Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Smote By the Butterfly, Sting In the Knee

Let's try a little experiment. Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Okay, now pull your knees in together, without moving your feet. Now, drop to the ground, knees first. How does that feel? Not too bad? Well, then, get up and repeat the operation about fifty times in a row. If you can pull that off successfully for days and years on end, and you have no fear of being hit by flying rubber or bowled over by large men, you might have what it takes to be a butterfly goaltender.

The butterfly position, originally used by luminaries like Glenn Hall and Tony Esposito, became the de facto style for the vast majority of goalies after rookie Patrick Roy burst onto the NHL scene in 1986, winning the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe trophies with his twitchy, on-his-knees way of getting the job done. A generation of Quebec-born goalies who idolized the young Roy copied him, and coaches, who saw the advantages of covering low shots with the spread pads, leaving the upper body free to protect the high part of the net, encouraged them.

Now, nearly thirty years after the explosion of kids taking on the butterfly, the first wave of them is retiring from hockey. J.S.Giguere, who hero-worshipped Roy as a young goalie, and later grew up to train with Roy's coach, Francois Allaire, decided to pack it in this year. In the 20 years since he was drafted in the NHL's first round by Hartford, he's seen his name etched on the 2003 Conn Smythe as one of only five winners whose team lost out in the Stanley Cup Finals. He made up for that by leading his Ducks to the 2007 championship. He's played a lot of hockey and now, he says, his joints are paying for it.

"It's not great," he admits. "I already had a hip surgery about ten years ago on my right side. From meeting with the doctors at the end of the year last year, it looks like I might need a hip replacement in the next five or six years. We'll see. I can still function day to day, but running is out of the question and any big physical activity is tough."

Giguere is 37 years old. He says even though his joints hurt all the time, he found the pain of playing goal bearable with therapy. Ironically, it was the constant therapy itself that he feels started to take the fun out of the game for him.

"It gets to be redundant, coming into the rink every day and having to do so many exercises," he explains. "Being on the medical table every day for 25 minutes and working with the trainer, that became very hard. I didn't even play that much in the last couple of years and I still had to do that, so imagine if I played more games. It's very typical of goaltenders in our day. You can't just come to the rink and go on the ice. You have to maintain your body, you have to work a lot with the therapists, the massage therapists, the conditioning guys on  your stretching and your recovery, making sure your core, your glutes and your groin are strong to minimize the effect the position has on your body."

If it's tough to be the guy on the table, the person treating a goalie has his work cut out for him as well. That's where Dave Green comes in. He's with Cove Sport Therapy in Halifax and he frequently assists his friend, Habs trainer Nick Addey-Jibb, with the Canadiens in Montreal. At this year's training camp, he spent many hours with the goaltenders, particularly Carey Price. He sees first-hand the effects the butterfly is taking on the player.

"I just think about Price in the first week of the season. You go on the road, you play, you're in the plane or on the bus and you don't get the proper treatments on the road like you do at home. Maybe by the fourth game, he was worn out. No doubt his knees were stressed," he says. "At 27 years old, he's still really young, but he's not bouncing back like he used to. I remember Price as a rookie at his first camp. It just seems like yesterday, but you put ten  years on that body, 50 or 60 games a year, and all of a sudden, he's in the clinic all the time now. Whereas, when he was 22, 23, 24, I did almost no work on Price in his first three or four camps. This time, I spent an hour a day with him. In my experience, I can see he needs more work than he did in the past."

The strain on a goalie's body is different from the physical toll the game takes on skaters. As Green says, there are five guys trying to score and only one trying to keep the puck out of the net. Goaltenders are playing an entirely different game, physically and mentally.

"When you go knee-knock, it's called a valgus stance in therapy, so you're putting an extreme pressure on your medial collateral ligaments, when they're in a stretch position," Green explains. "You and I, if we were to fall to our knees,  your heels will hit your bum. That's natural. Basically, everything from your belly button to your knees is in a wonky position when you're in the butterfly."

When you look up "valgus," which is the technical term for people whose knees touch, you'll often find it followed by the word "deformity." That's because the butterfly position isn't natural for humans. The repetition of the position, Green says, is what really causes the long-term joint damage butterfly goalies often sustain.

