Thursday, July 28, 2011


Thank you all so much for your lovely personal stories of Habs dedication. It was heartwarming to read about your own histories with the team we all love. I randomly picked a winner from among all the people who posted, and the winner of a very silly, but kinda neat piece of Habs merchandise is Darcy. If you can email your address to, I'll get your prize in the mail for you.

Thanks again for all the cool stories. If anyone has something they'd particularly like to read about, or a former Hab you'd like to catch up with, let me know, and I'll see what I can do.

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Contest

I have a confession to make. When I first began following NHL hockey back in the '80s, I was a Flyers fan. There. I said it. But before you think, "How could you?!" let me explain.

When I was about 12, I used to mind my younger brothers on Saturday nights, when my parents went next door to play cards with the neighbours. We had two TV channels at the time, so options were limited. After the boys went to bed, the house was really quiet, and for a 12-year-old with an imagination, just a bit creepy. So, one TV channel played a spooky movie every Saturday evening, while the other showed Hockey Night in Canada. Naturally, even though I'd never really watched hockey before, I picked the game because I was too chicken to watch the movie.

The first game I watched in its entirety was one between the leafs and the Flyers. The Flyers' Peter Zezel caught my eye, and I rooted for his team to win. (Even then, I found there was something off-putting about the leafs.) I thought the game was really exciting, and not only did "my" team win, but the player I liked best was first star. I was hooked.

A couple of weeks later, I was disappointed when the game on TV didn't feature the Flyers. It was Montreal versus Boston, but I decided to watch it anyway. I loved it. The iconic red uniforms just looked right somehow. The game was pretty close, back and forth, until the Canadiens exploded for five consecutive goals in the second and third periods. It was really something, watching a team just steamroll the opposition like that. There was this little guy in red too, the smallest guy on the ice, and he scored two goals against the Bruins in a game rife with fights and obvious bad blood.

I was deeply attracted to the Canadiens, but I felt conflicted. After all, I'd decided just two weeks before to be a Flyers fan. It seemed a bit traitorous and more than a bit fickle to dump my new team so quickly. What would Peter Zezel think?

To help me make a decision, I did a little research. The hockey encyclopedia explained that, historically, there was no comparison between the two teams. The Canadiens were superior in Cup wins, victories, Hall-of-Famers, cool stories and mythology. I discovered the legend of the Habs, and a love affair was born. It would be cemented on a November Saturday the following season, when a long-necked, twitchy goalie previewed the Stanley Cup finals by withstanding a Calgary Flames onslaught to win his first NHL game.

Of course, Patrick Roy went on to win another 550 games after that first victory, on his way to becoming the last Canadiens superstar. A lot has happened to the team since then, but I've stayed a Canadiens fan through it all. Even in the dark days, there was always a hope that somehow the rag-tag group on the ice could pull off a miracle.

Anyway, I thought the dog days of summer might be a good time to solicit your stories. How did you become a Canadiens fan? Why do you remain one? Did you ever have an encounter with your favourite player that meant a lot to you? Post your favourite Habs-related experience, and I'll draw a winner from the entries. The prize is a Habs-related novelty that makes me smile, and be grateful I didn't stay a Flyers fan.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Value of Gorges

To nobody's surprise, Steven Stamkos signed a huge new deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning this week. When a player puts up 96 goals in two seasons, he's going to end up with a pretty nice pay day, one way or another, because those kinds of numbers are fairly easily quantifiable. It's not quite the same when you're trying to put a dollar value on a guy who scored a grand total of nine goals in 364 career games.

Of course, a player like Josh Gorges who doesn't score goals can be as important to a team in his way as a star like Stamkos. A defensive defenceman can help control the other team's Stamkos or block a shot late in a close game to save a valuable point. The numbers of blocked shots, PK minutes and takeaways just aren't as sexy as huge goal totals when contract time rolls around.

