Monday, March 31, 2014

Hockey and Life

Every now and then, events occur that remind us all that Hockey is, ultimately, just a game.  Recently, we have been deluged with such events.
First, there was the news of Calgary Flames centerman Matt Stajan and his wife losing their newborn son shortly after his birth.  Stajan had missed several games without explanation, and Sunday the world found out why.  No details were given out of respect for the Stajans’ privacy.  What is known is that Matt was placed on indefinite personal leave from the team until such time as he felt ready to return to hockey.  He has since returned to the lineup and scored a penalty-shot goal for his late son.  My thoughts and prayers are with them.
The next weekend, hockey’s social media lit up with messages about a missing player from the Ontario Hockey League’s Saginaw Spirit.  Terry Trafford had disappeared, apparently without a trace.  There were no clues given.  It seemed very odd.  With each passing day, the pleas for help in finding him grew more desperate.  Fears that he may have been the victim of foul play ran rampant, but there was something more to the story.  Yesterday, Michigan State Police received a report that a vehicle matching the description of Trafford’s was found in a parking lot, with a dead male body inside.  The ambiguity of the identity of the body was standard procedure for police, prior to notification of the next of kin.  But it left the door open to hope that Terry was still alive and missing, and that this body belonged to some other poor soul.  It sounds like a terrible thing, to hope that somebody else’s friend/relative is dead instead of yours, but it’s a natural impulse.  We so desperately want to cling to the hope that our loved one is still alive.  Unfortunately, everyone’s fears were confirmed and the body did belong to Terry.
Like a lot of people, I didn’t know Terry Trafford.  In fact, before this past weekend I’d never heard of him.  I and many others knew nothing about him, but over the last few days we’ve learned a few things.  First, he was obviously a well-liked and highly regarded young man.  Second, he had been suspended from the team for “violating team rules”.  I’ve read reports of the team rules he violated, but I don’t want to speculate on rumours and hearsay.  What is known is that he was suspended.  He disappeared last Monday without a word.  According to his girlfriend, he had dealt with depression in the past and talked of suicide after being suspended.  He said that, without hockey, his life was over and he saw no reason to go on.  I won’t point a finger of blame, but rather express the wish that he would have gotten help.  He had been dealing with his depression on his own, and apparently could no longer carry the burden.  I pray for him and his loved ones.
Finally, you probably saw the video of Rich Peverley collapsing behind the Dallas Stars’ bench during a game.  It was a very scary scene, to be sure…especially given Peverley’s medical history.  He was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat before the season and underwent a surgical procedure to correct it back in September.  Since then he has had “episodes” but his condition has been manageable with constant monitoring.  His “episodes” have been minor bouts of shortness of breath and fatigue, and have occasionally caused him to miss games.  This is the first time he had what is being termed a “cardiac event” without any sign of trouble beforehand.  In any case, it’s very disconcerting to see a professional athlete (whom one would assume is in top physical condition) in such distress.  You can tell by the reaction of the play-by-play man and color commentator how urgent the situation was.  I’m happy to report that Peverley survived and underwent surgery to correct an ongoing heart condition.  He’s not out of the woods, by any means, but all appears to be going well.  I wish him the best of luck with his surgery and hope for a full and speedy recovery.
What I noticed immediately while watching this video was the quick response of the medical staff, starting with the Stars’ Athletic Trainers Dave Zeis and Craig Lowry.  You hear the broadcaster say “It’s panic and pandemonium down there”, but he’s referring to the scene in general, not the response of the Trainers.  They move into action immediately and move Peverley out of the bench area to a space where they have room to work (and room for the other responders to work).  You can see how quickly the Blue Jackets Trainers step in to help and how quickly the EMTs get on the scene.  All of these factors probably contributed to saving Peverley's life.  That is not an understatement.  Those people saved Peverley’s life.  And the margin was likely very slim.  One misstep, one hesitation, one delay…could have made the difference between a remarkable story and a horrible tragedy.  Rich Peverley is alive because all of those individuals knew what had to be done and they did it.
In my 20+ years of working in professional hockey, I’ve seen some scary things…some life-threatening things.  In each case, I’ve marveled at the response of the medical professionals who cover professional hockey games.  From the Trainers to the EMTs to the Team Doctors, these people know what they’re doing and they snap into action when the moment comes.  They are trained in dealing with traumatic situations, and because of that they spring into action when others stand in shock.  I’ve witnessed this on numerous occasions (more than I’d care to count).  One in particular stands out in my memory.
It was February of 2007.  I was working with the ECHL’s Phoenix Roadrunners, and we were in Anchorage for a game against the Alaska Aces.  There were a few minutes remaining in a 5-2 game for the Aces.  Roadrunners rookie defenseman Dave Pszenyczny was backpedaling into his defensive zone, forcing an Aces forward to the outside.  As the guy tried to go wide around him, Chezy closed the gap and took him into the boards.  They got tangled up and went to the ice.  The next thing I knew, Chezy was skating back towards our bench, doubled over and holding his arm/wrist to his abdomen.  My initial thought, based on the way he was holding his arm, was that he must have jammed his wrist when he fell to the ice.  Then I saw the front of his jersey turn red with blood.  I turned to yell for our Trainer, Brad Chavis, who was already on the ice making a beeline for Pszenyczny.  Chavy motioned for Chezy to turn and head for the corner and off the ice.  Chavy got to him and guided him off the ice and under the stands toward the locker rooms.  A hush fell over the crowd and most of us stood there transfixed.  The only ones moving around were medical personnel; Trainers, EMTs, and Team Doctors.  After what seemed like an eternity, much of which was spent watching rink workers scrape the blood off the ice, the officials called the teams to line back up and prepare for the faceoff.  I couldn’t tell you what happened in those remaining few minutes of game time.  It was inconsequential.  The only thing I remember about it is hearing the PA announcer call for medical personnel up to the stands.  We later found out that the scene had been so traumatic that a man in the stands had actually had a heart attack.  What we were able to piece together after the fact was that Chezzy had ended up on the ice with his arm outstretched and in trying to continue on towards the corner the Aces player had stepped on the inside of his lower arm (accidentally, of course).  In trying to push off to continue his stride, he had slashed his skate blade across Chezzy’s arm and sliced all the way through to the bones.  In the process, he severed all of Chezzy’s tendons (which control the movement of the wrist, hand, and fingers) and the artery that provides blood for the extremity.  This explains the massive loss of blood.
We finished the game and left the ice to head back to our dressing room.  After leaving the ice, we walked through the doors leading to the hallway underneath the stands and to our locker room.  Chezy was still there.  He was still being treated, but the initial urgency had given way to a more practiced level of activity.  In short, the situation was stable.  They loaded him up and took him to the hospital, but his ordeal was just beginning.  He would spend 5 hours in surgery just to repair the artery, then would have to endure further surgery to reattach the tendons and then close everything up.  After that, he had a long and arduous rehabilitation process to regain feeling and control in his wrist, hand, and fingers.  When I last spoke to him, he said he still doesn’t have full feeling in his little fingers.  But I’m happy to report that he returned to the Roadrunners before the end of that season and is still playing hockey today (currently in the CHL with the Missouri Mavericks).
I also had a very similar situation (eerily similar) occur last season with the Evansville Icemen in an ECHL game against the Everblades in Florida, with an equally adept response by Icemen Trainer Brian Patafie.  I’m happy to report that that player, Josh Beaulieu, returned to the Icemen this season and was named Captain.  Both he and Pszenyczny are tough individuals (and great guys, to boot).  They also owe a huge debt of gratitude to the quick response of their Trainers and the EMTs who were on the scene, medical professionals who know how to respond to a crisis.

