Monday, January 18, 2016

Conspiracies and Cold Hearts

The first NHL All-Star game came from a place of charity. In 1934, the Toronto Maple Leafs played the league's stars in honour of Ace Bailey, who had been forced into retirement with a fractured skull. Three years later, the Montreal Canadiens great star, Howie Morenz broke his leg and shortly afterwards died of a pulmonary embolism. The Montreal All-Stars played their NHL counterparts to raise money for the deceased player's family. And one last time, in 1939, the Habs played the NHL All-Stars, this time in memory of Babe Siebert, who had drowned during the off-season. In those early days, the Canadiens were the good-hearted guys who used the game they loved to help others in need.

When the NHL All-Star game became official in 1947, the players skated for bragging rights. In 1969, for the first time, the participants got a cash bonus: $500 per winning player, $250 for the losers. Not too many years after that, with money involved and nothing special about the event, everyone stopped caring about the game. In the big picture these days, it's a gimmick weekend with no purpose other than for the league to promote itself. (That so many of the gimmicks are ill-thought-out, ridiculous or boring is beside the point.) The players who don't attend the game get a much-needed mid-season holiday. Those who do go just try to have a bit of fun with their families and avoid getting hurt. Nobody cares who wins. This year, Jaromir Jagr, one of the all-time great players has even been on Twitter begging fans not to send him.

That's why it's so disappointing to see Marc Bergevin and the Canadiens organization make asses of themselves over something as unimportant as the All-Star game.

This year, the game is sillier than ever with its 3-on-3 format. So perhaps it wasn't all that surprising to see Arizona fans rally behind 6'8" goon John Scott. Wouldn't it be funny, they thought, if we all pulled together and sent this guy to the All-Star game. What a joke!

To his credit, as the online votes multiplied and it looked like he was actually going to be voted in, Scott played along. Sure, it was a bit embarrassing to know the whole thing was a gag, but Scott talked to his teammates and other players who told him to live it up and enjoy the moment. Then he was named Captain of the Pacific Division squad, and he really did start to do so. He even had some t-shirts printed for his teammates, from their "captain."

That's when the NHL decided the whole thing was a disgrace that had gone too far. As Bob McKenzie tweeted on Friday, "John Scott was previously asked by both NHL and Arizona Coyotes to bow out of the NHL All-Star Game. He refused. Trade likely takes care of that."

Ah, yes. The trade. The one thing Habs fans knew for sure when Bergevin announced he'd sent Jarred Tinordi to Arizona for Scott and a scrub D, was that the Canadiens organization does not need John Scott. The guy was sent immediately to St.John's and Bergevin mumbled some nonsense about him bringing "experience to our group of forwards with the Ice Caps."

Now, Scott's All-Star status is unclear, but it's unlikely he can play in the game if he's no longer with a Pacific Division team or even in the NHL. As Adrian Lee wrote in Maclean's this week, the NHL's inability to take itself less seriously has resulted in a greater embarrassment than the original appointment of Scott to the All-Star squad ever could have been. He and the fans broke the league's staid Code and now Scott is paying the price. The question is, what on earth motivated Bergevin to take part in the whole farce? What does he get out of it, one might wonder. We won't be told.

What we do know is in an effort to protect the honour of a meaningless league sideshow, the lives of real people are upset by the NHL and by Bergevin. Scott is thousands of miles away from his pregnant wife and, as the Calgary Sun's Michael Platt wrote, his family is afraid Scott's tenuous hold on an NHL spot is over and his career at an end. They say he feels exiled and embarrassed.

And Scott himself? He met with reporters last night after his first game in St.John's. Of course the first question he got was whether he can still play in the All-Star game.

"I haven't heard anything from the league or anyone, so I really don't know where that stands. I obviously didn't want to get voted in that way, but the fans wanted me in and they voted me in so I just went with it," he answered. "I was going to go with my family, enjoy the whole experience and have some fun. It was a big surprise. I was happy with it."