Since points are irrelevant when dealing with a guy like Gorges, one must examine the stats in which he does excel when calculating his worth. In each of the last three seasons, he's been developing as one of the top shot-blockers in the league, improving every year. Two seasons ago, he was 16th on the list. Last year, he moved up to 12th, and this year he was on pace for 6th place in the league. Looking at consistent comparables in the shot-blocking category, with similar point totals, Minnesota's Greg Zanon will make $2.1-million this year. Niklas Hjalmarsson of the Blackhawks is scheduled to take home $3.5-million this season, although he undoubtedly got an inflated raise because of a Sharks offer sheet last summer. New Jersey's Anton Volchenkov has a $4.25-million cap hit. The Dallas Stars' Karlis Skrastins, with free agency looming, signed in the KHL. So, players who can list shot-blocking as their primary skill are all over the financial map, depending on how much teams value that particular asset.

In other stats that determine the worth of a defensive defenceman, like hits, takeaways and giveaways, Gorges barely makes the top fifty in each of the last three years, with the unfortunate exception of being on pace to crack the top ten in giveaways this season.

Where Gorges' value is more apparent is in the number of goals scored against his team when he's on the ice. Last year, in his most recent full season, Gorges was third among all regular defencemen when he was on the ice for a scant 1.85 GA per 60 minutes. On the PK, he was 12th in the league with 5.08 GA per 60 minutes. At the halfway point of this season, just after Gorges had been sent for knee surgery, his numbers weren't quite as good. He was sitting at 27th out of the top 30 defensive defencemen in the league at even strength, on the ice for 2.34 GA/60. He improved on the PK, though, with 4.67 GA/60. That still put him at 13th in the league. Of comparables in terms of effective shut-down play, we can see Washington's Tom Poti at $3-million for next season. San Jose's Marc-Edouard Vlasic will make $3.1-million. And New Jersy's Colin White will get $3-million. So, it appears that guys with similar shut-down numbers to Gorges' are all making similar kinds of dollars. They're also putting up similar kinds of points, which makes them good comparisons for Gorges.

Each year, James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail publishes a couple of lists of the best defensive defencemen in the NHL; one halfway through the season and the other at the end of the year. He uses stats like goals against and quality of opposition faced to rank the players. At the end of last year, Gorges was 16th in the league among shut-down guys. This year, at the halfway point, which is when his season ended, he was 14th. It appears that when it comes to overall effectiveness in preventing the opposition from scoring, Gorges isn't only well up on the list, but climbing. Other guys in around the same place in the rankings include Carolina's Tim Gleason, who will make $3.5-million this year, with a $2.75-million cap hit. Buffalo's Robyn Regehr will get $4-million, but he signed that deal as an UFA. Brooks Orpik of the Penguins is slated to make $3.75-million, a deal he also signed as an UFA. All three defencemen are close to Gorges' ranking on Mirtle's list and all scored similar numbers of points. It appears the big difference between them is the difference between RFA and UFA status at the time they signed their contracts.

Stats are just numbers, though. They can be manipulated and re-evaluated like an image in a hall of mirrors, giving a different view each time. In assessing the worth of a guy like Josh Gorges, in which the stats aren't as black and white as the number of goals scored, intangibles carry a lot of weight. Gorges, at 6'1" and 190lbs isn't exactly delicate, but he's not the typical size of your typical hulking stay-at-home defenceman either. That said, he's shown remarkable resiliency, coming back right away after stopping pucks with his head or getting plastered by rushing wingers. Even his knee injury showed an unusual level of toughness, when he admitted he'd been playing essentially without an ACL in his knee for years. It's risky to assume he can come back without missing a beat, but it's a risk that, given his ability to withstand pain, is worth taking.

Then there's the much-vaunted "leadership" quality Gorges seems to have in spades. From captaining his hometown junior team to the Memorial Cup to forging an NHL career after going undrafted, Gorges has always demonstrated an intensity and work ethic that inspires others to follow him. In the hours before that epic Game Seven against the Caps last year, the team held a meeting and somebody (who won't be named) who was there says Gorges spoke with an eloquence and passion that probably helped the team believe it could really win that game. He's also close to Carey Price and well-liked in the room, which helps build team unity. That kind of dedication should be rewarded in contract talks.

On the other hand, Gorges has found a home in Montreal after seeing little ice time in San Jose early in his career. The Canadiens have given him every chance to make his mark in the NHL, and might believe they deserve a bit of hometown discount in exchange.

