Saturday, January 25, 2014

Not A Crisis

Three weeks ago, Newfoundland was in the midst of a huge winter storm when a fire at a power-generating plant fried the province's electrical grid. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their power, many for several days. Temperatures were lower than -30 with windchill. Oil trucks couldn't refuel homes because the machines that fill them run on electricity. Old people were being evacuated from seniors' homes without backup generators. One person died and several others were hospitalized because of carbon monoxide poisoning they got from using propane stoves and barbecues inside, trying to stay warm. After two days of sitting in the cold and dark, people started asking "Where's the premier?" Kathy Dunderdale had not addressed the public during all this time. When she finally did, she looked out over the bank of microphones and announced, "This is not a crisis."

That was not a good PR move, to say the least. Talk show lines lit up. News reports gauging public opinion reflected voters' outrage. There was even a Twitter hashtag, #notacrisis, with hundreds of sarcasm-laced jibes directed at the province's first minister. Fast forward to today and Dunderdale is no longer premier. She stepped down after one of her caucus defected, naming #notacrisis as one of the reasons why. The premier, he said, didn't show appropriate leadership in a time when the people needed it.

The Montreal Canadiens, Marc Bergevin specifically, can take a lesson from this. Right now the team is in a playoff position. It's benefited from the excellent play of Carey Price, a single early-season winning streak and some scattered opportunism in OT and shootouts. It looked great against the Cup-champion Blackhawks and fooled some of the people into thinking it's a better team than it really is. Most of us, however,  are not fooled. This team is one blackout away from full-on crisis.

The Canadiens are in free fall. In their last twenty games, they have three regulation wins. Three. They've pulled off four OT and shootout wins to go with those. The other thirteen games are losses. There were close losses, blowout losses and blown-lead losses. However you measure them, though, thirteen losses in twenty games does not a playoff team make.

Their defence is falling apart. Every member of the D-corps has worse personal stats in the last twenty games than he did in the first twenty. This corresponds, almost exactly, with the breakup of the Subban/Markov pairing on December 17. In the 14 games in which Alexei Emelin was paired with Josh Gorges, the pair allowed only 1.1 goals per 60 minutes of play which is the best on the team for pairings playing over 100 minutes together. Markov and Subban together were on for 2.2 G/60min. After the breakup of those pairings, Markov/Emelin have allowed 3.4 G/60min. That's more than two goals a game higher than Markov/Subban, which is a big difference when that pair plays around 20 minutes a night.

The powerplay, which had been one of the Canadiens' strengths earlier in the year, is not functioning anymore. In the first 20 games of the season, the Habs scored 18 PPG in 76 chances, for a 23.7% success rate. In the last 20, they've scored only 9 PPG in 65 chances, converting on only 13. 8% of their opportunities. In a league in which special teams make or break a season, this is not a good sign.

Carey Price's stats, of course, have dropped off during the last 20 games. That's got little to do with him. The dreadful collapse of his defence has been largely responsible for his misfortune. The PK has dropped from 87% effectiveness in the first 20 to 82% in the last 20 as well.

Lots of the problems the Habs are facing are the result of poor coaching. Giving the ineffectual Rene Bourque, Francis Bouillon and Daniel Briere significant time on the power play means fewer goals scored there. Breaking up the most effective defensive pair has resulted in more goals against. Refusing to play the forwards with the most chemistry together has reduced even-strength goals. There's no denying Michel Therrien and his staff are failing to follow Scotty Bowman's cardinal rule for coaches: "Make sure the right guys are on the ice at the right time."

The other ingredient, and perhaps the major one, in the Habs fail stew is the personnel the coaches have been given. Marc Bergevin is a rookie GM, and will make mistakes. However, if you look at the successful moves he's made versus the unsuccessful ones, the balance is not in his favour. The signings of Briere, Murray and George Parros have all been colossal mistakes. Parros' fights have rarely made a difference in a game, he's been concussed twice and he can't do anything else on the ice but fight. Briere was in decline long before he arrived in Montreal, and has shown little sign of making any kind of comeback. He's small, poor defensively and ineffective on offence. Murray is a slow pylon on defence and a wash on offence. None of these players are worth the money Bergevin paid to get them.

