Thursday, July 30, 2009

Gone Scoutin'

Hi everyone. Thanks for checking in. I'm on vacation with the family at the moment, but I'll be updating properly in a few days. Hopefully you'll be reading!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Myths and Mythology

Isn't it funny how, when someone seems to come up with a plausible answer to a difficult question, people tend to buy into it until it becomes almost an accepted fact? For centuries, people believed the world was flat because someone needed to explain the horizon. They believed the plague was a punishment from God because they had to explain why so many thousands were dying. Now the prevailing sentiment among Habs fans is that Carey Price needs a veteran mentor backing him up because they need to explain why he went off the rails so badly last year.

I think the "veteran mentor" theory is right up there with the flat earth, heavenly vengeance and bleeding sick people to let out the bad humours. What's a veteran supposed to do with Price anyway, I wonder? If it's to teach him to handle pressure, I think he probably knows a bit about that on his own, based on his experiences in international play, his Calder Cup run and two seasons in Montreal. If it's to teach him how to play goal, well, he's got a goalie coach for that. And if it's to show him how to live like a grownup and a professional, you'd think that, at 22 years of age, he's got an inkling of what that's all about...even if he had to learn some of it the hard way.

This is a third-year professional we're talking about. He's young, true, but he's hardly an NHL virgin at this point. I believe he was pushed into the NHL too early, perhaps not in terms of his skill level, but maybe in terms of his personal maturity. But retrospect means nothing in the coming season. Price is in the NHL and he's there to stay, so he'll have to make the best of it. I just don't see how having a guy on the bench who's ten years older and will play maybe 20 games is supposed to magically help Price succeed at this point in his career. Playing goal is like being born or have to do it alone. Only one guy can stand in there, and if that's Price, then the guy on the bench, whether it's Halak or some thirty-five-year-old veteran, can't go out and hold his hand.

And the ubiquitous "veteran" goalie covers a whole lot of personalities and intangibles. Just because a guy has played in the NHL for ten years, it doesn't mean he's either a good teacher or a proper example for a 22-year-old number one. If he's been a number-one goalie in the past, there's no guarantee he won't be unhappy with a limited role in Montreal. If he's a career backup, is there really a whole lot he can teach Price about the handling the pressure and conditioning necessary to be a number one? A "veteran" can be surly, spacey, silent, stupid or a party animal as easily as he can be friendly, helpful, patient and responsible. Time in the league doesn't change a guy's basic personality.

We also don't know Price's mindset when it comes to his backups. Maybe he likes working with another guy his own age who understands where he's coming from. Maybe he's learned enough of the basics and needs to progress further on his own, with his own style and in collaboration with his own coach.

I think about last year and what difference a veteran "mentor" would have made to Price. Would the guy have been able to talk him out of coming back from injury too soon, just to be in the All Star game? Would he have been in the clubs and said, "Go home, Carey, you have to be at the rink tomorrow?" Would he have been able to talk Price down from the ledge of disaster on which he stood after the break last season? Somehow, I think these are things a guy can only learn by going through them himself. Young guys tend to listen with one ear to the advice of their elders and let it pass right out the other in any case.

I know the year upcoming really depends on Price and Halak and their ability to find consistency. But I think they can do it together, and the myth of the "veteran mentor" can finally be laid to rest. After all, now we know the world is round and the plague was caused by bacteria. I hope we soon learn that Carey Price can be the goalie we need, all by himself. And Jaroslav Halak can be a capable backup and partner for Price, even if he's not 35 years old.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Just Shut Up, Kovy

Alex Kovalev has done some wonderful things on NHL ice in his long hockey career. I personally loved his elbow to Darcy Tucker's chops, and the infamous "drop the glove, retrieve the glove and carry on with the puck" move against the Bruins a couple of seasons ago. He's created some masterpieces with stick and puck that rival those of the greatest savants in hockey history.

But as I watched L'Artiste's unveiling in Ottawa yesterday, the scales finally fell from my eyes. When Kovalev was a Hab, I always tried to make sense of him; the Great Enigma who was so sensitive and misunderstood. I tried to understand how such a prodigious talent could be so inconsistent and frustrating. He must be playing hurt, I'd say. Or his linemates aren't playing up to his level. Or any number of other excuses for why a guy whose teammates consistently christened him "the best puckhandler in the league" could so often dangle himself right out of puck possession.

But when I watched him yesterday, smiling in his Senators sweater, lacking only the pomp of the Sens' Trojan to usher him into his new city in the style befitting a dearly-acquired superstar, my first thought was "I wish he'd just shut the hell up." There he was, earnestly telling the Ottawa throngs how he'd be coming to the Sens with the intention to compete hard every night. He talked about how his previous inconsistency was merely an invention of the media, and how he's never had a problem with a coach. He trotted out the old lines about being misquoted when he slammed the Habs in a Russian newspaper, and about his wish to play until he's fifty.