There are very many factors that go into determining fair value for any player, but a player like Gorges is a tougher case than most. Looking at comparables in the categories in which he excels, and of players who score similarly few points, it would appear that the market says he's worth about $3-million a year. If Pierre Gauthier is trying to lowball that figure, it could explain why Gorges is looking at an arbitration case in the next week. That would be a mistake on Gauthier's part. Gorges is worth the money, based on his performance compared to similar players. Arbitration, which by its very nature creates hard feelings, would be a difficult experience for a player who truly buys into the idea of putting the team ahead of himself.

Josh Gorges will never be Steven Stamkos, but a team needs a Gorges as well, if its going to be successful. The market reveals something of what he might be worth. Now it comes down to whether Pierre Gauthier places the same value on a guy who won't score many goals, but will help keep a lot out of his own net.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Canadiens Voice Mail Scandal

As the News of the World voice-mail hacking scandal in England intensifies, it makes one wonder what would turn up if, say, Pierre Gauthier's messages were to become public. Here's what it might sound like:

To listen to your saved messages, press six. First saved message:

8:12am: Hello. This is me, Alex. Um, Kovy. Heh heh. So, I just wanted you to know I am willing to come back and play in Montreal again. I always wanted to finish my career in Montreal, and I can tell you that whole Ottawa thing was a misunderstanding. Anyway, I thought it would be best to call in person because we're still friends, right? My agent has my terms.

8:46am: Hi, Pierre? Steve here. Just wondering if you're open to talking about Desharnais? Give me a call. Oh, and I'll take Darche too. Love those French guys. And, remember, if you don't want to trade 'em, I'll just sign 'em in the summer anyway. Ha ha. Kidding. Talk to you soon.

10:04am: Hey, Pierre! It's Georges. Got my cheque today, thanks! I have an awesome idea for a new chain of bean sprout sandwich shops. Call me if you want in on the ground floor. Vote Green!

11:34am: Hello. It is me, Alex, calling you again. You have not called my agent, so I think your phone was maybe broken. I'm flying to New York today, so call me after five o'clock.

12:41pm: Pierre, it's Geoff. Sorry, the budget won't allow us to send him to Hamilton. See you at tee time.

12:58pm: Hello, Pierre. Bob here. I've got time this weekend to pay up on the Fischer-in-the-first-round bet. What colour do you want your dock? Oh, and I apologize in advance if it turns out to be pink. I don't bake bread very well either.

2:40pm: Congratulations! You have been selected for a dream holiday in Hawaii. Please press nine to claim your prize.

5:01pm: Pierre. Kovy again. You're busy, so I'll just tell you my terms before the other teams start calling. I'll sign with you for two years, three million each, and a no-trade clause. Call me back.

6:23pm: Hi, Pierre. Geoff again. Sorry, but we can't send him to the minors either.

6:39pm: Pierre, hi. It's Peter. Yeah, sorry, but I'm no longer available for that assistant coaching job. It's funny, if you'd called a week ago, I'd be in Montreal now. Anyway, see you in the fall.

8:37pm: Pierre, Kovy here. Listen, maybe I was too hasty before. I meant to say I want ONE year for ONE million, plus I'll fly your plane. I need to get my hours up anyway. Call me.

8:50pm: Hey Pete. Don Maloney here. I just got your message about moving Gomez. I have to say, I always thought you were a bit of an undertaker, but that's some funny shit. Talk later.

9:12pm: Pierre. Why are you not calling me? I want to play till I'm fifty, Pierre, but you're not calling. Remember my 35 goals? I can do it again, I swear. I have to go. My wife says my tears make her sick. (whispers) Please don't make me go to KHL.

10:18pm: Bastard. Milovala jsem Montreal. Mi ne, díky od vás. Dech smrdí jako křečci. Co? Spatcho, nejsem opilý! Bastard.

10:29pm: Pierre, Steve again. Listen, I know you guys really want to acquire a home-grown star this summer. For the right price, Vinnie might be available. Stamkos is gonna be our guy now, but Vinnie's still a player. I mean, I can totally afford him, and I know he's going to be a superstar until he's 40, but I feel like I kind of owe you one for grooming Guy for me. I'd hate to see him go anywhere else. I'd have to get a young D back, though. You know...a guy who does things the white way. Ha ha. Let me know.

