Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Unstructured Fat Walruses and Better Goaltenders

Poor Lars Eller. The kid emerging as the Canadiens number-one centreman made a critical error that bought him a one-way ticket to his coach's post-Oilers'-game doghouse. He didn't fail to engage the opponent physically. He didn't have a mental lapse that led to a crucial goal or take a dumb penalty. Nope. Eller made the uncommon mistake of telling the truth.

When asked what he could expect from the Oilers prior to last night's game, Eller would have been wiser to reply "They're a good, fast young team. We expect them to come out flying and we have to be ready." End of answer. That's what the vast majority of other NHLers would have said. Instead, he actually gave a thoughtful and honest analysis of the team he'd played once already this month. "It can be anything, you know? They play a little bit like a junior team, I think, sometimes,” he said. “They take a lot risks, a lot of chances. They’re a little all over the place. There’s not a lot of structure always in their game. It can really be anything. You don’t know."

There was nothing untrue there. Eller observed a young team that sometimes plays a disorganized game as it tries to find consistency. However, in media scrums where cliche is king, Eller's openness became a lightning rod for a thin-skinned opposing coach. The Great Dane is in good company. Remember Tomas Plekanec in the 2008 playoffs, when he was asked about his performance against the Bruins? He answered, "The last couple of games I played like a little girl out there." While the papers commended him for his frankness, critics and opponents have never forgotten to throw that back at him years later.

Remember in 2010, prior to Game One against Washington? Somebody asked Plekanec how his eighth-place Canadiens matched up with the powerhouse Caps. He said: "It's not as though we are facing Brodeur or Miller. They don't have a dominant goaltender.  When you look at the goaltending matchup in this series it favours our team.  I just believe that our goaltending is more solid than theirs."

That was an honest assessment too, and one with which few could argue, given the respective records and histories of the goalies involved. The only way Plekanec saved himself from prolonged ridicule in that case was by blasting the Game One OT winner past a flat-footed Jose Theodore, and helping his team win that series. Then there was Brandon Prust and his response to Senator's coach Paul Maclean, after Maclean blamed Raphael Diaz for Lars Eller's Game One concussion and face-rearrangement last year.

Prust gave as good as his team got, calling Maclean a "bug-eyed fat walrus." While great fodder for photoshoppers everywhere, Prust's comments ended up being used against him as the Sens took control of the series. Both Prust and Plekanec learned the hard way to keep colour out of their commentary. Now, unfortunately, Lars Eller is receiving the same lesson. That means one less guy will feel free to voice his actual opinion, and will, instead retreat into the trite and meaningless.

The irony is, while various coaches like to use the words of opponents to pump up their teams, it's never the words that make the difference. The Canadiens didn't get eliminated in the playoffs because Tomas Plekanec called himself a little girl or Brandon Prust said Paul Maclean was a fat walrus. They got eliminated because a series of unfortunate events; injuries, timely errors, poor overall player performances, better opposition, added up to an early vacation. In just the same way, the Habs did not lose to Edmonton because the Oilers coach was furious at Lars Eller.

They lost because every single player GM Marc Bergevin acquired to improve the team last summer (every one!) is injured. They lost because the defence that needed shoring up the moment Alexei Emelin went down with a knee injury last April is just as badly off as it was then. They lost because Max Pacioretty is out (again) with another of the myriad of injuries that seem to sideline him whenever he just starts to get rolling. They lost because their lack of forward depth has Travis Moen playing shifts in the top-six. And they lost because, for some inexplicable reason, they failed to show up for the second period, which has been a persistent issue under Michel Therrien's coaching system. They did not lose because Lars Eller frankly evaluated his opponent in a pre-game interview.

It's easy for Therrien to say Eller's comment was "unacceptable." It's much more difficult for him to find a reasonable answer for the team's consistent second-period slump, and why his team is 18th in the league in wins after holding a first-period lead. It's harder to say why his team has a discipline issue. The Habs are 24th in the NHL in times shorthanded, having played fewer games than many other teams. Therrien would rather talk about Eller than about why the Habs PK ranks 18th in the league, while Norris winner PK Subban plays 1:11 a night shorthanded and Andrei Markov and Raphael Diaz (!) more than three minutes per game.