Bergevin hired the coaching staff we now see making such baffling decisions. He talks about "character" as one of the most important assets of his acquisitions, without any apparent idea of where these players will fit in the lineup and what they can contribute. So far, Bergevin has not impressed. The Habs are in big trouble. They're on the way out of a playoff spot, and they're sliding there quickly. This is the time for a real leader to step up and make some authoritative decisions to fix the problems. Otherwise, he's late to the party, claiming it's not a crisis.

And we know what happens when there's a crisis and the leader says there's not.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Dumb and Dumber

Okay, let's clarify the title of this blog right off the top, just to avoid any confusion as we move along.
  -Dumb: Fighting in hockey
  -Dumber: The NHL trying to pretend fighting in hockey is NOT dumb and making silly rules and rulings to counter the effect of the aforementioned pretense

As many of us are aware, fighting in hockey is dumb. It puts practitioners at risk of brain injury (see: Parros,George). It gives a game trying to attract a wider audience a distinctly bush-league appearance off-putting to the average spectator, rather like trying to sell horse meat to an equestrian club. It's purported to be a "release of emotion" on the ice, yet it's rarely ever seen in the most emotional of games, like Olympics and Stanley Cup playoffs. People have died fighting in hockey. As far as many observers can tell, fighters don't save star players from abuse, as they're rarely on the ice at the same time and can only fight other fighters anyway. Fighting, when argued logically (as opposed to in a gut-feeling kind of way) doesn't really have a reasonable connection with a game composed of skating, passing, shooting, blocking shots and checking. So, it's dumb.

What's dumber, however, is the NHL trying to walk a very pointy picket fence without slipping and damaging itself. The NHL believes fighting is "part of the game." Yet, the rules of NHL hockey say fighting is illegal and punishable by a major penalty. Despite that strange logic, the league continues to support it...sort of.

-An Aside:
-All the NHL's recent "we need more goals" angst can be largely attributed to its allowance of fighting.
-To have fights, you need to have fourth-line fighters in the lineup.
-To have a fourth line, you need to play a defensively protective system, to make sure those guys don't get exposed.
-If you play a fight-capable fourth line and a defensively protective system, you limit the time your offensive-minded players spend on the ice and you limit their creativity within the system.

The league doesn't want to say "fighting is banned." That's too political, too finite and too controversial. The NHL, a league whose recognizable face is Nice Bland Guy Sidney Crosby, does not want to rock the SS Tradition. If it were to say "fighting is banned," it may be lauded for protecting the health of players and committing to a game based on skill rather than brute force, but it might be equally condemned for compromising the tradition of the game.

The funny part about the game and tradition, though, is the league has never had a problem changing things if change was in its best interest. The removal of the rover was HUGE. Going from seven guys to six? Cataclysmic! Then there was the forward pass. Oooh, yes, the devil's pass. That entered the game, gave defencemen a bigger role and increased the speed of the game exponentially. They took out the red line, they added an extra referee, they made OT 4-on-4 and they eliminated ties in favour of the Sideshow Shootout. The league has shown an ability to change.

Yet, in the matter of fighting, there has never been a more wishy-washy approach to a controversial issue in league history. Instead of just saying, "Yeah, we're cooling off on the idea of fighting as a marketing tool, and people are protesting some of its uselessness, and it's causing injuries, so we're gonna change it," they make up rules to "curb" it. They didn't like bench-clearing brawls because that looked bad, so league officials decided to ban those. They weren't the pure, emotional kind of hockey fights the league was after. Then they decided to institute an extra two-minute penalty for the guy who instigates a fight. That, officials thought, would reduce the staged fights, leaving only those spurred by emotion: the "honest" fights. The league also introduced an aggressor penalty to punish the guy who kept whaling away even after he'd obviously won a fight.

Now there's a rule compelling all players not squaring off to clear out of the way and go to the bench during a fight, just in case they should be overcome by emotion and tempted to jump in. If a player does intervene, there's a "third-man in" penalty for that too. There's a penalty for starting a second fight while there's already one going on. There's an unsportsmanlike penalty for instigating a fight while wearing a visor and two minutes for taking off your own helmet in preparation for a fight. (That's lip service to the NHL's commitment to protect players' health.) There's a misconduct for trying to keep on fighting after the linesmen intervene. Players can't fight off the ice, during intermissions or before puck drop. They can't remove their jerseys or fail to tie them down, or tape their hands before a fight.