11:38pm: Hi, it's Bob. I forgot to mention, Pierre, you really talk too much.

11:59pm: (rattle, rattle) sob (click)

End of messages. Low battery.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Top Ten Potential Surprises

This is the time of year for dreaming. The barbeques, the long evenings, the golf and the garden warm the body and the soul, reminding us that it's good to be alive. We glory in the few, brief weeks of exposed skin and salt water, gentle breezes and quiet cabins. Our game is never far away, though, even in the dreamy summertime. In the end, these beautiful weeks serve as happy, sleepy holidays as we wait for the fall and the new hockey season. The Canadiens aren't finished tinkering with their lineup, but, while nothing's really happening, we can look forward to what might be awaiting us when the leaves change colour. Here are the top ten things that might surprise us in the coming season:

10. P.K.Subban - Subban swooped in from the AHL and landed in the midst of last year's Cinderella playoff run, played 20 mintues a game and looked completely ready for the big time. Since then, he has rocketed up both the fan-favourite list in Montreal and the most-hated player list everywhere else, while establishing himself as an offensive threat and a tough guy to beat on D. He took over the number-one spot on the Habs' blueline after Andrei Markov went down for the year, acted with grace in the face of ungracious criticism, and he did it all in his rookie season. He's a potential surprise mainly because just about everybody expects him to not only duplicate that performance, but to improve upon it. The thing is, it's a rare player who follows an upward trajectory year after year, without at least a plateau season. If Subban does anything less than make the All-Star team, a lot of people will be unpleasantly surprised. We should, however, keep in mind that he wasn't perfect last year and got a lot of ice time despite rookie mistakes because there was nobody else to take it. This season, with a hopefully healthy D, Martin will have options regarding Subban. This could possibly be a tough year because of the expectations he, and we, have of him. Drew Doughty, Tyler Myers and Erik Johnson have all had seasons in which they didn't seem as dominating as they did at the very beginnings of their careers. It doesn't mean they're not stud defencemen, and Subban might very well experience something similar.

9. Yannick Weber - Weber, on the other hand, has been following a bit more of a traditional development path. Chosen forty spots after Subban in the 2007 draft, Weber has spent the last three seasons honing his craft between Hamilton and Montreal. Last season, he scored his first NHL goal and began to look more at home on the blueline. He proved serviceable as a bottom-six forward too, although one would hope he doesn't have to spend much time in that situation. It was encouraging to see him score two goals in three playoff games. Weber's misfortune is to be from the same draft year as Subban, playing a similar offence-oriented style on the same side. If he wasn't facing that daunting comparison, Weber would be a really bright young prospect for most fans. Judging him on his own merits, he could very well be about to come into his own this year, which would be a pleasant surprise.

8. Scott Gomez - A lot of fans have written off Gomez as a complete waste of salary, cap space, ice time and oxygen. They may be right. Then again, maybe all his blather last season about how he knows he can be better will be worth more than spit. Perhaps he'll put the work in this summer, study some tapes and find it within himself to give a little more on the ice. If he can somehow make himself a useful player again, he'll surprise just about everybody.

7. Jaroslav Spacek - Spatcho has had a rough go of it in Montreal. He's played most of the time there on his off-side. He's had to play big minutes when other defencemen get hurt, and he's not a young guy anymore. He struggles late in games when he plays more than twenty minutes. This is likely his final season with the Canadiens and he'll hopefully be given his proper role at last. Fewer minutes and a spot on his proper side might rejuvenate the old guy and surprise us all.

6. Pierre Gauthier - Gauthier's not done yet. The team still likely needs a veteran defenceman to replace Roman Hamrlik and a tough player, preferably a good character who can skate and win faceoffs for the third or fourth line. He needs to bring in an assistant coach as well. We've learned by now to expect the unexpected. Gauthier will surprise us before the season starts, and probably again once it's underway.

5. Goal scoring. The Habs have the potential to surprise in this category because of the ripple effect of the Erik Cole signing. Cole himself isn't likely to put up more than 60 points. He will, however, help his linemates by crashing the net and opening space for them. Given that any of Plekanec, Cammalleri and Gionta are well able to take advantage of extra space, Cole's presence should help them. Cole's speed also draws a lot of penalties, which helps a Markov-led PP. A faster, stronger top-six also reduces the number of dumbass penalties that keep guys like Plekanec on the PK instead of scoring goals.