A little post script to the Alaska story:

We played one more game in Alaska the next night.  I was still somewhat in shock as we prepared for the game.  I think we all just wanted to get the game over with and get home.  As I straightened up my end of the bench before the start of the game, I heard a tap on the glass.  You tend to ignore this when you're on the road because it's usually some drunk, loud-mouthed home fan who just wants to tell you that you suck.  But, for some reason, I looked up.  There was a little boy standing there, maybe 5 or 6 years old, proudly wearing his Aces jersey.  He had a very concerned look on his face and he held up a small sign that read, "I hope your teammate is O.K."  I nodded and thanked him.  Underneath everything, humanity remains.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Olympic Hockey - Prelims

If you follow women’s international hockey, you know that there are Team USA, Team Canada, and then everybody else.  There are quite a few teams representing numerous different countries, but the Americans and Canadians stand 1-2 over the rest.  The gap is closing, but it’s still ponderous.  So it was no surprise to see Team USA and Team Canada each handle their business fairly easily through their first 2 games.   Canada peppered the appropriately named Swiss goalie Florence Schelling with 69 shots en route to a 5-0 rout, then beat Finland by a score of 3-0.  The American ladies cruised to a 3-1 victory over Finland, then unloaded their own barrage against Schelling for a 9-0 romp against Switzerland.  This set up a preliminary round showdown of the top 2 teams in women’s hockey.

