Friday, May 29, 2009

Over Their Heads

The NHL has a big problem. For the last couple of seasons, it's been paying lip service to the idea of maybe, potentially, possibly studying the idea of penalizing hits to players' heads. In the meantime, shots to the head and resulting concussions are on the rise.

I've ranted about this in the past, but this week several factors have converged in a way that make me want to talk about it again. The first was Martin Havlat, lying on the ice in Chicago with his open eyes rolled back after getting nailed in the head by Nicklas Kronwall. Two days later, after obviously suffering a concussion, he was back in the lineup...only to leave again after the first mild contact he encountered. Dr.Michael Czarnota is the neuropsychology consultant for the Canadian Hockey League. He was quoted as being "shocked" to see Havlat back on the ice so quickly. The experts are shaking their heads because the NHL is so careless with those of its players.

Even more disturbing, however, was the conversation on TSN's Off the Record yesterday. The discussion was between Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, Thrashers coach John Anderson, former Hurricane Kevyn Adams and former Flame Ric Nattress and the topic was concussion, specifically Havlat's. The consensus seemed to be that the onus of whether to play again rests on the player. There are tests, sure. But if a player insists he's fine and doesn't need to be tested, more often than not the trainers take his word for it. They talked about the pressure on players to "tough it out" and come back quickly. The two coaches on the panel talked in dismissive tones about it not being up to them. The players and the medical staff decide a player's fitness and the coaches abide by that decision. The question host Michael Lansburg didn't ask was "If you think the player is hurt and is ignoring advice, will you stop him?" The passing of the proverbial buck by both coaches on the panel made me think the answer would be "no."

The third factor that put concussion back on the radar for me was a news report on CBC Radio this morning. The subject, again, was Havlat. Only this time the expert being quoted was Keith Primeau. Primeau talked about how his life has changed since concussions ended his career. He's on medication to control headaches and vertigo. He's forgetful. His family says his personality has changed and he's much more irritable than he once was. He thinks the league needs to crack down harshly on hits to the head. Glenn Healey is also quoted in that story, explaining how the NHLPA considers concussion its number-one concern, and is asking for automatic penalties on "the most flagrant and reckless" hits to the head. What Healey doesn't address, however, is the need for a deep attitude adjustment among players from their earliest years in the game all the way up to the NHL. If the onus is on them to decide their fitness to play, they need to be educated about the consequences of playing through a head injury.

Primeau talks about how the NHL treats concussion as "part of the game." That's the attitude that comes across when Colin Campbell plays down the number of concussions in the league and the number of players who've had career-ending head injuries. It's the attitude that people like the coaches and players on the TSN panel exude when they're talking about concussions. They're treating what amounts to traumatic brain injury with a sort of shoulder-shrugging contempt.

Neurologists in the United States are studying the impact of repeated concussion on NFL football players. They've concluded that players recover less well from second, third, and later concussions than they do their first. And they've documented retired players dying in their fifties, after suffering health problems, depression and personality disorders...all of them attributable to repeated head injury. The scientists have studied the brains of deceased players and found them to carry symptoms of dementia one would expect to see in a ninety-year old. This is scary, life-threatening stuff. Keith Primeau told CBC he's planning to leave his brain to science when he dies, because he hopes when the scientists find similar damage in the head of an ex-hockey player, as he believes they will, maybe someone will listen and change things.

The fourth thing that came to my attention about this issue this week is a report by Toronto neurosurgeon, Dr.Michael Cusimano. He found that one in four minor hockey players don't know when it's okay to return to the ice after a concussion, and half the players interviewed either couldn't identify any concussion symptoms or knew of only one. This underlines the serious need for education about the nature and consequences of concussion. But the study's conclusion about numbers of concussions is the most frightening thing of all.

Cusimano calculates that before players ever reach the NHL, they've already accumlated multiple head injuries. He says players aged five through seventeen have about 2.8 concussions per thousand hours of ice time. University players have 4.2 concussions per thousand hours of ice time, while major junior players have 6.6 per thousand hours of icetime, on average. That means that by the time an average player gets to the pro ranks, he's had about six concussions in his lifetime.

If this is happening at minor league levels, it's up to authorities like Hockey Canada and the NHLPA to educate minor league coaches and players about head injuries. Players need to know when they have one, and when they're safe to return to the ice. But, even more importantly, they have to learn how to prevent them. They need to be taught that checking is intended to separate an opponent from the puck...not his head from his body. Hits to the head need to be strictly penalized from the earliest days of minor hockey, and automatic suspensions handed out under certain circumstances, such as when a player leaves his feet to deliver a hit, if the opponent does not have the puck or if the player hits the opponent's head with a stick or elbow. Young players need to learn how to position themselves to safely take a hit and not turn their backs or duck to put their heads in jeopardy.

The problem with the NHL's lip service on this issue is that it's not actually doing anything to change things. So maybe while the pros dither around, the problem can be addressed by training minor hockey players how not to be the next Martin Havlat or Keith Primeau. Then, by the time they get to the NHL, they'll have succeeded in changing attitudes. In the meantime, the league that should have lead the way and been the shining example for change sat on its butt and did nothing while players sacrificed their health...and maybe their lives...for a game.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Shut Up, Guy!

I've had it with Guy Lafleur. In his latest ill-thought-out critique of the team that still pays him to represent it as an ambassador, he says Rejean Houle should have traded Saku Koivu years ago and expresses the opinion that Koivu should just go away and play with his brother.

I know all the Lafleur lovers are going to chime in here and protest, "But he's GUY! And he has a right to express his opinion!" Boo friggin' hoo. The man is a convicted criminal who's been forgiven every social misstep he's ever made because he was a great hockey player in his day and a local boy to boot. He's lucky he still has a spot in the hierarchy of Habs icons, after the way he's behaved and the manner in which he regularly slags the team. Now he's abusing the celebrity he won by playing for the Canadiens by calling them down.

I do have an understanding of the impulse to forgive a childhood hero. I've always had a soft spot for Patrick Roy, despite his dumbass behaviour at times. But, enough's enough. People became fans of Guy Lafleur because they were first fans of the Canadiens. So, hearing him diss the team that made him famous and continues to employ him is classless, petty and annoying.

Not only that, but his opinions are stupid and consistently negative. Last year's team made up of "four fourth lines" won the conference. And, I'd love to know why Koivu should have been traded years ago, when he was the best player on the team most of the time. Or why Rejean Houle, with his history of fantastic value received in trades, would have turned the team around by trading Koivu.

I remember Guy Lafleur as a fading star. By the time I started watching hockey closely, it was already 1984. To me, and to many who don't remember the man in his heyday, he's nothing more than one more negative voice criticizing my favourite team. The only difference is that he's a negative voice who should know better. The Canadiens get enough crap from the rest of the world. They don't need it from guys they pay to be their public face, and of whom they build statues and monuments.

I know Lafleur is entitled to his opinion. I just wish, for once, he'd keep it to himself.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Pssst! Did You Hear?

Remember that game "Broken Telephone" we played when we were in elementary school? Everyone sits in a circle and one person whispers a message into his neighbour's ear. That kid whispers it to the next kid and the message travels around the circle until the last kid repeats the message aloud. Laughter ensues when the players compare the original message to what it's become in the end. I remember playing it once when the message that started out "Ronalda wants a record player for Christmas" became "Roman lions eat Christians."