Lars Eller and his honest comments gave Therrien a chance to talk about something other than his own team's problems. And, rest assured, there are problems. Some will be alleviated when the injured players return. Some are systemic and must be solved at a basic systems or philosophical level. Either way, Eller is the least of the Habs problems. This team needed to beat Edmonton because it's not going to get any easier with a slate of big, hungry Western teams on the schedule this year.

As for Dallas Eakins, he can gloat and call out a guy like Eller all he likes, but if he listened closely to what the kid said, he'd have heard the ring of truth in those comments. He might laugh now, but his team is far from having a playoff spot locked up at this point. So, in the end, all he did was give the media a distraction from both the Habs and the Oilers problems, and make sure one more guy in an NHL dressing room never speaks his mind again.

Monday, October 14, 2013


Boy, it seems the long knives are out for Daniel Briere already this season. The other night during the Vancouver game, I joked with a friend that with his cheesy haircut and Scott Gomez-like tendencies, Briere should actually be called "Gruyere" instead. I was pretty disgusted with his soft, slow, obviously-36-year-old game to start the season. I'm still opposed to his signing, but the fact is, that ship has sailed and whether deckhand or officer, Briere is in Montreal for the foreseeable future.

The Habs have no "get out of contract jail free" cards left to play, so buying out Gruy...oops...Briere would hamstring a team that's got a lot of hot youth to sign in the immediate future. Trading a guy who got bought out by his last team and has done nothing to improve the fortunes of his new one is as likely as Marc Bergevin deciding his favourite word is no longer "character." Hamilton's not an option because of the player's no movement clause. So, it's in the interests of Habs fans everywhere to lobby the hockey gods for Briere to find his game.

It's not easy to find the positives. One assist in five games, with top wingers and two minutes of PP time per night puts him on pace for 16 points over 82 games. In the first five games, he's been largely invisible physically, has dragged down Max Pacioretty's play and has failed to make use of his time with the man advantage. He's also gotten an inordinate amount of airtime on 24CH, if you're into that kind of thing. There's not a lot there to love.

So, we have to look for something. We know Briere is excellent in the playoffs. His career points average during the regular season is .77 per game. In the post-season, he figures in the scoring every night. If the Habs make the playoffs, he'll help. That's something. He also satisfies the desire of management to add local players to the mix. As long as he's holding a spot, Marc Bergevin won't go looking for a worse guy to fill that requirement. And, be assured, there are worse choices to carry the "hometown boy" flag.

Okay, that's pretty much it. That's what I can find on the positive side of his presence in Montreal. So, now we just have to hope he finds some way to fit in with this team and prove he's not Bergevin's first huge mistake. Or, at least, that he doesn't hurt the team until the playoffs arrive and the Habs, hopefully, even without his help, have nailed down a spot. It doesn't matter, really, in the end. Positive or negative, we're stuck with him and it's to nobody's benefit to spend the next two years complaining about Daniel Briere.

Daniel Gruyere on the other hand...

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Smoking Torch

In the aftermath of George Parros' fight and subsequent concussion on Tuesday night, the outcome of the game itself became something of a secondary story line. Thank goodness it did, because not only did the Habs lose yet another game to the leafs, but they did it after yet another over-the-top session of wallowing in their past glory.

The torch was appropriate when the Forum closed in 1996, marking the end of an era and the passing to a new one with a Cup win still in recent memory. It was appropriate during the ill-fated Centennial celebrations, which were supposed to pay tribute to all the great players who made the organization one of the most successful in sports. It's no longer appropriate.

When a team has done exactly nothing of note in more than twenty years, the ties to the past begin to fray. Where once a culture of winning existed, in which young players learned the game from the champions who came before, there's now a culture of poor drafting, bad management and ill-conceived free-agent signings. Marc Bergevin and his crew might be turning things around, but it doesn't happen overnight and there's only so much you can hide in the soft glow of the torch.

In the meantime, trotting out the greats of the past to hand the torch off to a group that's nowhere near contending for a Cup only serves to underline the difference between then and now. You can only sell the glorious, if dusty, past for so long before people stop buying it. The Habs are rapidly reaching that point. When the team released its top-ten game DVD box set during the Centennial, it was pretty telling that the only game in the last twenty years to make it to the list was a regular-season comeback against the Rangers, with Michael Ryder the star of the night.