It's all a pile of manure and it all comes down to Kovalev looking out for number one. Yes, he's got a ton of talent. No, he does NOT use that talent every night, and when he doesn't, he sucks...badly. He's very, very lucky to be making millions of dollars to bring his skill to the game when he feels like it, and the Senators are just the latest team hoping he'll bring it consistently for the first time in his life. Well, sorry to tell you Brian Murray, but after a thousand-plus NHL games, that ship has sailed. Kovalev is what he is, and all the crap about how he's planning to compete hard every night is just another shovelful from the pile he's been spreading for the last fifteen years.

I have no problem with a guy looking after himself first. But cloaking it in various shades of hurt feelings while saying all the right things is just BS. For once, I'd like to hear Alex Kovalev tell the truth: "I will play like my hair's on fire when I'm motivated. There are several circumstances under which I shall be motivated, including when someone cuts me on the ice, when I'm trying to stick it to a former team (look out, Habs), when I'm voted into the All-Star game and when I'm pushing my luck with management and have to get back in the good books. Other than that, you can expect at least one long stretch during the season in which I will produce absolutely nothing except copious giveaways. I'm quite likely to fake or at least exaggerate an injury at some point when I'm not scoring, and there's a good chance I will open my big yap and say something controversial that will undoubtedly undermine either the coach, GM or my teammates. Despite all of that, I will do enough to maintain the illusion that I'm one of the most talented players in the world, even though my own national team is on to me and no longer invites me to play in the big tournaments. You can count on me to do good things for charities and kids, but if you're expecting me to win you a Stanley Cup, get real. I will do some beautiful things with the puck a dozen or so times a season, and I will play the fans so they'll go crazy for me and forgive me the frequent games in which I forget to show up. If all the stars align I might even have one last really good year, but don't take me in your hockey pool, just in case." See? Wouldn't that be refreshing?

In the meantime, all his seeming regret about the way things ended in Montreal fail to move me as it once would have. I was never an ardent Kovy-phile, but I liked his skill and his ability to score on the power play. I hated his apparent disinterest on too many nights, and the one-man rushes that caused so many gifts for the opposition. In the end though, the plain truth is he dithered long enough over a fair offer in Montreal to cost himself a contract there. Now he's a Senator and will be hosting the Kovy Smoke and Mirror Show in the nation's capital. I've learned in the last couple of days that if Kovalev and the senators in Ottawa's chamber of sober second thought have one thing in common, it's their mutal ability to talk the talk while doing very little walking of the walk.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Well, I don't know what the heck really happened in the Canadiens' room last season, but whatever it was, Bob Gainey obviously saw enough to prompt a massive house-cleaning this summer. When you think about it, it's almost unbelievable that of the eleven free agents, not one is back for next year. Of the restricted free agents, one is traded, one going to arbitration and one signed for what basically amounts to a cheap, one-year do-over. Even the coaching staff, including Gainey's long-time bosom buddy, Doug Jarvis, got torched. It's almost as though when Gainey was forced to fire Guy Carbonneau, all bets were off for everyone else.

The funny thing about this though, is that Habs fans seem to be clearly divided into two groups in their opinions concerning Gainey's strategy. One side (on which I, admittedly, stand) is a bit afraid that the gutting of the team was a little too drastic, but now that it's done, we're willing to give Gainey the benefit of the doubt once more and hope, for the sake of the sweater we love, that it all somehow works out. The other side (of which I'm already getting tired) seems to have caught some kind of bloodlust. For them, it's not enough that half of last year's team is gone and the other half, with the likely exception of Andrei Markov, on probation. The demands to dump any remaining Habs, like Plekanec, D'Agostini, the Kostitsyns and Halak, for something new are escalating.

I don't get it, I confess. Take the "trade for Patrick Marleau" rumours, for instance. Sure, he's a big centre who can score some goals. But, in eleven full seasons with San Jose, he's broken eighty points once. He's good, but not what you'd call elite, and he's making elite-level money this year. If the Habs were to trade for him, as so many are demanding Gainey do, they'd have to clear up quite a bit of salary to make it work. It would likely cost Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn, as well as possibly Jaro Halak, and to me, it's not that smart a move to give up your backup goalie and two of your top-six forwards in exchange for one top-six guy. It would further stress the team's depth and force Gainey to rush some of the youth into bigger roles. Also, love them or hate them, Plekanec and Kostitsyn are relatively cheap compared to Marleau, and have yet to reach their full potential. And there's the issue of looming free agency for Marleau. It makes little sense for Gainey to trade two sure, cap-friendly assets for a guy who could very likely walk at the end of the season, especially in a year when we don't know whether the Habs will even come close to championship contention.