Now, take Broken Telephone and add a secretive hockey team, millions of rabid fans hungry for every detail about it, hundreds of journalists with varying degrees of standards about what constitutes "true," and five or six major world languages. Right. You see what I'm getting at.

This week, Russian papers are reporting that Alex Kovalev has been offered a one-year deal by the Habs, valued at somewhere between six and seven-and-a-half million dollars. He'll also allegedly become the team captain, as Saku Koivu won't be offered a contract and will instead head to Minnesota to play with his brother. For good measure, they're throwing out a rumour that Mike Komisarek has rejected a four-million dollar a season offer. All of this, is, of course, without any corroboration or direct quote from the players involved or from the team itself. Well, we say, what do you expect of these iffy Russian papers?

The problem with the coverage of the Canadiens, however, is that every scrap of rumour, innuendo and just plain made-up crap must be dissected. The media's fear of missing something everyone else has reported and the desire to be first with anything new are so strong, we're seeing previously reputable mainstream outlets like RDS slumming in the gutter with their borderline competitors. The result? Fans, who believe what RDS publishes is true and expect that RDS would have made at least a minimal effort to confirm that truth, take this media game of Broken Telephone and accept it at face value. Debates ensue and opinions are formed.

That's why, today, because of some rumour concocted without documentation by a Russian paper, Habs fans are shouting from the rooftops that Komisarek is a bastard for wanting more than four million bucks. Kovalev's not worth six million bucks and good riddance to Koivu as he bails out of Montreal to play with his brother. If this had happened during the season, I imagine it wouldn't be long before the fans who form their opinions based on such reporting would be booing Komisarek at the Bell Centre and telling him he's a mercenary asshole when they met him in the street.

The habit of being spoonfed information is a dangerous one. It means people forget how to ask questions. Questions like, why would Bob Gainey offer thirty-six-year-old Kovalev that kind of money before either knowing what next year's cap will be, or who else might be on the roster? Why would he give Kovalev Marian Hossa-type money when he has no idea which Kovalev will show up to play? Why would the Canadiens, a team that's traditionally elected its captains, suddenly dangle the promise of captaincy before Kovalev without a player vote? How would a Russian paper know not only that the Canadiens are letting Koivu go, but that he'll be signing in Minnesota without evidence from Koivu, the Canadiens or the Wild?

People need to ask questions before they believe what they're being told. At the very least they need to ask, "Does this make sense?" Because at this idle point of the offseason when real news is like an oasis in a months-long desert journey, even "reliable" sources are just playing Broken Telephone in some cases. That's why, unless I see a report with Bob Gainey's name attached to it, I'll believe nothing this summer. And I think when media outlets break the bond of credibility they have with fans, it's time for us to hang up the Telephone on them, before the message gets so garbled we have no idea what it's really supposed to be.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Tick Tock

I know it's not even the end of May yet, and the Cup finals haven't even started, but the uncertainty of this off-season is already causing anxiety to set in. Maybe it's because it feels like the Habs haven't been playing for months. Maybe it's because of the complete state of disarray of the team, from ownership to the lowest free agent.

Something's got to give here, and soon. It might be still May, but the NHL draft is only four weeks away. Free agency opens four days after the draft. By the middle of July, for all intents and purposes and if Mats Sundin isn't in the picture, most NHL teams have their rosters pretty much determined. Yet, here we are, still wondering if George Gillett is keeping or selling the Habs.

If he's keeping the team, well, that's fine. We can expect status quo in hockey management, Bob Gainey can hire a coach and it's business as usual. If he's not, we don't know what will happen. New owners could bring new management and new restrictions on spending. Time is getting short for a house cleaning before the draft. Trevor Timmins and his team have spent the last year building their draft list and Gainey's been involved in that to some degree. It's possible a new GM could be in place by the draft and still go with Timmins' list, but it's not very common an occurance. And, with free agency so soon on the heels of the draft, would new owners keep Gainey and let him buy the players he wants? Or will they place spending restrictions on him? Would they go with a new GM and let him take over free agent signings? And what about the Habs' current free-agents, especially Koviu and Komisarek who are most likely to re-sign before July 1? What about players like Tanguay and other valuable skilled players who won't sign up before they find out who's owning, running and coaching the team? What about draft-day trades? Would there be any sense in allowing a new GM who doesn't know the team well to make moves like that?

I like George Gillett. I'm grateful he came to Montreal with a generous smile and an open wallet. He's been nothing but respectful of the Habs' tradition and wise in keeping his distance from hockey operations. He's enthusiastic and proud of his team. But he's a playboy when it comes to money. He's been bankrupt before, and has now overextended himself in his purchase of Liverpool FC. In a time when credit is hard to come by, he's stuck refinancing the loan he took out for the soccer team. That could very likely cost him the Habs.

Gillett's been vehement about not intending to sell; a message that has recently become not wanting to sell. He's said he's interested in perhaps taking on a minority partner instead of selling the team outright. But still, the bidders are lining up and Gillett may have no choice but to sell when the banks come calling. My concern as a fan is that while Gillett tries to find a way to avoid selling, or to land the best deal for the team if he's got no choice in the matter, time is running out on the Canadiens' options for icing a competitive team next season.

I like Gillett, but it's time for him to shit or get off the pot when it comes to owning this team. If he sees the writing on the wall and knows he'll have to sell, he'd be doing the Canadiens and their fans a favour to do it sooner rather than later. The outstanding questions about team ownership must be answered before any of the on-ice questions can be addressed.

It's your move, Uncle George. The clock is ticking. And fans like me are already wringing their hands with anxiety.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Komo! Don't Go!

Okay, now that my anger at Mike Komisarek's lousy play in the second half of the past season has dissipated, I'm scared. I don't want him to walk away from the Canadiens for nothing. In fact, I don't want him to walk away at all.

I remember his draft, and how exciting it was to have the Habs pick in the top ten. It was great to see the team take a massive, physical defenceman with some skill because one had been needed for a such long while. I remember his first couple of up-and-down pro seasons when he bounced between Hamilton and Montreal. I rooted so hard for him to find his game and stick with the big team. Then his breakout season two years ago when he began to emerge as a force on the ice and a leader in the room. I've discovered you can't watch a prospect become a player that closely without becoming attached to him.

I know Komisarek doesn't bring everything you'd ideally want in a big, strong, top-pairing defenceman. He can hit, but he offers next to nothing offensively and fumbles the puck quite often. He blocks a ton of shots, but he's not a very good fighter. He's a respected leader among his teammates and loved in the community, but his style of play makes him susceptible to injury. Now we're looking at losing him. I don't like the thought of it for a lot of reasons; primarily because even though he's not perfect, the things he does provide aren't in great abundance on the team. Even if he doesn't have the best outlet pass, if he leaves, the team loses size, hitting and shot-blocking from the defence. And there's not a lineup of players out there who can do those things willingly and well either within the Habs' system or in the free-agent pool this summer. (Unless, of course, Ryan O'Byrne suddenly blossoms.)

