Hockey Players are a Different Kind of Athlete

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On Friday April 6, the hockey world stood still as a bus carrying 28 players, coaches, and staff of the Humboldt Broncos collided with a transport truck as it was on its way to Nipawin, Saskatchewan for a playoff game. The crash killed 16 on board that bus. The hours after the news of the crash spread, everyone in the hockey community came together to help the community deal with the tragedy. Games began with players on both teams standing side-by-side at centre ice. Photos of hockey sticks being left out on front porches is all over social media. A Go Fund Me account to help the families of the victims surpassed the $4 Million goal in just over 48 hours.

Then there were the mass shootings at a music festival in Las Vegas and at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida. While athletes in other sports used these incidents to make political statements, Derek Engelland and Roberto Luongo both did it right in my opinion. Engelland, a Las Vegas native, spoke to the home crowd at the first Golden Knights home game in franchise history just days after the shooting there. Luongo, the Florida Panthers goaltender, addressed the crowd at their first home game since the Parkland shooting. Luongo was especially disgusted by what had happened since the school is located near where he lives. But he and Engelland did not make their speech a political one. Both kept everything in perspective. People like to talk about situations going on in parts of the world from a distance. Luongo and Engelland live in these communities. For them the incidents hit close to home and they had every right to speak up.

It did not surprise me one bit to see the hockey community respond the way they did to those  incidents. Hockey players are not like any other athlete. They are cut from a totally different cloth. There is a connection between Canadians and hockey players that you don’t see other sports. Football and basketball players seem to take a rather condescending approach. You don’t hear hockey players bitch and complain (except perhaps Sean Avery), instead they roll up their sleeves to help these people get their lives back to as close to normal as possible.

There are those who like to dismiss hockey players as men (and women) exerting their testosterone on a sheet of ice. The game of hockey especially on a competitive level is often violent. But you don’t see players take their frustrations with them off the ice. There are some parents of hockey players who take the game way too seriously, but for the most part people involved in hockey are humble, charitable, caring. Altruism is as much a quality for a hockey player as is the ability to skate and shoot. That what sets them apart from other athletes.

Also see:

Hockey is a Tough Sport, Get Use to it
By Far, Stanley Cup Playoffs are Better Than NBA Playoffs
The Hockey Player’s Hockey Player

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Maple Leafs Must Resist Urge to Build Super Team

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Years ago, well before Brendan Shanahan, Mike Babcock, and Auston Matthews arrived in Toronto, there has been talk about the Maple Leafs acquiring Tampa Bay Lightning superstar Steven Stamkos. At the time, Stamkos was approaching free agency and negotiations for a contract extension with the team were going at a snail’s pace. News about the possibility of Stamkos, a Toronto native, coming to the Maple Leafs really opened the eyes of their fans. Alas, Stamkos and the Lightning agreed to a contract extension minutes before he was about to hit the open market. The dreams of Stamkos in a Maple Leafs uniform were dashed. Now, the focus has shifted to another superstar player, John Tavares. Like Stamkos, Tavares is from the Toronto area and he is now the talk of Leaf Nation.

Both Stamkos and Tavares are a couple of examples of the frenzy among fans and media who are in over their heads of the idea of the Maple leafs putting together a “Super Team”, a team featuring superstars from top to bottom. It was an idea borne out of the NBA. The thought of having a Golden State Warriors or Miami Heat type team in the NHL is tempting but unthinkable. Let’s take the Maple Leafs out of the conversation. Substitute the Habs and everyone in Quebec would think it’s the best idea ever. It shows how stupid they are but that’s not the point of this piece.

There are so many intangibles but one of the key ones is the distribution of ice time. There’s only 60 minutes to go around and 18 players to give it to. So even if the Leafs were able to land Stamkos, Tavares, Sidney Crosby, and just about every superstar hockey player in the world, there is no way that you can spread the minutes around equally and keep everyone happy. Unless the NHL makes a rule change to allow seven or eight players on the ice at a time and two or three pucks to be put in play, I can’t see this happening.

Another factor to consider is ego. We’ve seen the debacle in Cleveland where LeBron James is the leader on the Cavaliers. But his clash with former teammate Kyrie Irving over who gets the ball more boiled over to the point where Irving asked for trade and was sent to the Boston Celtics. Hockey players are cut from a different cloth than basketball players but they are competitors too. They like to be the one who determines’ the team’s fate. And if they feel they are being snubbed in favour of another, there will some disappointment.