The league didn't like it when players tried to "send a message" in the last five minutes of a game, so they made a rule to suspend guys who instigate those fights. It's not attractive when goalies skate the length of the ice to brawl, so the league is "reviewing" that after Ray Emery beat up on an uninterested Braden Holtby and disgusted a lot of people.

Then we have last weekend's Vancouver/Calgary game. Bob Hartley, being completely within his rights under current NHL rules, decided to send a message and start the game with his best fighters. John Tortorella countered that move, and Saturday's game-opening line brawl happened, followed by Tortorella's semi-insane attempt to break into the Calgary dressing room. That was embarrassing to the NHL, and Colin Campbell was left to figure out how to punish the perpetrators without removing their right to carry fighters or their right to deploy them at whatever point said fighters might be needed. As a result, we see Tortorella given fifteen days to cool his heels for the attempted B&E of the Flames' room. Hartley has to pay $25-thousand for starting the whole thing with his choice of starting lineup.

This is strange territory. There is no rule saying "You cannot start a game with all your goons," but the league is scrambling, trying to figure out how to make one without actually saying, "Large groups of men fighting on ice isn't really hockey, and we don't like it." Really, there can be no such rule. As long as fighting is given tacit approval under the "part of the game" banner, dictating when, on the ice, between the whistles, a fight can happen is ridiculous.

-Fight of the future:
-At the mid-point of the period, there shall be a fighting time out, during which a coach, with the agreement of his counterpart behind the opposing bench, may request a fight.
-At that time, the coaches shall consult with on-ice officials, who will request approval from NHL headquarters.
-Should permission be granted, each team shall send an appropriately-dressed and equipped, equally-matched by weight class, combatant to centre ice. 
-At an agreed-upon signal, the combatants will drop their gloves and begin fisticuffs. 
-When players indicate they no longer can continue, or at the two-minute mark, whichever is reached first, the linesmen will escort both combatants off the ice and play shall resume.

Seriously, there's either fighting or there's not. Dictating where and when and how it happens, and tweaking the rules every time there's an embarrassing situation is the NHL's futile attempt to box up a brutal sideshow into a nice, neat package. That can't work. Fighting is dirty, dumb and, by nature, out of control.

If the league doesn't like line brawls or fights in the last five minutes or the first five minutes, or off a faceoff, maybe, deep down, it doesn't like fighting at all. Maybe it's just trying to find a way to maximize its audience by not making the purists mad with a full-on ban. Now, though, it might be time to look back and see how the earth-moving changes that happened to the game in the past really didn't move the earth. The game survived and thrived and grew. The same would happen if fighting were eliminated, eventually.

Right now, the league is really reaching when it fines Bob Hartley for sending fighters out on the ice to start a game. Decision time on fighting is coming sooner than the NHL would like, and soon enough fines and rules tweaks will become even more convoluted than they are now and there'll be no more room for them. The only question remaining then is "Fighting: yes or no?" And it's getting awfully difficult to argue for the "yes" side.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Fanatics vs. Robots

When I was in Grade Ten, my homeroom teacher was a huge Toronto fan. He'd wear his jersey to school whenever the leafs played the Habs. He'd construct math problems based on hockey plays using the leafs as examples. When Montreal would get eliminated from the playoffs, he'd bring in a set of golf clubs and hand them out to all the Canadiens fans like cigars after a baby's birth. Habs fans retaliated by dressing his effigy in Toronto gear and a big "loser" sign and hanging it in the corridor. We jeered, we taunted and we plotted our next gag, all over the passionate devotion to our respective hockey teams. Which all goes to prove one thing:

Hockey fans are nuts.

We dress in team colours and paint our faces. We travel great distances and spend great amounts of money to see our teams play in person. We have playoff rituals, pray for favour to hockey gods and are superstitious to the point of ridiculousness. We haunt hockey message boards online, we're happy when our team wins and bummed when it loses. We use the first-person plural when discussing our teams: "We need to promote a young defenceman," or "Carey Price will win us a Cup someday." And, perhaps the most fun of all, we taunt the pants off our team's biggest rivals' fans.

