Friday, April 27, 2012

The Senator

Serge Savard still carries quite a bit of influence in Montreal hockey circles. One doesn't become a Canadiens captain, multiple Stanley Cup winner and Hall-of-Fame defenceman without building up some impressive street cred. Savard's also got some clout with current Canadiens owner, Geoff Molson. Molson remembers hanging around the '70s Habs dynasty team as a little kid, and the memory makes him feel all warm and fuzzy inside. He naturally respects and admires Savard as a hockey man, and those factors have led him to place his trust in Savard's knowledge as the pair select the next Canadiens general manager.

To date, the scuttlebutt about candidates under consideration for the post is positive. While the names up for public speculation are mostly French Canadian, the fact that Detroit's Jim Nill and New York's Doug Risebrough made the list indicates language will not be an inflexible requirement for the job. The question now becomes: what will primarily motivate Serge Savard's recommendation to Molson?

The answer to that  will be based not only on what Savard's personal preferences might be, but also on what Savard's role with the Canadiens will be after the new GM is selected and installed. Radio Canada reported there's been discussion about making Savard a Vice President in the organization, and that the new GM will be answerable to him. Savard has categorically denied that, but it raises a legitimate question about what Molson intends to do after Savard's current role has been fulfilled. The most concerning part of the Radio Canada report was the idea that he would be somehow in charge of the GM he hires.

If that's the case, there's a new question: How much power will Savard have to approve or deny the general manager's decisions? Should Savard be responsible for overseeing the GM's moves, it would, naturally, undermine the latter's authority. In that case, one must wonder why the team would bother to hire someone else to begin with.

On the surface, it seems reasonable that Savard might be the de facto GM. He's got the aforementioned ties to the team. He built the Habs' last two Cup-winners when he held the GM post in truth. Those are the positive things. With a deeper look, though, anyone would have to admit the game has changed since Savard has been seriously involved.

It's well recognized that a lot of things happen behind the scenes in hockey management, and who you know is more important in some cases than what you know. Savard has been away from the inner machinations of the NHL for many years as he's developed his hotel and real estate interests. He likely still has acquaintances in the league, but he probably isn't the first guy a rival GM would call to float an interesting trade. There's also the fact that the last time Savard was a GM, a rich team could go out and buy itself a winning lineup. Trading picks and prospects for "win right now" veterans was acceptable. The philosophy behind building a winner is different now than when he last managed in the NHL, by a lot. The post-lockout world demands a different type of player as well. Players Savard would have dismissed for being too small or passive in the '80s are perfectly acceptable now.

It might be that Savard has been keeping up with his contacts within the league and he's modified his views to match the kind of game the NHL is moving toward. It would be much more clear-cut, however, if he took a step back after his work in advising Molson in the selection of a new GM is done. His remaining securely in the management mix will serve only to muddy the waters in a time when clarity of purpose is vital.

I like Serge Savard. I have deep respect for his accomplishments with the Canadiens as both a player and a manager. I also think it's time for a new direction for the team, and clinging to the past isn't the most productive way to go. If Savard can be instrumental in hiring the person who will constructively lead the team forward, that's great. After that, the new guy should be allowed to do the job for which Savard selected him. On his own.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Calling All Candidates

The Montreal Canadiens are at a crossroads. Poised at the juncture of several possible paths, the most important decision they make this off-season will be choosing the person who will lead them forward. The new general manager will be responsible for selecting the team's highest draft pick in more than thirty years, deciding what to do with Scott Gomez, shoring up the defence and the second line and signing P.K.Subban and Carey Price to new contracts. And that's just before September. After this season's debacle and the steady erosion of the Canadiens' reputation for first-class behaviour under Pierre Gauthier's regime, it's vital the Habs carefully choose the right person. To that end, it's very important to examine all available candidates.

So far, we've heard many of the names of the men Serge Savard and Geoff Molson are considering for the job. Julien BriseBois is a popular choice. So is Pierre McGuire, for some. Claude Loiselle, Patrick Roy, Marc Bergevin, Vincent Damphousse, Pat Brisson and Blair Mackasey have also joined the list. It's an impressive list by any measure. Still there's a candidate who should be considered, whose name hasn't been, and won't be, mentioned.

This former player has won a scoring title, three Olympic gold medals and five World Championships. The candidate earned an honours degree in psychology from Harvard, while becoming the all-time NCAA scoring leader and while coaching younger players. The family genes are good too, with a famous sports-psychologist dad who counsels NHL teams, a brother who's already an assistant NHL GM, without nearly as good a resume, and a mom who represented Canada twice at the Olympics. And, yes, this candidate speaks both English and French fluently.