Almost as important, it's so rare for the Canadiens to draft and develop a first-rounder as well as they have with Komisarek it's a good idea to hold onto them. There's that attachment of the fans to the player I mentioned already, but there's also a slight advantage in having a player who knows only the Montreal environment. There's a better chance he'll put up with the crap involved in playing for the Habs than a player who's got another NHL experience with which to compare it.

Of course, the problem is cost. I was dead-set on not giving Komisarek more than four million bucks a year on a four or five-year deal. I figured comparable players in the league make around that much, if not less. But now I concede Komo's intangibles...leadership, personality, tolerance for crap...make him more valuable to the Habs than does his skillset alone. For that reason, I wouldn't be entirely pissed if Gainey were to offer Komisarek a little more than four million. I'd give him a generous offer to show the team's goodwill. Then, it's up to him.

I hope he wants to stay in Montreal. I think he'd leave a big hole if he left. And I hope he'd be willing to accept a deal that makes sense for both sides. If, however, he demands the moon and is willing to go to a loser team with lots of cap space to get it, I reserve the right to take back the nice things I've said about him. Because, if a guy the Habs have drafted, groomed and developed can't be bothered to stick around, that does not bode well for the organization's future.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Re-Thinking Free Agency

The other day I went through my closet as I packed up the winter clothes to make space for the summer ones. Digging way in the back, I found a sweater I'd bought a couple of years ago. It was a nice sweater, but I bought it on payday without trying it on first. It cost a ton I probably wouldn't have spent if I wasn't flush with cash at that moment and, in the end, it itched and didn't fit right. I never wore it. As I tossed it into the "goodwill" pile, the tags were still attached.

Unfortunately, a lot of NHL "premier" free agents end up like that sweater. Two summers ago, the most-coveted free agents on the market were Mathieu Schneider, Chris Drury, Scott Gomez, Brian Rafalski, Daniel Briere, Sheldon Souray and Ryan Smyth. Let's look at what happened to them.

Schneider signed a two-year deal with Anaheim, with a cap-hit of 5.625 million. He lasted there for one season, until Brian Burke needed cap space to sign his RFAs and dumped Schneider to Atlanta. Drury and Gomez signed with the Rangers, at deals of 5 years/7.050-million cap hit and 7 years/7.357-million cap hit respectively. Since they signed, Gomez has put up 16 goals in each of the last two seasons, and Drury has had point totals of 58 and 56. Ranger fans have shouted for one or both of them to be traded because of the Rangers' appalling lack of offense through much of the last two seasons. Souray signed with Edmonton for five years, with a 5.4 million hit. He missed almost all of the first year of the deal with injuries, but rebounded with 53 points in 81 games in the second year, although the Oilers still missed the playoffs. Smyth signed a five year, 6.25 million cap hit deal with Colorado. He missed a good chunk of his first year with the Avs because of injuries. In the second year, he had 59 points. Rafalski scored a 5-year deal with Detroit, with a cap-hit of six million. In his two years with the Wings, he's put up totals of 55 and 59 points which put him consistently among the top defencemen in the league. He's also been steady on the blueline, a plus player and helped the Wings to a Cup last year. Briere, on the other hand, signed with Philly for 8 years, with a 6.5-million cap hit. He had a good first season with the Flyers, putting up 72 points in 79 games. But this season he played only 29 games because of injury and his contract has become a millstone around the Flyers' financial neck. His team wants to move his contract because they've already committed a very large percentage of the cap for next season, and still don't have a goalie under contract.

Last summer the big names on the table were Cristobal Huet, Brian Campbell, Brian Rolston, Wade Redden, Mark Streit, Marian Hossa, Marcus Naslund, Mats Sundin and Patrice Brisebois (okay...kidding). Chicago snapped up Huet and Campbell, Huet for four years with a cap hit of 5.625 million and Campbell for an astoundingly awful eight years with a cap hit of 7.140 million dollars. Redden and Naslund went to New York, Redden for six years and a hit of 6.5 million. Naslund signed for two years with a four-million dollar hit and has since retired after putting up only 46 points. New Jersey gave Rolston just over five million for four years and the Isles handed Streit a five-year deal at 4.1 per. Hossa, the most coveted UFA last year, signed with the Wings for one year and 7.450 million, putting up 40 goals and 71 points. And, as we know, Sundin soaked the Canucks for a pro-rated ten million bucks after dithering about whether to play for months, then put up only 28 points in 41 games.

Of that crop of big signings, Streit was probably the best deal. He lead the Isles defence corps in icetime and points, with fifty-six, while solidifying his defensive game. Hossa's forty goals were also arguably worth the one-year deal he got in Detroit. But Redden and Campbell have been skewered by fans and critics for their sub-par play and crippling contracts. Huet has ended up sharing the 'Hawks goaltending duties with Nikolai Khabibulin until the playoffs, in which he hasn't played a game. Rolston's name has come up in trade rumours repeatedly, after scoring only 15 goals and 32 points in 64 games. Sundin's probably done...or, at least, has played himself out of another Summer of Mats hysteria.

So, what does this tell us about free agency? A couple of things are obvious: one, that you can't guarantee that a guy who had a great year or two with one team or while playing for a contract will continue to do so with a new team and a new deal. And, two, that free agents are almost always overpaid. That's going to happen in a high-risk, seller's market. But another thing a review of the last two free-agent frenzies seems to prove is that a free agent, even a prime one, will not save your team or make it an instant contender if you don't have a strong foundation already.

Quite the opposite, in fact. Of the teams remaining in the playoffs, Detroit has made the most impressive addition of free-agent pieces. Signing Rafalski and Hossa has helped them stay strong, without a doubt. But those guys, even as good as they are, are just supplementary players to the likes of Lidstrom, Zetterberg and Datsyuk. Chicago's doing well despite their free agent acquisitions, rather than because of them. Their own young players are carrying the team while Huet hasn't played and Campbell makes errors like the one on the winning goal in game two the other night. In Pittsburgh, the free-agent signings of Matt Cooke, Ruslan Fedotenko, Miroslav Satan and Pascal Dupuis for a grand total of 8.6 million for this past year filled the Pens' need to give Crosby and Malkin someone to whom they could pass. Those guys were filler, not vital pieces of the puzzle. And Carolina didn't sign any free agents worth mentioning. Instead, they made a couple of smart trades for pieces like Jussi Jokinen, Joni Pitkanen, Joe Corvo, Patrick Eaves and Erik Cole (again). They used their assets in intelligent ways to upgrade their lineup.

So, none of the final four teams standing this season depended on free agency to make them into contenders. Those who did, like the Rangers, consistently fail to do well in the post-season. The evidence seems to indicate that a team can succeed by using free agent acquisitions to supplement their existing team infrastructure. But expecting more than that, and overpaying to get it, is almost always a cause for future regret.

That's why, when Bob Gainey is looking to fill out the roster this year, I hope he doesn't break the bank for a huge contract for Jay Bouwmeester, the Sedins, Marian Hossa, Marian Gaborik or, God forbid, Martin Havlat, while ignoring the free agents he already has. Paying big money to bring a star onto a team that has little else going for it won't do much to change the team's fate...except hogtie it financially when the cap drops in two years.