4. The newcomers. It's going to be fun to see if Alexei Emelin or Raphael Diaz can make an impact at the NHL level. It'll be interesting too, to see if Ryan White can be more than a rambunctious call-up over the course of a whole season. If any of these guys can effectively step into an NHL role, it'll be a nice surprise.

3. Lars Eller - The most valuable return from the Jaroslav Halak trade probably should have spent some time in the AHL last year. Whether because the team believed he was ready or because sending him to Hamilton would have been bad politics after the trade, he stuck it out in Montreal for the season. He exhibited great patience with his learning curve and by the time the playoffs rolled around, he was showing better use of his size and speed. He will, unfortunately, begin the year recovering from shoulder surgery, but there's still a chance that if Gomez doesn't surprise us in the second-line centre role, Eller will.

2. Andrei Markov - A lot of people will be surprised by Markov this season. On one hand, there are the people who think age and repeated injury have made the General fragile and he'll never be the player he once was. On the other, there are those who believe there's no reason why Markov won't come back as strong as ever. Either way, Markov has the potential to be one of the biggest surprises of the season...not least if he actually stays healthy all year.

And, the number one potential surprise this year is:

1. Max Pacioretty - Nobody who saw Pacioretty lying on the ice after getting crushed by Zdeno Chara and thought for a minute he might be dead will ever forget it. The outrage that followed when the league decided to call the hit a "hockey play" and decline to suspend Chara cemented the whole incident in the minds of many as the lowest level to which the game could sink. That Pacioretty sustained a concussion and broken neck just as he was emerging into a real power forward just added to the shame of it all. So now the young man says he's working out normally and will pick up where he left off before the hit. Anyone who saw the hit will be wondering this summer whether it's possible for a guy to come back the same after that. So many players don't. If he does, though...if he really is turning into a big scoring winger with'll be the best surprise of the year.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Heart and Soul Cole

Erik Cole has got a lot of really stellar hockey-player qualities. He's big (6'2", 205lbs), skilled (390 points in 620 NHL games) and fast. He plays a physical, go-to-the-net kind of game which enables him to draw a ton of penalties, which is a big plus for a team with a top-ten PP. He's the one who'll take a hit to make the play, and who'll struggle on when injured. He'll willingly put up with sticks in the face when he stands in the crease or risk himself to block a shot in the last minute of a close game. He's what other players call a heart-and-soul guy. At least, he's been all of those things when wearing a Carolina Hurricanes uniform.

The thing with a heart-and-soul guy, however, is that his heart and soul have to be really into what he's doing if he's going to be successful. With the Hurricanes, there was no question of that. The guy loved it in Carolina. The team drafted him and captain Eric Staal was his best friend and roommate. He was mentored by one of the team's icons, got married and had a family there. He won the Stanley Cup with that team. He really, really wanted to stay. In the end, the Canadiens outbid the Hurricanes and the player, who was likely looking at his last chance for a long-term contract, chose security. He went with his head, not his heart.

That's the problem with predicting Cole's transition to Montreal. It may turn out he's able to bring the same level of intensity to the Canadiens that he brought to the Hurricanes. It should be understood that it won't be easy. Sure, these guys are professionals and should understand that moving from team to team throughout the course of a career is likely. Sometimes, however, it's not that simple. A guy who bleeds for his teammates does so partly because that kind of game is in his nature, and partly because his teammates have earned his trust and dedication. It's not the kind of relationship that happens instantly.

It didn't happen for Cole in Edmonton. When his beloved 'Canes traded him before the 2008-09 season, he didn't fit in immediately. He put up only 27 point in 63 games for the Oilers, then 15 in 17 games after being traded back to Carolina before the season ended. When he first arrived in Edmonton, he expressed a sense of regret about the trade.

"They always made it easy for me to go about my business, live my life and enjoy myself and my family," he said of fans and management in Carolina. "We really had a great time raising our children (Bella and Landon) there and, actually, the plan right now is to retire there unless we find someplace better. I've got family that still lives in Raleigh."

On trading for him to come back to Raleigh that same season, 'Canes GM Jim Rutherford said bringing Cole home was the right thing to do, for both the team and the player.

