Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Dead Poets, Dreams and the Habs

In November, 1985, MGM released the movie "Rocky IV," and I went with my brothers to see it; the last film on the big screen before our local theatre closed down. The film was okay, but the soundtrack...ah, the soundtrack. That album became a secret personal pump-up play list to which I'd listen before every Habs game in the spring of 1986, during that season's magical, unexpected Stanley Cup run. In the superstitious mind of a kid Canadiens fan, playing "Eye of the Tiger" on game day meant the hockey gods were appeased, the juices were flowing and the beloved players somehow just knew we willed them to win. Nobody else knew about this secret ritual because nobody else could understand how the right song could make the spirit lift and the heart fill with confidence.

If only I'd known about Tim Thompson then. He would have gotten it. Thompson played junior hockey, then when that path ended, studied history in university. He grew up surrounded by music on mixed tapes and in his dad's huge vinyl collection, and he absorbed it genre by genre, singer and song, until it was part of him. In the end he became neither a hockey player nor an historian nor a musician. Instead, he found the perfect craft for all his talents and became a brilliant video editor. He learned how to weave threads of history through the intricate tapestries of his Hockey Night in Canada pre-game videos, always set to the perfect, gut-churning song.

"I've always had this weirdly cinematic mind," Thompson explains. "I'll see a bird flying overhead and someone walking across the street and a certain song will come into my head. And growing up playing hockey with music always around, these two roads, hockey and music intersected in my life and turned into this really cool career."

It was a great career, too. In his eight years at Hockey Night in Canada, he lived the rush of trying to cut video like a 33 played on 45 for two straight months in the spring, ready with a new piece of art nearly every playoff night. When he talks about choosing just the right song and the perfect images to go with it, his words are a passionate tumble.

"The art of hockey. It's such a great sport, really rich fodder for what I was doing," he enthuses. "You have this beautiful, graceful, elegant side of the game, and then you have the dark, physical, uncompromising side. And the two often clash head-on in the blink of an eye and create this beautiful storm. You add the history and the past and lay a really great song under that and it really takes off."

It's all in the eyes, Thompson says. If you know what to look for...the drive, the trepidation, the desire and the thrill...you'll find it in the eyes. It's one of his little secrets; the kind that elevate his work and let his gifts shine.

"I use a lot of people's eyes. I really feel that dives into the humanity of the players as people. You read a lot in their eyes. At least I do. So I would see a lot of the anthem shots, or the cameras would catch guys getting ready in the dressing room, staring off into space or on the bench visualizing what was to come. All those things got me excited and made me think of a certain song or lyric I could build it around."

Things were going well for Thompson, glorying in the love of his dream job. Then CBC lost the rights to Hockey Night in Canada to Rogers. The new guys wanted things their way and that way wasn't the way of art or emotion or creative beauty. In February, Rogers gave Thompson the boot and the dream job ended, just like that.

Fortunately for him and for hockey fans, art and emotion and creative beauty...and history and passion...are the way of the Montreal Canadiens. Few organizations recognize the power of ceremony and feeling like the Habs do, so when Thompson found himself out of work, he hardly had time to absorb it before his Twitter inbox lit up.

"Kevin Gilmour, one of the executives with Montreal messaged me  and said he had an idea and asked if we could talk," he remembers. "He was a big fan of what I'd been doing on Hockey Night and asked if I'd be interested in doing something for a specific team. I said that would be amazing and I had this idea in my head to do the piece that came out with Dream On and the scenes from  Dead Poets Society. I made it at home in my studio over two days last week and they were really, really ecstatic about it."

The piece, with Dream On and the scenes from Dead Poets Society has now been viewed by hundreds of thousands of hockey fans. It's a powerful blend of Aerosmith, Robin Williams at his pep-talk-giving best and Habs, past and present, with special care to pay tribute to those of the Canadiens family who have so sadly left us. It's a wonderful example of Thompson's fine work, and it seems almost meant to be.

"I have a huge love of history and that organization has it in spades and celebrates and does it so well," he says. "My dad's from Montreal as well, and his dad played a bit for the Maroons, so my dad was around some of the old Habs and old Maroons back in the day. I have a lot of respect for that city and that organization, and it was an honour to be asked to do this by the team itself."

The Aerosmith selection fits the piece perfectly, but it's almost an aberration for Thompson, who often chose to highlight obscure Canadian musicians in his Hockey Night in Canada days.

"I have the knack for finding songs," he states, matter-of-factly. "My benchmark for that is it an honest song and does it fit and work in the situation. And I didn't care if it was someone that would sell out arenas, or someone who plays to 20 people on Queen Street. If it's honest and it works, there's no better feeling."

The Canadiens have given an artist the chance to have that feeling again. even if not in the daily whirl of producing for the big show at the busiest time of the year. He hopes the relationship between creator and hockey team can continue, or that the opportunity will open new doors.