The matchup between the US and Canada in each team’s 3rd game was by far the most anticipated contest of this Olympic women’s tournament.  It did not disappoint.  It’s no secret that there is no love lost between these two teams.  They make no secret of the fact that they don’t like each other.  They say familiarity breeds contempt, and these teams are very familiar with each other.  They met 7 times in pre-Olympic competition, with Team USA winning the last 4 matches after dropping the first 3.  Two of the games led to fisticuffs on the ice, a rarity in the women’s game.

I was looking forward to this game as much as anybody.  I had the chance to watch 2 of the tune-up games (including one of the brawls) and was looking forward to the intense, physical battle that this promised to be.  As I said before, this game did not disappoint (with the exception of the outcome, if you’re a Team USA fan).  Canada dictated the flow of the game for most of the first 57 minutes or so.  They came out throwing the body around and set the tempo early.  Except for a couple of inconsistencies, the refs let the girls play for the most part.  Canada seemed to thrive on the physicality, thought the Americans didn't shy away from it.

The game was largely dominated by great goaltending.  Canada had numerous opportunities to score in the first period and US goalie Jessie Vetter was equal to the task.  The Americans also had their share of chances in the first period (outshooting Canada 11-8) but couldn't capitalize, hitting one crossbar and having several point-blank chances thwarted by defensive plays.  The second period was more of the same, with the Americans holding a slight advantage in shots.  Hilary Knight deflected a shot by Anne Schleper past Labonte on the Power Play, giving Team USA a 1-0 lead late in the second period.  Team Canada wasted little time tying things up, netting the equalizer on a Power Play early in the 3rd period.  Captain Canada Hayley Wickenheiser made a great pass to a wide-open Meghan Agosta-Marciano, who buried her shot to even the score.  Agosta-Marciano returned the favor, assisting on Wickenheiser’s controversial go-ahead goal.  I say controversial because replays showed that the puck crossed the line after the whistle had blown.  Somehow, the goal was allowed to stand after a review (though nobody seems to know whether the review confirmed or overturned the call on the ice, because the referee never signaled either way).  In any case, the goal did count.  Agosta-Marciano added another goal with just over five minutes remaining to make it a 3-1 game.  The Americans pulled Jessie Vetter for the extra attacker, which led to Anne Schleper’s goal with 1:05 remaining.  They pulled Vetter again but were unable to score the tying goal and dropped a 3-2 decision.

It’s a shame that a lot of people will be talking about the officiating in this game.  As I said, aside from a couple of inconsistencies (and missing at least two obvious too-many-men penalties), I thought it was a pretty well-officiated game.  Many people will focus on the goal that shouldn’t have counted, but make no mistake.  It was a bad call, and probably shouldn’t have been allowed to stand, but the Canadians definitely deserved to win the game.  They dominated most of the play throughout the game, and especially in the 3rd period (where they held the US without a shot on goal for the first 16 minutes or so).  They deserved to win the game.

Canada’s 3 stars of the game for me are definitely Labonte, Wickenheiser, and Agosta-Marciano.  Labonte held her team in the game early and made numerous big saves throughout.  Wickenheiser made the play that led to Canada’s first goal, then added one of her own, and she was the clear leader of the team from the drop of the puck.  Agosta-Marciano buried 2 goals.  Enough said.  The 3 stars for Team USA were Vetter, Knight, and Schleper.  Vetter fought off numerous early chances and held the Americans in the game for 2 periods before the dam finally burst.  Knight played an intense, physical game and created most of the chances that the Americans had in the game.  Schleper came up with a big offensive performance from the back end.

As expected, this game was far and away the best contest of the women’s tournament so far.  If these teams meet for the Gold Medal (as expected), that game should be even better than this one.  Don’t miss it!

On the men’s side, there were a few surprises.  Canada looked a little sluggish in their opening game against Norway.  They still got the win, but Norway is a second-tier team and Canada should have beaten them easily.  Of course, it was the first time most of these guy had played together, so they can be forgiven if it took them a few minutes to click.  On the other side of that coin, Team USA handily beat Slovakia in their opener, posting a 7-1 victory.  I was expecting a little bit more from the Slovaks.

