allows them to grow up together and grow into the roles vacated by the departed players. The sad part is that it also gives us, the fans, the unavoidable sense of starting over, again. What seemed so possible two years ago, with guys like Gill spurring the team on from within, now seems very far away. Max Pacioretty, Louis Leblanc, P.K.Subban, David Desharnais, Alexei Emelin, Lars Eller, Raphael Diaz and Carey Price have great potential to be contributors to a winner some day. They still have a lot to learn on the ice, though. And now, with more veterans likely leaving before next week, they also have to learn how to take a more active role in the room and teach themselves how to win.

If these young players have learned anything from guys like Hal Gill and the others of this year's departed veterans, it should be how to conduct themselves with dignity in the rink and outside it. They should have learned how to prepare themselves to do their best every night, how to support their teammates as they try to do the same, and how to be good "in the room." While Gill and the others are gone, the lessons they taught by example will help the kids they've left behind. There's a great deal of value in that which can't be quantified by the acquisition of a second-round draft pick.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


When I was a kid, I went to school with a guy we called "Psych," who shall otherwise remain nameless. Psych was an arsehole. If we were supposed to have a math test Monday morning and most of the class had forgotten about it, he'd rush into the room and say, "Hey guys, I just ran into Sir in the hall, and he said he's putting the test off 'til tomorrow." We'd all breathe a sigh of relief. Then the teacher would come in with the stack of photocopied tests and our classmate would snicker and sneer, "Psych!"

The thing was, we all knew he did it, but we'd fall for it every time. "School's closed after lunch because the bathroom flooded!" "Psych!" "Miss said we're watching a movie on Friday afternoon!" "Psych!" The guy was successful because we really wanted to believe what he said. And he was smart. Every once a while, something he announced would actually be true, just enough to set us up for the next round of "Psych!"

I was trying to think of a way to characterize the Canadiens season when I remembered Psych and how he used to "get" us so often. In this case, just when we were pretty convinced the Habs were in freefall following the All-Star game, they rolled off those four wins in a row, pulled within seven points of the playoffs and looked like they were gearing up for a serious run at eighth place. Then, with an eminently beatable Hurricanes team in town, the Canadiens came out tentatively and were run over by the Carolina forecheck. They were second to the puck nearly all night, with exception of the six-minute stretch in the second that put them up a goal. Those three quick goals were, in microcosm, the psych! this season has been.

Essentially, this year has been composed of vast stretches of the entire team's looking lost (with the notable exception of Erik Cole, who consistently looks like iron filings consistently pulled to the net's magnet). Their play has often ranged from mediocre to bad, interspersed with bursts of promise fulfilled that make us hope...for a period, or a day, or even a week...that things have turned around. The good thing about this is that those things we see, the ones that make us keep hoping, are real. This is a team in transition, but it's going to be a quick transition because the players who are beginning to step up now are the ones who will be the core in a year or two.

Louis Leblanc and Aaron Palushaj might not be lighting it up every night, but they're working hard and going to the right places. Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais are coming into their own. P.K.Subban, Lars Eller and Alexei Emelin have been up and down, but gradually swinging toward more good nights than poor ones. Carey Price is on the cusp of his prime. With healthy veterans like Erik Cole, Brian Gionta and Tomas Plekanec, the team is better than it's been playing.

The problem is that there's still so much immaturity to overcome, especially on the defence. The D generally tends to panic when pressured, and that results in bad decision-making and poor passes that keep the forwards bottled in their own zone. The general immaturity shows in the inability to hold leads or push back when the other team pressures them. The "leadership group" that Bob Gainey assembled three years ago is disintegrating as Gionta is hurt, Mike Cammalleri is gone and Scott Gomez and Hal Gill are getting smaller minutes and reduced roles. The kids are learning to be their own leaders, and that will take a bit of time. The good thing about this is the whole group is going to mature together.

With the risk of being labelled a bad fan or an unbeliever, I have to think the Canadiens will not make the playoffs this year, even if they continue to show flashes of what they're capable of being...and will be, in a year or two. Their terrible start to the season with all the injuries and patchwork D has formed a barrier too big to batter down now. That's not to say they should stop trying. They're not likely to be bad enough to land one of the top-two draft picks and after those two, there are lots of other second-tier stars to choose from, so draft position isn't really a consideration at this point. Continuing to push for the playoffs will teach the kids some important lessons in perseverance and in being hungry enough to really want it, which will help in that group maturation process.

It'll help us too, as fans. Winning is so much more fun to watch than hopelessness. Even if they don't make the post-season, they can still be pretty entertaining in the trying. For management, the reality that this will not be a playoff team must be clearly understood and moves to improve made accordingly. We've got to believe they're not as easily duped into false hope as we fans can be.