"He's really excited about coming back," said Rutherford. "I don't think that he was as comfortable in Edmonton. He was used to being here, and he views this as his home. He has very good chemistry playing with Eric Staal, and I don't think he found that chemistry playing with anybody else in Edmonton."

Cole himself, even though he tried to paint the Oiler picture with brighter colours at the time, now admits Rutherford was right.

"Going to Edmonton wasn't a great opportunity or situation on a personal level, but my family and I were determined to make the most of it," Cole says. "We always hoped we would make our way back to Carolina at some point, and it turned out to be sooner than expected."

Hmmm. So, it's pretty well established that Erik Cole loves the Hurricanes organization and thinks of Raleigh as his home. The question now is whether he can transplant that emotion to Montreal, because, without the passion for the team, his style of game is a difficult one to play convincingly.

The difference this time around, the optimists among us will contend, is that Cole didn't choose to go to Edmonton. He was traded and forced to simply make the best of it. Montreal is his choice. He could have decided to take fewer years and remain in the city he loves. Instead, he did the wiser thing for the security of his family and his retirement plans. That's where the battle between head and heart came into play. The head won, in this case. It remains to be seen whether the heart will follow.

In a rather nostalgic interview with a Raleigh reporter a couple of days after choosing Montreal, Cole reflected on his decision to leave the Hurricanes. The offers, initially, were pretty close, he explains. Then the Habs upped the ante with an extra year the Hurricanes wouldn't match.

"Carolina's (initial offer) was for $11 million and Montreal for $12 million," Cole said. Had the offers stayed roughly the same, he said, "I think I'd still be a Hurricane. I said all along I would listen to offers. All things being equal, we were definitely going to stay. I had talked to Paul (Maurice) about that. Deep down, my wife hoped at the end point Carolina would come through with the same thing and we'd stay. That didn't happen."

Okay. So we've got a wife who wanted to stay in Carolina, and a player who admits he only left that team reluctantly because the money and term were better in Montreal. The question now is whether Erik Cole can find the same kind of passion for the Canadiens that he had for the Hurricanes. Will he be willing to play through pain if he's only there for the money? Will he crash Cam Ward's crease with the same vigour with which he's crashed Carey Price's if the teams should meet in a do-or-die game?

Canadiens fans hope professionalism on Cole's part is enough to provide the inspiration he needs. Four years and $18-million is a big commitment on the part of the Habs. What they've gained with that commitment is still a mystery. After all, it's been proven in the past, and even with this player, that a team can buy a guy's service, but it can't buy his heart.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Heroes of '86: Trailblazer

It is approximately 5825 kilometres from Montreal to Höllviken, Sweden. The multicultural Canadian city and the small, Swedish beachside town have little in common, save that they've both been home to hockey hero Mats Naslund.

For fans of the '80s Habs, it's hard to believe Naslund left Sweden for Canada nearly thirty years ago. He arrived at the Montreal Canadiens' training camp in the fall of 1982, three years after becoming the first European player drafted by the Habs. He went in the second round, 37th overall. Unlike future teammate, Guy Carbonneau who was chosen seven picks later, Naslund wasn't exactly comfortable with the news he'd be going to Montreal.

"Well, there was not too many players from Europe drafted at that time, so I guess, first of all, you wanted to get drafted by a team that had other Swedish players like the Islanders," he recalls with amusement. "I was the first Swedish guy and the first European to get drafted by Montreal, so that was kind of a big thing. The language was another big thing. Learning the French language, I never did. I had enough with English the first couple of years. Sometimes I felt a little stupid, but otherwise I could understand everybody."

By the time Naslund made his way from Sweden to Montreal he had a wife and baby. The adjustment to a new country, language and hockey league was huge, but made a lot easier by the intervention of the Canadiens captain.

"Bob Gainey, the captain, took care of me from the start. I owe him a lot for helping me adapt to North America," he acknowledges. "He took care of me and he took care of my family when they got there. First, when I got to training camp, I stayed at his house with his family. Then, when I made the team, he looked at ads in the papers for an apartment, and he helped me with that, and getting a car. He pretty much took care of me the first year. I don't think he was assigned by the team. He would have done that anyway, even if he wasn't the captain. He's just that kind of guy."