And those funny t-shirts he'd made up for his Coyotes teammates? Scott says, "I'll probably just send them back." He had no comment on his discussion with Bergevin and the plans the Canadiens have for him, which was probably the classy way to answer that question.

John Scott might not be a goal scorer or a future Hall-of-Famer, but he's a guy who had to work very hard to grind out a place in pro hockey. He had grace enough to accept the fans who took advantage of the NHL's naive All-Star voting system. In exchange, the league big-wigs punished him and his family, and Marc Bergevin helped them do it. That this should come of a game with its roots in kindness and charity is a damn shame.


Well, it seems the Habs' abject futility without Carey Price has finally driven some fans over the edge. As is usual when the team is doing poorly, the cries for the termination of the coach are rising like hurricane winds in August. This time, though, there's a different tone.

Lots of people disliked the return of Michel Therrien when GM Marc Bergevin hired him four years ago. He's never won much in the NHL playoffs, and in his two previous postings he taught his teams to play conservative, low-scoring hockey. It felt at the time of his second hiring in Montreal as though the newly-appointed Bergevin settled for a re-tread because he needed stability behind the bench to make up for his own inexperience. He also needed a French-speaking coach to fulfill his commitment to adding more Francophones to the team. Shortly before announcing Therrien would be his coach, Bergevin had this to say:

"There is no doubt in my mind that we must rely on more Francophones within our organization. We only have one scout in Quebec. I can assure you there will be more than that next season."

Of course, it's a desirable and admirable thing to honour the history of the team and the culture of the province in which it lives. Ideally, the way to do that would be by highlighting home-grown talent on the ice. In the real-world NHL, though, that's not easy to do. The real stars are known, assessed and ranked high in the draft, so if you don't choose in the top ten, you're not likely to acquire them without paying a crippling price. Filling lower roster spots with borderline Francophone players or washed-up stars doesn't really cut it for a team trying to showcase a local player.

Minor hockey registration in Quebec has flatlined, barely maintaining its 94-thousand players a year over the last eight seasons. The pool of players isn't growing and those who make it to the NHL is actually shrinking. Twenty years ago, in 1996, Quebec was second behind Ontario for the number of NHL players produced, with 97. This year, there are only 48 NHLers from La Belle Province. That drops Quebec down to fourth among provinces producing major pro players. It's the fewest number of Francophones in the league since expansion. It's telling that there were more players from Quebec in a twelve-team league than there are now in an NHL of 30 franchises.

One of the few promising young French players, Jonathan Drouin, is on the trading block in Tampa Bay and that's got Canadiens fans slavering to acquire him. It's true he's got ability and was a high draft pick, but he's unproven and the Lightning want a premium for him...particularly because they share the Habs division. If Drouin weren't local, he might not be on the radar, but because he is from Quebec, the temptation to overspend or take a big risk for a French star is there. If Bergevin's not willing to take the chance on a trade like that (and the fear is real he might do it), it's back to the draft.  In that case, unless the Canadiens are bad enough or lucky enough to draft high and snag a real Quebecois star, they'll have to make do with Francophone management and coaches for their local content.

That's why the cries to fire Therrien sound different this time around. Sure, the team is playing some bad hockey and their playoff chances are dropping faster than the price of a barrel of crude, but fans aren't just saying "fire him." They know that if Bergevin dumps Therrien out of desperation, the "French" rule will force him to hire a replacement from a tiny pool of available candidates. Turns out fans are sick of it. They feel limiting options for linguistic reasons is handicapping the team. That's why they've launched a petition, in French and English, requesting that Habs management not only dump Therrien, but also that they not limit the search for a replacement to a Francophone.

Of course, there's a perceived assumption that a petition like this means there are no brilliantly qualified French-speaking coaches somewhere, who are waiting to come work for the Habs. That's not quite the point. If there is such a person available, it would be a boon for the Canadiens to hire him (or her.) If there isn't, it's healthier for the team to look at all candidates, regardless of language. That's what these fans are trying to say, and they're not wrong.