It is nice to imagine “what if”, but the game is not played on paper or on a video game console. And we are not playing with Monopoly money either. Just as some detractors believe the Maple Leafs winning the Stanley Cup in the not-so-distant future is a pipe dream, that pales to the thought of the Buds acquiring every team’s superstar.

Also see:

Get the Right Player First, then Spend the Money
Two Views on the Valencia Move and the Importance of Role Players in Sport
Tournament Win Destroys Myths

Are We Making Too Big a Deal About the NHL Not Being at the Olympics?

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The Canadian Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey was recently announced. The names don’t necessarily strike fear into the minds of the opponents. But with no current NHL players in this year’s games in South Korea, all the teams will feature a roster of grizzled veterans, young college stars, and some who were not good enough to score a gig in the NHL.

We will not be getting a short tournament featuring the best hockey players in the world. The NHL made that clear in 2017 when they could reach an agreement with the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). It is a shame that backroom politics is preventing hockey fans from seeing the best hockey players in the world competing in the Winter games in PyeongChang. But it is not the end of the world. Depending how this year’s tournament fares, it will either hasten or slow down negotiations between the NHL and IIHF to reach an agreement for the next Winter Olympic games in Beijing in 2022.

For a long time, there has been an argument that no professional athletes should be competing in the Olympics (either summer or winter). Those people who like to keep the game pure are going to get their wish this year. At least in hockey.

The biggest complaint of NHL players at the Olympics is the two-week stoppage during the season. That to me is a moot point. There is simply no way around that obstacle. But I also understand there is a need to have some hockey played in North America. Which is why there was little objection when the Winter Olympics were in Salt Lake City in 2002 and Vancouver in 2010. Fans got to watch games either late in the afternoon or early in the evening. With the games in South Korea, the time difference will be a huge factor. PyeongChang is 14 hours ahead of Toronto. Which means a hockey game played at 6 PM there will air at 2 AM here. Many people would not be able to watch the men’s hockey tournament unless you are an insomniac.

With no Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews, this will give hockey fans an opportunity to see players that we don’t get to see on a nightly basis. There have been those who played Olympic hockey who  end up becoming high-caliber NHL players. Ken Morrow is one example. He played for the 1980 US team that won gold in Lake Placid. Morrow went on to play for the New York Islanders during their Stanley Cup dynasty.

I doubt that not having NHL players at the Olympics this year will cause a riot. There is simply much bigger fish to fry. There is a saying absence makes the heart grow fonder. Perhaps, taking a break from seeing professional hockey players at the Olympics will make us realize why we like to see them play in the first place.

Also see:

Do You Need International Success to be a Great Canadian Athlete?
Canada has the Best Athletes. Period.
The Lack of Animosity is Hurting the World Cup of Hockey

Time for the Young Leafs to Start Getting Dirty

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The highly skilled Toronto Maple Leafs find themselves in a scoring slump. That has translated to very few wins over the last few weeks. Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner are not scoring as much as they did at the beginning of the season. There has been line juggling, line up shuffling, moving players around, anything to get the Maple Leafs out of a funk. People are having a hard time believing a group of talented players can find themselves in a slump.

I believe the problem with the Maple Leafs is because the players are not in the game. They have not shown the feistiness that championship teams possess. They must now be willing to grind, take the body, and yes even throw the occasional punch to the face, in order to win games.

I often mention Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews as examples. Brad Marchand, Ryan Getzlaf, and Dustin Brown are other players who play with an edge. All five of them are Stanley Cup champions.

Zach Hyman has the most hits among Maple Leafs players in the top ten in scoring with 77 (as of January 29th). Leo Komorov leads the team with 146 hits, Matt Martin is next at 135 followed by Andreas Borgman at 114 (the most among defensemen). It’s the bottom 6 who are the most physical. They are also the ones who see the least ice time. What’s surprising is that James van Riemsdyk, with his size, has only 25 hits this season.

I think if Matthews (7 hits), Marner (15), and Nylander (14) start knocking bodies around more, it will also help them with their game. Right now, they are struggling to score goals. I think it is because they are getting knocked around by opposing players. That has caused them to lose puck battles and give the opposing teams more chances to score. By being more physical, Leafs players won’t fall into a lull, and it keeps their minds in the game.

It is about time the training wheels come off these guys. Sweet William is going to have start being Big Bad Bill. No longer can Matthews, Marner and Nylander rely on Komorov, Martin, and Borgman to do their dirty work for them. The Maple Leafs can look like clean-cut guys off the ice but when they are on it, I expect them to get a little dirty.

