Sunday, August 31, 2008

Remembering Roy

In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Marc Antony intones at Caesar's funeral, "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interr'ed with their bones..." As was so often the case, the Bard wrote words of wisdom in which we can still find eternal truths.

Earlier this week, La Presse reported that the Canadiens mean to retire Patrick Roy's number 33 during the Centennial season, likely sometime in November. As soon as the report surfaced, Habs' fans once again opened the "should they or shouldn't they" debate. The "they should" camp, in which I'm firmly entrenched, believes Roy's legacy includes saving the franchise from thirty years without a Cup, as well as performing as the team's only superstar in a decade sandwiched between some pretty dark years and landing in the record books as one of the best goaltenders to ever play the game. The "they shouldn't" side, which is extremely vocal right now, cites all Roy's off-ice sins...the temper tantrums, the sending his son after a helpless goaltender during a junior game, the explosion of temper that ended in his leaving Montreal. I think that's a case of "the evil that men do lives after them while the good is oft interred with their bones." Roy did some bad things...things we don't like to associate with our heroes. That's true. And that's the stuff that's still talked about when his name comes up. But it's also true that he did some very good things, which are buried because they were good. No one talks about the good beyond the moment it happens. It isn't salacious enough and doesn't stir emotion as much as the bad.

But there is a lot of good associated with Patrick Roy's name. While he played, he gave tirelessly to Ronald McDonald House, to make sure that the parents of sick children had a place to stay while their kids were being treated. He often took time after practice when other players had gone on to their outside lives, to stay on the ice with kids whose dream was to meet him. Red Fisher, who thinks Roy's number should not be retired, half grudgingly, half admiringly, writes about Roy showing up for a private trip to the Montreal children's hospital after he'd been traded. He could no longer go with the team on its yearly visit, but he felt compelled to be there for the kids who'd been expecting him, so he went on his own.

No one looks at the fact that, despite the incident involving his son, Roy is coaching junior hockey. The man is a multi-millionaire and has no need to ride the buses in junior. Yet he feels he's got something to offer the teenaged kids who dream about making it big. So, he spends eight or ten hours on jouncing buses because that comes with the package. Who else from the pantheon of Hall of Fame players is doing that? Yet, he has one indiscretion and he's reviled for it, with no thought to the motivation behind his presence in the picture in the first place.

I have my own story. I was in Montreal when I was a teenager, hoping to meet my hero. But it was during the playoffs, and the players were sequestered in a hotel outside the city. The only hope of meeting them was to catch them on their way into the morning skate. My group of friends and I were on a tour of the Forum, and were assured there was no way we'd see any players. But, fortuitously, our bus was parked around the back of the building, and when we came out, a bunch of the players happened to be coming in for the morning skate. We met Bobby Smith, who was great to us, Mats Naslund, Brian Skrudland, Mike McPhee, Chris Chelios, Guy Carbonneau, Petr Svoboda, Rick Green...pretty much all the players who made the finals in 1989. I shook their hands and wished them luck, but my hero hadn't turned up when it was time for us to board the bus and head to the next stop on the itinerary. I dragged my heels, shuffling toward the bus, when someone else in our group noticed a late-arriving player and asked, "Who's that?" I turned and saw him. My hero. He was hurrying across the street in an orange and white windbreaker, floppy hair blowing in the wind as he skirted traffic and darted toward the side door of the Forum. I was speechless. I couldn't approach him. A friend of mine waylaid him on the way to the building and said, "That's your biggest fan. That's stupid to say, but really, it is..." He smiled and stopped. He was late for practice, he was under intense scrutiny and pressure during the playoffs, but he stopped. He signed my scrap of paper, took a picture and thanked me for supporting him. He bothered with us. And that meant something. He didn't have to do that, and I wouldn't have blamed him for rushing by because he was late. But he didn't. And that meant the world to a fan of his who was thrilled just to be in his vicinity. It proved to me that there is a lot of good in the man.