I'm not saying he should stay away from free agency altogether, but rather use it to supplement his team. Sign Mike Komisarek, then go after Francois Beauchemin. Replacing Komisarek with Beauchemin won't improve the team. But keeping Komisarek and replacing Patrice Brisebois with Beauchemin would. Sign Saku Koivu, then make an offer for Antropov to upgrade the centre position overall, instead of just marching in place by replacing Koivu with a marginally better player.

Gainey would be better off, based on the evidence of past free agent signings, to give his money to the guys he has in-house now, rather than let them walk and try to replace them on the overpriced open market. We saw that with the Streit situation. He could have had Streit, reportedly, for a little under three million dollars a season if he'd re-signed him mid-year. Instead, he waited until the Islanders were offering four and decided Streit was too expensive. As a result, the Habs had to put up with another year of Brisebois, the complete failure of the powerplay for most of the year and the desperation signing of Mathieu Schneider to replace Streit.

I have to think players like Andrei Kostitsyn, Tomas Plekanec and Chris Higgins will be better next year. So I think supplementing those guys with affordable talent instead of making a big splash on the free-agent market would be the smarter way to go. The worst thing that could happen is for Gainey to face July 1 with a pocketful of money and some flashy players on the market who'll be willing to take it from him if his offer's sweet enough, because no player out there this summer is going to take an average team and make it a winner by himself.

That's the recipe for ending up with a closetful of expensive sweaters you'll never wear and find yourself dumping in the goodwill pile two years from now, when you can't return them and they're out of style.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Generation "Net," Generation "I"

I was listening to CBC Radio's parenting columnist, Karen Horseman, the other morning and I had one of those Eureka! moments. She was talking about how young workers are changing the social dynamics of traditional workplaces. And she was discussing how parenting styles are responsible for producing these new workers and instilling in them the idea that they should be treated as more than just junior employees. It was all very interesting, but the Eureka! moment came when I realized she could be talking about young hockey players and their coaches, rather than 20-something workers and their bosses.

Here's the part of Horseman's report that struck me:
(Young people are still entering the workplace with this huge sense of entitlement. Nora Spinks is a motivational speaker and workplace-relations counsellor. She says "Young people expect to be given work that's challenging, they expect to be treated with respect, to get challenging work from the first day, to have access to senior executives, they expect to have involvement in decision-making."

New employees in their twenties who are described as the "net generation" feel their bosses, who are often boomers in their fifties or traditionalists in their sixties are arrogant. That they demand respect just because they've been there for a long time and never like to be questioned. That they have little flexibility and often turn up their noses at technology. How to bridge the gap between the two? Spinks says: "The first thing is awareness. You have to be aware of your own gender, generational, cultural biases. Because you can't look at anything or anybody else's behaviour...either observe it or manage it or coach it or develop it without understanding it...and then you need to have a dialogue."

The net generation and the generation behind them, known as the "I" generation are used to getting a lot of feedback. Some say it's the result of video games or overpraising parents. So the manager that was raised with the "Because I said so" parenting style may find it difficult to deal with the generation that is used to being asked for their opinions and told to be criticial thinkers. )

Doesn't that sound exactly like the criticisms of Guy Carbonneau's coaching style? He came from a generation in which the coach was sacrosanct. You didn't question, you just did what he said. And you were glad to have the opportunity to do it. Now young players are entering the NHL with a sense of entitlement. They want to have the coach's decisions explained to them, and they want to have a say in what their roles will be. I think Carbonneau either didn't understand that difference between his generation and the one he was asked to coach, or he didn't buy into it. Either way, I think there was a fundamental problem when the players failed to respond to his message.

So, when the team is looking for a new coach now, it's got to be someone who gets the Net generation. Without that vital understanding, communication is impossible. I'd like to see a well-respected, established coach with a good track record in Montreal next year. But, even more important I think is the coach's ability to make the players accept and absorb his message. Look at Blysma in Pittsburgh. He gets the young guys and speaks their language. He manages them in a way they appreciate.

Sadly, the days of players' unquestioning obedience to a coach are over. Young players want to be nurtured, not bullied. I hope whoever's on the short list to be the Canadiens' next coach speaks "Net." Without it, he won't last long.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Brush With Greatness

Yesterday, I had the privilege and the pleasure to sit down and chat with a hockey legend for the better part of an hour. I had arranged the meeting last week, and arrived a little while before the man himself. I was standing in the sunshine, talking with the owner of the inn where the player was staying, when a tangible frission of excitement lit his face. "Look behind you," he beamed, almost reverently. "Meet Mr.Hockey." I turned and nearly bumped into Gordie Howe, who had crept up behind me and stood there holding out a hand and grinning.

And I thought Habs fans were melodramatic.

My first impression was mixed: real pleasure to meet the man who was my dad's hockey hero, and shock to realize that Gordie Howe is an old man with an old man's frailties. His eyes still sparkle when he makes a joke...which he does often...but he tends to ramble in the way of people who have so much to tell that one story bleeds into another. He still talks about Maurice Richard in the present tense. His knowledge of technology consists of several labelled numbers pre-programmed into a cellphone. He calls Zetterberg, Lidstrom, Franzen and Datsyuk "the nice foreign kids." Ha apologized for using the word "horseshit." And he seems angry and baffled when he talks about today's kids who demand instead of request his attention.

On that last, he told me a hilarious story about sitting at a charity event, signing pictures his handlers had handed out to people as they arrived. One kid approached the table where Howe was sitting, shoved the picture at him and said, "Sign it." Howe took the picture and wrote, "IT," then handed it back. The kid complained, so Howe took the picture back and said, "I'll just keep this then. This is what I gave to you when you came in, and I'm going to take it back." The kid's father wanted to know what had happened, so Howe told him his kid needed to learn some manners.

We talked about the game today; what he likes and what he doesn't. He loves the speed because it makes the game so much fun to watch. He doesn't like the two-line pass because he thinks it's removed players' ability to cleanly bodycheck the puck-carrier in the neutral zone and puts defenders so far behind the play that they're forced to use the stick to check instead. He believes a lot of the hits from behind are coming from players who are forced to chase the puck-carrier and cross-check or crush him into the boards instead of using body position to head him off. He says the biggest difference between the game now and then is "pay." And looks incredulous when he talks about 20-something kids being paid millions to play. The one thing he'd take away from the modern game? Laziness.

And, of course, we talked about the Habs. Rocket Richard is still able to make Gordie Howe smile, grimace and reflect, all within the space of a minute. He spoke of how Richard would become unstoppable when inspired by the home fans at the Forum. And of how the two of them would be enemies on the ice and golfing buddies off it. He described how Richard drove him to commit his worst on-ice infraction, when Richard taunted Howe's kids in the crowd behind the bench. Howe took a two-handed swing at Richard's head and was rewarded with a game misconduct. He still says it was worth it, golfing buddy or not. Anyway, he says, Elmer Lach was responsible for ninety percent of the trouble Richard got into, because he'd start it, then leave Rocket to clean up the mess. He discusses "Big John" Beliveau with a smile, remembering the time he'd been injured in a game and was in hospital in Detroit when the Canadiens came to town. Beliveau quietly came to the hospital before the evening's game to check on Howe and wish him well.