I know Kostitsyn and Plekanec and just about everyone else underperformed last season. But I find it strange that the patience to give them a chance to rebound seems pretty much non-existent in some quarters of Habdom. These are young guys and they do have talent. I think they'll be okay.

And Halak is the great unknown with the Habs, but nobody wants to hold onto him and see if he can boost his value. Why trade him now, when he could get a chance to prove himself as a really good NHL goalie and bring a better return later? Or even, heaven forbid, have him actually remain with the Canadiens who could then have one of the best young goalie tandems in the league?

I'm just hoping Bob Gainey doesn't have the urge to purge that some fans seem to have acquired in the last few weeks. Change can be good, but you don't have to go overboard with it. As my mother would say, you can scratch your arse without tearing it off you.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Re-Hab: The Gettin' To Know Ya Version

I think if we're going to really cheer for the new team wearing the CH this year, we've got to actually like the guys on the ice. So, I figure the first step in liking them is learning something likeable about them. I mean, really likeable...not just YouTube highlight reels. Something that gives us a little bit of insight into what they might bring to our team.

To that end, I did a little bit of research and found some interesting stuff about our new Habs. It's not much to tide us over until we see them up close and personal in our own team's colours, but it's a little introduction and a primer on what we can expect from these guys in the coming months.

What I now like about Travis Moen is that he's a farmer. As soon as the hockey season's over, he goes home to Saskatchewan and works from six in the morning until late afternoon on his family's farm. Then, when the farm day is over, he goes and works out for two hours in preparation for the next season. I like that he feels a responsibility to his family and isn't afraid of working like a dog all day. A lot of guys who graduate from farming to pro hockey would come home to visit, then take off to golf and spend their millions. Moen doesn't golf. I like that. I also like the fact that when he had his day with the Stanley Cup after winning it in Anaheim, he insisted on washing it himself after his family used it to hold ribs in a local restaurant.

His day with the Cup also gave me something to like about Brian Gionta. This is from the NHL's Stanley Cup journal, written by the guys who travel around with the trophy, from July 2003:

"Then, Brian snuck away with the Stanley Cup for a few minutes. He took the trophy up to his old room, still adorned with his childhood awards and trophies. "This is what every kid thinks about when he's playing," whispered Gionta. "I can't tell you how many times I've carried the Cup in my dreams." Had all the hard work paid off for the second year Devil? By watching Brian, his eyes closed and a slight smile tracing his lips as he held the Stanley Cup, you didn't need to wait for the answer. It was obvious. "

You've got to like a guy who brings the Cup back to the very place where he dreamed of winning it as a kid. I also like the fact that he's another guy who has worked at a real job outside hockey and who understands how the other half lives because of years spent helping out at his father's hardware store. And he's an experienced leader because he was captain of his team at Boston College. Lou Lamoriello, a pretty good judge of character, has only good things to say about him, explaining that the Devils drafted him despite his small stature because "you can't measure the size of his heart," and "we'd rather find out he couldn't play in the NHL than let someone else find out he could."

It was tough to find something to like about Hal Gill because of the natural Habs-fan antipathy toward a guy who's been both a Bruin and a leaf. But I had to laugh when I found out he wears one of those Snuggy blanket-with-arms things around the dressing room and doesn't care what anybody thinks. There's got to be something to like about a guy who goes his own way, despite the abuse he knows he's going to get from his teammates. I also like his sense of humour. A lot of his former teammates have mentioned how funny he is. My favourite quote from him came when someone asked him if a soft drink should be called "soda" or "pop." He replied, "I call it beer." I like a guy who's quick and will keep his teammates laughing.

Speaking of beer, Jaroslav Spacek admits he used to like going out on the town probably more than he should have. But now he's got two little kids and he says they've changed his life. He's become the guy who can't wait to get home from road trips and who spends Friday nights with his kids instead of his buddies. I like that he's a family man who's got the partying out of his system already. I think Habs fans have had enough of the party boy types to last us for a while.

Like Gill, Paul Mara is the kind of guy who'll keep his teammates loose. He never shuts up on the ice, and he seems to be a real cheerleader type of guy. I said I was looking for something beyond YouTube highlights, but this one really illustrates what Mara's like as a teammate:

There's something really likeable about a guy who sings Christmas songs on the ice and whistles on the PP. He's also the guy who'll go out and get a birthday cake for the team's trainer and make the whole room sing happy birthday to him.