So, despite the nasty pictures people paint of him off the ice, I know there are just as many beautiful portraits. Sure, we wish our heroes were always true blue. I love Jean Beliveau, despite never having seen him play, because he has never been less than classy. I have a personal letter he wrote me after I wrote him to compliment him on his biography which I enjoyed immensely. The man is pure class. Patrick Roy is a lot more human. But really, who can't associate with that? Who's perfect? He was a helluva great player and made my team better than they were. For that, I'll always appreciate him. But the fact that he made himself available to invisible fans like me make him special. So, even if he screwed up on occasion, he has many good marks in his favour.

So, when the debates arise, as they inevitably will as the date of his number retirement approaches, it would do us all well to look at the whole picture. No person is the sum of his faults. He's the sum of what he's done, good and bad, for people. And if we look at it that way, the balance just might be tipped in favour of the good.

I hope so, because I think Patrick Roy is a good man at heart. And I hope the fans that show up at the Bell Centre on some annointed night in November realize it as well. He hasn't had the luxury of time to dim his faults like some of the other number retirees have had. So his reception will depend on the good memories of Habs' fans. I have many. I'll bet you do too.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Sing a song of Sundin

Oh dear what can the matter be?
Seven GMs wond'ring where the Swede's home will be.
They'll be on standby 'til opening night if they need to be
But Mats doesn't care that they're there.

Now the first GM is rookie Mike Gillis
His twenty-mill deal was intended to chill us.
But if Matsy goes there, at least he won't kill us.
Sundin doesn't care that he's there.

The second GM is wily Glen Sather.
Jagr has gone, but Lundqvist will stay there.
The Rangers buy teams, but the Cup's out of play there.
Sundin doesn't care that he's there.

The third GM is tough-guy Paul Holmgren
His Bullies with Mats would advance in the show then
But they'd be over the cap by seven, eight, nine or ten
Sundin doesn't care that he's there.

The fourth GM is senile Cliff Fletcher
As a team architect, he is more of a sketcher
Mats ran away from his team like a girl from a lecher
Sundin doesn't care that he's there.

The fifth GM was Holland in Detroit
He offered a deadline deal Mats would not exploit.
So Ken signed up Hossa, as a GM he's adroit
Sundin doesn't care that he's there.

The sixth GM was the Islanders' Garth Snow
The city's the draw 'cause the Isles are a no go
If Big Mats goes there, the Cup he will forego
Sundin doesn't care that he's there.

The last GM is the Habs' Patient Bob
For whom landing Mats is a helluva tough job
But if the Swede won't listen, he's really a big knob
Sundin doesn't care that he's there.

And it's oh, dear, what can the matter be?
Seven GMs wond'ring where Mats' home will be
They'll be on standby 'til opening night if need be
But Sundin doesn't care that they're there.

Click here for the tune, if you don't recognize it:

Goodbye sweet dream...

Well, according to The Bob himself, things look less than positive on the big bald Swede front. A guy who hasn't asked any questions about the team hoping to sign him seems to project a general lack of interest in joining said team. And, if he's not even talking to Gainey with less than three weeks left before camp, then I'll agree our reasons for optimism have dwindled alarmingly.

It's saddening to realize that sweet Kovalev/Sundin/Tanguay PP line won't be scaring the crap out of the opposition. I mean, I like the Habs as they are right now, but wow! That line would have been powerful. And it would have been fantastic to have the big Swede lining up for important faceoffs, and crashing the opposing crease when the Habs are down by a goal with a minute to go. I won't get to see leaf fans everywhere cry when Sundin skates out in the CH for the first time. It's a tough dream to let go, because he would have been perfect.

I mean, really, what will he gain playing in New York, which is now where I think he's headed, or at least trying to head? The Rags have lost Jagr and will likely have to dump Scott Gomez to make room under the cap for Sundin. Replacing Jagr and Gomez with Sundin and Marcus Naslund only allows them to keep pace with last year's team. I'm one of those pessimists who thinks Wade Redden isn't the answer to their blueline. So, if the Rangers weren't good enough to win the Cup last year, what makes Sundin think they'll do it this year? Or does he even care? Is he just interested in New York because the city itself is so exciting? It's kind of disheartening to think so, from a Habs' fan's perspective. If the team, in it's hundredth year with all the celebration surrounding that, with exciting players and a fast, thrilling system on the ice can't attract the big prize, it probably means those big prizes will always be hard to come by. Or maybe it's just that Sundin really doesn't want to destroy his legacy in Toronto forever, which he'd probably do by signing with the Habs. Whatever the reason he doesn't love Montreal, it's just too bad.