More than thirty years ago, Ken Dryden wrote in his brilliant classic, "The Game," that the Habs were at a crossroads.

"Slowly the team is joining the pack," he said, "It must learn to live and to compete like everyone else. Except, unlike everyone else, it must win and the French-Canadian character of the team must not be disturbed. The team created the expectations and now it must live with them. Fewer than fifteen percent of the league's players are French-Canadian. Since Lafleur, Perreault and Dionne in the 1970s, few of them have been superstars. Now there are more teams, more reluctant to trade draft picks, in the market to compete for them. Lafleur must have his heir; the team must win. Ahead may be a tragic irony. Without the strength of the past, the team may face a choice - to win or to be French-Canadian."

The Habs arrived at the crossroads Dryden saw approaching in 1983 after they won their last Cup a decade later. Instead of choosing a path, the Canadiens have tried to be both winners and French-Canadian, neither one of them very successfully. Since '93, 20 of the league's 30 teams have made the Stanley Cup Finals. The Habs are not among that number.

Do you think Florida is where they are because Dale Tallon insisted on only hiring Florida-born coaches and favouring Florida-born players? Or that Tallon himself was hired because he hails from the Sunshine State? (Actually, in a sort of jolly irony, Tallon's a Quebecker.) Think about that to realize how desperate the Habs have become in what's no longer a league of culturally-based institutions, but cut-throat business. With the Canadian dollar in the basement, it's going to be harder and harder for Geoff Molson to pay the bills for mediocrity. The "French-first" approach will eventually die a natural death if the team is going to survive. It's time to put it out of its misery, and if a fan petition can get that message across, it's a start.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Good Asshat Management

In 2012, about thirty seconds after the Montreal Canadiens were officially eliminated from the playoffs, in an annus horribilus that saw them dead last in the Eastern Conference, owner Geoff Molson cleaned house. Gone was the Ghost, Pierre Gauthier, and his weird, secretive ways. Gone was former captain Bob Gainey, with his legacy of inexplicably trading away Ryan McDonagh for the dreadful Scott Gomez. And in came another former captain, Serge Savard, to help Molson pick the team that would turn the Habs around.

Savard recommended Molson hire rookie GM Marc Bergevin, and the former journeyman player arrived with his natty suits, frank answers to media questions and ready sense of humour. It was as far from the old management in style as anyone could imagine. When Bergevin came on board, from day one, he was clear about his approach.

"I'm here to build for the future, and the future is draft choices and player development," he said back then.

Bergevin inherited some promising young prospects from the couple of drafts previous. Nathan Beaulieu, the team's first pick, at #17 in 2011, was a good young defenceman with quick vision, great wheels and a bit of toughness. Sparkplug Brendan Gallagher was small and only a fifth-round pick in 2010, but always seemed to find himself a part of the action. And the first-rounder in 2010, Jarred Tinordi, was a big kid with NHL bloodlines from his dad Mark. He was a bit of a project, but could move very well for a guy who stood 6'6" and had a kind of maturity and poise you don't often see in a teenager. If the Habs wanted to build through drafting and developing young players, Bergevin had at least three strong candidates with which to work. Things looked even better in Bergevin's first draft, when, with the third-overall pick, he chose centre Alex  Galchenyuk. The young player came with size and a collection of skills so enticing, any coach would beg to help him reach his potential.

Every year since 2012, Bergevin has added to the collection of young draftees, and every year he has reiterated his intention to build a winning Canadiens team through drafting and developing young players. While the intention is admirable and the logic sound, Bergevin has failed to deliver.

Most teams, when they bottom out the way the Habs did in 2012 and commit to a rebuild, really rebuild. They make a plan, decide which players are keepers, and then clean out those who don't fit. Then they play their kids. They play the butts off their kids. Those kids make mistakes and they lose games, sometimes a lot of games, but they learn. And they get better together and improve. If you're going to rebuild through draft and development, that's how it's done.