To top it all off, if the torch itself isn't a cynical enough gimmick by the Habs marketing team, handing it off to Daniel Briere, of all people, was just a ridiculous attempt to kiss the butts of fans who've wanted a hometown hero for a long time. The Rocket once passed the metaphorical torch to Beliveau, who passed it to Lafleur. Having Lafleur pass the literal torch, nearly thirty years after he left the Habs, to an aging, declining, mercenary, bought-out free agent who deigned to sign in Montreal because the money was right this time around, was silly. Not only that, but passing it to a guy who'd just signed and had never proven himself as a Montreal Canadien in any way was insulting to the team's captain and to the Norris-winning defenceman who received no individual acknowledgement at all.

So if the torch, as overplayed and trite as it has become, is supposed to carry some symbolic meaning of the team's intention to stride off into the future, building on the foundation laid by those who came before, what does the way that ceremony played out mean to a guy like P.K.Subban? The guy has only managed to bring the team its first significant individual honour in 11 years, but he's still left standing on the sidelines to watch the newly-anointed St.Daniel of Montreal made much of at the first home game of the year. That's not striding into the future, Habs. That's grasping for the straws of past glory, while the future is ignored on the off chance that he'll get too big a head and consider himself above the team.

It's time to put the torch away. It shouldn't be seen again until the modern Habs; guys like Subban and Pacioretty and Price and Eller and Galchenyuk have done their part to add to the team's legacy. And, if there's a guy who's a legitimate star in their midst, even if he's from Toronto, of Caribbean heritage and doesn't speak French, perhaps it's time for the team to recognize that's where future glory lies. It's time for the Subbans of the world to carry the Canadiens forward and the Brieres to take a back seat until they've proven they deserve to be honoured in Montreal.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Fighting is Stupid

George Parros is a big, strong man. He's generally acknowledged to be a good teammate and an interesting guy. He's Princeton educated with a degree in economics and was once named the fourth-smartest athlete in all of professional sports. George Parros has a lot going for him, but he is not a hockey player.

A hockey player's main job is to either score goals or prevent goals from being scored against his team. Parros' main job is to fight. He's in the NHL not because he's a smart guy or a good teammate or a great skater or has slick hands. He's there because he's 6'5", 230 pounds and can punch really hard. Last night, a stupid missed punch in a stupid fight meant to prove...what exactly?...caused him to crash with all his height and weight to the ice and injure his brain. His Princeton brain.

To make it worse, his family...his real family, not the "hockey family" that pays him to hit people...was there to see him carried away on a stretcher. His blood stained the ice and his glazed eyes stared without comprehension, and for what? It wasn't for the glory of the Habs, who fought four times and still lost the game. It wasn't for his own glory, as it's his concussion, rather than his hockey or fighting skills, that's making headlines today. It wasn't for fans, because the only people cheering after he collapsed cannot be called fans of sport.

Fighting does not belong in hockey. The rules of the game itself oppose it, assessing a major penalty for those who partake. New penalties addressing fighting...the instigator, suspensions for leaving the bench to join a fight, instigating a fight in the last five minutes of a game, the aggressor penalty...are all meant to limit fighting, not support it. At the end of the season, there are no awards given to the player or team that fights the most or the best. It's not an "outlet" for the naturally violent emotions generated by playing a hard-hitting, physical game. If it were, people like David Desharnais and Tomas Plekanec would be dropping the gloves regularly. Hiring people to fight on their behalf belies the "emotional vent" theory.

Also undermining the argument that players must have a way to purge their violent feelings is the fact that when games are really important...playoffs, Olympics...nobody fights. If emotions drive fights, one would think the biggest games would generate more of those emotions than a run-of-the-mill regular-season game on a Tuesday night. Yet, it doesn't seem to work that way. The fighters fight while the skilled players watch. Perhaps the league's leading scorers and top goalies don't have any emotions so don't need a vent.

Every other major league sport ejects fighters from their games. All those other "emotional" athletes are told fighting is an unacceptable way to express themselves and, for the most part, they don't do it. Hockey's allowing it makes the league look something less than professional. When the most well-known hockey joke is "I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out," the game itself becomes a bit of a joke.