Because even if Sundin signs with the Canadiens at this point, it really seems as though his heart isn't in it. And I don't want him if he's not coming to the team with some serious passion and dedication to winning in Montreal. It pains me to say this, because as I mentioned, I think he'd be perfect. His skills and size fill the only real hole left on the team. But size and skills without heart aren't enough. And the loss of Sundin's potential also means there's still a hole on the team.

I like Kyle Chipchura and Maxim Lapierre, and Chipchura may very well develop into the third-line shut-down guy he was drafted to be. But I'm not sure he's ready to do that this year. I have high hopes for Ben Maxwell, but by the time he's ready, he'll probably be replacing Saku Koivu, not supplementing him. Which all means Gainey will likely be looking at plan B. And that scares me. I don't want to settle...and the names that are out there now, well, if they end up as Habs, it'll be settling. I just don't see another player out there who brings the type of skill Sundin brings and who can be obtained cheaply from some team who's got to get under the cap. And taking on a fairly large salary in the form of a player who doesn't bring those skills is just a waste. I'd rather see Chipchura fast-tracked in learning his eventual role.

It's a perplexing problem for Gainey which would have been perfectly solved by plugging Sundin into the lineup at the cost of just money. It's a lot tougher to fill the hole by shifting a player who already has a job on the team and thereby creating another hole. It's possible, I suppose, to take on the Centennial season with the current lineup. But if the team is to position itself for a serious run at the Cup, that hole at centre has got to be filled with a good player suited for the role. I think Gainey will make a move to do that, perhaps not right now, but as we see how the season develops. Certainly before the playoffs. It'll be interesting to see who he targets for the job and what it costs to get him.

In the meantime, I guess we'll have to stop dreaming of what might have been and prepare to continue watching the big bald one hurt our team at will. I guess the positive is that if he goes to the Rangers, it'll only be four times a year instead of our usual eight. And he'll retire without a Cup after all.

But that'll be cold comfort, because it was a beautiful dream.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Perilous predictions

I can be pretty superstitious when it comes to the Habs. I'm one of those people who won't say "shutout" before the final whistle, and who believes setting my little rubber Patrick Roy in front of the television at just the right angle during playoff games helps the mojo. So, I have to say I'm not liking the jinxy feeling I get when all the pundits who called for the Canadiens to finish last or close to it last season are now calling for them to finish on top.

I don't like the pressure such lofty expectations place on a young team like the Habs. It's the kind of situation that sets a group up for failure. If they start the season strongly, well, it's no more than expected. If they stumble out of the gate, it will start playing on their minds and the pressure will mount until it becomes an ever-growing mental issue. On one hand, it's nice to see our team finally get the credit it deserves for its success last season. On the other, big expectations are a big test for the coming year.

I'm hoping they meet that test head-on and prove they deserve to be rated as highly as they are. Logically, all the tools are there and if they're healthy and mentally strong, there's no reason why they shouldn't win a ton of hockey games this year. In fact, the expectations of this season are an inevitable step in developing a championship team. If they face the challenge and overcome it, they'll believe they deserve to win. Last year against Philly, I got the feeling that they didn't truly think they were supposed to win the series and they didn't really believe in themselves after about the first three games. I think that might have been partly due to the low expectations they carried into the year, as though because no one expected them to win, maybe they shouldn't have been winning. It seemed like they were kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop. If they head out this season with everyone expecting them to win, then actually following through and doing it, they'll start to realize how good they can be and accept it as their due for being talented, fast and hard-working.

The only thing is, for the superstitious among us, the predictions have a whiff of doom about them. If the pundits proved one thing last year, it's that they really are no better at predicting how a season will play out than the weatherman is at guessing in October that it will be raining on April 5 and being right about it. They were so very wrong last year, that it makes me worry they're going to be just as wrong this season and we'll have to listen to tons of "What's wrong with the Habs" panicked discussions. So my best hope for this season is that the Canadiens will prove they're for real, and none of them read any of the predictions...and if they do, they'll pick up the challenge and run with it until some time in mid-June.