Howe says he's had three hundred stitches in his face, although you can hardly see any evidence of them. And he explains he only used his elbows because he "has no shoulders." When you see how his neck slopes sharply to his upper arms, you understand what he means.

He was about to tell an interesting story about how Steve Yzerman has "changed." And, by the look on his face, not for the better. But his grandson, who was in attendance, deftly changed the subject before Gordie could go further on that subject.

In the end, Howe graciously thanked me for taking the time to talk with him. Shaking his hand as I made my farewell, I realized how few of these founders of hockey's mystique remain with us. Gordie Howe is 81 years old, and his time is precious. I'm honoured I got to share some of it with him.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Ha Ha!

I'm not one to gloat when an enemy is defeated...most of the time. I think it brings bad karma on the Habs. BUT, I'm making an exception for the Bruins. Their fans have been absolutely insufferable this year. For the first time in my recent memory, I'm seeing large men, squinting into the sun, lurching around the streets wearing Boston sweaters and caps. It's like Night of the Living Dead. I had an email from a guy I knew in university, and from whom I haven't heard in ten years, mocking the Habs after the first-round loss. There have been encounters with Bs fans in public, asking what Saku's handicap is and how much better he'll be after another spring to practice, or whether Komisarek is still afraid to come out of his house because Lucic might be walking past. And this is after an entire season of Bruins fans ranting about how their team rules and how they're going to mow down every team they face on their way to first place and a Cup.

So, IN YOUR FACE Bruins fans. HAHAHAHA! How the mighty have fallen. I loved seeing Thomas hang his head and bolt from his net after Walker's OT goal. And how the thousands of obnoxious, fat, loud, rude Bs fans in the arena moaned in agony all at once. And how Julien once again wore his "perplexed Alfred Hitchcock with hemorrhoids" expression. And how Chara and Lucic had to meekly shake all the Canes' hands and wish them luck while struggling with their lack of opposable thumbs. It was great. Glorious. No Cup for you, Bruins! Game seven in OT at home...if I had to write a script for how I'd like the Bs to lose, that would be it. Only it'd be in the first round and the instrument of their elimination would be the Habs, but you can't have everything I guess.

Ha! to the father of that hyper kid with the giant Bs logo painted on his naked chest that TSN kept showing. (And shame on you for exploiting your kid like that.) Ha! to Pierre McGuire who'll now have to find another team to masturbate to on air...if he's not already exhausted from his efforts to virtually impregnate Thomas, Lucic and Chara. Ha! to Don Cherry and his Bruins tie and blatant Boston grandstanding. Ha! to Mike Milbury because he's a Bruins-loving dick and the worst GM in NHL history. Ha! to the guy from university who I haven't heard from in ten years and won't hear from again for another ten.

Oh well, that was fun. On to the next round. Go Hawks! And, good luck Bruins in re-signing all your players for another try next year. Or not. I don't care. I'm just happy there'll be a run on black and yellow golf cleats this week.

Food For Thought

I think fans of just about every team agree the reffing in these playoffs has been unusally atrocious. The couple of disallowed goals that were obviously goals stand out. As does the discrepancy between how many PP opportunities the Pens get compared to everyone else. But as bad as it is this year, expect it to get worse next time around. This playoffs, Don Koharski and Rob Shick, both post-season veterans, have retired. Next April, Bill McCreary, Kerry Fraser and Dan Marouelli will be gone too. If you hate Chris Lee's bonehead inconsistency in the regular season, brace yourself for his playoff debut when the veterans retire next season.


I noticed an ad on the back cover of The Hockey News this week. Apparently, there's a new hockey bio on the market. It's called "Dominant Dany Heatley." Okay. Am I missing something? As far as I remember, Heatley's most notorious feat so far has been killing a teammate in a reckless driving incident. He's a Calder Trophy winner, but so is Sergei Samsonov. Admittedly, he's a really good goal scorer. But worthy of an autobiography now? At 28 years of age? It seems a little sad that a person should write his life story at that age, as though what he's accomplished so far has been enough. Then again, maybe there are legions of little Sens fans who've been clamouring to read the true Heatley tale from his own lips. It can't be because he needs the money. And in any case, calling it "Dominant Dany Heatley" is more than slightly arrogant. I might actually want to read the bio of a guy like Lidstrom...but then again, he'd probably not be writing one.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Will It Never Die?!

I checked out the Canadiens' official website this morning, to see if there's anything happening with the sale of the team, or the free agents, or the signing of any prospects, or the hiring of a know, the actual dire and pressing questions that have to be answered before we can guess whether the team will be a contender or a lottery squad next year. Nope. Not a word about anything of actual interest to Habs fans. Instead, there's yet another big plug for the money-grab that is Centennial Plaza.

You have to give credit to the marketing department for having brass balls. After the season the team just had, and the unmitigated disaster of the Centennial, a group with more sensitivity might be embarrassed to keep asking the public for money. But no, it keeps on going. This time, they're promising brick-buyers a "guaranteed photo-op with a Canadiens legend." The fine print says the brick-owner will be notified when the "legend" is available for the picture sometime this summer. The lucky buyer gets to stand in front of a statue in the friends or family allowed...with the "legend" for one quick snap. And you'd better hope there's no squinting or red eyes...there're no do-overs. There's no guarantee who the "legend" will be either. So, I'm guessing for your $175 or $349 (depending on the size of your brick and not including tax) you get the privilege of paying your own way to Centennial Plaza to get a shot of yourself with Rejean Houle.

It's time for it to end. The Centennial was a disgrace and the organization, if it had any shame, should be offering the damn bricks to the first hundred people who pony up for season tickets to watch a team that's been mediocre at best for most of the last two decades. Instead, the marketers continue to soak the fans for more without the team giving anything satisfactory in return for the dedication...both emotional and financial...of the people who support it.

I hope nobody buys anymore bricks and Reggie Houle is standing in front a statue in the Plaza someday this summer by himself. And I hope I never hear "Centennial" ever again.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Commissioner For a Day

I really can't stand that garden gnome Gary Bettman. There are so many reasons to dislike him I won't bother to mention them all. Just looking at his smug face while he hands out the Cup with his dumb speeches is enough. Talk of wanting to increase goalscoring by messing with the size of the nets and the goalie's equipment is awful. The situation in Phoenix is ridiculous. So, while I was thinking of how great it would be to get rid of Bettman, I was thinking, what would I do if I had the job?

I figure I'd do a couple of things right away.

First, I'd institute a rule of territorial player protection. Every team benefits by having a hometown boy in the lineup. Fans come out to see the local kid, they relate to him and he's great for promotion of the game in the community. Unfortunately, because of the draft system, the chances of a mid-range team like the Habs being able to land a really good local guy are slim. So I would allow each team to protect one player from a pre-determined territory around the team's city before the draft. Then, when the teams declare their protected players, the draft would continue as usual. This would instantly benefit the Habs who would be able to choose from any number of promising young Quebec-born players. It would help them regain their identity as the team of Quebec, and it would be nice for the young players who yearn to play for the team they cheered for as kids. It would also help improve the mid-level talent currently in the system because of mid-level draft positions in recent years. All the other teams in strong hockey markets would benefit from this rule too.