The most anticipated matchup of the men’s prelims was undoubtedly Team USA vs Russia.  Billed as the rematch of the Miracle on Ice from the 1980 Olympics, it was probably the most hyped preliminary round game in Olympics history.  It all seems a bit silly to me.  There was none of the same drama from 1980…no cold war, no Afghanistan invasion, no scrappy college kids playing against seasoned pros…it’s just another game.  But for Russian hockey fans, it was a chance to see their beloved national team face the hated Americans on Russian ice.  From the opening faceoff, you could see it wasn't just another game.  The crowd was loud and rowdy.  It was a great atmosphere.  And the game didn't disappoint.  It was everything that most fans like in a hockey game.  Strong physical play, fast skating, pinpoint passing, tight defense, and solid goaltending.  After a scoreless first period, Pavel Datsyuk got the Russians on the board in the second period with a breakaway goal on Jonathan Quick.  With Alexander Radulov serving a cross-checking minor, Cam Fowler answered for the Americans with a Power Play goal past Sergei Bobrovsky.  Joe Pavelski put Team USA ahead with a Power Play goal of his own after another Radulov penalty.  Then Datsyuk tied the game with a Power Play goal of his own.

Here’s where it gets tricky.  With time winding down in regulation, Fyodor Tyutin fired the apparent go-ahead goal over Jonathan Quick’s shoulder, sending the Sochi crowd into a frenzy.  When the roar died down, the fans slowly came to realize that something was amiss.  The officials were consulting.  That’s usually not a good sign.  Then came the announcement…goal disallowed.  The faceoff went outside the American defensive zone without an actual explanation.  Most thought initially that they were reviewing whether or not a Russian player had deflected the puck with a high stick.  The replay seemed to show that nobody had deflected it, but a different replay showed that the net had come ever so slightly off its moorings during a net-mouth scramble just before the Tyutin shot.  Since, by rule, a goal cannot be scored while the net is dislodged (except under very few, very particular circumstances), the goal could not stand.  The final horn sounded without another goal, and the game was headed to overtime.  After a fairly uneventful 5-minute OT period failed to settle the score, it was up to a shootout to determine the winner.  After 3 shooters per side it was still deadlocked, so they went to sudden-death rounds.  In a quirk of international shootout rules, once the initial 3 shooters have gone a team can reuse any player as many times as they want.  At this point, T.J. Oshie became the designated shooter for the US, while the Russians alternated Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk.  Oshie went 4 for 6 in his attempts, finally winning the game for America after a Kovalchuk miss.  Final score, 3-2 Team USA in a shootout.

So, of course, people lined up around the block to cry foul about the disallowed goal.  Well, suck it up, buttercup.  They made the call according to the rule and they’re not gonna change it now.  If you think you’re the only team to lose a game on a disputed call, you’re sadly mistaken.  Just ask anybody in Buffalo.  Besides, it was only a prelim game.

In any case, now the prelims are over and it’s time to get down to business.  As I write this, we’re about 6 hours away from the women’s semifinal game between Team USA and Sweden.  I haven’t really seen anything of the Swedes, so I’m not sure what to expect from them.  What I do know is, to quote Hilary Knight, “I’d hate to be the other team right now”.  The US ladies want to come out and show that they’re ready to play for that Gold Medal, and I wouldn't want to be standing in their way.  Best of luck to all in the medal rounds.  Go USA!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Stanley Cup Final and beyond...

So, while I've been away a lot has happened. The Blackhawks won another Stanley Cup with a stunning come-from-behind victory in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, scoring 2 goals in the last minute to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. I was surprised. Not only had I picked the Bruins to win it in 6, after the first 3 games it looked like they were right on track to do exactly that. But Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane suddenly sprang to life and led the Hawks to the promised land. It was really interesting to have the final 4 teams in the playoffs represent the last 4 Stanley Cup winners. That had never happened before. History has been made.

Some of you may have been wondering why in my last blog I referred to the Stanley Cup Final (singular) as opposed to Stanley Cup Finals (plural, indicating more than one). I often see and hear people refer to the Stanley Cup Finals. But the term Stanley Cup Final refers to the series. There is only one series. There are 4-7 games in that series, but each game is just part of the Stanley Cup Final, not a final unto itself. It seems like a minor point, but only because it is a minor point. But since the NHL in all its infinite wisdom has deemed their championship series the Stanley Cup Final (as shown in the logo to the left), I choose to use their preferred nomenclature. I don't care if the NBA does choose to refer to their championship series as The Finals. Basically, I don't care what the NBA does at all.