"When you drop, you have 200 pounds of your body falling onto your knees and ankles, and sometimes the pads don't save you from your ankle hitting. And there's also pressure from the ice when you hit. Goaltenders go down in a butterfly more than thirty times a game with a lot of shots. It's the overuse, the continuous impact. Every time a goaltender goes in the butterfly, he's putting a little strain on those ligaments because the position isn't natural."

Add to that the extra stress of having large men moving at high speed fall on a goalie in that vulnerable, stretched-out position, and it's easy to see why knee injuries like those Price has sustained in the last two playoffs happen.

"Let's compare to baseball," Green says. "A pitcher throws 70 or 80 pitches a day in a rotation, then they rest for four days. They have little micro tears in their muscles from the repetitive motion of pitching. When a goalie is going down in that repetitive motion, then someone lands on him, it can cause contusions, bleeding internally, inflammation, anything with impact."

That's why, he believes, goalie careers aren't lasting as long as they used to and younger players who play more games, practice more and attend more hockey camps at a younger age are feeling the pain earlier.

"I think the curve is starting to change. How many goaltenders in the last decade have been good for five or six years, then all of a sudden they're not that good anymore?" he asks. "It may be they're just not as agile in that position because their knees have taken such a beating and their ligaments are stretched and strained.

They're probably doing more maintenance before and after games. That's what I've noticed in the last few years. You can keep them in the game a little longer with that...extend their careers. Zach Fucale, who I work with here with the Mooseheads is a 19-year-old kid, but his hips and his knees look like they're beginning to wear down already. He needs more therapy than he did as a 16-year-old here in Halifax."

Green thinks if teams invest long-term in a franchise goaltender like Carey Price, they're going to have to change the way they view the position. Goaltenders, he believes, need more rest than they get now, and dividing ice-time more evenly between two or more goalies would help prolong the career of that star netminder.

J.S.Giguere agrees more rest would help a goalie last longer, but when asked whether NHL teams are ready to go back to a platoon system, he laughs.

"Good luck! It sounds good in theory. I think, at the end of the day, winning a game has become so important that everything else, they forget about. They might say they'll rest the number-one guy, but as soon as a must-win game comes up...and we see those in November now...the coaches forget about all that stuff. There's so much money involved. I can't say they don't care, but they're not going to think that far ahead. I can't see it happening. I think you're lucky if you have a team where your number-two goalie can play 25-30 games at the right time, and you're not afraid to play him in difficult games. That's a luxury."

So, goaltenders continue to absorb the pain of their joints rebelling against repetitive, unnatural movement. Giguere says most butterfly goalies of his generation...including his idol, Roy...are paying the price after years of abuse.

"I know Patrick had tough hips when he played. That was one of the reasons why he did retire. A lot of the guys are tight and feel it in their groins and hips. It's pretty common. It's something we just learn to deal with.
You get up in the morning and you're stiff walking around, but you get used to it. If my pain would stay like this until I die I could cope with it, but you don't know what the future will bring."

Giguere is pretty sure his future will bring a hip replacement surgery before his 45th birthday. Many of his colleagues will experience the same kind of premature aging of the joints too. For today's players, therapy and building up muscles that balance out the strain on ligaments will help them prolong their careers. It means they have to invest long, boring hours in the training room as part of their daily routines. Even so, that help can only go so far. Teams banking on a Cup window with a star goalie in net have to realize the player's longevity is compromised by the job's requirement to twist his joints into unnatural shapes and pound them into a solid surface repeatedly.

It seems a lot to ask of a player, especially one already dealing with the technical requirements of playing a difficult position and the mental strain of the spotlight in which goalies live. That they continue to do so, despite the pain and long-term damage to their bodies is a testament to the competitiveness of pro goaltenders.

As they say in hockey, goalies are different.

Sunday, October 12, 2014


Tomas Plekanec has built himself a reputation in the NHL. He's the guy who drives Sidney Crosby crazy every time they meet, shutting him down offensively and distracting him to trash talk. He's the player Brad Marchand freely admits to hating. He's also the guy who shows up first at practice every day and demonstrates for his younger teammates how to be a pro. They all admit he doesn't say much in the room, but he's respected enough to be one of the recognized leaders for the Canadiens.

One thing you never hear about Plekanec, and has never been part of his reputation, is that he's a particularly light-hearted kind of guy. Sure, he's happy when he scores, but he doesn't bubble over with exuberance. Or, at least, he didn't used to. This year...at least three games in...things are different.