Of course, the instant argument will be that that rule would be unfair for teams like the Coyotes or the Hurricanes, which don't have a talent-rich local hockey pool to choose from. My counter argument would be that the rule would create a great deal of incentive for NHL teams to invest in their local minor hockey systems and help with the development of young local players. Greater involvement by the NHL would be great in helping encourage growth of the game in those markets. In the meantime though, perhaps those teams could have territorial rights to protect a player from a hockey-rich area in which they have historical ties. Phoenix could possibly have rights in the Winnipeg area, and the 'Canes in Connecticut.

The second thing I would do is tweak the salary cap rules so that the cap would be the take-home pay of players, after taxes. In other words, the team would be allowed to go over the cap to the limit of local tax levels, basically covering taxes for the players. Right now, if Massachusetts has a 5.3% income tax rate, and Quebec has a 37.4% federal/provincial rate for salaries over 150-thousand dollars, it gives the Bruins an unfair advantage. If they offer a player a five-million dollar annual salary, the player pays 265-thousand in tax. If the Habs offer him the same five-million dollar salary, he'll pay 1.87 million bucks to the government. (For argument's sake, we'll ignore the fact that players probably have ways to hide their money for tax purposes because the fact that they need to hide more of it in Montreal still makes the point relevant.) There's no way on earth most players would even think about Montreal in those circumstances. And as long as the tax inequity exists, the salary cap is a joke. The teams with higher local taxes are automatically handicapped.

To counter the automatic argument that some teams have a tough time even reaching the cap floor right now, and that some owners would be reluctant to pay the tax over and above the cap, I should stress that this would be an option for owners, not a requirement. Right now, they can choose whether to spend to the cap or not. This would give them the option to spend to the it compares to less-deeply taxed jurisdictions. So, if the Habs' ownership is willing to spend six and a half million on a player to make sure he actually earns the five another team is offering after taxes, they should have the right to do that without being penalized.

There are other things I'd do too, like fix some penalties. I'd allow penalties on video replay in cases where a player is hurt and the refs didn't see the infraction. That would eliminate at least some of the vigilante justice we see when players try to get even on behalf of a wronged teammate. I'd also eliminate the stupid delay of game penalty for shooting the puck over the glass, and just make it the same as icing, with no change allowed and the faceoff in the offending team's end. I'd automatically penalize hits to the head.

That's some of what I'd do if I were the NHL commissioner. What about you?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Fight the Power!

The time has come, my friends. It's time for the revolution. The Montreal Canadiens have power and it's time for them to rise up and use it.

Look at what's happening to this once-proud franchise: It finishes in the middle of the pack every year, with either an early playoff exit or no playoffs at all, because it doesn't have enough talent to do any better. It doesn't have enough talent because it can't tank badly enough to score the high draft picks that allowed teams like Pittsburgh, Washington and Chicago to build strong teams. It can't tank badly because rabid fans won't stand for it. It can't stock up with free agent talent because the environment around the team has become toxic with constant attention and rabid media. So, here it is, struggling along mired in mediocrity with virtually no hope of acquiring a real young superstar.

Through it all, though, the team's marketing people have stoked a bonfire of fanaticism around the "brand" of the Habs that ensures the Bell Centre is always full and merchandise moves briskly. The Canadiens aren't just a cash cow for George Gillett. They're a necessity for the league because they generate more than their share of the total league revenue that supports the salary cap. They help support Bettman's sunbelt franchises that can't support themselves. And they stand as a cultural icon in the province of Quebec. All of this gives the Habs power.

Yet, the team sits quietly by and meekly follows league rules, asking nothing in exchange for the benefits it brings the NHL and the province. If the Canadiens are to survive, never mind return to some semblance of success on the ice, they must exercise their power. Take the media, for example. An unintended side effect of the marketing department's fantastic success in promoting the team is an almost unbearable scrutiny by hoardes of reporters...both honest and not so honest. The constant exposure of the team to the spotlight stokes the hype around it and draws more ill-informed, bandwagon fans...the kind that boo a 21-year-old goalie on the last night of the season. Other players hear about that kind of treatment and the never-dimmed spotlight and decline to play in Montreal. Considering the cost the negative attention has to the team's success, why does management stand for it? Why do they mildly submit to the league rules that say the dressing room door must open to the media five minutes after the game ends? Why do they allow the barracudas who stir up trouble to continue to have access to the team?

The Canadiens should use their power to tell the league they must operate with special exemptions when it comes to media access. No other team pays the kind of price the Habs pay because of overexposure in the press, and the Habs shouldn't stand for it. They should have the right to limit the number of reporters in the room to only those representing legitimate media...and then only to a single representative per organization. Why should RDS or La Presse have three or four people looking for a story from a handful of players after a game? All it does is feed the frenzy. If all those people are being paid to come up with a story, you can be sure they will, whether there's one there or not. Too much of the airtime and column space media bosses are trying to sell by filling them with Canadiens ends up being speculation or rumour because there's not enough real news to go around. Sending in one person from each organization would mean the media throng...and its production...would be cut in half. The team should also have the right to ban broadcasters and writers who carelessly hurt the franchise or the players by what they publish. I don't care if Jacques Demers *is* a kindly old former coach...he hurt Alex Tanguay's and Matheiu Schnieder's reputations and impugned their professionalism when he claimed they refused to play game three against Boston because they were without contracts for next year. He should be refused access for that kind of stupidity, which angers and embarrasses players who are pending free agents and who may choose to leave because of stuff like that. I'm not saying if there's a real story that it shouldn't be published, even if it reflects badly on a player or the team. But if there's no proof for what someone publishes, he or she should lose the privileges that come with dressing room access.

If I was George Gillett, I'd have media-free days whenever the frenzy got unbearable. When the league fined me, I'd refuse to pay it. I'd tell them to deduct it from the subsidy I'm sending to Phoenix. What are they going to do about it?

The tax issue is another thing I can't believe the team puts up with. The Habs are one of the highest-taxed teams in the league, both because of Quebec provincial tax, and the ridiculous ten-million dollar annual property tax on the Bell Centre. The government claims the Canadiens are a cultural and historical treasure, yet piles a tax burden on the team that means it has to overpay significantly to keep player salaries competitive with those elsewhere in the league. At the same time, it's subsidizing big business like Bombardier. The Canadiens aren't asking for the government to give them anything. But a threat to move the team because of tax issues might result in a break on "protection of cultural asset" grounds.

These are just a couple of examples, but the point is the Canadiens can't just sit and put up with all the inequities that make Montreal an undesireable place for players to come play. If the team can't afford to tank for draft picks and it can't attract free agent stars at a reasonable cost, it's doomed to continue to wallow in mediocrity while it pays to protect the sunbelt teams where all the good players end up. They need to flex their financial and historical muscle and defend themselves.

After all, if you don't stand up for yourself, who will?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Buttman vs. Silly Balls

Okay...I confess, I just don't get it. The Phoenix Coyotes have lost between 200-300 million dollars, depending on who you believe. The owner has decided he can't go on losing that much money and declared bankruptcy. A buyer has come forward. He's willing to pony up enough cash to satisfy all the franchise's creditors, the only caveat to his taking on this cash drain being that he'll move it to a place where it will actually start making money instead of losing it.