The four-game winning streak was a little bit of a psych! situation, certainly. However, it's also managed to put this season into perspective. This isn't as bad a team as the record shows, and it's going to get better. We've seen that for ourselves and nobody's going to convince us it was all an illusion.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The White Way

In the pantheon of little-boy dreams, overtime in Game Seven of the Stanley Cup playoffs is the pinnacle of glory. In dreams, little boys always score the goal that beats the hated rival and wins the Stanley Cup. Dreams, they think, have no limit. Nobody loses in a dream. When dreams really do come true, though, sometimes they're not quite the same.

Ryan White learned that bit of wisdom last spring, when he played only 3:32 of a dream game in which the hated Boston Bruins scored the winner in Game Seven of the first round of the playoffs. In overtime, no less. Some other little boy's dream came true, while the Canadiens went home.

Not White. He got another shot at winning when he joined AHL's Hamilton Bulldogs in the third round of their playoffs. The 'Dogs were down three games to none and it looked like they'd be an easy out. Instead, they pushed and clawed and sweated and made it to Game Seven. In the end, they lost anyway. For Ryan White, last playoff season was a "be careful what you wish for" kind of dream.

"It was tough," he admits now. "Both situations were a little bit different. In Montreal I wasn't playing as much, but I thought we really had a chance to win and we were playing pretty well. Especially when you're up in the series and you lose the game, it's a bit different. The second time when I was down in Hamilton, it was different again. We were down three-nothing and I was playing quite a bit. We came back in the series and that one almost hurt a bit more, just because of how much work we did to come back."

Everyone who's been there says nobody emerges from the playoffs without some kind of bump or bruise or chronic injury. It follows then, that if you double the playoffs, you double the pain. White emerged from the fight last May with more than his share of battle scars.

"It was huge. I couldn't get into the shape I wanted to be in to come to camp, and by the time I got to camp things weren't looking very good for me. Things weren't going the way I wanted them to go," he reflects. "When you're hurt and you're dealing with minor injuries that become big injuries, it's not very fun. This year has been a pretty big learning experience for me just in the sense of rehabbing and the work I have to put in every day for my body to feel good. It's been a longer year that way, but it's been good for me."

It wasn't so good back in the fall, on the September day when team doctors told him the injury he'd been fighting all summer was serious enough to require surgery.

"That was a tough day," he recalls. "I knew something was wrong, and I was really hoping it was something I could rehab or something I could get through. I just wanted to know what was going on because I really didn't have a full diagnosis. I didn't know exactly what was happening. Once I found out it was a torn hernia, in one sense it was a little bit relieving but at the same time, it was tough to hear my season was pretty much over. It was something I had to persevere through and I'm better for it now. It's just too bad I had to miss so much of the season."

He's philosophical about it now, but at the time, he says, he felt like the doctors were taking his whole life away from him.

"Hockey's everything I've ever known and everything I love to do. My life revolves around it and it always has. Once they take that away from you...I didn't really know what else to do. I tried to stay around the rink as much as possible and be a part of the team, but it's tough when you're not contributing on the ice and you're not going to war with the guys. It was a tough season in that sense."

The daily grind of rehab wasn't something White, a spitfire on every shift on the ice, had ever had to face before. In the summer, before the operation limited his activity, he fished sockeye with friends to help him relax and forget that his body wasn't doing what it was supposed to do. After surgery, he spent a lot of down time watching TV and reading. He heard Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher told his team to read the World War II hero epic "Unbroken," so he picked up and enjoyed the audio book. Mostly, though, the days were a predictable grind.

"I was usually in the rink by 8:00 in the morning," he says. "I'd have treatment with one of the trainers there. I'd be working with either my exact injury or something that goes along with it. Just rehabbing, trying to get that moving better, and I'd go from there. I'd get into the gym and have an hour workout. Then a little break, and in the last two months, an hour skate after that. Then, after practice, another rehab and then just try to get ready for the next day. I worked with Pierre Allard, the strength coach, in Montreal for a couple of weeks. He was in full gear every single day for a couple of weeks and we were battling with each other every day. That was big for me to get my confidence back. I'm a physical player, and when you're coming back from injury, that's a tough thing to get back into. It's great when you have guys like him who can compete with you every day and make it tough on you."

Some of his teammates helped too. In an organization in which players are drafted together, train together and develop together, bonds are formed and they last even when one of their number is out of action.

"I've got good guys I've come through the system with. Desharnais, Weber, Subban, those guys. Pacioretty. We all grew up together in the system and we know each other pretty well," he explains, then continues, "Of the older guys, Scotty Gomez was big for me this year. He was always reaching out and making sure I was part of the group. Guys like that, who make you feel part of the group, that goes a long way."

While the support of friends might go a long way in helping relieve the tedium of rehab and making an injured player feel like part of the team, it can't entirely erase the sense of solitude that player endures. White says this has been a lonely year; not easy for a person who plays for the team before himself and thrives on the comradeship of a bunch of guys striving together for a common cause.