Also see:

The Maple Leafs Need Their Own Bringer of Rain
Stability Key to a Successful Team?
Maple Leafs Banking on Moneypuck

Fans in Ottawa and Miami Have No Right to Gripe About their Teams

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PHOTO: Postmedia

Two teams were in the news this week, the Ottawa Senators and the Miami Marlins. Both are experiencing a level of turmoil.

The Senators have been slumping. They were expected to compete in the Eastern Conference again after being one win away from an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final. But the attention has been more towards off the ice where there have been rumblings that the team could be on the move. Owner Eugene Melnyk would like to see the team play out of an arena that is located in the downtown area. People have not been coming to Kanata where the plays its home games a half-hour drive outside of Ottawa.

The Marlins were recently sold by Jeffery Loria to a group led by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (brother of former US President George W. Bush and son of former US President George H.W. Bush) and New York Yankee great Derek Jeter. Jeter is quickly finding out that being an owner of a team is a lot different than being a superstar athlete on an iconic franchise. His first controversial move as an executive was to agree trading the team’s superstar Giancarlo Stanton to the Yankees. It was a deal that was met with shock and disappointment.

The one common denominator in this is low attendance. This is much on the fans as is on owners or management. Canadian hockey fans have always used attendance to make their arguments on whether a team should move or not. I would suggest if that is the case, people in Ottawa and Miami have no reason to bitch and complain. They have done squat when it comes to showing up at games. I’m not targeting season-ticket holders who actually pay their hard-earned money to see a good product. I’m particularly pointing the finger at fairweather fans and the media who constantly cry foul over these decisions from a distance.

Ottawa is not known as a huge sports market. The only other professional team is the CFL’s Renegades. Miami on the other hand is a great sports market having been home to the NFL’s Dolphins and NCAA’s Hurricanes for decades. Those teams seem to draw well. Yet the Marlins, the Florida Panthers of the NHL, and even the NBA’s Miami Heat are struggling to gets fans to see their games.

Having a strong season-ticket and fan base, and new stadium or arena does not guarantee that a team will succeed or commit to staying in the community for a long time. Just ask fans of the Cleveland Browns. They have been burned by bad management decisions resulting in badly coached teams. In 1995, then owner Art Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore where the team became the Ravens and won a Super Bowl in 2000. The Browns would re-enter the NFL as an expansion team in 1999.

Folks in Cleveland have a gripe and therefore have carte blanche on critiquing players, coaches, and management. I don’t think you can extend that to fans of the Senators, Marlins, or just about every other professional sports team in North America. They may have not made the bed but they sure deserve to lie in it.

Also see:

Stability Key to a Successful Team?
There is Something to be Said About Loyalty
Dave Cameron is the Reason for Senators’ Turnaround 

SIDEBAR:

This is the last of five articles in fives day. This is also my final post for 2017. It has been a busy year for me both personally and professionally. I hope to continue delivering great sports opinion to you in 2018. Merry Christmas! Joyeux Noel!

Kadri and Stroman Don’t Not Need to Tone It Down

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“Why is everybody always picking on me?” from Charlie Brown by the Coasters.

You have to wonder if the Toronto media needs to manufacture a crisis just to keep them relevant. Take Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri. He has been playing great this season. Floundering under previous coaching regime, Kadri has been a key piece of a resurgent Maple Leafs team. He reinvented himself from a pure goal scorer to a grinding, more defensive player. Once again, the media narrative in Toronto are calling for the Maple Leafs forward to stop with his antics.

And then there is Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman. He is one who is never shy of showing his emotions when on the mound. He still has learn how to harness it properly. But once he does, American league batters better watch out.

I had my share of criticism of Kadri. But it has always been about his game. Same with Stroman. It’s always been on baseball. If others focused more about their game than what they do outside the rink or diamond, then they may have a point. These critics are the same ones who think Don Cherry is all wet when he comes on to say stop celebrating over scoring the tenth goal of the game when your team is up 10-0.

You have heard me say I always like athletes who play with an edge. An edge is who do more than just relying on their talent to succeed. They are far more feisty, and play with more passion than others. They may be nice guys outside the game, but when the puck drops or the pitch is thrown, it is all business.

Both Kadri and Stroman are not the only ones who need to play with an edge. Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews are just two NHL players that have led their teams to Stanley Cup championships. Sure the two are known for their scoring but many seem to overlook the fact that they like to get dirty, sometimes more often than we like to think. They grind, hit, get in opponents faces, and yes, they will drop the gloves and throw some punches. I like to see if sports writers in Pittsburgh and Chicago would disavow their team’s respective championships when they learn it’s not just skills that won them the Cup.