Her name is Jennifer Botterill.

Right now, many of you are probably immediately dismissing the idea that a woman could be qualified to be the Canadiens general manager, but if you are, stop and think about it for a moment. What, precisely, qualified Pierre Gauthier to take the job? Certainly not his playing career or front-office success. Bob Gainey's resume wasn't better than Botterill's, only he played in the NHL, while she was played at the highest level of competition in the women's game. Garth Snow had no pedigree when he became the Isles' GM. Neither did Brett Hull when the Stars hired him. The point is, there are likely as many good female candidates out there as male, but they won't be considered because of their sex. That's as stupid as passing over a great person because they don't speak the right language.

Take Hayley Wickenheiser, for example. She's probably the greatest player ever in women's hockey. There's nothing she hasn't accomplished on the ice, including becoming the first woman to score in a men's pro game. Away from the ice, she's studying to attend medical school after hockey, she's a mom and she's a member of the Order of Canada. Sports Illustrated named her to its list of 25 Toughest Athletes, and  The Hockey News placed her #59 on its list of the top 100 Most Influential People in Hockey.

Or what about Vicky Sunohara? She's a hockey legend and generally regarded as one of the greatest leaders ever to play the women's game. She's instructed young players for years, and is now the head coach of the Toronto Varsity Blues women's team. Or maybe Danielle Goyette? She's got a pair of Olympic gold medals and is the head coach of the Calgary Dinos varsity women's team. One of the players she coached last year? Hayley Wickenheiser.

Women have been making their mark in hockey for a long time, but are only now beginning to make inroads into the professional ranks. Teams like the Montreal Stars, featuring some of the best in the game, are slowly seeing their popularity increase. The fact that more people don't come out to watch them, however, doesn't mean their hockey minds aren't as keen or their ability to become managers in the sport any less than a guy who punched his GM ticket as an NHL player. (In fact, considering the number of head shots handed out in men's versus women's hockey, I'd be more inclined to trust an ex-player of the female variety when it comes to logic and solid decision-making.)

The Canadiens won't hire Jen Botterill to be their GM, or even give her a shot as an assistant GM so she'll have a chance to learn the front-office ropes. It's a shame, because she'd be a great candidate. And, really, talent and potential in management are just as important as they are on the ice. The NHL team that decides to look for that talent and potential among the entire hockey community rather than just half of it, will someday, perhaps, be pleasantly surprised. The Canadiens would be wise to be trailblazers and think about it.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Growing Hope

This is a tale of two hockey players. One of them is Martin Gelinas. You  probably saw him play for one of his seven NHL teams, at some point in his nearly 20-year big-league career. You may have seen him score one of his 309 goals and maybe cursed when one of those goals burned the Habs in an important game. The other guy is Jimmy Roy. Unless you're a die-hard hockey fan, or you love the Manitoba Moose, you've probably never heard of him. He was an AHL lifer who was the heart and soul of the Moose in his nine years there, and who spent the last five seasons of his playing career crowing with the German league's Iserlohn Roosters. For two guys who eventually ended up in the same place, they couldn't have taken routes more different.

Both former players are now directors of player development, Roy for the Winnipeg Jets and Gelinas for the Nashville Predators. Until a handful of years ago, the role didn't really exist. Then, teams began to worry about the number of draft picks who flamed out or just didn't reach the potential everyone thought they had, and realized they needed to reach out and nurture the kids in whom they were investing so much. Gelinas was one of the first guys given that job by an NHL team.

"They were drafting players and hoping they were going to get there eventually," he explains. "Now, it's my fourth year of doing player development...I think I was the third one in the league doing the job at the time. So it is quite new. And now, they're not just hoping their prospects are going to develop. Now, right from day one, when they're drafted, they do everything they can as an organization to make sure the young players get from point A to point B."

While Roy and Gelinas were very different players, they were both driven by a deep and abiding passion for the sport.  They also developed a desire to see other young men succeed, probably driven by their roles as team leaders when they played. Now, at this point in their lives, they're both dads. The role they've been asked to play by their respective teams is, in many ways, an extension of that. Roy has three kids, including 5-year-old twins.

"You want to build relationships with the players so that if there's issues or anything going on, they can come to you and speak to you and be open and not intimidated," he says. "It's a combination of a lot of things. Being able to communicate with the kids and sharing experience, talking with them. When I played I talked too much, now I have to listen. Listening is a skill, and I'm learning to listen. Anything they want to discuss or I can get them to elaborate on, that's one of the things I really try to do.