"I know what guys are feeling when they're standing there during the anthem and they look like they want to throw up. That nervous tension. As Ken Dryden said, "The game is coming and there's nothing you can do to stop it." Maybe having that knowledge and knowing what those feelings are like helps with shot selection, to elicit the most feeling. You try to make something that will really hit people," Thompson says.  "Hopefully, in the end, you make people want to climb a mountain or run through a wall or cry their eyes out. If you do one of those things, you've done your job."

Job well done, Tim. I wish I'd known you in 1986.

Click here to see Tim Thompson's Habs playoff 2014-15 video.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

I Can't Like Therrien

Okay, to be honest, I haven't tried really hard to like the Habs re-tread coach. I strongly disliked him on his first go-round behind the bench and I was deliriously happy when he got canned. So, it was like an E.coli-fueled hallucination to see him given another chance to turn the Canadiens into an unimaginative squad of interchangeable drones who futilely dump and chase a puck they rarely actually retrieve.

I'm aware not everyone feels this way. A lot of fans look at the team's lofty record this season and its third-round playoff trip last year and believe Therrien must be doing something right. Maybe he is, although I can't actually define what that good thing might possibly be. On the other hand, I have no trouble listing the reasons why I will never...can never...support Michel Therrien as the coach of the Habs.

10. His staff. I understand the desire to have French-speaking coaches in Montreal. I really do, in a way I never used to before I recently read a nice piece about all the things the Canadiens do for the community and the province of Quebec. They are part of the fabric of the city, beyond their existence as a hockey team. So, to have coaches who are steeped in the culture and tradition of that relationship, including their language, makes sense. That said, Therrien didn't just hire good people who happen to be bilingual. He hired his buddies, who may or may not have had a chance of employment with any team other than the Habs. He also hired people extremely unlikely to succeed him, or offer Marc Bergevin a viable option to replace him should the need arise. In essence, he surrounded himself with people who are no better or more creative than he is himself, ensuring limits on original thought within the coaching staff. The exception is Stephane Waite, who was a Bergevin, not a Therrien, selection.

9. His inexplicable decision-making. How many goals have we seen scored against the Habs by the opposing team's top line, which happens to be on the ice at the same time as the Canadiens fourth line and third defence pair? At the Bell Centre when Therrien has last change? Sadly, more than one, which isn't a good thing.  How often have we seen Tom Gilbert or Alexei Emelin struggle in a game, yet be sent out to start a crucial penalty kill with the score close? Scotty Bowman once said the most important thing a coach can do is make sure the right players are on the ice at the right time. I wonder what Scotty thinks of some of Therrien's personnel choices?

8. Alex Galchenyuk. Galchenyuk was eased into the NHL as an eighteen-year-old with limited ice time in protected situations during a shortened season. The next year, you'd expect a kid who'd gotten his feet wet and knew what to expect would get a little more responsibility. Maybe you'd even expect him to move into the centre position the Habs had in mind for him when the picked him third overall. That didn't exactly happen, but he did get slight increases in ice time and got some minutes on the PP as well. Finally between games 30 and 40 this year, Therrien decided to try Galchenuk at centre with Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher. In that ten-game stretch, after a couple of games to adjust, Galchenyuk put up 9 points. Yet, inexplicably, Therrien decided to abandon the experiment and put David Desharnais back at centre and move Galchenyuk to the wing. Galchenyuk needs to work on his defensive game, of course, but he was proving he can play effectively in an offensive role when Therrien took that away from him. As a comparable, Filip Forsberg was a fellow 2012 first rounder, and he's getting more ice time, more responsibility and more points on a defensively-tight Nashville team. It was fine for Therrien to ease Galchenyuk into the NHL, but he needs to let him fly now, and won't do it because it might mess with the system.

7. The PP. At the moment, the Canadiens power play ranks 23rd in the league, with a success rate of 16.6%. That ranks them slightly lower than the leafs. The leafs. Think about that. Even the layest of lay people who see the Habs play with the man advantage can see there's something wrong. There's little movement among the forwards who seem to think their reason for being is to get the puck to P.K.Subban on the point. Subban's options are then a broadly-telegraphed slapshot, another pass with another chance to be intercepted or a rush to the net through the defending box. There's nobody in front of the opposing goalie most of the time. And, David Desharnais has tallied an average of 2:20 per game on the PP, with a grand total of 11 PP points in 79 games. More on that later, but the problem isn't just that the Habs PP isn't producing. It's that it's not been producing for the better part of two years and Therrien and his staff have done nothing to change things. From starting every PP with Desharnais, to playing the same lines as at even strength almost without exception, to failing to instill net presence, the PP is a fail. It's the kind of deep, systemic problem that reveals the weaknesses of a team whose record otherwise hides a multitude of sins. And it's the kind of problem that derails a playoff run when goals are hard to come by and encourages opponents to take liberties when they know there'll be no scoreboard retaliation.

6. The lines. The Habs have played 79 regular-season games and Therrien still doesn't have a first or second line that's played together more than ten games in a row. His only solution when the Habs are facing adversity is to switch right wingers. After moving Desharnais to the second line with Galchenuk and P.A.Parenteau, and Tomas Plekanec to centre with Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher during game 76 of the season, Therrien seemed surprised at the instant improvement in the way the lines attacked. The fact that Plekanec and Pacioretty showed great chemistry on the PK for most of the year didn't inspire him to use that pair at even-strength, or during 4-on-4 OT.