Plekanec is having fun. He's smiling. He's jumping up and down when he scores, and chest-bumping his teammates. Yes, chest-bumping. The 31-year-old newly-minted Habs alternate captain has a spring in his step and a glint in his eye we haven't seen through the long seasons of his exile to the defensive-zone faceoff circle. Whether it's because Manny Molhotra is now taking some of those d-zone starts and killing penalties, or because the stone handed Travis Moen has been replaced by rapidly-improving Alex Galchenyuk on Plekanec's wing, the Canadiens are the better for it.

That's not to say the team hasn't exhibited some problems in the early going. The slow starts and early deficits are not habits a consistently good team practices. The defence has positioning issues while breaking in young players, and it's feeling the loss of Josh Gorges' minute-eating presence in his own zone. Despite those weaknesses, the team is showing it's got a certain uplifting spunkiness and belief in itself. Carey Price has said after a couple of the team's early come-from-behind wins that "you're never out of a hockey game." That seems to be a philosophy the Canadiens, as a group, have adopted and it's paying off. The absolute dominance they displayed in taking control of the game against the Flyers was pure fun.

In a day when analytics are trendy, systems dictate the style of the game and "it's a business" is as common a cliche as "giving 110%," sometimes it's easy to forget that fun is the point. Nobody in the NHL started playing hockey because he believed in his atom coach's system. And not one of them kept at it through injury and adversity because he hoped to improve his Corsi number. They played the game then and play it now because it's fun. And nothing is more fun than winning for both the players and the fans. We watch because the game is entertaining and we like to see the players crank it up and fight for a win.

So, if the Canadiens have some flaws to work on, they're also remembering why they're doing it. The points they're gathering now will be important, but the fun they're having is what they'll draw upon when times get harder. This is team bonding of the lasting kind. And for fans, there's nothing nicer or more fun than seeing a pro like Tomas Plekanec jumping up and down and chest-bumping...like a guy who remembers what it's all about.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Farm Boys

It's an unseasonably warm October afternoon and a bunch of kids, off school while their teachers have an in-service, gravitate to the local hockey rink. Though the weather is distinctly un-hockey-like, the unmistakable feeling of the game in its nascent autumnal incarnation vibrates in the air here. The smell of yesterday's arena fries mingles with the frosty scent of the freshly-resurfaced rink and the always-present funk of musty hockey gear. The gunshots of a couple of dozen pucks bang the boards in the mostly-empty building. The kids hang out in groups near the glass, starry-eyed attention riveted on the exhibition just a pane away.

The Hamilton Bulldogs drift through warm-up drills, their half-speed faster than the watching dreamers can muster on their best day. They look, to these kids, as impressive as the NHL's Canadiens must have looked to them in Montreal a week ago. Only a few days separate the crowded adulation of the Bell Centre from the echoing rural rink the 'Dogs hopefuls now overwhelm with the sheer size of their presence.

After a bit, the pace of practice picks up and the watchers outside the glass notice the players who begin to pull away from the crowd: the ones who are a little bit faster, a little crisper on the pass, a little smarter. In a red practice sweater with the bulldog on the front, the Swedish kid with the number 32 on his white helmet skates with a powerful grace. The kids whisper and point him out. Magnus Nygren tried Hamilton last year, but retreated back to Sweden, disillusioned with the city and the hockey after just 16 games. Today, dancing over the ice surface, forward and back, back to front, crossing over effortlessly, he moves with a surety he says is the biggest difference in his game between last season and this one.

"Mostly, I think, my confidence is better. I played for Sweden in the world championships. That was a good experience," he reflects. "I played against a bunch of NHL players during that tournament and it gave me good confidence back here now. It was a lot of fun."

Nygren isn't at the 'Dogs camp for fun. He's here to work, and when his Hamilton stay ends this time, he wants to move on to Montreal, not back to Sweden.

"Of course I want to be the name that the coaches tell the Montreal leaders was great out there. I want to be the first guy called up. I don't want to wait too long. Things can happen fast, and if you get a chance you have to take it," he explains, Nordic blue gaze snapping with an intensity of feeling. "I'm fighting for a spot there, and trying to work as hard as I can every day and get better. I want to help the Hamilton team to win. Even...That's a lot of D up there in Montreal. A lot of good ones. I'll just keep fighting here and see what happens."

He's already eyeing the Habs roster, imagining where he'll fit in when that chance comes.