Both Roy and Gelinas make themselves available to talk if young players have personal problems or questions. However, they spend most of their time teaching the kids what it really takes to be a pro hockey player. Casual fans might expect the biggest pitfall a young, single athlete can face could be filed under one of "wine," "women," or "song." Roy says it's actually something much simpler.

"One of the biggest things is nutrition," he notes. "If you're out eating in restaurants all the time, and you're on your own, you have to use your time wisely. And when you eat out, you have to not order the fattiest thing on the menu.  Eating properly is a big part of it when you're on your own for the first time."

The simple things, and the hardest ones to deal with, all fall into the grab-bag of a job description these men have taken on. Gelinas says some young players are easy. They understand they have to sweat to succeed, and they take any help they can get.

"Ryan Ellis and Craig Smith are perfect examples," he reveals. "They took advantage of it right away. "Marty, can you get me this video? Can you provide me this tool to get better? They got it right away. Some guys, it takes a little longer. I didn't get that. If I did, I think it would have speeded up my progress quite a bit. So hopefully, I can make a difference in our prospects' lives. Not to just become better players, but to become good citizens."

Then, there are the ones who don't "get it" so easily. And, more heartbreakingly, the ones who try their damnedest but just don't have what it takes.

"It's hard. I take a lot of pride in my job, and I want to do a good job and make sure they get there. And it's frustrating if they don't. The reality is, not all of them are going to make it. You just have to provide them with the tools and hope they get there,"  Gelinas explains. Then, with the optimist's view necessary in his position: "My job is to never give up on a player. Obviously, there's frustration. But I'm there to give them hope, to give them information and get them on the right track. And hopefully, they get it eventually. When they do, it's very rewarding."

Jimmy Roy believes the work he does can make the difference between a kid realizing his dream and making the NHL, or coming up just short. He, like Gelinas, didn't have anybody making personal connections with him as a young player, and he feels he's playing an important role for the new generation of prospects.

"I think it's very important for a number of reasons. It keeps a good line of communication open with the kids. They know somebody's there watching. You just haven't been drafted and left without contact with anybody on the team. It's a great way of instilling confidence and help them along the way. It helps more than most people expect," he says. "It's important to have a guy like myself who understands their development and can say, "He'll take a little longer to develop," or "He'll be a great player one day." Or there may be a kid who's slowing down, or others who'll you'll say, "Wow, he's getting smarter, getting stronger, putting on weight." It's important to keep lines of communication open with all these guys so you know them really well."

Roy says in some cases, his knowledge of a player and his development could very well encourage the organization to have a little more patience with a kid who's not coming along as quickly as management would like.

"Every player is different. Every individual is different and understanding each person's needs is a big part of it. There's what I call the "man body." There's a difference between a boy body and a man body, and it takes some kids longer to grow into their body. They may have the exact same work ethic and even do more than some others, but it may take them longer to develop. You have to understand that," he says.

Gelinas shares Roy's belief that what he's doing...all the hours spent in minor league rinks, watching  prospects play and talking with them filling a role that's been needed in the NHL for a long time.

"I think it's important. Hockey's not an easy job. From the outside it looks glamorous, but there's a price to pay to have some success," he explains. "I was lucky enough to play almost twenty years, and I can tell you there's a lot of ups and downs in that twenty years, so I know what they're going through. My message to them is, it's worth it. It's a great life, but there's a price to pay."

Jimmy Roy, who busted his gut for fifteen years in pro hockey and never set a blade on NHL ice, has his own message for the kids he's mentoring now.

"One of the things I'm really trying to instill...I was a minor league player and I never played in the national hockey league, whether because of skill or timing, whatever it was. But I have no regrets. I worked as hard as I could every single day to try and become an NHL player, and that's what I want them to know. Put everything out there, and give all you can. When you put your head down at night, you should know you've done all you can do. That's what I want to teach," he says.

Today, more than two-thirds of NHL teams have someone, most often a former pro player, filling the specific role of director of player development.  A handful, including the Montreal Canadiens, do not. In Montreal, the director of amateur scouting, Trevor Timmins, carries both titles. It's curious, for a team widely criticized for having a strong draft record and relatively poor success in developing the players it selects, that it's not bothered to bring in a guy like Roy or Gelinas. As Geoff Molson looks to overhaul the front office this summer, perhaps that's an oversight that will be remedied.

In any case, the majority of teams are buying into the value of having someone who's been where these kids are now on staff. After all, when youth is more highly prized than ever and teams know the quickest way to compete in a salary cap era is to get the most value out of draftees as early as possible, every advantage is worth exploring.