Scott Gomez has a sense of humour too, but that's not the thing that makes me like him. I like that he spends his summers fishing at home in Alaska, and that he takes his responsibility as a role model for Latin American kids very seriously. He takes the time to personally write back to every Latino kid who writes him looking for inspiration. It might not seem like such a big deal to those of us who understand that these guys have tons of free time most of us don't get. But so do the rest of his NHL colleagues, and not many of them bother with personalizing things with the fans. I also like a story about Gomez from his first NHL training camp. He called every one of the veterans by his last name..."Mr.Brodeur," "Mr. Stevens," etc. His teammates called him Mr.Polite and laughed at his manners, but I think was respectful and showed his parents' values are still part of him.

I think of all the new guys, though, I like Mike Cammalleri the most. I have a lot of respect for Michigan head coach Red Berenson's opinions about hockey players. Here's what he said about Cammalleri back in 2000, when the little winger was still in college:

"Every shift he's dangerous with the puck," Berenson said. "He's strong on his feet, creative and scores big goals in big games."
Not only did he use his crafty puckhandling to make opposing defensemen look silly, he also unselfishly did the little things that Berenson says make a player great.
"If you can ask your best players to do everything that everyone else is supposed to do, including backchecking and blocking shots - Cammalleri has no problem with that and goes into it headfirst."

Berenson liked him enough to give him an "A" on his sweater; not something the veteran coach ever does lightly. And Cammalleri proved he deserved it when his team struggled early in the 2001 season. He publicly admitted their play was unacceptable, and took it upon himself to lead by example, which he did by putting up 61 points in 42 games. But I think my favourite thing about Cammalleri is his ability to make a difficult choice and follow it through. He doesn't give up, a fact illustrated by his decision to finish high school in three years instead of four in order to get into college early and advance his hockey career. This is from an old article in the Michigan college newspaper:

"He took extra courses, night classes, and three straight summers of school in order to graduate high school in three years - making him eligible to play for Michigan this past season.
This didn't come without a price, however. His nonstop schedule of hockey and classes wasn't the life of a normal teenager, which caused Cammalleri to do some soul-searching.
"I had 11 classes on the go at one time," Cammalleri said. "I remember one night not being able to go to sleep because I was so stressed out. I thought to myself that it wasn't worth it."
After discussing with his father in a late night chat the thought of waiting one more year, Cammalleri made the decision to not back down from the challenge and stuck with it.
"You've got to prioritize," Cammalleri said."

That's a guy who doesn't quit, and you have to like that on your team.

On the surface, it seems that Bob Gainey has added a whole bunch of small, speedy talent and some big grit to back it up. That's what all the critics will be talking about when they make their inevitable predictions about where the Habs will finish this year. But if you look a little bit beneath the surface, you see he's also added leadership, experience, honesty, dedication, hard work and fun as well. A lot of those qualities seemed to be lacking on last year's team, and I'm glad to see Gainey try to bring in the intangibles a winning team needs, as well as the on-ice ability.

So, that's what I've found to like about our new Habs. Now that I'm starting to care about them a little bit, I'm off to check out those YouTube highlights!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Whooo Are You? (hoo hoo)

Now that our captain has departed for sunnier, distant climes, the rest of us (and Mathieu Dandenault) remain standing here, staring blankly around in the rubble of what was once our hockey team. Emerging from the dust cloud are a whole bunch of new guys for whom we're supposed to be cheering in a couple of months. Right now, the shock from the explosion is too deep to even contemplate embracing the newcomers. But as reality starts to settle in for us, our first question has to be, "what kind of team has Bob Gainey installed in place of the one we used to love?" Closely followed by "who are these guys, anyway?"

The good thing about this is there's no answer to that question right now. No learned pundit can say whether the Habs will be a first-place or a last-place team with any credibility because nobody has a clue. I think it's good that whatever this new team turns out to be, it will develop its identity without any outside expectations. Expectations undoubtedly played some part in last year's complete collapse.

Looking at the collection of new guys, however, we can start to make some educated guesses about what we might see. Those who've complained in the past that the Habs had no identity will now be able to stop. If you can say Cammalleri, Gomez, Gionta, Plekanec, the Kostitsyns, Lapierre, Stewart and Metropolit have anything in common, it's that they're fast. Really, really fast. The big complaint about this group is that there're not a whole lot of bruisers among them. But it's becoming obvious that Gainey's vision for the team is one of a fast, skilled group that relies more on quickness and brains than brawn. So, the team has an identity. We may not like it, but there is one.