"I'm an offensive D-man. I have to play well down here. Things can't go so well for people up there if I'm to have a chance, I know. Still, there are so many good D-men on one-way contracts, it's tough for us with two-ways to have a chance," he admits. "I'm going to show up on every shift and make sure I'm good enough on 5-on-5. PP is important to me and I'm going to use my shot and my offensive skill, but 5-on-5 is just as important."

The kids at the rink drift away as the players make way for the Zamboni after practice. The Bulldogs' bus idles in front of the building and the quick-showering guys pace as they wait for their more leisurely teammates. They ooze vitality in their dress shirts and open jackets, still-wet hair slicked back, with fluffy bits of beard betraying their youth. If Magnus Nygren is all business, some of his camp mates are actively living the dream.

Hours after practice ended, night has fallen and it feels like autumn has only been dressing up like summer all day. The small rink has just released a sell-out crowd, thrilled to have been treated to one-step-below-the-NHL hockey. The Bulldogs are a loose-limbed bunch of relaxed jokers. They're still competing for jobs, but the build-up to their first exhibition game has culminated in victory and the knowledge that they can do no more for today.

Mac Bennett, sporting two-days' growth of stubble and one button too many open at the neck, spent the last four years at the University of Michigan. He toiled on the college blueline while prospects like Nygren were sweating it out in the pro leagues, trying to climb. Bennett emits a kind of glowing energy, eyes snapping as he tries to summarize the feelings after his first pro game.

"It was a good first experience. Good to get that first game of pro under my belt. I think there were some little pre-game jitters, but after the first five minutes they go away," he says.

The words are banal enough, but the vibrating posture and chattering speech betray a deeper emotion. All the same, even in his excitement, the 23-year-old knows he's got to make up some pro development time on his younger rivals.

"Faster. The game is a lot faster," he says. "The decisions with the puck are a lot faster. The players are a lot more skilled. I have to just keep it simple and wait to adjust. You just play. Eventually those decisions come quicker, just because you're forced to make them quicker. Everything for me is just simple at this point. I'm still kind of adjusting. When I get the puck, just move it. Be strong on my stick and in the corners. When I get the puck, make sure I'm skating. The players out here are a lot more skilled, so when you make a mistake, sometimes your teammates can make up for you, which is really nice."

Nygren, at this point, is accustomed to pro hockey and the idea of working toward a job in Montreal. For Bennett, it's all still a bit magical.

"What the Habs are to Montreal, the Yankees are to New York. There are Habs fans everywhere. It's pretty special. It's a huge honour to wear that crest. It's an organization with a ton of history, so I'm proud to carry on that tradition," he enthuses. He knows all about history, aiming to become a third-generation NHLer. "It's kind of crazy to think about. My grandfather was a goalie and my uncle played in the NHL. It's kind of cool to help carry on that tradition."

The Bulldogs filter out of the tiny rural Newfoundland arena in twos and threes, into the visible cloud of the bus exhaust. They stow their bags and find places that will, before the year is out, become "theirs." The fans have vanished to home and bar in the darkness between the orange-haloed street lights. On the bus, some of the young men who have split their very atoms to make it as pro hockey players, are only a day or two away from having their dreams cut short. Others...the Mac Bennetts of the group...are floating, their first pro points just around the bend. Some, like Magnus Nygren, can almost touch the NHL and will go to sleep with the scent of it.

The bus coughs and sighs into motion, easing out of the abandoned parking lot. The sidewalks roll up early here when the game is over. The kids of the morning are long asleep and the day for the dreamers is done.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Subtraction By Subtraction

When hockey players talk about being part of a "special" team, usually a winning team, their explanations for what makes that team something out of the ordinary are often unsatisfactory. It's like asking a player to explain how they skate or how they know where to place a pass so it hits the tape of a guy in full flight. They can't tell you because their bodies, after years of repetition, do it without thought. It just is. Similarly, when a dressing room clicks and something special...chemistry, bonding, gelling, whatever you want to call it...happens, it's hard to wrap the why of it up in a few clear, well-chosen phrases. It's a thing that either is or isn't, and players know it when it happens.

One thing is certain: it isn't always about talent alone. To step outside the hockey world for an example, look at the Toronto Blue Jays. They went out two years ago and spent a lot of money to bring in a lot of talent that was supposed to bring their team back to relevance. Two disappointing seasons later, defenders talk about injuries and bad luck, but critics point to "chemistry" as the real issue. Chemistry, that rarest of intangibles players use to describe the feelings necessary to a winning team. The word itself doesn't tell you much unless you've witnessed it yourself and recognize it.