Now, on to why I put quotation marks around "Original 6" when referring to the pre-expansion NHL. The reason is simple. When the NHL was formed in 1917 (No, I wasn't there) the league consisted of the Montreal Canadiens, the Ottawa Senators, the Toronto Arenas (who would go on to become the St. Patricks and later the Maple Leafs), and the Montreal Wanderers. So, the term "Original 6" is a misnomer. There were only 4 teams in the inaugural NHL (and the Wanderers dropped out mid-season after a fire destroyed their arena). The league remained in flux, adding and dropping teams, for their first 50 years. The NHL didn't have a team in the United States until 1924, when it added the expansion Boston Bruins (along with the Montreal Maroons). This was also the first season in which the NHL consisted of 6 teams. The New York Rangers weren't even the first NHL team in New York when they joined in 1926 along with the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Cougars (who would go on to become the Detroit Falcons and later the Red Wings). The New York Americans predated them by a year (but only lasted until 1942). The 1926-27 season was the first in which all 6 of the "Original 6" teams played in the NHL (2 of them still using different names from today). And there were a total of 10 teams in the NHL that year. But teams would come and go, and some would change names, up until the outbreak of World War 2. After the 1941-42 season the Brooklyn Americans ceased operations, leaving the "Original 6" teams as we know them. They would remain as such for a quarter of a century, until the 1967 expansion doubled the size of the league.

I've always had a fondness for the '67 expansion teams. I think it has something to do with my having been born in 1967, so essentially I'm the same age as all of those teams (which, I know, is kind of depressing). With the Los Angeles Kings finally notching a cup win last year, there remains only one of those expansion teams that has yet to win the Stanley Cup, the St. Louis Blues (One other, the California Seals/Oakland Seals/California Golden Seals/Cleveland Barons, merged with the Minnesota North Stars in 1978, so technically both franchises won as the Dallas Stars in 1999). And, since the Bruins won it in 2011, there now remains only one "Original 6" franchise which hasn't won a cup in my lifetime, the Toronto Maple Leafs (who last won it in 1967, about 6 months before I was born). This means that I'm basically as old as the '67 expansion teams AND the Leafs Stanley Cup drought. I think that may explain why I've always been fascinated by the history of Hockey, specifically as it relates to the pre- versus post-expansion NHL.

So, to keep busy and earn a little cash I worked once again at the Bobcats Elite Prospects camp. My old coach from the ECHL Phoenix Roadrunners, Ron Filion, has held this camp the last 2 summers in Salt Lake City, Utah. It's an invitation-only camp, and includes players from Ron's Bobcats AAA hockey program and other select players from around the western US. I worked the camp last summer and had a blast, so I was happy to be asked back this year. It was a ton of work, but well worth it. It was cool to see a lot of the same faces back from last season and see how they've progressed since last year. In addition, it was a chance to meet a whole new bunch of kids. It's a great camp, with a lot of very good instructors. I got to reunite with one of my old players and coaches, Pat Dunn. Dunner played for the Tucson Gila Monsters when I worked there and was my coach during my first season with the New Mexico Scorpions. I hadn't seen him in about 10 years. He hasn't changed a bit. He's now the General Manager of the Corpus Christi Icerays junior team in the NAHL.

Now, as the summer comes to an end, the calendar turns to hockey season. With SPHL players reporting for training camp today, all of the professional leagues have begun their seasons. For the first time in 19 years, I will not be working a professional hockey training camp. I'm not exactly sure how I feel about that. I mean, obviously I'm going to miss it. It feels weird sitting at home watching hockey on TV and not being around the locker room. It feels weird to read about the comings and going of the various training camps without being a part of it myself. I'm not quite sure what to do with myself.

On the other hand, I'm kind of enjoying being a Phoenician again. Over the last couple of years I've come to realize how much I've missed my hometown, and now it feels good to be home. Instead of looking for hockey jobs, I'm now looking for a regular, real-life job. It promises to be an interesting transition, but I'm looking forward to it. I'm still hoping that this will be a temporary situation, and that I'll find my way back into hockey, if not in the same capacity. But for now I'm ready for a new challenge.