Leadership is the next question. With Andrei Markov standing as the longest-serving Hab and the team's best player, he'd be a natural choice for captain if it weren't for his quiet nature. Maybe a chance to step forward and be a leader will be good for him. Maybe he doesn't want the challenge. Either way, the leadership question will be resolved with Markov. If he wants to be captain, I think he will. If not, I expect there will be a leadership-by-committee approach with three assistant captains instead. In the end, I think we'll see the three "A" solution, at least until Christmas. Considering the uncertainty about all the changes within the team, I think sharing the leadership role is the best thing for the new players. It's like lying on a bed of nails. Lie on one nail and it pierces your skin. Lie on a whole bunch of them and the weight distrbution minimizes the pain. I think in giving responsibility for the team to several players, the resulting pressure will be significantly reduced.

I hope as the shock lessens, we will learn to like...even love...the new Habs. The drama this summer is really unfair to them because they're coming in for a new start and the first thing they'll have to do is answer a whole bunch of questions about how they're going to replace the guys who have left. That's why I'm going to ignore the predictions and the expectations and the questions and the contracts. I'm going to look at the arrival of the new Habs as the beginning of a new era and find something to like about each of them. They've done their part by agreeing to play their best for our team. Now we have to do ours by welcoming them without comparisons and reservations.

They're coming to rebuild on the site where our team used to stand. It's not going to be easy, with the memories of the recently fallen hovering at the Bell Centre. But the least we can do is give them a chance.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Farewell, My Captain

For the last several years, I've had a recurring dream. I never remember much about what actually happens in the dream, but I always wake up with one clear image in my mind. It's of Saku Koivu, stubbled and haggard, grinning hugely as he accepts the Stanley Cup. In the dream I can see every detail. He's wearing his white CH sweater, and he's got raw knuckles and a stitched cut above his left eye glistening with tears of joy at finally bringing a championship to his adopted hometown.

That dream has always been bittersweet because it often comes when the Habs are in absolutely no condition to win a Stanley Cup. Now it will just be bitter because even the small hope of one day seeing Koivu accept the trophy as Canadiens' captain has been extinguished.

I don't know what Bob Gainey is trying to do with the Montreal Canadiens, but in letting Saku Koivu walk away, he has successfully amputated the team's heart and its soul. I don't think he can replace those vital parts in the next two months. Or ever.

I wish Saku the best in Anaheim. I just wish the dream had ended differently.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Writing On the Wall's In Czech

I didn't have a favourite Hab after Patrick Roy left Montreal. Players came and went and I still cheered for the team wearing my increasingly-ragged number 33 sweater. He was the hero of my early days as a Habs fan and the focus of my teenaged devotion. I knew he'd always hold that place for me, and I couldn't imagine admiring another player in that way. Then, along came Tomas Plekanec.

Pleky's not the star Roy was...not by a mile. But he's always been the hardest-working Hab; first on the ice and last off at every practice. He was the one who tried desperately to stop the last empty-net goal the Flyers scored before eliminating the Canadiens from the playoffs two seasons ago, then collapsed in despair when he knew it was over. He's got a quiet integrity about him and a self-deprecating attitude that belies the talent his hard work has allowed to blossom. In these days of "me" and "money" that can make cynics of the most naive of us, Plekanec is refreshing.

Now he's going to arbitration. My heart sank at the news, not because I think Plekanec's asking for more than he deserves after a less-than-stellar season last year, but because of what I think will come out of this process. We're talking about a guy who was so down on himself after putting up less than forty points for the first time since his rookie season, he actually told officials from the Czech national team that he was playing too badly to be of much help to them at last spring's world championships. He also admitted he was thrown by having his name tossed around in the Vincent Lecavalier trade rumours in the middle of last season. Now this player, who I believe struggled so badly last year because of a lack of confidence, is going to go before an arbitration panel with himself on one side of the table and his team on the other.

This can't be a good thing. You know Plekanec and his agent will argue that Pleky's been a very durable player, missing only four games in the last three years...two of those because of a suspension, the other two because of the flu. In that time, he's put up sixty-nine goals and been a stellar penalty killer. Last year's low points total was due to his having fewer assists than goals for the first time in his career, which could conceivably point to the ineffectiveness of his linemates rather than Plekanec himself. He's never been a problem player or embarrassed the team in any way, unlike some of his teammates.

After the player makes his case, the team will get a turn. Bob Gainey will have to sit there, across from a player he likes enough to retain while cutting half the rest of the team loose, and slash his performace to ribbons. He'll have to say that Plekanec took more bad penalties last year, and that his lack of production cost his linemates points. He'll point out that Pleky had lots of opportunities to turn things around, but failed to do the work he needed to do to get better. He'll say Plekanec showed a reluctance to get his nose dirty in tough parts of the rink. And he'll remind Plekanec that he didn't register a point in three playoff games, and that he was benched for the fourth.