I know they can do it. I just hope they do too.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Cap concerns

In recently perusing the NHL/NHLPA collective bargaining agreement, I confirmed to myself something I've been suspecting for a while now. Since the 2005 lockout, the salary cap has grown from a 39-million dollar ceiling to this year's 56.7 million. The nearly 5o percent jump in the cap ceiling is largely attributable to the steep rise of the Canadian dollar to equal value with the US greenback since the lockout. Numbers leaked earlier this year revealed that 31 percent of league revenue is derived from the six Canadian franchises. But, outside the dollar's performance...and this is what I confirmed to myself when I read section 50 of the CBA...the league has very little room for further growth based on current revenue streams.

Right now, a team's revenue for cap-determination purposes, consists of a finite number of sources. For the Habs, they include: ticket sales for regular season, playoff, preseason and exhibition games; luxury box sales; advertising on the boards; the sale of licenced Habs' paraphernalia both in the rink and elsewhere; broadcast fees paid by RDS, TSN, CBC, CKAC, CJAD and any other station that broadcasts Habs' games; fees received from Bell for the sponsorship of the arena's name; any money derived from the team's internet site in advertising or sponsorships; advertising in and sales of the team magazine and programs; beer and hotdog sales at games; parking fees for game attendance; tuition from the team's hockey camp for kids; sale of gameworn equipment; fees collected from kids' memberships in the official fan club and fees paid for Youppi's and Saku Koivu's public appearances.

Those are the categories of income cited in the CBA as "hockey-related revenue." The Canadiens derive income from every one of those categories at prices that pretty much push the boundaries of what the average fan is willing to pay for the privilege of drinking a beer in the Bell centre or buying an authentic Habs' sweater to wear while he watches the games on RDS. We know many teams, especially those in weak southern United States markets, aren't bringing in the kind of money the Habs do and likely aren't able to derive income from as many sources as the Canadiens do. So, for now, thanks to the strong Canadian dollar and the huge popularity of Canadian franchises, the league has been able to increase the cap by leaps and bounds in the last three years. In fact, many teams seem to be basing their ability to pay their players on the assumption that the cap will continue to rise.

That's where my realization comes in. I believe the strength of the Canadian dollar has already inflated league revenue as much as it's able. Even if the dollar stays close to par with the US dollar, its steady performance won't give the NHL the same sort of boost as did its dramatic rise in the last year and a half. So, assuming there won't be another large bump in league revenue based on the dollar's value, any further increase in the cap has to come from increases in revenue derived from the "official" hockey-related sources cited in the CBA. The problem is, I just don't see much room for growth from those sources.

A team like the Canadiens, which contributes to the NHL's version of the federal equalization program, is already sold out in every game, including luxury boxes, at prices that already slide a little to the north each year. All of its games are televised and broadcast on radio on long-term contracts. It's got a fan club and hockey camp that are sold out and a very highly-subscribed team magazine. Sponsors line up for the privilege of advertising on the boards and on the scoreboard and beers at the games already cost eight bucks each. The term "supersaturation" could have been invented to describe the amount of money the Habs draw from the revenue sources available to them. Other Canadian teams are also doing very well, as are some of the better US-based teams, like Pittsburgh, the Rangers and the Flyers. Those that aren't doing well, like Carolina and Nashville, will probably never do much better than they are right now for a sustained period of time, because their regions just don't care to spend a ton of money on season tickets or on 'Canes or Preds' sweaters.