5. His history. Therrien is in his third stint as an NHL coach, and the one thing his teams all have in common is a below-average ability to possess the puck. As the numbers show, every time Therrien gets fired, the team immediately gets better at holding on to the puck and creating offence. In 2009, the Penguins turfed him, though they made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals the season before. Even with a lineup including Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins were bad at puck possession and choked by the defence-first system they were unsuited to play. As then-GM Ray Shero said at the time of the firing, "I didn't like... the direction the team was going. I've watched for a number of weeks and, at the end of the day, the direction is not what I wanted to have here. I wasn't comfortable, and that's why the change was made. It wasn't so much the outcome, it was how the game was played." How the game was played, he said. Well, at the time, the Pens were playing a dump-and-chase, grinding game that failed to take advantage of the players' offensive skills and creativity. It required them to collapse in front of Marc-Andre Fleury and protect the net, giving up tonnes of scoring chances and shots against. It all sounds sadly familiar, with the exception being that Shero recognized the futility of playing that system with those players and took action.

4. His influence on his boss. Which brings us to the fact that it's unlikely Bergevin will be parting ways with his friend Mike any time soon. When he brought Therrien on board, Bergevin talked about how he was the right man for the job and reinforced his support with last summer's four-year extensions for Therrien and all his staff. Meanwhile, Bergevin had to trade Travis Moen and Rene Bourque at least in part because Therrien insisted on playing them over young players who needed to develop. Therrien wants to play a grinding style and didn't think Jiri Sekac fit in with that, so Bergevin obliged his coach and traded Sekac for Devante Smith-Pelly. The latter has a stellar one assist in 17 games for the Habs. It's concerning if Bergevin places enough weight on Therrien's opinion that it skews his vision for the team and influences his personnel decisions.

3. His lack of accountability. Therrien has said after losses that he needs his top line to be better, or Lars Eller to be better, or his PP to be better, or his D-corps to be better. He never, ever says the coaching staff needs to be better, starting with himself and his own decisions.

2. Carey Price. Price is, right now, the best goaltender in the world. James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail recently crunched the numbers and concluded if the Habs had even an average-to-good NHL goalie in Price's place they probably wouldn't make the playoffs. Price has entered his prime years now, and is sustaining Therrien's system, despite the fact that the Canadiens give up 30.3 shots per game, good for 23rd in the league. They also rank 23rd for goals per game, with just 2.57 scored. That doesn't leave a lot of room for goalie error. Combine that with the defensive inability to clear the puck without incurring an icing or a giveaway on many occasions, and it's pretty clear the Habs win because of Price and despite Therrien. Which means, even though Price will do his best in the playoffs, he'll have to be superhuman to drag this team through a successful run. With Therrien's four-year extension, however, it's conceivable Price will allow him to keep his job and this futile system for the entirety of Price's best years.

1. David Desharnais. I have always been a Desharnais supporter. Back in 2010, after he'd recently been cut from Habs camp, to his great disappointment, I was impressed when I spoke to him about his determination to get back to the NHL. He's a hard-working, friendly guy who probably surprised a lot of people when he did make it back to the big time, and put up an impressive 60 points in the Canadiens dreadful 2011-12 season. Desharnais has a lot to recommend him as a person and a player, but he is not, unfortunately, an NHL top-line centre. Yet, Therrien insanely pairs him with the team's best winger and, until recently, started them together on every power play. This year, Pacioretty has 7 PP goals. Desharnais has assists on only two of them. Of Pacioretty's 37 total goals to date, DD figures in eleven. Dale Weise has points on 8, Subban on 12. These numbers do not suggest that Pacioretty needs Desharnais to produce. Yet, Therrien continued for almost the entire season to keep those two together, even during long stretches when neither of them scored. Anyone else on the team who fails to perform gets moved, but not Desharnais. His offensive starts are the most generous of any Canadiens player. He doesn't play the PK. And he's on pace for fewer than 50 points. Plekanec, who plays with a revolving door of lesser wingers as well as two minutes a night on the PK, is on pace for 56. Eller, who spends half his time in Therrien's doghouse on the third line, who gets no PP time and fewer even-strength minutes than Desharnais, is tied with him in goals with 13. Yet, no matter what, Therrien gives Desharnais every possible chance he'd never give anyone else. It's blatant favouritism and it's reached the point at which Canadiens fans hate a player who's a good guy, just because he's the teacher's pet.

The bottom line in all of this is the Canadiens have the ability to play a more offensive, aggressive style than they are currently doing. Therrien plays the safe way because it keeps him in a job, but the Habs will not win with his system. It's just a question of when Bergevin finally wakes up and recognizes the fact. I've been waiting 21 years for the Canadiens to win their 25th Cup, and as long as Therrien's behind the bench, I'll be waiting longer. That's why I can't like Michel Therrien.