I imagine this undressing by Gainey is going to hurt Plekanec. A lot. There's an interview with him in a Czech paper today about his decision to opt for arbitration. He says he'd be lying if he said money isn't part of it. And it's true that in comparison to other guys who have put up similar goal totals in the last three years, he's probably underpaid. But what struck me the most about what he said is that for him, although money's a factor, the biggest reason for his decision is a need to feel respected. He says his contributions to the Canadiens are deserving of respect and he'd like to see the team recognize that.

He goes on to say he's had several offers from KHL clubs, but loves the lifestyle and competition level in the NHL and doesn't want to leave. He likes Montreal and the Canadiens and doesn't mind playing under the microscope. (It probably helps that he's a quiet, hardworking guy who doesn't draw the attention of the media.) He says he understands his overall numbers last year weren't great, even though he thinks twenty goals was a pretty good total, and the arbitrator may not rule in his favour. Even so, he says, he's willing to live with whatever decision is handed down. He vows to be a hundred percent better on the ice next season. But while he's entering the arbitration process with a businesslike attitude, I don't think he's really ready for the harsh words he'll hear from the man whose respect he says he's seeking.

Tomas Plekanec wouldn't be the first player for whom arbitration is the thin edge of the wedge that will eventually separate him and his team. The process usually results in a one-year contract and if that's the case with Plekanec, he'll be an unrestricted free agent next summer. Judging by the speed at which most of his former UFA teammates bolted from Montreal, I'd have to worry that Pleky will follow in their dust when his turn comes.

In his interview in the paper, he talks about the bad taste the failure of the Centennial season has left in his mouth. Whatever the hell happened in the room and around the team last year really turned a lot of the players off Montreal. I hope a fresh start with a whole boatload of new teammates will help Plekanec turn things around and feel better about the Canadiens than he does at the moment.

Most of all though, I hope he and the team can find enough common ground to settle on a contract before the arbitration date arrives. I agree with Plekanec: his contributions are worthy of respect and I think Bob Gainey should give him that. I just don't know if I can stand to hang up my Plekanec number 35 sweater alongside my old 33, for good.

Monday, July 6, 2009

They Must REALLY Hate Us

Just out of curiosity, why can no ex-Hab go out of the bloody division? Komisarek and Beauchemin sign with the leafs, Begin with the Bruins and now Kovalev with the Sens. Hello? Ex-Habs? There are FIVE divisions other than the Northeast. And guess what? Some of them have teams in warm, sunny climates where evil fans and media don't recognize you on the street. Jeez...I guess this shoots down the idea that bad weather keeps players out of Montreal.

Crap. It hurts enough to lose our players. But now we're pretty much obliged to hate their guts. I just wish I had more confidence that Gionta, Gomez and Cammalleri would burn those teams so badly we could walk away smiling. I fear this season.

Just, please, Saku...we still love you...don't sign with the Sabres. Go west, young man. I don't think we can take it if you don't.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Brain Is Wider Than the Sky

The brain is wider than the sky...for put them side by the other will contain...with ease and You beside...

Emily Dickenson wrote that about the nature of the human mind. I thought of that the other day, when I tried to put myself inside Bob Gainey's head and figure out what the hell he's been thinking.

I still hate the Gomez trade for the salary and the loss of Ryan McDonagh. BUT, when I tried to put myself in Gainey's mind, I saw some sense in it. Mike Cammalleri has said he signed with the Canadiens partly because of the fact that Gomez will be his centre. Apparently, despite the fact that Gomez has put up so few goals in the last three seasons, wingers think he's elite and they want to play with him. So, obviously Gainey was working to bring in an impressive centre. He, by all accounts, was trying to trade for Lecavalier...but the lousy ownership situation in Tampa put the kibosh on that. So then he looked around at other candidates for the number-one centre job. Jordan Staal (my favourite) is talented but unproven in a leading role, and probably not available after the Cup win. Jason Spezza has serious questions about his heart in tough situations. Briere has health questions, as well as concerns about his interest in being in Montreal. Olli Jokinen also has questions about his attitude. So, outside those five guys, there really weren't a whole lot of guys who would fit the number-one centre role who were also available. That left the nasty cap situation in New York, and the fact that Sather had to dump someone. It's true that Gainey's taking on a really horrible, ill-thought out contract, but as a player, Gomez is good.