So Kadri and Stroman don’t need to tone it down. They need to channel that emotion to win games. If those two can do that, the better their respective teams will be in the long run.

Also see:

Stroman Will be Fine
James Reimer Deserves Better
Bad Blood is Good for Sports

Canada Lost Its Biggest Sports Fan

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A part of Canada died on October 17, 2017. Gord Downie passed away after battling brain cancer at the age of 53. For those outside Canada, Downie was the lead singer of the Canadian rock band the Tragically Hip. The band’s songs are often rooted in Canada whether it is about a late Toronto Maple Leaf player or a small Ontario town. I wrote a piece about Canadian athletes and whether you need international success to be considered great. It is often said that if you are a musician from Canada, you need to be big in the United States in order to have a successful career in music. The Tragically Hip (or the Hip for short) proved that you can achieve that without leaving your home soil.

From Mike Luck (@LuckyMikeLuck)

Downie was a big sports fan. He would often reference the sport of hockey in his lyrics like Fifty Mission Cap, Fireworks, and Heaven is a Better Place. In the last couple of years, he has appeared at a number of sporting events most recently Game 4 of the 2017 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinal between the Toronto Raptors and the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Air Canada Centre. Not many people knew that longtime Boston Bruins executive Harry Sinden was Downie’s Godfather. Hockey Hall of Famer Bobby Orr and former Bruins head coach and current broadcaster Don Cherry were good friends of Downie and the band.

Canadian athletes have drawn inspiration from Downie. Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin used the song Courage whenever he came up to bat during the 2016 season. The Hip’s final concert (in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario) was aired live on the CBC. At the time, the 2016 Summer Olympics were on and the CBC were the main broadcaster of the games in Canada. But they took two hours from their schedule to air that live performance. Canadian athletes who were taking part in the Rio games were huddled around large television sets watching the performance from the Olympic village. That is how much Downie meant to Canadians and sports.

Here’s the official statement from the Downie family:Here’s a sample of what people in the sports world are saying about Downie’s passing:

50 Mission Cap.

A post shared by Toronto Maple Leafs (@mapleleafs) on

RIP Gord (1964-2017).

Also see:

Do You Need International Success to be a Great Canadian Athlete?
Canada has the Best Athletes. Period.
Late Night’s Ultimate Sports Fan

 

Matthews Made Price Look Mortal

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Photo: Globe and Mail

Let me get this out of the way first. Carey Price is arguably the best goaltender in the NHL right now. He has faced the likes of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, and Steven Stamkos and has made outstanding saves against them. Price often stands on his head when the team is struggling to score goals. He is the reason the Montréal Canadiens have been winning in recent years. Price also helped lead Canada to a gold medal in men’s ice hockey at the last Winter Olympic games. So he is no slouch when he is in net. But last Saturday night, a 20-year-old phenom made the veteran goaltender look average, dare I say mortal.

Montréal was hosting the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Canadiens had won 14 consecutive head-to-head match ups prior to Saturday’s game. Their last loss to the Buds was on January 19, 2014. That streak ended on Saturday and it was largely due to the play of Auston Matthews.

The Maple Leafs forward scored two of Toronto’s four goals in the game and he made Montréal’s number one goaltender look like a number two. Price stood there as if he was a deer crossing the road and a speeding pick up truck with its headlights on was heading right towards him. It is something hockey fans, not just those in Montréal, were not used to seeing.

Here’s Matthews’ first goal of the game (from @Goal_Leafs_Goal):

Matthews’ second goal came in overtime:

Price’s performance on Saturday reminded me of another Habs goaltender from back in the day, André (Red Light) Racicot. Racicot was the back up to Patrick Roy in the 1992-1993 season and was known to let in some goals that would normally be stopped.

If you are a fan of Team Canada, it is perhaps a good thing that there won’t be any NHLers playing at the Winter Olympics next year in PyeongChang. Matthews would likely make Swiss cheese out of Price if Canada and the US were to face off in a game.

There is a hashtag out for this Habs season, #Drivefor25. It is to symbolize the 24 Stanley Cup championships the Canadiens have won in the history of the franchise and their aim to get their 25th. But at this pace, they will be lucky to get to that number in wins this season.

The Habs have struggled out of the gate this season winning only once in their first five games (that one by the way was a shootout win over Ottawa in their first game of the season). I would bet that their fans will be willing to live with a lost season if their team can win all four head-to-head match ups with the Maple Leafs. That, however, changed on Saturday. Thanks in part to a boy from Arizona.