When we watch a Canadiens/Bruins or Habs/leafs game, we not only ride the emotional crazy train of the game itself, we also fear/anticipate the inevitable post-game encounters with the other team's fans. Sometimes, it's not even the other team we dislike that much. It's their supporters. Toronto fans have had nothing to cheer about since their appearance in the Stanley Cup semi-finals in 1993 (hey...we know the Habs are in the same boat, but at least they won that year!) Yet, after every regular-season victory over the Canadiens, our leaf-fan friends call us up to ask how "great" Carey Price looked, or what happened to the Mighty P.K.Subban? They love to laugh, mock and rub it in. And so do we, when the skate's on the other foot.

That's why it's so surprising to see fans vehemently angered by the same kinds of celebrations by players. If Subban runs the length of the ice after a game-winning goal and leaps on his teammates with a celebratory grabbing of his sweater logo, it's sacrilege. If Price shuts down Stamkos, St.Louis and Lecavalier in a shootout and holds an archer's pose for a second, Lightning fans moan about how he's a poor winner. If Nail Yakupov loses it just a little bit after scoring his first NHL goal, fans wag their fingers and say the kid's got attitude.

Between ourselves, fans know we're going to hear it when our team loses. And we know we're going to do the same thing to our rivals' fans if the Habs win. If we play the taunting game as fans, why do we expect the players to be above all that?

The guys on the ice are the ones who actually sweat and bleed and hone their bodies into hockey-playing instruments. Their in-person investment in a game is so much greater than ours, even though we might have been fans for years before they were born, they must feel the thrills and disappointments of what they do out there much more keenly than we do. So, if we jump off the couch, yelling and fist-pumping when Subban scores an OT winner, it's hard to expect him to politely accept congratulations and skate off to prepare for the next game. Players are invested and emotional and so much better at hockey than any fan out there, they should be able to celebrate their big moments any way they darn well please. If hockey fans are nuts, the players should be allowed to be nuts too.

Fans, and players with delicate feelings, should lighten up and let the taunting continue. If it riles up the opposition, great. Maybe it'll elevate the tempo of the next meeting and make the game better. In the meantime, it's entertaining and it's no different from what we do as fans. Which reminds me, I have to find out where that Grade Ten teacher is now, just in case Toronto and Montreal should meet in the playoffs.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

A Therrien Top Ten

Folks, it's been a while since we've had a top-ten around this place. There's been a lot of wringing of hands and grinding of teeth about Michel Therrien and his apparently inexplicable decisions lately. The unrest is growing and rumblings of "Fire Him!" getting louder. So, in honour of the latest Habs coach to wear the lame duck feathers, today's top ten is all about reasons why Therrien is writing his ticket out of Montreal...again.

10. Bournival: Michael Bournival made the team out of camp because he has a non-stop motor and will always go to the net. In pre-season games, he impressed because he was noticeable on every single shift he took. When he started with the Habs, he played left wing on the fourth line, but it took him only four games to begin putting up points in the NHL. By his seventh game, he had 2G, 3A and had earned himself a place on Tomas Plekanec's wing. The pair had chemistry. During the nine games Therrien allowed them to play together, Plekanec had seven points. Bournival had four and Brian Gionta had five. That's not too bad, given the fact that the trio got only second-line minutes and less than ten minutes total on the PP. Yet, the minute their production began to slow, Bournival was dumped back to the fourth line and has only rarely shown signs of his early explosiveness since.

9. Bouillon. Francis Bouillon is a good guy and a loyal Hab, but Therrien is playing him too much and in too many dangerous situations. The 38-year-old defenceman is averaging more than 17 minutes per game, including a nightly 1:29 on the PP, where he's accumulated exactly one assist all season. When it comes to goals allowed, the Habs have iced 16 different defence pairs this year. Of the six partnerships who statistically are on the ice for the most goals against per 60 minutes of even-strength time, Bouillon figures in four. P.K.Subban, who's typically on the ice for 2.2 G/A per 60 minutes at even strength, is on for 3.2 when paired with Bouillon. While Bouillon deserves respect for his contributions to the team over the years, he should not be playing ahead of Raphael Diaz, who's better than Bouillon in every category. And, many would argue, he does not deserve to be playing ahead of a developing defenceman in Hamilton.