He's certainly not worth the money the Habs will be paying, but he does actually have skills. He can pass like Tanguay and he's faster than Dandenault. He's small, but fearless, and he's tough enough to play Jersey's style and not get hurt very often. I hate his contract, but I like Gomez. So, Gainey got a first-line centre (or at least the possibility of one) and then he advertised to the wingers in the free-agent market. Cammalleri, arguably the most-coveted first-line winger available, bought into Gainey's plan because he'd be playing with Gomez. Then, when Kovalev dithered on the Habs' offer, Gainey grabbed Gionta, in the hopes that he'd rekindle his previous chemistry with Gomez. Overall, not a bad plan.

A whole lot is going to be riding on the hope that the newly assembled first line can actually perform as hoped. If they don't, I expect Gainey to be gone. BUT...I expect there's every hope that they will perform. They're proven performers, and, given the right linemates, there's no reason why they shouldn't put up some numbers. Then it's up to the second line to support them. Given the assumption that Plekanec and the Kostitsyns can't be worse than last year, there's a good chance things will improve in the secondary scoring department.

I admit, I've lost some respect for Bob Gainey because of his personal dealings with people like Don Lever, Mark Streit and Saku Koivu. But, in the end, he knows hockey. And I think he may have something when it comes to the lineup he intends to ice in the fall.

Thursday, July 2, 2009


The saddest loss of all the losses by the Habs this season is the quiet, unheralded departure from Montreal of Saku Koivu. Koivu's the kind of guy you'd want to see have a last tour of all the NHL rinks with a nice ovation by opposing fans, and a special night of honour at the Bell Centre to usher him into retirement. This "thanks for your service, and good luck wherever you go" ending to his career as a Hab seems so wrong.

I have so many memories of Koivu in the CH. I remember him as an enthusiastic kid, all full of piss and vinegar and ready to go through walls to win hockey games. I remember the terrible injuries; knee and eye, he suffered and overcame. The devastating announcement of his cancer and his triumphant return from the disease defy description. He's given everything to the team and to his adopted community. He was respectful in the face of disrespect and gracious when faced with disgrace. He was the small man who played bigger than he was, the Finn with the sisu. He has almost always been the most talented player on his team, and made a series of mediocre wingers seem better than they really were. He was the man who got a couple of offers to play elsewhere, but wanted to wait to see what Bob Gainey asked of him before considering them. Now he's gone.

While I'm deeply saddened by the departure of Koivu the man, I accept that Koivu the player is no longer able to be a first-line centre. He's become injury-prone and he has long periods of silence on the scoreboard. I expect he'll have another two or three good years on another team that can provide him with good, supportive wingers. In the meantime, the team he leaves behind has replaced him in his position on the ice, even as it has failed to fill his position in the dressing room.

Two years ago, we thought when Saku rode gracefully off into retirement, one of either Chris Higgins or Mike "The Traitor" Komisarek would replace him as captain. Now that Bob Gainey has executed a complete leadership purge, the question on everyone's lips is who's going to wear the "C" now? I think nobody should.

The Canadiens have always had the players elect their own captain. That's an important tradition because players are much more likely to follow a guy they respect and have chosen themselves than one that's been installed by management and could be seen as management's patsy. Considering the massive turnover of players in the room this summer, I think it's important for the team to play together and the players to take each other's measure before a captain is chosen. So, I think there should be three "A"s and no "C" until the players know enough about each other to elect the right guy.

Andrei Markov must wear an "A" as the senior born-and-bred Hab on the team, as well as its best player. Maxim Lapierre gets one too, because he's the guy who's most likely to go to the wall for the team and who brings his best every night. The third "A" should go to either Tomas Plekanec or Scott Gomez. Plekanec because he'll be asked to step up as a young veteran leader with the departure of Higgins and The Traitor, and the responsibility might help him to overcome his confidence issues. Gomez because he represents the new players and the letter would underline his on-ice role as first-line centre. Then, around Christmas, the players can vote for a captain.

Whoever becomes the twenty-ninth captain in Canadiens history will have a heavy torch to carry, and it will be difficult for him to carry it with dignity of Saku Koivu.

Enjoy TO, You Traitor

So, Mike Komisarek is a leaf now. The guy who was drafted by the Habs, developed by them, taken care of by them during one of the worst times of his life and protected on the ice by being paired with Andrei Markov, has grabbed a few extra hundred Gs to scarper off to Toronto the first chance he got. He says the leafs are "the best fit." And it's "unfortunate" that "things didn't work out with Montreal." The reporters who cover the Habs say we shouldn't be angry with him because he was a good guy who was always available to the media and was a dutiful Hab while he was there.

Well, you know what? I AM mad at him. I'm really angry and, as a fan, betrayed by his lack of loyalty. Now, don't get me wrong, I know how ridiculous that sounds. We all...players, owners, GMs and fans...know and accept that pro hockey is a business. It's no different than a bank or an IT company. The team provides a service and the fans pay for that service. The people who work for the teams are employees who get evaluated, promoted and demoted based on their performance in providing the service customers want. And hockey teams, like banks or IT companies...and restaurants, plumbing companies, supermarkets and every other business...rely on the bottom line. Turn a profit, or you close.