Ten years ago, when the Chicago Blackhawks drafted Jonathan Toews third overall, they committed to a rebuild from the ground up. A year and a half later, they had dumped coach Denis Savard, hired Joel Quenneville, and the average age of the team was about 23 years old. Those kids; Toews, Patrick Kane, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp and the rest of them played a ton of hockey and they made the playoffs for the first time in six years, advancing to the conference finals. Four years after that, they were Stanley Cup Champions. Dale Tallon built that team as the GM. Now he's doing the same thing in Florida, and the Panthers are following the same pattern.

In Montreal, on the other hand, Bergevin came in with something to prove. He was a local guy in his first job as general manager. He felt the pressure to make sure the Habs were on the elevator out of the Eastern Conference basement as quickly as possible. So he needed to hire an experienced coach who could get the best on-ice results while the rebuild went on behind the scenes.

Enter Michel Therrien. Therrien hadn't been a great success in his first go-round behind the bench in Montreal and he was suspiciously fired by the Pittsburgh Penguins, even though the team made the Cup Finals the year before. Therrien came with something to prove too, and he certainly wasn't going to prove anything by playing a bunch of rookies and losing a bunch of games.

So, when given a choice between playing Galchenyuk ahead of David Desharnais and letting the kid learn, Therrien plays it safe and gives Desharnais more ice time. Given the option of playing Francis Bouillon versus Beaulieu or Tinordi in 2013, Therrien chose Bouillon. The following season, when both young defencemen were showing signs of being very close to making the NHL team, Bouillon and big, slow Douglas Murray got priority ice time. In a real rebuild, with a coach and GM dedicated to the end result, that doesn't happen.

Sitting a young player, a first-round pick, for thirty straight games is outside the realm of the believable in a team committed to development. Turning around and dumping him for an AHL journeyman and the consensus NHL-worst forward defies all common sense.

First-round picks are the gold bouillon of rebuild currency. They're the young players who come with the skill and promise every team needs to improve, and the ones it's very hard to find if you don't draft them. The Habs have done an incredibly crappy job of choosing and nurturing the players they need to be the foundation if they're ever to win another Cup.

Max Pacioretty had his confidence broken and was relieved to go down to the AHL to get proper ice time. He's still not got the kind of resilience a captain should have. P.K.Subban has been benched, scratched, low-balled and publicly called out. Now he's playing a conservative game that may prevent more goals, but seems to have cost him his creativity. McDonagh was stupidly traded away. Louis Leblanc left Harvard too early and shriveled under Sylvain Lefebvre's inexperienced coaching. Tinordi's been thrown away for nothing. Beaulieu seems to have found a place on the team because injuries forced Therrien to play him. The futures of the latest three, Michael McCarron, Nikita Scherbak and Noah Juulsen are still unwritten.

This is not the story of a team that has drafted and developed well. This is the story of a team with an inexperienced GM and a coach trying to keep his own job. It's possibly the story of a team that chose the wrong players in the draft, but it's hard to say based on how they're used once they're selected by Montreal.

After dumping Tinordi for garbage this week, Bergevin made a statement about his thinking.

"We are fortunate to have a lot of depth on the blue line and for that reason it became difficult for Jarred to earn a regular spot on our roster. He showed great professionalism and kept a positive attitude. We wish him the best of luck with his new organization."

An organization with a commitment to developing its young players doesn't go out and sign Mark Barberio to compete with its first-rounder for a roster spot, then claim the team has too much depth for him to play. That's crap. An organization committed to winning doesn't throw a first-rounder away for nothing because the coach decides he's not going to play and drains his value away.