So far, the story makes sense, right? Now though, Gary Bettman is arguing Jerry Moyes didn't have the right to file for chapter eleven bankruptcy protection because the NHL has actually been running the team since Februrary. Bettman wants to shove Moyes out of the way and sell to a buyer the Commish had been negotiating with before all this broke...a buyer who'd pay about fifty to seventy million bucks less for the team. I guess that means the NHL would be on the hook for the rest of the money owed to creditors, which Jim Balsillie would pay if he were to buy the team. And in this case "the NHL" is really the other teams in the league.

This is where I don't get it. Who loses if Balsillie buys the Coyotes and moves them to Canada? Bettman says the fans in Phoenix will. But they're not plentiful or dedicated enough to keep the team afloat so I'm not buying that argument.

The other owners are more likely to lose if the Coyotes stay in Phoenix. As long as the team is there, the strong teams like the Habs must continue to support it financially. There's an argument that if the team moves to Canada, it will generate more revenue and contribute to the overall league revenue pool that determines the salary cap. That means the cap will go up and cause undue hardship for weaker owners. I think that's BS because we're looking at a pending drop in the cap in this poor economic climate anyway. A new Canadian team will only offset some of the losses, not make up for the general downturn the league is experiencing.

The players will benefit if the Yotes move north. Another strong team makes a strong league and will support a healthy salary cap. Players say they prefer to play in good hockey cities, and a new Canadian franchise would certainly qualify.

I just don't get why happy owners, happy players and a happy Canadian public is a bad thing. Bettman's insistence on pushing to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix is stubborn, shortsighted and bad for business. He's ruining hockey and he disgusts me.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Thoughts From My Mind

Random thoughts that occurred to me today:

-I wonder if Carey Price is watching Varlamov and Ward and the way they're performing in the playoffs, and I wonder if he is, what he's thinking? I'm guessing no, and not that order.

-When I heard Pierre McGuire is short-listed for the Minnesota GM job I realized if he gets it, he'll pay Mike Komisarek six million bucks. Because Komisarek is a MONSTER!!

-How many signatures on a petition would it take to make sure Mike Milbury never speaks again? I'd honestly go out and collect them if I could be sure it would pay off. And if that worked, I'd collect just as many to shut Bob Cole up permanently. Can you believe he said the puck went off Varlamov's "fat head?" Nice, Bob. You senile bastard.

-I guess Bettman's crying in his beer...or whatever it is garden gnomes that one of his beloved sunbelt babies has croaked. I feel sorry for the fans in Phoenix, but I laugh at Bettman's finally having to cave to Balsillie AND give in to the reality of another team in Canada. (Oh, the horror!) The funny thing is, the Hamilton Steelers, or whatever the Yotes will soon be called, will already be better than the leafs. Phoenix has a ton of good young players and is about four years ahead of Toronto in the rebuilding process. It'll be fun to watch TO lose to Hamilton consistently.

-One good thing came of all the crap this season: The boys have learned the internet is a dangerous thing when you're famous. It was about this time last year the infamous Mexico pictures hit the 'net and were still haunting the players a month ago. This year? Not a photo to be found.

-And speaking of the infamous Mexico pics, I wonder why everyone got so angry about the shots of Price smoking, but nobody blinked an eye at the one of Stewart barfing into a hotel flower pot?

-Getting prepped for the draft is a lot of fun. The Memorial Cup is always a good last chance to see some prospects before the big day. The Habs will have lots of good players to choose from. Hope they pick a helpful one. A centre would be really nice. And a guy who doesn't marinate in college and the minors for five years before he plays an NHL game would be even nicer.

-I wonder where Gainey's gone on his holidays? I have a secret dream it'll turn out like "World's Greatest Athlete." Remember that Disney movie from the seventies? The one where the college coach is off in the jungle and finds this super athlete he brings back to the States to become a multi-sport champion? I have visions of Gainey wandering into the only rink in Jerusalem or Tokyo and discovering a hidden superstar which he then signs before anyone else knows about him. Yup...this is what it's come to.

Summer Solutions: Goaltending

Everyone knows you can't win without goaltending. All you have to do for proof is look at Varlamov, Ward, Hiller, Fleury and Thomas and how they've played in these playoffs. I've always agreed the best way to build a team is to start with the goaltender and work your way out. The goalie should be the anchor of your team; the one from whom the rest of the players take their cues. If your goalie is confident and aggressive, his teammates feed off that. When Bob Gainey drafted Carey Price, you'd assume that's the kind of potential he saw in the kid.

Unfortunately, what we saw for the last half of the season and the playoffs was a goalie who sat back in his crease and looked really stressed. Price exuded frustration with himself and his teammates and a general lack of confidence. At the end of it all, he just looked beaten. The Price we saw in the playoffs can't be the cornerstone of a winning team.

However, the Canadiens have invested a top-five draft pick in him. It was the team's only legitimate chance in years to draft a blue-chip player that could step into the NHL almost right away. So, considering the magnitude of that organizational investment, the time for debating whether Price was the right pick is long past. He is the guy the Habs are banking on, for better or for worse. The team now has to look to the future and figure out the best way to help Price be the winner they need him to be. For fans, that means immediately dismissing the idea of a trade involving him. Bandwaggoners who were frustrated with Price's playoff performance are calling for his head, but we can be fairly certain management isn't about to give up on a 21-year-old on whom they've already hung the "franchise" label. That's how you get to be Mike Milbury, yelling on TV while Roberto Luongo goes for a Cup.

So, assuming that Price is nowhere near in danger of burning up all his chances with the Habs, the team needs to address his weaknesses immediately. The first thing I think he needs is a new goalie coach. I don't believe Roland Melanson is necessarily a bad coach because a lot of goalies say they did well under him. But even a good coach might not be the right coach for a particular player. Goalies especially have a close, one-on-one relationship with their coaches, so the guy doing the teaching has to be on the same wavelength as his students. As I mentioned in the coaching solutions post below, I like the idea of courting Francois Allaire. His contract with Anaheim is up in July, he lives in Quebec anyway and says he's tired of working so far away from home. He's a proven goalie coach with some pretty impressive students on his resume. Another option might be Olaf Kolzig, who looks to be done as a player and who mentored Price in junior with great success.

Once Price has a new coach, he needs to rebuild his style because the change we've seen from the hybrid goalie he once was to the desperate butterfly guy he is now is not a good thing. Returning to a more natural style will, I think, help him cut down on the weak goals against, which will help him rebuild his confidence. When he has his confidence back and is working in a style better suited to his instincts, I believe Price will start to get it together more consistently. And right now, consistency is the main thing he's lacking.

A lot of people are making the argument that Price needs to have a veteran backup goalie to support him and help him succeed. There may be some merit in that view, but I don't agree with it. I like Jaro Halak, and I think the Habs would be short-sighted to give him up while he's still under contract for a good price. He's not much older than Price and has a lot of potential in his own right. What I would like to see is Halak given a real chance. So far, the only time we've seen Halak get more than a game here or there is when the team has had no other choice. He's done a good job filling in for Huet and Price when they were hurt in the last couple of years, and he stepped up and stole enough games to get the Habs into the playoffs this season when Price was sucking. I'd like to see a real platoon system between the two young goalies. Even a 50-30 split in games would be enough to make them feel like they're a team within a team.