It's the respect players have for even the least important of their number. It's the uncomplaining way in which a marginal player does his best when given a chance and pats the other guys on the back when he's relegated to the sidelines. It's the star player who doesn't think himself above the rest and the defenceman who'll block a shot with his face if it gains his team the win. It's the ability of a group to give and take a joke with goodwill, and to share a collective work ethic for a common cause. It's a mix of personalities that balance each other on the whole; the calm guy who keeps panic at bay, the funny guy who lightens the mood, the heart-and-soul guy who raises the level of emotion when it's needed and the bundle of energy who gets everyone to pick up the pace. The game may be played on the ice, but the will to do it comes from the relationships in the room. It's just as delicate and real as any concoction in a laboratory beaker.

In the analysis of the individuals who make up a team, a goalie who plays fewer than 20 games a year most of the time and a shot-blocking defenceman who scores two goals a season don't add up to much. The former rarely makes a difference to the outcome of a game, let alone a season. The latter will sacrifice himself to block a shot, but isn't physically imposing enough to render his lack of production unimportant. Yet, there's a greater value to those players than their talent or on-ice performance. When that goalie is patient and hard-working and never puts himself before the team, he's more than just a backup player. He's the friend and helper of your number-one, who's got a tough enough job to do without worrying about a whiny or self-interested partner. When that defenceman comes to the room every night burning with an infectious passion to play the game and win, he's more than just a shot blocker. He's a leader and a rallying point for those who need to feed off his emotion.

Similarly, an aging winger who's losing a step of the speed on which his game is based and who's physically one of the smallest players in the league looks like no big loss when he's let walk at the end of his contract. Yet, in his role as captain, his quiet dedication and calm leadership keeps drama to a minimum and helps his teammates concentrate on the job at hand.

The Canadiens have set themselves an interesting task in the coming season. Marc Bergevin has made some roster moves designed to address on-ice imbalances and, from a business perspective, save money and manage the assets that are his players effectively. Moving Josh Gorges and replacing him with Tom Gilbert means the defence has a better right/left mix than it did last year. Trading Peter Budaj means the team saves a bit on the salary cap, solves a tricky three-goalie situation and avoids having to waive a goalie who'd likely be claimed. Letting Brian Gionta go and replacing him with Jiri Sekac saves money and makes the team bigger and younger on the wing. On paper, these moves make sense. In the big picture though, three players who were friends and emotional touchstones for the team are gone. That's tinkering with chemistry.

Perhaps the new four-man leadership group of Tomas Plekanec, Andrei Markov, Max Pacioretty and P.K.Subban, with their nice mix of youth and experience, will settle into new roles and bring the elements necessary to a winning team that left with Gorges, Budaj and Gionta. Or maybe the pressure for Subban to live up to his massive new contract will affect his play and shift the balance in the room. Maybe Pacioretty, always sensitive to the ups and downs in his game, will let criticism impact the way he leads. Perhaps the loss of two of Carey Price's closest friends will upset his legendary calm. And the questions aren't just surrounding those guys. Bergevin and Michel Therrien have talked about how younger players will now be required to take on new roles in the life of the team. That's risky when some of these players are themselves still discovering who they are and where they fit.

In David MacFarlane's book, "The Danger Tree," the author writes about his mother's relatives during the First World War. There were six brothers in the family, and they ran a successful construction business. When war broke out, all six boys joined up and three of them died overseas. After the war, the surviving brothers returned to their business, but they found with the thoughtful brother gone, the impulsive one had no steadying influence and made critical bad decisions. The charming brother had died and the sullen one couldn't maintain the connections the company needed to thrive. In the end, the business went under. The vital balance of skill and personality...the chemistry, if you will...was destroyed and those remaining couldn't recreate it.

We don't know yet how the changes in the Habs room will impact their performance on the ice. Looking at the roster, it seems as though the team, if the players remain relatively healthy, should have no reason to win markedly fewer games than last year. A season ago, Canadiens players talked about how the group in the room was "tight" and "close." They're the same cliches most guys offer when things are going well. The revelation for this year's edition will be when the rough patches come and the Habs take their chemistry test.