All of which makes me wonder, if the cap is to continue rising, where's the money coming from? The pipe dream of the big national US TV deal is no closer to reality now than it was when the league first expanded in 1967. Gary Bettman is publicly getting excited when the Stanley Cup finals, featuring two of the league's most exciting teams in the Wings and Pens, manages to outdraw bullriding on NBC. That doesn't give me a lot of confidence that American networks are lining up to broadcast hockey games. Without that kind of lucrative deal, the revenue streams for hockey are limited to three sources: local media fees, advertising and the fans. Media only pays to broadcast programming from which it can derive advertising other words, only sports events fans are dedicated to watching. Advertisers will only pay if they think lots of potential customers are viewing their other words, thousands of hockey fans watching the games at home or in person will see the ad and maybe buy the product. So really, it all comes down to the fans and how many of them are not only willing to watch games, but pay for the parking, sweaters, foam fingers, game-used equipment, player autograph sessions, expensive beer and the rising ticket costs. In cities like Montreal, Calgary and Toronto, the fan base is strong, but probably as large as it's going to get. In cities like Raleigh and Atlanta, the fan base is weak and not likely to get stronger for the long-term. In either case, the fans are already paying close to the maximum they're willing to, and there's no more room for revenue growth.

So, based on that logic, I can't see the NHL salary cap continuing to rise. In fact, if the Canadian dollar's performance drops or attendance in some of the US cities becomes worse, I can see a cap reduction coming. The next question is what that will mean for NHL teams. For those GMs, like Bob Gainey, who have not committed to ultra-long contracts or paying the player maximum to a marquee skater or two, a reduction won't be the end of the world. But for those who have a few players locked up for a lot of the cap, and who have many RFAs and UFAs becoming due for raises, a reduction could really hurt their ability to retain their players. Those teams are relying on cap increases in order to increase their players' salaries in the coming years. Without an increase, they'll be hard pressed to do that. With a reduction, they'll have to either convince players to take less in a new contract, or be forced to trade or let those players go. Even if a reduction means player salaries across the board are reduced by a certain percentage to fit under the cap, it will also inevitably mean raises are out of the question.

I like Bob Gainey's position right now if the cap stagnates or if there is a reduction. But if he chooses to commit long-term contracts or escalating salaries to many players with deal renewals pending, he could find himself in trouble if the cap goes down. I'm trusting Gainey to play the salary game as wisely as he has been doing so far. Because I believe it's a question of when, not if, the big cap increases stop coming.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Code of conduct

As our team is preparing for its Centennial, there's going to be a lot of excitement and many special events to celebrate the occasion. Management is working hard to make the team better and more exciting. We'd like to think the players sense the magnitude of this season and will give a little more. All of which begs the question, what can we, as fans, do to make this a season to remember?

I think we should try to suck it up a little more if the team is in a slump. We should try to be more patient, and we should try to understand that maybe...just maybe...the minds running the team know a little more than we do. In other words, we should try our damnedest to be on our best fan behaviour this year. (And yes, I do know that "fan" derives from "fanatic" and, as such, the idea of "best behaviour" is relative...but still...) We should follow a best behaviour code of conduct, that would go something like this:

We, the undersigned, acknowledge that the Montreal Canadiens (henceforth known as "Habs") is the franchise we choose to support, cry over, laugh with and obsess about. We are deeply proud of our team's accomplishments to date, and are excited to watch it push its way back to those glorious heights of victory we've been missing for almost two decades. In our understanding of the momentousness of the Habs' hundredth-year anniversary, we pledge to back the team to the very best of our ability, including:

-Not demanding Saku Koivu be traded as soon as he goes into his Christmas slow-down period.
-Not booing players in their own arena.
-Not second-guessing Bob Gainey's decisions when the second-guessing has been second-guessed a thousand times already and still has not changed anything.
-Not calling Guy Carbonneau names because he refuses to take a timeout with two minutes to go in a close game
-Not comparing Guillaume Latendresse to a snail, a turtle or any other creature that moves at a microscopically slow pace, while calling him a bust and begging Gainey to trade him before the rest of the league catches on.
-Not declaring that any player who's in a slump is a complete piece of crap and/or waste of oxygen, then raving about him when he starts to score again.
-Not allowing our blood pressure to achieve new heights every time a ref makes a stupid call, but rather understanding most of the calls will, in fact, be stupid and sometimes they'll be in our favour.