Naslund says he learned something about how to behave off the ice from Gainey's actions. He thinks successful teams must have guys like Gainey, and years later, when he became the architect of national teams in his own country, he remembered the lessons his old Habs captain taught.

"You need role models on the team. The coaches can only do so much, but I think the most important thing is to have teammates to take care of you and show you how to do it," he says.

Of course, nobody talks about Mats Naslund without mentioning the most noticable thing about him. He wasn't called "Le Petit Viking" for nothing. At a generous 5'7" and 160lbs, it was a rare interview in which he wasn't asked about his size. The smaller players today, like Martin St.Louis and Brian Gionta, patiently answer questions about their lack of height while insisting their skills speak for themselves. Naslund was fiercely proud of being a player who succeeded within the body he was given. In that sense, he's become a role model.

"I was a pioneer for smaller players," he states. "I'm very proud when I hear Martin St.Louis tell the media I was his idol. Of course I'm proud of what I did."

What he did was merely become the highest-scoring Canadiens forward since Guy Lafleur. His 110-point season in 1985-86 hasn't been matched in the quarter century since. He led the team in scoring en route to the '86 Cup and posted five assists in the 1988 All-Star game while playing on a line with Mario Lemieux. He was a member of the 1983 All-Rookie team and won the Lady Byng trophy in 1988. He's still 12th all-time in scoring for the Canadiens. In accomplishing what he did, he proved a little guy can be a star at the highest levels of hockey, if he's only given a chance. He says the best advice he's got for small players isn't actually for them. It's for their coaches.

"They should be patient and give those guys a fair chance when they're fourteen or fifteen," he attests. "Don't put them aside because of the bigger guys. I think that's the toughest time for young players in hockey. If you make it through junior hockey, you're all set."

Naslund was never an overly sentimental guy. He played his heart out and his devotion to his team was unquestioned, but the perils of making a living by strength of arm and sharpness of eye were never far from his mind. After eight years with the Canadiens, he weighed his options and chose to leave Montreal.

"The main reason was that I played half the amount of games for the same money. I felt if I had played eight years and didn't get serious injuries, I should be able to play another four or five years in Europe for the same amount of money. So that's why I left," he says, matter-of-factly.

He's just as matter-of-fact, if a little sheepish, when asked about his brief return to the NHL in a hated Bruins sweater four years later.

"For the money," he laughs. "I had respect for the teammates there, like Ray Bourque and Cam Neely and those players. But playing in Montreal, Boston was never the favourite team. I don't really have a good comment on that one."

The NHL return lasted half a season, then Naslund hung up the skates for good. He went home to his little seaside Swedish town, and, with detours to manage Sweden's national hockey team and coach a bit, he's planted deep roots there. He spends his days doing all the things he couldn't do when he followed his sport halfway around the world.

"I'm working part time as a carpenter building houses. I did that before I came to Montreal. I work with a friend, and there are only four of us, so it's a small company. So basically, that's what I'm doing half the time," he says, audible satisfaction in his voice. "In the other time, I work with horses. I'm a trotting fan. I play a little bit of golf. I basically have a very good life."

He makes time in his good life to catch a Habs game or two ("If they're lucky enough to have a game on Sunday afternoon I watch, but I don't sit up in the middle of the night watching.") Twenty-one years after leaving Montreal, he still counts himself a Canadiens fan, and his greatest hockey memory, in a career of many, is of riding down St.Catherine's St. on a spring day in 1986.

"The parade we had in Montreal, with a million or more people, that's the thing I remember most from my eight years in Montreal. I don't think you would get that anywhere else. Winning the Cup if you play in Minnesota or Tampa is good. Winning it in Canada is unbelievable."

Watching these days, Naslund says he sees differences in the game since he last played. The crackdown on holding and hooking penalties makes him think he'd probably have done pretty well if the rules in his day had been so kind to offensive players. The physical condition of the players, he says, is the biggest overall change. As for the shootout? He's not a fan.

"I think it's good for the fans, so I think we have to respect it for the fans' sake," he muses. "I don't like it. It's not really fair. At my early years, I would have been very good at it. But in the end, I wouldn't have had the guts to score a lot of goals on the penalty shots. With age you get more nervous. When you're young, you don't really care."