"It's my first year living alone. I didn't have any roommates, which is different because I'm used to living with a couple of guys and feeling like part of the team all the time," he says. "You're not around the team as much as you want to be, and when you are at the rink, you're often by yourself doing your own thing. It was lonely at times, but on a personal level, I've found out a lot about myself this year. I have a lot more to offer my team."

The Canadiens will soon find out how much more White can offer. He says he learned a lot about his game by watching others play, a luxury afforded only those who have the time and bird's-eye view injury provides. He's seen what makes other players good and tried to think of how he can incorporate those observations into the way he plays.

So far, so good. In his first real game back, in a conditioning stint with the Bulldogs, White played nearly 18 minutes, scored two goals and threw his weight around. It was a big step for a player who, more than many, relies on the resilience of his body to be successful on the ice. That body will be significantly tested in his first weekend back in action, with three games in three nights. It's all part of the long, difficult journey he's undertaken in an effort to get back into the Canadiens lineup before the season ends.

Still, he brushes aside the very thought that the loneliness, hard work and pain of this season might change him or the way he plays. On the contrary, he says he feels mentally stronger and has learned how to prepare physically for games in a way he never did before. He declares himself ready to pick up the threads of the dream that seemed to unravel for him last spring.

"There's always pressure to play up there. I don't change my game. I play the same way down here as I do up there. That's my game. I have to play that way. That's the way I've always played. It's a tough job some nights, but some nights I see that our team needs that and I hope I can bring that," he vows in a voice ringing with conviction.

With his boyish exuberance and his gap-toothed smile, there's still a lot of kid in Ryan White. These days, though, he's emerging as a man who's lived through the disappointment of childhood dreams gone wrong. He's learned about hardship and endurance, and he's discovered a dream that's worth anything doesn't come true by itself. He's coming back a more determined player, one who's focused just a little more sharply on making the dream come true for real.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Happy Gomez Day!

At last, the big day has arrived. We've waited through the long, dreary months; through the heartbreaking playoff loss last spring, the interminable hockeyless summer, the disappointing start to the season in the fall and the hopeless, frustrating winter. It's been so long since Canadiens fans have had something to celebrate, but now the waiting is over.

Scott Gomez today has achieved something no other 7-million dollar player in NHL history has managed. When the final siren sounds at the Bell Centre this afternoon, he will have gone an entire calendar year without scoring a goal. That's impressive. A player who regularly gets 15+ minutes of ice time, including on the PP, every game without managing to have the puck at least bounce off his ass into the net has to be either singularly terrible or epically unlucky or both.

Among those who have scored more goals than Gomez this year are: Hal Gill, Mike Blunden, Louis Leblanc and Frederic St.Denis. In fact, the only other Canadiens with zero goals this year are temporary fourth-line call ups Aaron Palushaj and Andreas Engqvist. It's actually pretty stunning as far as futility goes.

To be fair, it's not really as bad as it sounds, though. Gomez' calendar year includes only 51 regular-season games and seven in the playoffs. Because he's been hurt so often this year, the dry spell has really lasted less than a full NHL season. Of course, even though he hasn't scored any goals, he has certainly had assists. Eighteen of them. And four more in the playoffs. That's a value of $416667 per assist. It's better value than the Penguins have gotten out of their highest-paid player in the last calendar year. Sidney Crosby's two goals and ten assists in eight games cost the Pens $750000 apiece. Compared to that, Gomez is a bargain.

We can't forget the intangibles Gomez brings to the room either. He's a fun guy; a chatty guy. He keeps things light. He pretends that the year-long drought doesn't really bother him and fans can boo if they want to. He doesn't let criticism get to him, and even apologizes for his lack of productivity when pressed. And he's a veteran with a Calder Trophy and two Stanley Cup rings to his credit. The rings are very important. They were a big part of the reason why Bob Gainey traded for him, even though he was seventh in team scoring on both of those Cup-winning Devils teams.

There's a lot to celebrate today, on Scott Gomez Day. As of today, the Canadiens are one loss closer to picking the young centre who will make us forget Gomez ever existed. Fans are one game closer to seeing the team purge itself of Gomez, his attitude and his unremitting failure for good. We're sixty minutes away from the unheard-of marvel of a full year without scoring for a top-six player paid to be a star. The Canadiens haven't set a significant team record since they came back from 5-0 down against the Rangers four years ago. For a franchise that prides itself on milestones and records, four years is a long time to wait for a significant event. The Gomez anniversary ends that wait. It also gives the marketing department something to do, in developing a line of 365 Days of Gomez products.

When Gomez was acquired three years ago, I wrote this about the trade. It was a hateful deal then and has only become more so in the years since. Happy anniversary, Scott Gomez. Thanks for the memories.