We promise to cheer like hell, only throw things on the ice when our team is down by five goals and we need to spark a miraculous comeback, make more noise than any other fans in the league which will make the Bell a wickedly indimidating venue for the opposition, and bear with the down periods with humour and good grace. We accept that it's hard not to grumble and that after years of mediocrity, we're used to expecting the worst. But we promise to try to be positive and we pledge to get the most fun out of this season that we can. Those of us who gave up and turned the TV off during the Comeback game last winter and are now ashamed to admit it, (you know who you are) swear we have learned a lesson about having faith. And we promise, most of all, to enjoy the ride, whatever happens!

I think if we all abide by the fan's code of conduct, we'll have a better year...and hopefully, so will the team.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Whip that boy!

As I watch Michael Ryder prepare to don the black and gold of the Bruins and Sergei Samsonov pull the Hurricane's swirl on over his gear for the coming season, I can't help wondering why Habs fans always seem to need a whipping boy to bear all the abuse that rightly belongs to an entire group in what's supposed to be a team game.

I'm not saying I don't see where those players went wrong, or even that I don't get frustrated with underperformance or lack of team play myself. But the vitriol those players draw is a bit over the top sometimes. I mean, I agree Ryder didn't achieve the numbers we'd come to expect of him, but did he deserve to have fans blame him every time the team lost more than one in a row? Or to be called stupid and lazy because he didn't score much? And I'm the first to admit I didn't like David Aebischer as a Hab, but I wonder how much of the downward spiral he experienced had to do with the tidal wave of hate so many people directed at him. I wonder if he'd been shown more patience whether he'd have been so very awful late in the year two seasons ago.

It's not just idle talk on the part of fans either. Not in Montreal. It starts with a few bad games, or a slow start to the season. Then the fans, on their call-in shows and in blogs and letters to the editor, begin to turn on the player. It grows from there so that in daily sports columns, the player's name is preceded by phrases like "much-maligned" and "embattled." Then the player has to start answering questions about how he's handling the scrutiny and constant criticism. Then, before long, the kiss of death...the booing...begins. As a fan, I think there's nothing lower than booing your own player in his own rink. That's demoralizing to the player in question, but also his teammates, at least some of whom probably like the guy. It's also giving a boost to the opposition, a cardinal sin of fandom in my book. Before long, the player is considered a distraction and he finds himself wearing another team's colours...just ask Patrice Brisebois how that works. Some will say every team's fans have a player they love to berate. But in Montreal it's different. In Montreal the fans have power, if only derived from their relentnessness, to affect that player's very livelihood and place of employment.

It kind of reminds me of primitive societies that sacrificed a tribe member to the gods so they could guarantee a good harvest. I wonder if Habs' fans think sacrificing the player-non-grata of the season buys them favour with the hockey gods? Of course, the bile is a little less poisonous when the team's winning. Ryder got it last year because he wasn't performing, but everyone else (mostly) escaped. Regardless, he paid the price and now he's gone. It makes me wonder who'll be the whipping boy this year. Early indications are that it will be Mathieu Dandenault, if he's still around when training camp opens. Not that Dandenault's ever really done anything wrong, but his abilities have been outstripped by the talent on the team and he won't really contribute much since he's been bypassed on defence and there's a backlog of fourth liners...most of whom are better than him. His fault doesn't matter in any case...the fans just need someone to blame.

If Dandenault's gone, though, the other candidates include Francis Bouillon, who's already trade bait on many fan sites, and whose main fault seems to be the fact that he's not Andrei Markov or Mike Komisarek. Then there's Guillaume Latendresse, who, at 21 years of age is apparently on his "last chance" season among many Canadiens' supporters. If there's one way to guarantee that an underdeveloped talent ends up reaching his potential elsewhere, burning the Habs in the process, it's to make him the whipping boy and drive him out of town.

I hope the team is so good this year and all the players contribute so well that there's no way anyone can be singled out. But I, know...that's an unrealistic hope. Someone who's home training his butt off for the coming season right now, thinking of nothing but the potential of a fresh new season, will end the year in the doghouse or even on another team. I understand players come and go. Some fit with the team and some don't. I just wish they didn't have to go the way they do sometimes...with the boos ringing in their ears and the feeling that leaving Montreal was an escape rather than an opportunity.