But then...that's just me.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Phil Kessel, Lumberjack

If you're a hockey fan, I'm sure you've seen the video.  In a preseason game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Buffalo Sabres, Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel raises his stick above his head and chops down forcefully onto the leg of Sabres enforcer John Scott.  This comes in response to Scott lining up opposite Kessel for the face-off and making an obvious threat, then dropping his gloves with the puck and attempting to jump Kessel.  Now, as we all know, it is a breach of hockey etiquette for an enforcer (which Scott obviously is) to fight a skill player (which you would have to consider Kessel).  All of this came in response to a previous fight between Cory Tropp and Jamie DeVane, in which Tropp ended up banging his head on the ice (after his helmet fell off).  Tropp, a much smaller player than DeVane, ended up with a concussion and a broken jaw.  Apparently, the Sabres took exception to the big guy fighting a little guy (another no-no in hockey’s unwritten rule book).  I wouldn’t blame them for seeking retribution in that situation if it wasn’t for one simple fact; Tropp initiated the fight with DeVane.  All DeVane did was accept the challenge.  If anybody’s to blame for what happened to Tropp, it’s Tropp himself.  Quite simply, he bit off more than he could chew and he paid the price for it.
In any case, the Sabres obviously felt the need for payback, so Head Coach Ron Rolston sent out his biggest tough guy to “send a message”.  Well, we all know what that means.  Scott was sent out there to beat the snot out of somebody.  Leafs Head Coach Randy Carlyle, apparently trying to defuse the situation, responded by sending out Kessel’s line.  He figured that Scott would respect the code and not attack a skill player.  As it turns out, he was wrong.  Still, I can’t fault him for what happened next.  Scott went ahead and dropped his gloves and went after Kessel, who clearly didn’t want any part of any fight.  He backed away, and chopped at Scott’s legs (shinpads, pants, whatever…essentially noplace that would do any damage) to try and keep him at bay.  At this point, one of Kessel’s teammates, Carter Ashton, jumped in and tangled with Scott, which touched off a line brawl that even saw the goalies going at it.  Kessel followed through with another whack (which may or may not have landed) at Scott’s legs before dropping his gloves to fight Travis Turnbull, a Sabres rookie who is much closer to Kessel’s size.  Later in the melee, Kessel has gathered up his gloves and stick and goes back at Scott, who is still tied up with David Clarkson, and pushes at him with the heel of his stick.  A lot of people mistakenly claim that he speared him, but upon reviewing the video you can clearly see that he doesn’t spear him with the toe of the blade, he pushes him with the heel of the blade.  It may seem like a minor distinction, but as somebody who has been hit by a stick in both of these fashions I can tell you unequivocally that being speared hurts much worse than the heel push, which is fairly inconsequential.
Upon reviewing the referees’ report and video of the incident it was up to the NHL’s enforcement czar, Brendan Shanahan, to make some sort of sense of this mess and administer the proper punishment to all involved.  What he ended up doing was fining Ron Rolston for his choice of players in sending Scott out (which seems odd because Carlyle had the last change).  I don’t really have a problem with that.  It was clear by what happened next that he had sent Scott out to seek revenge, or at the very least that he was responsible for Scott’s actions after sending him out under those circumstances.  Scott got no suspension for what amounted to jumping an unwilling player, which should have carried an instigator or aggressor penalty and a game misconduct, but really nothing else.  I’m okay with that.  While his violation of “The Code” was egregious, the league can’t discipline players for violating unwritten rules.  There may be some further payback coming at a later date (assuming the Leafs can find a bigger Neanderthal to administer said payback), but nothing in the NHL rulebook warranted any type of suspension for his actions.
Phil Kessel got a 3-game suspension (the balance of the preseason schedule) for his role in the affair.  This basically amounts to nothing.  Since players aren’t paid during the preseason, he’s not losing any salary.  Basically, he’s getting 3 games off that he wasn’t being paid for anyway.  Some people think that this is a travesty because of the way he swung his stick.  Let’s be realistic here.  He didn’t swing at the guy’s head.  He swung at his legs, probably hitting him in the shinpads or on the heavily padded pants.  He did no damage.  He didn’t hurt Scott.  Hell, Scott hardly even flinched.  In reality, what he did amounted to a couple of whacks (2-minute minor for slashing each) and one little shove with the heel of his stick, which may have warranted another minor.  This wasn’t a “stick-swinging incident” as the news outlets trumpeted.  This was a stick-swinging incident:
Here’s where it gets tricky, however.  David Clarkson can be seen leaving the bench to come to Kessel’s defense, which is a clear violation of NHL rules and carries an automatic 10-game suspension (to be served during the regular season, not preseason).  While I understand the reasoning behind that rule (to keep a line brawl from turning into a full bench-clearing brawl), I think it’s a little harsh given what happened in this case.  The Sabres got zero games for their role in a brawl that they instigated, while the Leafs got a total of 13 games (including the 3 preseason games that Kessel got for defending himself).  It seems totally out of line that the Sabres got off with less punishment when they were the clear aggressors.