If Marc Bergevin thinks he's building the Canadiens through effectively drafting and developing players, he's very, very wrong. The core talent of the team he manages was drafted and developed by somebody else and if he keeps on the road he's on right now, they'll soon be gone and there will be no one left to replace them.

This season, the Canadiens deep problems on offence, including strength down the middle, are exposed. Andrei Markov, long the defensive stalwart of the team, is visibly slowing down and will soon retire. Bergevin has had four years to nurture the young D who'll be needed to replace Markov. He's had four years to make sure Galchenyuk becomes the anchor at centre. Yet, still the problems persist and the young players don't seem to be getting anywhere.

Perhaps Bergevin was in over his head when he took over back in 2012. Maybe his vision was the right one, but the reality of hockey in Montreal intimidated him and prevented him from doing what he needed to do. The bottom line in the current NHL is if you want to build a winning team, there has to be a period of losing. That takes courage on the part of management. The alternative is a team that might gain regular-season points, but will never have what it takes to bring home the Cup. And young players languish until they're traded away for garbage and the cycle continues.

If Bergevin means what he says, he needs to really commit and dump his conservative coach. He needs to give young players a real chance and hire someone who's not afraid to give them the trust and opportunity they need to turn this team around, even when they struggle and losses happen. Until then, we'll watch the Habs first-round picks fizzle out like homemade fireworks.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

21 Guns or American Idiot

When I was 21 years old, I was a third-year university student in a tough program. I was pretty good, because I was on scholarship and poor kids didn't risk blowing the cash if they blew off the classes. I was also a community volunteer. I helped raise a lot of money in support of patients suffering with one of the more ghastly neurological diseases. I babysat small children. I was learning to cook. I wrote poetry and spent time at important museums. I was also an idiot.

I took rides on motorcycles from questionable men. I drank too much too often and stayed out much too late on many nights, some of them school nights. I hitchhiked. I helped a naked friend climb up onto a revered war memorial for a photo op. I was an idiot. And probably, so were you.

Alex Galchenyuk is 21. He's done some heartwarming community work in association with his team. He's developing his skills and maintaining an awesome level of physical health in order to maximize them. He's adapted to a big city lifestyle in which more is expected of him than was expected of you or I when we were his age. And, he's likely an idiot, just like we were.

Today, the media is eating him alive because of a phone call that brought police to his house and ended with a girlfriend accused of assaulting him. We don't know the details of what happened, but we can suspect it's the kind of thing that Galchenyuk, 10 years from now, would never repeat. Just as we would never do some of the things we did at 21, because we were idiots back then. Unfortunately for Galchenyuk, he's got millions of witnesses to his idiocy, led by the tribe of salacious gossip hunters who surround his place of employment and are too happy to report his mistakes.

The reason this is happening isn't solely because of Galchenyuk's situation. It's because the Montreal Canadiens are diving down the standings like Alexander Despatie, albeit with fewer style points. Couple that with four days off, and you have a hungry news goat to feed; one that's a victim of its own hype. If Galchenyuk had this happen to him in October during the nine-win start to the season, it would have received considerably less attention.

The Canadiens have spent several years passing the torch and building themselves up as a community organization as much as they are a hockey team. To some degree, that's good corporate citizenship. A cynic might also say that good work helps mask some of the on-ice futility the team has experienced for a couple of decades. The problem with that public image is, as long as it's a cover for mediocrity, there can be no missteps. The image of pride, history and tradition can only be maintained if everyone walks the walk. If there's a mistake, the whole picture skews. Then, suddenly, the "classy" Canadiens become the ordinary guys, just like every other team.

The time is coming for the Habs, regardless. They haven't won a Stanley Cup in 22 years. They haven't even been to the Finals. The legendary men who created the Canadiens legend are dying. They've been replaced by guys who swear in press conferences, fight in practice and spend time with designers creating velvet suits.

So perhaps its time to cut a 21-year-old a break. I was an idiot at that age, and thank goodness nobody expected me to be a role model or some kind of hero. So were you.