I have to say though, as a business hockey is pretty much a scam. The service hockey teams sell is entertainment and the currency in which they trade is emotion. Pro hockey depends on thousands of us investing our time, love and money in supporting a particular team and its players. These guys don't feed us or fix our pipes or solve our computer problems. They entertain us. They rely on our attachment to a sweater or a player to keep our interest and keep us watching and paying for the privilege. That's why we get angry when a player walks away from us the way Komisarek has done. It's a shock to realize that he wasn't as invested in the team as we are. And it stings when reality intrudes into the fantasy world that is pro sport. The players make us hope and dream, then they get to decide when the dream is over with a curt, "it's a business" as their excuse. We feel betrayed because it's not fair for them to have it both ways...a player can't make us love him and then tell us he's done with us because another team's fans will pay more to love him. They tell us it's a business, but they don't want us to really believe it. If we did, cynicism would bring down the pro sport house of cards.

So, when a player like Komisarek leaves us in the dust, we have a choice to make. We can blithely say, "Oh well, it's a business and he's got to make as much money as he can now because his career will be so short." Or we can get angry and feel betrayed. Pro hockey had better hope it's the latter, because the day fans really, truly, in their hearts, believe hockey is a business, that's the day they stop paying for the fantasy.

That's why today I say, have a good time in Toronto, you traitor. I hope playing without Andrei Markov to cover up your mistakes doesn't hurt too much. And may you never score a point against the Habs, and when you block Yannick Weber's point shot, I hope it hurts. A lot.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


So, what do you want to bet Chris Higgins won't be hitting the post on his first breakaway against Carey Price?

My head says I should give Bob Gainey a chance; that maybe the Higgins/Gomez trade doesn't stink as much as my first instinct says it does. But I just can't dismiss that first instinct. It makes no sense to me. At all. There are so many things to hate about the deal.

First of all, I think Higgins had just found his groove at the end of last season, and he was shaping up to be the kind of player who helps a team win big, shiny, silver trophies. His speed, his ability on the PK and his relentless forecheck made him a great third-line winger.

Then there's Ryan McDonagh. I loved the pick in the draft two years ago, and I had high hopes for him as a Hab. He's developing into a well-rounded defenceman who plays a different style from the other D prospects in the system, and will eventually be a very good NHL player. With Higgins, that makes two first-round picks gone in the Gomez deal.

There's the salary. Gomez' contract is horrible. He's a 7.357-million cap hit for the next five years when the cap is expected to drop next season. I know Gainey's got a lot of money to play with, but this trade means other players...players we like...won't fit under the cap now.

There's Gomez himself. He's getting paid a number-one centre's salary, but he's not a number-one centre. He's living off the results of one 33-goal season, but in the three years since, he's put up 13, 16 and 16 goals, with totals of 60, 70 and a whopping 58 points. He's also not a big guy. He's a little bit taller and heavier than Saku Koivu, and he puts up similar numbers for double the price. He's a player who chose to sign in New York, and who wanted to stay there. I think he's got little interest in giving his all for the Canadiens.

And finally, there's the awful timing of this trade. With free agency opening in a few hours, Gainey has helped Glen Sather out by giving him eight million in cap space so he can go shopping. At the same time, he's limiting his own options by doing this now. Mike Komisarek is still trying to decide whether he'll re-sign in Montreal, and Higgins' departure takes away one incentive for him to do that. Gainey could have waited to see how things go down today before making the deal, and then decided if he still wanted to go ahead with it, or instead found a better deal on the market. It reminds me too much of the Sergei Samsonov signing. Gainey brought Samsonov in as plan C on July 1, then ended up having no money to spend when the Sabres failed to sign JP Dumont a few days later.

Maybe somewhere, there's good in this trade. Maybe Gomez' presence will help attract a good UFA or two to Montreal. Despite his numbers, when you hear his name you think of a good player, and it's always fun to play with good players. Maybe Gainey means to send Higgins an offer sheet in New York and steal him back. But honestly, I'm having a really hard time finding the good here.

I think this is a really bad trade and I think the fans in Montreal will make Scott Gomez' life miserable when he puts up 60 points while making eight million bucks this year. If he's still a Hab three years from now, I'll be surprised. I won't be surprised, however, to see Chris Higgins' next hat trick scored against the visitors from Montreal. That's always the way it seems to go, isn't it?

Good luck Scott Gomez. You're going to need it. Bob Gainey, you wuz robbed.