As for Jimmy Roy and Martin Gelinas, they couldn't be happier. Helping develop young players and watching them make it to the NHL allows one guy to relive his own journey and another help a kid realize the dream he was denied himself. They're two hockey players who traveled very different paths to get where they are, but who find the same deep value in the work they do.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Biggest Save

Photo courtesy of Josie Gold
Once upon a time, an upstart NHL expansion team decided if you couldn't beat them, you should beat them up. The Philadelphia Flyers built a reputation for destruction and mayhem and, inspired by their bloodthirsty fans, became the Broad Street Bullies. It was a proud label for the team in the orange Kool-Aid sweaters. They rocked the league, walked over teams that dared stand in their way and crushed those that still stubbornly defied them. They added two Stanley Cups to their plunder of the mid-70s NHL and figured to add more. Other teams sensed the way the wind was blowing and began to load up on goons and tough guys in an effort to compete.

Other teams, but not the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs instead built a team on skill, speed and team toughness, which wasn't the norm at the time. Ken Dryden, the lanky Hall of Fame goaltender, recalls the fear the Flyers inspired throughout the NHL.

"It wasn't the brawling and intimidation that finally turned me," Dryden writes in his classic book, "The Game." "It was their sense of impunity. They were bullies. They showed contempt for everyone and everything. They took on the league, its referees and teams; they took on fans, cops, the courts and politicians. They searched out weakness, found it, trampled it, then preened with their cock-of-the-walk swagger, "Come on, ya chicken. I dare ya!" For two years, they were kings of the mountain. Not many years from now, those two years will be symbols of the NHL's lost decade."

Sadly, in the thirty years since Dryden wrote those words, the NHL is in danger of losing another decade. It's already seen one complete season wasted because of labour strife. Now, teams are losing more salary dollars and, more vitally, days and seasons of players' health to head injuries than ever before. Never, since the days of the Broad Street Bullies, have the NHL playoffs been so influenced by the dirty tactics of teams attempting to use bigger, stronger and meaner to force their way into the W column. Less than halfway through the first round of the post-season, there have already been enough suspension-worthy incidents to exceed those of last year's entire playoff spring. Head shots, hits from behind, attacks on goalies: they've all been factors this year.

The question now is: who's going to save the league? And, following from that, who's going to preserve the integrity of the game of hockey itself? The Canadiens did it in the '70s. Rick Chartraw was a big, tough defenceman back then, and he remembers how the Habs were built to counter the Flyers.

"We weren't just the fastest team in the league, or the best puck movers," he says, "We were also the toughest."

Chartraw and his sizable mates played the Philly way when they took on the Flyers in an exhibition game in the fall of 1975 and proved they could fight as well as the Bullies from Broadstreet. After that, they were able to put the fists away and play a beautiful, clean game that showed NHL GMs there was another, and perhaps, a better, way to win. That understanding of the game as a thing of beauty rather than brutality is disappearing. Back in September, Ken Dryden wrote a piece for Grantland, calling out NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and demanding the lack of care for one's opponents be harshly punished.

"As a hockey commissioner today, you can't not know that many of your players this year, next year, and every year will suffer head injuries. Some will have their careers ended; some, like Paul Kariya and Eric Lindros, before age gets them will begin their downward slide from superstar to journeyman; and some retired players will die long before their time, their final years for themselves and their families in the living death of dementia. This isn't being alarmist. This is alarming," he wrote at the time.

A season has passed since Dryden wrote those words, and here we are, in a playoff season marred by a daily litany of suspensions. Respect is absent and the bully boys are running the shop. Calls for Bettman and the league to do something to stop it echo in the emptiness that exists where there is no purpose. The only thing missing from league cop Brendan Shanahan's suspension-explanation videos is a background of calliope music, reminiscent of the circus the league is once again becoming.

In the '70s, the league didn't fix the Flyers. Clarence Campbell didn't take a stand or force change for the good of the players or of the game itself. The Montreal Canadiens did it. Even though they proved they could be the biggest bullies on the block if they chose to be, they instead took the opportunity to show the world a different kind of game. Their hockey was strong, fast, skilled and dominant. Today Dryden reflects on that Canadiens legacy and what it meant to the game.

"There are good teams, there are great teams and there are important teams," he explains. "There are a lot of Stanley Cup winners and a lot of them are great teams or near great teams. There are not very many that are also important teams. And I think the Montreal Canadiens of that time were also a very important team."