Also see:

Things are Going Good for the Leafs
Price is Right for Canada
The Maple Leafs Need Their Own Bringer of Rain

Golden Knights Not Your Typical Expansion Team

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The Vegas Golden Knights are 3 & 0 to start not only the 2017-2018 NHL season but also their maiden voyage in the National Hockey League. Mind you, my Maple Leafs are also 3 & 0 so the haters will say: it’s early.

The difference between starts from the Leafs and the Knights is a) the level of talent, and b) the schedule. There is no Auston Matthews or a Mitch Marner on the Knights and the Maple Leafs won two of their 3 games against a playoff team with a former Vezina winner (New York Rangers), and a recent Stanley Cup champ (Chicago). Two of Vegas’ three wins were against the lowly Arizona Coyotes, a team that some would say plays like an expansion team.

But having said all that, the Golden Knights are making a lot of noise early on in the season. Part of it is because of the caliber of talent that was made available to General Manager George McPhee. What other first-year team can acquire a Marc-Andre Fleury or a James Neal in the expansion draft? I can’t think of any. Fleury looks like the goaltender that once led the Pittsburgh Penguins to a Stanley Cup championship in 2009 and Neal is lighting the lamp at a record pace.

Add to it, the backdrop of the horrific massacre two weekends ago where 58 people were killed during a shooting at an outdoor music festival. The emotions coming from that and the team providing an avenue to escape is allowing the Knights to quickly develop a large fan base. Vegas’ home opener on Tuesday was something to be said. The ceremony was slightly subdued which led the team’s performance on the ice to provide enough pomp and circumstance to make it a celebratory occasion.

Time will only tell whether the Golden Knights can keep this up and become a playoff contender in the first year of existence. The next two games will provide a true test for the Knights: Detroit on Friday and Boston on Sunday. But it is a storybook start for the team and the Knights’ management are the authors of it.

Also see:

Get the Right Player First, then Spend the Money
The Raptors are Playing with House Money
Surprised by the Blue Jays’ Success? You Shouldn’t Be

 

Contact Won’t Kill Sport, Petty Rules Will

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Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

I recall the 1994 baseball players strike where there were cries that fans will never watch a game again. That same sentiment was echoed in 2004 when the NHL locked out its players which lasted the entire season. Everyone, at least in the media, believed this was the end of professional hockey as we know it.

Fast forward to 2014, both baseball and hockey have never seen their respective sport become more popular than before. Labour strife has not killed sport as a lot of experts have suggested. Earlier this year, members of the United States Women’s Ice Hockey threatened to boycott the Women’s World Hockey Championship over money. It hardly got any negative press. In fact, many in the media stood up and applauded as did hockey fans on both sides of the border. These people who said they would never see a game again because of the bickering over money are making Donald Trump the most honest man in the world.

The latest threat making the rounds is concussions. Contrary to popular belief, head injuries is not news. The difference is, thanks to advancement in medical technology, we are now seeing the consequences of getting hit in the head. That has caused doctors and others in the medical profession to call for rules in place to prevent such injuries. But how? There have been penalties in place for hits to the head but it is as clear as mud. As we are witnessing it being put into practice, the new rules have not prevented more head injuries and players are not sure what’s allowed and what is not.

There is a false notion that people watch hockey for goal scoring. No questions that scoring goals is important, it what determines who wins or loses. But as I have said before on a number of occasions, it takes more than scoring goals to win games. And part of that is preventing goals from being scored. That involves a certain level of contact. Plain and simple. We have witnessed during all-star games where if defence is non-existent, it makes for a boring game. You can’t defend if you are not allowed to make contact, or at the very least there is the possibility of making contact.

The violent nature of hockey or football is not going to kill the sport. What will kill sport is putting in rules that will hinder the player’s ability to perform to the best of their abilities. Can’t hit in the head? Can’t go below the knees? The “sensitive” area is certainly off-limits. So what part of the body is left to make contact? You realize that these ridiculous calls for safety are being championed by those who don’t give a damn. They wear suits, glasses, have a PhD in something, not the qualities I associate with a sports fan. They claim they are doing it in the best interest for sports, but don’t believe it for a second. The lack of contact in sports, and the petty rules enforcing it, is going to do far more damage than the cancellation of the World Series or losing an entire NHL season.

Also see:

Have Attitudes Towards Athletes Who Boycott/Strike Changed?
The Latest Futile Attempt to Ban Fighting in Hockey
Hockey is a Tough Sport, Get Use to it