8. Galchenyuk. Last year, as an NHL rookie, Therrien sheltered the kid and gave him limited minutes in situations that gave him a chance to succeed. As the year wore on, Galchenyuk picked up the pace and made a run at the rookie scoring lead. This season, Therrien has given the young player an average of an extra minute at even strength, and an extra minute on the PP. Galchenyuk responded. In the first 20 games of the season, he played on a line with Lars Eller and Brendan Gallagher and posted 15 points. Then, in an effort to spark a slumping David Desharnais, Therrien broke up that line and played Galchenyuk with Eller and a mix of wingers, including Brandon Prust, Daniel Briere and Rene Bourque. In the 24 games since, Galchenyuk has managed only eight points. Therrien knew he had a great combination at the beginning of the year, but sacrificed that in favour of promoting under-performing veterans like Bourque and Briere, neither of whom has managed to produce at a pace similar to Galchenyuk's when he was used properly.

7. Time outs. There's a sense a coach needs to have about the mood of his team at any given moment. He's only got one time out, should he need a few moments to settle down a group beginning to panic, or set a play for an important last-minute flurry. Therrien has, on several occasions used his time out to give fourth-line players a breather after an early-game icing. Then, when there's a real need for the time out...when the team is imploding and coughing up a 3-goal lead within minutes, for example...he doesn't have the option of using it. This is just one example of Therrien's poor bench management. (Using the Bouillon/Murray pair and the fourth line against the opposition's top snipers at home when he's got last change is another, but I digress.)

6. The power play. Here, again, there's an issue with managing personnel. Scotty Bowman used to say the most important thing a coach can do is have the right players on the ice at the right time. On the power play, for example, it might be worth sending out line combinations you know have been successful scoring together. It's not a time to worry too much about defensive responsibility, or about maintaining your go-to lines intact. Perhaps, on the power play, it's a time to reunite Eller with Gallagher and Galchenyuk. You know, because they actually make things happen. Instead, Therrien continues to send players out on their regular lines, which don't necessarily make the best combinations for snappy offence.

5. Gallagher. Brendan Gallagher is a special player. He's overcome his less-than-imposing stature at every level he's ever played to become one of his team's best scorers. A recent chat with a training assistant in the room reveals Gallagher is probably the fittest Hab right now. His super energy makes him a threat on the ice at all times, and his infectious smile and upbeat personality breathe life into the lineup. Or they did, until Therrien messed with him too. In the first 20 games of the year, matched with Galchenyuk and Eller, Gallagher complied 12 points and was a thorn-in-the-side factor every game. In the 24 games since he's been placed on a line with Desharnais and Max Pacioretty, he's had only 9 points and is invisible on many nights. Pacioretty and Desharnais tend to look for each other first, and Gallagher is often an afterthought on that line. His energy is waning and he's not as effective. However, where Therrien took note of this in the case of Briere and Desharnais, and tried to move them to a line that would help get them going again, he's not done the same for Gallagher. It's as though he feels young players should learn to deal with frustration and discouragement, while veterans don't have to do the same thing.

4. Emelin. Alexei Emelin is a left-side defenceman. Most NHL defencemen can play both sides reasonably well, even though one side may be stronger than the other. Emelin, however, is a leftie. All his instincts send him to the left side when he's defending, which, if he's supposed to be playing the right side, leaves two Ds on the left and none on the right. When playing with Josh Gorges, which he did for the first 15 games of his return to the lineup, the issue isn't so glaring. For all the flack he gets for not being an All-Star, Gorges is a steady defender most of the time, and the numbers bear that out. He's also good at recognizing when his partner is drifting out of position and covering the other side. For some inexplicable reason, however, Therrien decided that although Markov and Subban were one of the best defensive pairings in the league and Emelin and Gorges were decently holding up their end of the D-zone responsibilities, it would be a good idea to break up those pairings and put Emelin with Markov. Markov covers his end of the ice, and he does it very well. He just doesn't have the same mobility he used to have, and had a great time with Subban retrieving the puck and skating it out. He and Emelin have not been a great pair this year. Emelin is not Subban, so between his positional weaknesses and lack of being Subban, Markov is carrying a heavier load when paired with Emelin, and he's not as effective either. They're second-worst in team defence, allowing 4.2 goals per 60 minutes even-strength time. Therrien either needs to restore the original D pairings that worked, or put Emelin with Subban and let him play the left. He seems inclined to do neither.