When hockey was heading in a dangerous and unpalatable direction 35 years ago, the Canadiens changed the course of the game. They were able to do so because they had a roster of talent better than just about everybody else's, and the work ethic and coaching to enable them to use it to the utmost. They laid the foundation for the Islanders and Oilers dynasties that followed. They were the original blueprint for the Red Wings, now in their twenty-first straight season of playoff qualification. The problem is, with Bettman's much-vaunted league parity, no team can compile a roster of the skill and strength of those Canadiens squads, or keep it intact for long if it can.

There are no important teams left in the NHL, and without one, there's nobody to pull the game out of the mire into which it's descending and say, "Look at us! We'll show you how it's done." When there's more interest in who will fight next and the suspension tally leads the sportscast, it's not a good thing. The Canadiens aren't in a position to stop the madness this time around, but some team must stand up and take charge. Otherwise, the clowns running the NHL circus will win, and, if they do, hockey will be the loser.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Saviour

As Good Friday approaches, marking a time of contemplation in the Christian calendar, perhaps it's appropriate to spend some time this week thinking about saviours. With the Canadiens' OT loss to Washingon on Saturday and the Oilers' win over Anaheim a day later, the Habs sit in 29th place in the league. Technically, with both Montreal and Edmonton having played 79 games, they're tied with 73 points apiece, but the Habs get the edge in futility by virtue of having a total of only 29 wins, compared to the Oilers' 32. All that math aside, the bottom line is the Habs are currently the second-best losers in the league, which, if they maintain that position, gives them an 18.8% chance of winning the draft lottery.

This position is making a lot of fans excited in a season in which there's little else to celebrate. It's so easy to imagine the Canadiens winning the draft lottery and picking first overall for the first time since they took Doug Wickenheiser over Denis Savard in 1980. It's tempting to think of Nail Yakupov on Tomas Plekanec's wing, giving the beleaguered centre a real sniping winger at last. With the current top line as constituted and a Yakupov/Plekanec/Gionta line backing it up, one of the biggest problems facing the Canadiens would be instantly solved. The excitement should come with a bit of caution, though.

Yakupov is the clear-cut top player in this year's draft. He's put up 1.59 points per game in his two seasons of junior hockey in Sarnia. He's of fairly average size, at 5'11" and 190lbs, but there's no reason why he should not be able to make a serious run at cracking the NHL lineup of whichever team claims him in June. He'll likely follow in the footsteps of other sure-thing number-one picks before him.

John Tavares, for example, joined the Islanders at 18. In his first season, he put up a very respectable 54 points, and has improved every season since. In that first year, however, he didn't exactly pick the Isles up and carry them to respectability. Steven Stamkos is undeniably a superstar now, but in his first season in Tampa at 18 years of age, he managed only 46 points. The highly-touted winner of the Taylor/Tyler sweepstakes of a couple of seasons ago made the Oilers out of camp, but has since dealt with several injuries and has a season high of 53 points in 61 games. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has shown he belongs in the NHl as a teenager, but he's also had a problem with injuries.

The point is, these kids are good...really good. Scouting these days has evolved significantly from the days in which good junior numbers and a turn-your-head-and-cough physical could make you a number-one pick. These kids are evaluated physically, mentally and emotionally. They're watched every night and their games dissected by countless educated eyes. They're subject to combines and intense interviews. Accidents don't happen with the number-one guy as often as they used to. There's not one for the last ten years who's been a total bust.

So...this year's guy will be a good NHL player, most likely. Will he be a guy who can single-handedly turn a franchise around? That's a bigger question. Based on the stats of the players who've been chosen first in the last several years, it might be possible, but probably not in the first year of his pro existence. The problem with Habs fans, however, is they want results NOW. That's been the problem with the franchise for years. People want winning, and they want it NOW. They're not willing to wait for something to develop. If the Canadiens win the lottery and pick Yakupov,he's got a pretty good chance of avoiding the vultures by putting up some pretty decent points. What if it's not Yakupov, though? What if the Habs select someone good, but not yet great? If it's Grigorenko or Galchenyuk, does the team turn those centres into wingers? Or does it turn Plekanec into a wing on some kid centre's line? IF, indeed, those kids can even qualify to make the NHL regular roster? So many questions, and so few answers.

The only thing that seems apparent is that there's very little chance the kid the Canadiens draft in June, whether he be taken at second or fourth, will immediately change the outlook of the team. He'll help...eventually...but he won't be the saviour. So fans need to temper their expectations of a first or second or third-overall pick and realize it's just part of the process. It's possible things might not be much better on the scoreboard or in the standings next year, but the overall picture is positive. It just might not be in focus right now. As we think about saviours, it might be wise to keep it to religion. In hockey, resurrection could take longer than three days.