The NHL believes fans come to games or tune into them on TV in the hope of seeing a fight. Yet, playoff games draw the biggest audiences, and fights in those are few and far between. That would, perhaps, suggest to the league that fans are more drawn to actual hockey than to the sideshow fights that plague regular-season games. The NHLPA argues fighting is "part of the game," while it stands by and watches as professional boxers in hockey gear get beaten night after night, sustaining injuries that put their actual careers and futures at risk. It's no coincidence that, were fighting to be eliminated from hockey, a quarter of the league's players who currently hold borderline fourth-line "toughness" jobs would be out of work.

The argument that eliminating fighting would lead to an increase in stick infractions doesn't hold water either. Other leagues, like the NCAA, have banned fighting and show no notable increase in players sustaining serious injuries from stick fouls. There is, however, ample evidence that fighting causes serious injury, and in the sad case of Don Sanderson, death. Referees can control the stick infractions by calling them tightly. Players soon know that extra slash or high stick isn't worth it, with so much of a game's outcome determined by special teams.

Kids watch their NHL heroes fighting. They emulate the pros, so they fight too. Fighting is part of hockey because it's taught by example to the youngest players. It's part of hockey because junior hockey and NHL GMs will hire a guy who can't otherwise cut it  if he can fight. They make a buck off the backs of guys who can't let go of the dream and are willing to risk their health for it, because fighting might put a couple of extra bums in seats. Now parents are rebelling. They don't sign their kids up for hockey in the numbers they used to, at least in part because they don't want to put children at risk of injury. They don't want them to fight. Kids aren't allowed to fight at school or on the playground, but they get rewarded if they fight at the rink. That's the same mentality that says a parent who curses or boos a kid at a piano recital is crazy, but the same person is perfectly within his rights to yell at children on a hockey rink.

Last year, the Globe and Mail newspaper surveyed Canadians and asked whether they'd support a fighting ban in hockey. Seventy-eight percent of respondents said they want fighting banned in all junior hockey. Sixty-eight percent want it gone from the game altogether. When questioned about the skills they believe are necessary to play the game, 95% of Canadians believe skating is essential. Ninety-three percent say shooting the puck is an important skill. Seven percent say it's important for a hockey player to know how to fight.

The NHL cannot, in good conscience, take a stand against concussions at the same time it's allowing fighting. Yet, Commissioner Gary Bettmen continues to be a hypocrite, citing the old "part of the game" argument. At the same time, the NHL is tacitly admitting something's got to give by instituting the silly "no taking your helmet off during a fight" rule this year. It's allegedly supposed to reduce fighting injuries, and maybe prevent a fight if a guy doesn't want to cut his knuckles on a visor. It's more likely an attempt by the league to get out in front of a lawsuit launched by the family of former fighter Derek Boogaard, who died at 28 years of age in 2011. Boogaard's brain showed signs of a degenerative brain disorder that can be caused by repeated blows to the head. The family is suing partly because it says the NHL exploited Boogaard's ability to fight, which contributed to his death, and partly because it allowed him access to the painkillers he needed to deal with the physical consequences of fighting, and to which he became addicted. If there's one thing likely to move NHL owners, it's their bottom lines, and a successful suit against them would not be good news. So, voila! The NHL says players can't take their helmets off during fights, showing a sudden concern for the well-being of players. You can still fight, says the league, but we want to protect your head while you do it. It's a cynical approach to a serious issue, at best.

USA Hockey and Hockey Canada are more boldly admitting it's not a great idea for teenagers to punch each other in the face, so they're looking at steps to eliminate fights among junior-aged players. The process is abominably slow, but it's at least an acknowledgement that there is a problem.

In the end, it's a sad commentary that after all the hype about the Habs/leafs opening game, the story emerging from it is George Parros' concussion. It's pathetic that some who support fighting are making the case that he could have easily slipped and fallen in a similar way at any point during the game, therefore it shouldn't be considered a "fighting injury." Sure, he might have fallen anyway. He didn't, though. He fell during a fight. When a guy plays six minutes a game and his main job is fighting, the chances of his falling during a fight rather than in an innocent hockey play are greatly increased. The bottom line is, if he hadn't been fighting last night, it wouldn't have happened.

If there were no fighting, perhaps George Parros wouldn't be receiving an NHL salary today. It's quite likely he wouldn't be. He also wouldn't be sitting at home nursing a concussion right now. He'd probably be using his undamaged Princeton brain to do something productive, and he'd be feeling a lot better.