3. Speeches. Everyone knows 24CH is not the whole story of what goes on in the room. The show has to be careful not to use its privileges to give away strategy or revel too much of what players would like to remain private. That's the price of an all-access pass. Still, the stuff we're allowed to see...the "be 'ard on puck" and "you got to be ' don't book a table at Moishe's and eat two Big Macs first..." is pretty entry-level stuff. Somehow, when you picture Mike Babcock's or Lindy Ruff's pre-game speeches, you don't imagine them talking about McDonald's. When you add public comments like the one last playoffs, when Therrien claimed an injured Brian Gionta was "crying in my arms," you have to think the players cringe at some of the things he says. The point here, aside from the coach's choice of phrasing, is the rhetoric always seems to be the same, and that's enough for an energetic young group of hockey players to start tuning out.

2. Accountability. We've seen this many times over the last two years. Brian Gionta takes a dumb hooking penalty in the offensive zone, and returns to the ice immediately after his trip to the sin bin, skating on his regular line on his regular shift. Andrei Markov makes a terrible pinch, gets caught and nearly costs a goal, then comes right back out on the PP a minute later. Lars Eller takes a dumb hooking penalty in the offensive zone and is benched for a period. Jarred Tinordi makes a terrible pinch and warms the bench for the rest of the third, eventually ending up back in Hamilton. Josh Gorges makes three giveaways in a game and nothing happens. Alexei Emelin does the same thing and winds up in the press box. Players notice these kinds of discrepancies, and, while there may be some wiggle room for veterans, there shouldn't be such a gap between what a young guy is punished for and what a veteran gets away with. When the core of your team is young and learning, punishing them when others' mistakes are let slide builds resentment among the group it's most important to keep happy.

1. Subban. We all know one thing about the relationship between P.K.Subban and Michel Therrien. In two years, Subban will be a multi-millionaire, All-Star NHL defenceman with one or more Norris trophies and, likely, an Olympic medal. Therrien, meanwhile, will probably be criticizing Subban on RDS' L'Antichambre. Coaches, as we know, are hired to be fired. Brilliant defencemen, however, are hired to stick around as long as possible and, potentially, bring a Stanley Cup to a city long starved of one. So, when a coach gets the opportunity to influence a young star player and direct his career for a few years, it's a privilege, not a right.  That's why, when Subban commits a hot-headed penalty late in a period, after he'd been mauled all game, the coach's response should not be benching him for ten minutes of a third period when his offence is desperately needed. Neither should said coach be publicly wishy-washy about said player's character or fitness to play on the Canadian Olympic team. Therrien doesn't like Subban. We get it. However, when he says the Habs philosophy is "team first," how does he justify his need to knock Subban down a peg against the team's need to score a couple of goals? The answer is, he can't. Furthermore, P.K.Subban is the organization's future. Michel Therrien is a stop-gap, re-tread coach who's only there because he speaks the right language and had enough experience to off-set the lack of same in a rookie GM. In the long view of the Habs future, Subban has a chance to be one of the guys who come back to pass torches around after they retire. Therrien will be a name on a stat sheet. If there's even the slightest chance that this coach is hindering the development of a potential superstar, that's reason enough to can him. "Team first" is a great concept, but special players like Subban sometimes have a different vision of what that means. Sometimes, Subban may have to be selfish and take a solo chance if he thinks he can make a difference for the good of the team. Coaches can't always control that. And the coach who thinks he can needs to think twice. As my grandfather used to say, "Be good or be gone."

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Olympic Honour

It was really great to see eight members of this year's Montreal Canadiens chosen to play for their countries at the Sochi Olympics. The experience will add to their workloads and the amount of hockey they play this season, but it offers so many benefits for both them and their NHL team, the extra games really won't matter in the long run. As newly-minted Czech Olympic captain Tomas Plekanec said, "Hockey careers are short. You can rest when you retire." He and Peter Budaj, Max Pacioretty, Carey Price, Raphael Diaz, Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin will play with and against the best hockey players in the world. They'll experience glorious, open-ice, creative hockey that will hopefully inspire them to be better when they come back to Montreal.