The only issue I have with all of this is the fact that Kessel’s suspension only includes preseason games.  If what he did warranted a suspension (which it didn’t), that suspension should be served in the regular season like all the other suspensions that we’ve seen this preseason.  Why does he get to serve 3 meaningless games while everybody else has to miss time in the regular season?  It doesn’t make sense.  But then…that’s the NHL.

Friday, August 9, 2013

"The Trade"

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been 25 years since “The Trade”. On August 9, 1988, Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings by the Edmonton Oilers. Yes, I know that there were other players involved. But Wayne was the big name in that deal.  He had the greatest impact on those two franchises and on the NHL.  But beyond that, he had an impact on hockey in the Southern US.  His arrival in L.A. thrust hockey into the spotlight of America’s sports culture.  Suddenly, hockey was cool in the Sun Belt. Suddenly, Kings games were a hot ticket. Suddenly, Kings games were sold out…all of them.  Suddenly, Hollywood stars started going to Kings games to be seen by the paparazzi, rather than to hide from them. The quality of celebrity attendees at Kings games rose from Lynda Carter (TV’s Wonder Woman from the 70s) and Adam West (TV’s Batman from the 60s) to Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn and John Candy (Believe me, they were big in movies in the 80s).
But beyond that, the newfound popularity of the Kings began to spread to a lot of the Southern states. Living in Arizona (since we didn’t have an NHL team of our own), I was one of many people who followed the Kings (although, in my case, I started following them a couple of years earlier). But the result was that hockey became far more popular in states below the Mason-Dixon Line than it had ever been before. Even though many of these cities already had minor-league teams, hockey was still a fringe sport in most of these communities. There were always the die-hard fans, many of them transplants from colder climes, but suddenly there were more “casual” fans being exposed to hockey on TV and checking out the minor league version in their own cities. There was an upsurge in popularity among many minor league teams and that resulted in expansion of some of the Southern leagues.  Based on this expansion, the NHL made moves to expand into the previously untouched (with the exception of the Kings and the Atlanta Flames) Southern United States.
In 1990, the NHL put a second team in California with the expansion San Jose Sharks, who were followed a year later by the Tampa Bay Lightning. In 1993, the Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas and the league’s Southern expansion continued with the addition of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and the Florida Panthers. The Winnipeg Jets moved south and became the Phoenix Coyotes in 1996 and the Hartford Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes in 1997. The Nashville Predators joined the league in 1998 and the league returned to Atlanta with the Thrashers in 1999.

You could make the argument that eventually the NHL might have expanded to most or all of those cities anyway, but Wayne’s presence in L.A. jump-started the process. Southern hockey fans owe a huge debt of gratitude to him.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

I'm back, baby!

Hey everybody...miss me yet? For those of you who are paying attention (yes, both of you) I'm sorry for the lengthy delay between blog posts. I haven't posted since last summer because I've been in a kind of funk ever since I left Columbus. I don't know why...maybe just because things were so different in Evansville. Maybe because part of me just wasn't ready to leave Columbus. That was the best team I've ever been a part of, in every aspect. From management to the players to the staff to the fans...nothing else compares to it. Nothing at all against Evansville. I liked the city and we had a great building and I got to meet some really good people. I just never felt connected to that team the way I did in Columbus. 

Anyway, that's over now. I'm back home in Phoenix for the summer and trying to figure out my next move. I'm not sure where I'll be working next season, or if I'll still be in Hockey, but I'm not going back to Evansville. I'll keep you posted on that situation when there's more to report.

On a happier note, tonight is one of my favorite nights of the year...Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. This will be the first matchup of two "Original 6" teams in the final series since the Montreal Canadiens beat the New York Rangers in the 1979 Stanley Cup Final, and the first ever Final meeting between the Blackhawks and Bruins.

My prediction for the series is that the Bruins are going to win in 6 games. I'm expecting a good series between two very good teams, but I think the Bruins' goaltending, overall defense, and transition from defense to offense are going to be too much for the 'Hawks to handle. I think Chicago's biggest assets are their speed and skill, and frankly their big guns just haven't produced much in the playoffs. Other players have stepped up to carry them through to this point, but I don't think they have enough to match Boston.

That's all for now. I'll be back soon to explain why it's Stanley Cup Final (not Finals) and why I put quotes around "Original 6". Stay tuned.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Georgia On My Mind

I've got good news, and I've got bad news. I'll give you the bad news first, since some of you already know it anyway. I will not be returning to the Cottonmouths this season. After a five-year run here, the time came for me to move on. I initially came here just to be a part of Craig Stahl's final season (which turned into his final 3 seasons). After he retired, I thought about following suit. But I wasn't ready to call it a career yet. Then after the following season I really felt like we were close to a championship and I was looking forward to what we would do last season. Well, you all know how last season turned out. Now, with my first professional championship under my belt (thanks to Boom Boom and the boys), it's time for me to move on.