Watching...and about the only connection Naslund has to the game these days. He's living the life he wants, and, for now, hockey is part of his past.

"I'm not involved in hockey right now, and I don't know if I want to be involved again or if I want to stay outside," he says honestly. "We will see next year. I appreciate being home this spring. I've been gone the last five years in April and May. You have to make that decision sometime. I think there are other things in life than hockey."

Mats Naslund has found he enjoys many other things in life as he and his wife Eva happily await the arrival of grandchildren. He's settled in another world from the one he inhabited as a Montreal Canadien. Still, 5825 kilometres away from his home in Höllviken, a city of hockey fans will always remember him for the way he played the game we love.

Saturday, July 2, 2011


This has been a weird off-season for me. Usually, I spend the five or six months between Habs games remembering the season past, reading hockey books and calculating how the Canadiens can get better through the draft and free agency.

This year, I immediately dismissed the season past because it was a year marred by injury, which immediately sets any team, no matter how stacked, in the underdog's kennel. I've no appetite for hockey stories, so the books I'm reading are about anything but: "The Help," "Unbroken." (MUST read, by the way.) The only ice in them is in drinks. And the future, shadowed by a Bruins Cup celebration, seems a bit unpalatable.

So, the draft came along on a weekend when I was on an out-of-town trip. I had to check the highlights to see who the Habs picked. Nathan Beaulieu seems a good risk at #17. His scouting report pegs him as something of a bigger Breezer, which, when padded by the right people, isn't a bad thing.

Free agency happened on a day I had sitting at home, so I thought I'd check it out. Seems GMs generally go temporarily insane on that day and then end up trying to dump their hard-earned acquisitions less than halfway into their contracts. Last year apparently turned the tide. Most GMs were patient and waited until the objects of their affections were just a little bit desperate. Alas, that circumspection didn't last. This year was rife with stupid contracts. In the midst of it, Pete the Goat was relatively careful.

Knowing the Canadiens can't compete regurlarly with Darche or Moen in the top six, Gauthier added a Serious Top Line winger in Erik Cole. The term was about a year too long and the money about a million too much, but that's free agency for you. The question now is: will Cole be the same guy we hated in Carolina? Without Eric Staal centring him, that's a legitimate mystery. We can hope he'll find chemistry with Plekanec, Gomez or Eller, but right now that's just a hope.

The thing with Cole is, if he pans out, he's big, he's strong, he scores tons of even-strength points and he goes to the net. He's everything the Habs need, and worth the money in that case. If he doesn't...if he's Edmonton Cole...he's another Gomez. So, for all of you who are flipping out celebrating Cole's rejuvination of the Habs' top lines, think about the idea that reality might be slightly different from your current fantasy.

Peter Budaj is similar. He's got a reputation for being a hard-working, team-oriented guy. He'll be a backup without complaint, and he's a welcome teammate. Whether he'll be able to calm Carey Price the way Alex Auld did is up in the air. Obviously, the team took him on for two years because he's supposed to offer some kind of insurance as a starter in case Price gets hurt. Unfortunately, his history shows he's not really cut out to be an NHL starter, at least with any measure of success. So, hopefully, Price stays healthy and Budaj isn't tested beyond the 15 games he's currently slated to play.

Gauthier should not be done yet. After allowing both Roman Hamrlik and James Wisniewski to walk, he's got to provide a veteran defenceman, preferably of the steady-in-his-own-zone variety to fill in for injuries. And, having let Jeff Halpern and Tom Pyatt go, he needs to come up with someone who can both win faceoffs (vital, considering the records of the current centers) and kill penalties. A guy who can fight if need be would also be an asset. A lot of Habs fans are clamouring for Zenon Konopka right now. He can both win faceoffs and fight, but whether he can actually play hockey in between is up for debate. In this regard, I trust Gauthier to target someone we're not remotely coveting right now, but who'll become a steal before the season is over.

All in all, the off-season has been subtle and discreet so far. The players Gauthier has added are neither stars nor duds. They may very well add something to a team that was very close to competing in last year's playoffs. Then again, they may struggle to fit in. The thing about free agency is that you can't assume anything. We can hope, but not assume.