An experienced goalie told me eighty percent of playing the position is mental. So I think we can't underestimate the power of two young guys who believe in each other as partners. You can't develop that unless both of them are playing. Right now, I suspect Price feels like he's a failure if Halak gets a couple of games in a row. Halak feels underused and underappreciated. I think explaining to them up front that they're going to share the games equitably and that if one of them gets into trouble, the other guy will be sharp enough to have his back will help them. The tandem system keeps both goalies game-ready and helps prevent injuries caused by over-exertion of joints in the butterfly style.

I think keeping both young goalies is a workable solution for the Habs, as long as they're managed properly. There comes a time when "inexperience" is no longer an excuse, and both of them are approaching their third seasons in the big league. They have to fly on their own at some point. There's also no guarantee the "veteran mentor" the team might bring in won't be ambitious or unhelpful as a teacher. So, I'd go with both Price and Halak along with a better goalie coach and a new system of game-sharing.

And that's how I'd deal with the goalie situation.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Top Ten Greatest Things About the Playoffs

I'm kind of torn this playoff year. I'm sad the Canadiens aren't one of the teams still fighting for the Cup, but I'm also a little bit relieved. I just can't see our poor, injured, beleaguered team competing well with any of the competitors remaining, so it's nice to just be able to watch the games for hockey's sake and not be freaking out and pacing on every play. This spring, even though our team's season is long done, hockey lives on...and it's great. Here's the top ten things I love about playoff hockey:

10. Triple overtime. It's the last thing the purists can hold on to while Bettman brings in four-on-four OT and shootouts during the season. There's nothing like the tension that builds and builds as the game goes on. The players wear down and it becomes a battle of wills that's completely intriguing to watch. Multiple OTs are war, and that's what the playoffs are all about. The team that survives those and comes out victorious really deserves to win. Plus, it's great fun as a spectator to wonder how long they can make it last.

9. Goaltending duels. Once again, Bettman has it all wrong. He wants to make the game more exciting for new spectators by increasing goalscoring. But real hockey fans know there's as much excitement and tension in a 1-0 game as there is in a next-goal-wins 6-5 matchup. Nowhere is there a better stage for the goalies and their heroics than the playoffs, where one game stolen could mean the difference between a long summer and advancement to the next round. And every year it seems a goalie will rise to the occasion and turn in a superheroic performance. This year alone, Jonas Hiller, Cam Ward and Simeon Varlamov have all stolen the spotlight...and games for their teams. The playoffs give a goalie a chance to be special; not just the guy who backs up J.S.Giguere, or an inconsistent regular-season performer or an untried rookie. The playoffs make names.

8. Iconic photographs. The significance of big events in the playoffs is so much greater than during the regular season. What might be a nice picture of a goal or a save during the 82 game season can become a legend in the post-season. A bloodied Maurice Richard shaking hands with an equally bloodied Sugar Jim Henry. Bobby Orr flying though the air after scoring the Cup winner. Richard and Elmer Lach leaping into each other's arms at centre ice. Roy's Wink. These are the iconic images of hockey, and they come from catching a playoff moment at just the right time.

7. The weather. The smell of spring is really synonymous with the smell of the playoffs. And the feeling of excitement and possibility on the eve of the first round is the same feeling you get when the air is warming and the grass starts to grow. As a Canadian who's endured many a long winter, and who agrees that hockey is best served in northern climates, it's slightly decadent to be watching a playoff game on the portable TV while sitting in the sun and sipping a Corona. You can really see how hockey in California or Florida could be seductive.

6. Emerging heroes. One of the best parts of the playoffs is the chance they give players to step up and be a star, even for a little while. I think of rookie Claude Lemieux in 1986, and how he came from nowhere to help win his team the Cup with timely goals and unsurpassed passion. And Yvon Lambert scoring the biggest goal of his career in the 1979 playoffs in OT. John Druce making his only career splash by becoming the Caps' scoring hero in 1990. The playoffs are great for giving the unsung or unknown players a real chance to be stars.

5. Heart-warming stories and drama. The playoffs are also a time when stories are told and legends made. We watched Ray Bourque and Denis Savard cry when they finally got to raise the Cup after entire stellar careers without a championship. We saw Giguere battle through his newborn's illness and lead his team to the Cup. Patrick Roy left his hospital bed with appendicitis to try and keep his team from elimination. Jacques Demers took a chance in the '93 finals and called for the measurement on McSorley's stick that turned the series. So many stories go into the making of a champion, and the playoffs give us a chance to hear some of them.

4. Hate. Dislike between rival teams during the regular season is, by necessity, fairly perfunctory most of the time. The season is long and even if you lose a game to a team you don't particularly like, you put it behind you because there's another game the next night. The playoffs give all the emotion and passion swirling around a rivalry time to really steep and get stronger. There's nothing like really hating the uniform on the other side of the ice to bring out the best in a team.

3. Great players head-to-head. I remember in the '89 Cup finals, Lanny McDonald and Bob Gainey ground each other into the boards just like they'd done countless times in countless games in the past. It was like having a window into their personal rivalry that became a microcosm of the series itself. In '93 it was Carbonneau and Gretzky. This year we get to see Crosby versus Ovechkin, Datsyuk versus Neidermayer and Toews and Kane versus the Sedins. It's so much fun to see the best players at their jobs matched up against the best on the other side.

2. Upsets. One of the best things about the playoffs is they're completely unpredicatable. It's cliche, but true: once you make the post-season, anything can happen. Anaheim can beat San Jose. The Caps can fall three games to one to the Rangers, then come roaring back. The 1971 Habs can beat the mighty Bruins and the Blackhawks in seven to win a completely shocking Cup. There's nothing like getting the chance to root for an unexpected underdog hero, and the playoffs give us that.

and, the number one greatest thing about the playoffs:

1. The awarding of the Cup. If you can overlook the fact that a helmet-haired garden gnome gets the honour of actually giving the Cup to the winning captain, the pure joy in the Cup celebration is wonderful to watch. The catharsis of winning it all after months of deprivation, hardship and pain makes even the most homer fans of other teams vicariously enjoy the moment. They say the Stanley Cup is the toughest trophy to win in all of pro sports. When you see the tears and laughter as the Cup is passed from upraised hand to upraised hand, you believe it. And, even if it's not your team hoisting the Holy Grail, you step back and appreciate it anyway, because it's not just a moment for that team. It's a moment for all of hockey. (Unless, of course, it's the leafs (God forbid), in which case the TV gets heaved through the window and many beers get drunk to drown the deep and abiding sorrow.)

I wish the Canadiens were still in the post-season. But, since they're not, it's great fun to watch the hockey for hockey's sake. After all, the playoffs are the playoffs! And that's where history is made.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Crosby vs. Ovechkin

Someone told me today if I didn't root for Pittsburgh I'm anti-Canadian, because this isn't just a playoff series. It's Canada vs. Russia in Crosby and Ovechkin. But I can't stand Crosby. The whining to the refs, the diving, the cheap shots on opponents already down...he's just not a good sport. Ovechkin, on the other hand, is pure passion and fun on ice. I have a hard time accepting that if I don't root for Crosbaby I'm anti-Canadian. I prefer to think I'm pro-hockey. What do you think?