With all the good news around the Olympic team selections, it was particularly heartening to see P.K.Subban's critics quietened by his addition to Team Canada. Subban, as anyone who watches him every night can tell you, is a supremely talented defenceman, and leaving him off the team, despite his tendency to gamble sometimes, would have been an egregious oversight. With Subban on the blueline and Price as a potential starting goalie, Habs players will surely contribute to Canada's attempt to defend its gold medal from Vancouver. If their dream comes true and they do win, the whole country will celebrate. If it doesn't and they return to the Canadiens with another medal, or none at all, they will be disappointed, but then they'll refocus on the job they're paid to do: win the Stanley Cup for Montreal. They'll always have another chance.

Lost amidst the tremendous (some would say pompously overwrought) hype of the countdown to naming Canada's team, however, were the athletes for whom Sochi is their only shot at glory. Canadian bobsledders and lugers, speedskaters and skiers have planned and trained and dreamed for their whole lives for their chance to put it all on the line. They will have a day or a few minutes, or mere seconds in some cases, to show the world it was all worth it, and to bask in the glory they might achieve. Some of them will win medals and we'll love them for a week or so, but have trouble remembering their names next year. Some will score personal bests or cope with deeply-felt disappointments and we won't even notice them at all.

Canada, as we all are taught to believe, is the world's hockey superpower. We sign our kids up for the sport before they start kindergarten. We are bombarded with hype on TV and online, and we are told anything less than a gold medal is a disaster for our national identity. So we tune in in our hundreds of thousands to hear Marcel Aubut threatening to stroke out with bombastic pleasure for the final twenty minutes leading up to the Big Reveal of the men's hockey roster. Meanwhile, the women's team was quietly named on December 23, with no big splash or live TV interviews with those who'd been "snubbed." This, by the way, is a team going for its fourth straight Olympic gold medal. In hockey. Our national obsession.

Today, Erik Guay, Manny Osborne-Paradis and Jan Hudec were revealed as Canada's male alpine ski team. They've been slogging it out on the World Cup stage, when they haven't been battling injuries, for the last four years. They have invested hours of dryland and gym training in the summers and spent winters away from their families as they pursue their dreams. They will have a total of about two minutes per race to make that all worthwhile in Sochi, but many of us will watch their moments in the sun with only a passing interest.

This is not to defend the right of all Canadian athletes to be promoted and hero-worshiped on the same scale as hockey players. Most amateur athletes will tell you if they were in it for glory or wealth, they would have left sport a long time ago. They're in it because they love it, pure and simple. They love their sports and they want to represent their countries in what might be their only chance to do so.

This is to say we, as hockey fans, miss something valuable if we concentrate only on hockey at a wonderful event like the Olympic Games. We miss the purity of motivation in athletes who do it to challenge themselves and, knowing they'll never get rich at it, for simple passion. We miss witnessing moments that will never come again...the athlete who has come soooo close in the past finally winning it, the great champion take one more medal while sharing the podium with his heir-apparent, the woman who's able to dig down and perform at her best when it really counts. These moments make us better fans because they give us an understanding of a world outside the narrow confines of a hockey rink. And, when we view that world, we see characters who aren't afraid to say what they think, or cry when they lose or kiss the ice when they win. We see inspiration.

To those of us jaded by watching millionaires chase a puck on nights when they really don't seem to care about the outcome, the Olympic Games give us an opportunity to re-discover the glory of sport in the other athletes who represent our countries. So, while it'll be great fun to watch Sidney Crosby, P.K.Subban and Carey Price skate out in Canadian colours, and witness Tomas Plekanec proudly wear the "C" for the Czech Republic, it'll be just as much fun to watch Hayley Wickenheiser go for her fourth Olympic gold medal and Erik Guay careen down a mountain in search of a podium finish.

Canadian sport means more than just hockey, even if we often forget that fact. We can love and obsess over our national game any time of the year, but the Olympics are special. For two weeks, we can be a country of skiers and skaters and sliders as well as one of hockey players, and we should make the most of it. Most importantly, the Games should not be named a success or a failure based on the performance of the men's hockey team. Some of the athletes wearing the maple leaf will go to Russia and pull off the best performances of their lives. We should be celebrating with them.