So, with that in mind, I'm finally ready to announce my next move. I've just accepted the job as Equipment Manager for the Evansville Icemen of the ECHL. I'm pretty excited about it. They played in the Central Hockey League last season, but made the jump to the ECHL for this season. Their travel schedule is actually pretty decent. They have a new building (The Ford Center, opened just last season). All in all, it's a pretty good setup. I'm looking forward to it.

But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't going to miss Columbus. This team, this organization, is pretty special. I've been working in hockey for 23 years now, and I've never worked for better owners than we have here. Wanda and Shelby care about the team and always treat everybody like part of the family. That means a lot to people who spend most of the year away from their families. So for that I thank them.

Additionally, I'd like to thank Jerome for bringing me here in the first place and for giving me the chance to be a part of something pretty special. Like the Amos', Jerome treats everybody like family. I have had the chance to meet some extraordinary people in this game, and I would put Jerome high on that list. Columbus is lucky to have him.

I'd also like to thank the office staff; Jason Bray, Erin Thames, Whitney Mixon, and Lindsey Gierer. They were always willing to help with anything and exemplified teamwork and cooperation. I'll miss all of them.

Next, I'd like to thank all of the players I worked with during my time here. You made my 5 years very special. We had a great group of guys each year, and I hated saying goodbye each year as much as I enjoyed welcoming the new guys each year. They exhibited great character (and some of them were great characters) and I was proud to work with them. I'll miss them and think about them warmly and often.

Also, thanks to Hannah Peterson, the Cottonmouths' Trainer. She was a pleasure to work with. She's a good trainer and was a great friend.

I know I've mentioned them before, but I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the equipment staff. Flip, Shooter, Barney, Ryno, T-Mac, Bubba, and Mike did a great job for the Snakes, and I appreciated everything they did. They helped make this job a true pleasure. I'll miss them most of all.

Finally, I'd like to thank the fans. Columbus has the greatest fans and I had the great pleasure to meet many of you. Everybody here treated me very well and I appreciate it greatly.

For my final blog before I leave Columbus, I'd like to do a top 5 list of my favorite Cottonmouth moments. 

#5 - Legends weekend 2008. This was my first experience with this type of game, and though it was a lot of work it was worth it in the end. It was very cool to see all the old players come back, and I really liked the throwback jerseys we wore. It was a long weekend but a lot of fun.

#4 - Snakes @ Fireantz, December 2010. The week before Christmas, we had a game in Fayetteville. We weren't doing well in the standings, and Fireantz Coach Tommy Stewart made some comments in the paper calling us the worst team in the league. Trailing 3-1 in the second, Jerome called a timeout and read the boys the riot act. We came out hitting after that and a particularly hard hit by Jeff MacPhee touched off a line brawl. We then proceeded to come back and win the game just to spite Stewy for making those comments about us. It was a great game to watch. There were nice goals, great saves, a big comeback, a line brawl...a little something for everybody.

#3 - Snakes Vs. Ice Flyers, 12/2/11. The Ken Porter game. We were a little short-handed due to injuries and call-ups, so we turned to the Army for help. As luck would have it, Fort Benning was the home base of Captain Ken Porter, who had played hockey at West Point before reporting for duty. Not only did he fill in admirably, he scored the winning goal in his first game with us (with his family in attendance). It was the kind of story that even Hollywood can't make up. It was very special to be a part of it.

#2 - Craig Stahl retirement ceremony. It was cool to see the Chief in a Snakes uniform one last time. It was bittersweet, to be sure, but it was nice to see all the old teammates that came out to celebrate his Cottonmouths career. It was a very moving tribute to a guy who meant a whole lot to the team...and to me. It was an honor to be here for the last three years of his career and a pleasure to see his jersey number hung to the rafters.

#1 - I'm sure there's no surprise here, but my number one moment of my five seasons here was winning the President's Cup (Just look at this picture.) Actually, it was more than that. It was the whole playoff run and the stretch run to get to the playoffs. Including 6 for 6 in the playoffs, we won 20 of our last 24 games (going all the way back to February 4th). That's a pretty impressive run. And it was so much fun to be a part of.

And with that, it's time to ride off into the sunset. It's been a thin slice of heaven living here for the last 5 years. You stay classy, Columbus.