Thursday, January 8, 2015


I met a lot of good people during my career in hockey.  Most of them were hockey players, naturally, but some of them were not.  Some were fans and boosters, some were rink workers, and some were fellow team employees.  But regardless of their relationship to the team, we shared a love of hockey and through that shared affinity we found that we had other things in common.  Some of these people have been merely acquaintances while some have become (and remained) close friends.  But in a larger sense, all of them are part of my “hockey family”.  And, as such, their lives are part of my life.  Through the wonder of social media, I am able to keep up with their comings and goings.  And even though we no longer see each other regularly, or at all, it still feels like they are a part of my life.
One such person was Mysti Digby.  She was one of our boosters when I worked for the Lubbock Cotton Kings.  She was the first to greet me on the message boards when it was announced that I had signed with the Kings.  She and her partner in crime, De Lyn Wolcott, arranged sewing parties to fix the team’s hockey socks.  They were always eager to help out in any way they could.  In following the two of them on the message boards I found that they both had a wicked sense of humor, not unlike mine.  I always enjoyed their posts, even after I had left the team.
A couple of years ago, Mysti was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  When I read the words, my heart sank.  I thought, “Why?”  But there’s no answer for that.  She never felt sorry for herself.  She was a strong, Texas woman and she wasn’t going down without a fight.  And fight she did.  She fought cancer.  And she beat it…twice.  But finally it overcame her.  A couple of months ago I got a message on Facebook.  It said, “Did you hear about Mysti?”  I didn’t want to hear the rest.  I already knew.  She fought until the end and she never let it get her down or stand in her way.  She reveled in the little victories and I marveled at her strength.  I was amazed at her ability to stay positive through the most trying of times.  She used to post something nearly every day about something in her world that was awesome, then she would ask, “What’s awesome in your world today?”  You are, Mysti.  You are.
There was a somewhat cryptic tweet a couple of weeks ago from the Chicago Blackhawks mourning the sudden passing of Assistant Equipment Manager Clint Reif.  I’ve never met Clint, but know many people who knew him well.  Every one of them will attest to what a great guy Reif was.  I felt a connection to him only through our common profession, and our membership in the Society of Professional Hockey Equipment Managers.  He is part of the Hockey fraternity, so in that way I feel connected to him.  There was something about the wording of the original tweet that didn’t sound right.  It sounded just a little off.  And I found it odd that there weren’t any details as to the cause of death.  My suspicions were confirmed when the coroner’s office ruled his death a suicide.  Once again, I never knew Clint, so I have no idea what he may have been going through.  Most of the world probably never will.  Nevertheless I do feel a sense of loss at his passing, and regret that something couldn’t have been done to save him.  If only somebody close to him had known, if only he had reached out, perhaps he could have gotten the help that would have saved him.  It’s a shame.  Somebody so young, with a wife and four children, seemingly with the world at his feet…shocking.  It’s all so terribly sad.
There’s an old saying in Hockey that the equipment manager is the first guy to arrive every day and the last guy to leave.  That’s not always the case.  Many times when the equipment manager gets to work there’s already one guy there, the Zamboni driver.  He may have been there overnight, getting the ice ready for today’s morning skate and tonight’s game.  He’s often still there when the equipment manager leaves, finishing up the ice for the next day’s practice.  Because of that, equipment guys are usually pretty close with the ice techs.  One of those I had the great pleasure of meeting was Brian Horne.  Brian was one of the Zamboni drivers at the US Airways Center in Phoenix, the former home of the ECHL’s Phoenix Roadrunners.  I was the equipment manager there for two seasons, so Brian and I saw a lot of each other.  There are a lot of late nights when you share your building with an NBA team.  Brian was one of those guys that was always quick with a smile.  He was just happy to be there, and hoped that he could help the Hockey club.  He was so excited to be a part of it that he even filled in as the mascot on occasion.  I probably shouldn’t have divulged that information.  The general public isn’t supposed to know who the man behind the mask is.  But he wouldn’t have cared.  He wanted people to know.  It was always great to see him on those nights where my tail was dragging and I didn’t even want to think about what I had left to do.  He would come by during his breaks and help us clean up, flip laundry, whatever he could do to help us out.  And he was always so up, so positive.  I swear we would get a burst of energy from him that helped us finish our work for the night so we could go home.  Sometimes I wondered if they even had to pay him.  I know it’s the old cliché, but I really believe he would have done it all for free.
Monday, I got word that Brian had passed away on Sunday.  I don’t want to go into the details, because I’m not sure I have all of them.  I heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend, and I’m not sure how much of it is true or accurate.  What I do know is that he was a great guy.  He was devoted to his wife and his family and his friends and his work.  He had equal passion for everything he did, and that is rare.  He didn’t do anything halfway.  It was all or nothing.  I just hate it when terrible things happen to good people.  I suppose I should be used to it by now, but I don’t think I ever will.
The last stop on this train to Downersville is probably the most shocking to me.  I met Jim Burton when I was working for the IHL Phoenix Roadrunners.  He joined the team as a Player/Assistant Coach before the 1995-96 season.  He didn’t finish the season with us.  He only played nine games and spent a few more behind the bench before leaving the team mid-season to return to his previous team in Austria.  In that short time, I got to know him a bit.  He was the exact opposite of our Head Coach, who was one of those really intense old-school guys.  He said more to me in half a season than the Head Coach did in two years.  He was very happy-go-lucky.  Nothing fazed him.  Even when things were going badly, you would never know it to talk to Burty.  Everything just rolled off of him like water off a duck’s back.  Calm, cool, and collected.  That was Jim.  After finishing the season in Austria, Jim returned to North America to play in the fledgling Western Professional Hockey League with the Austin Ice Bats.  He was past his prime, but still managed 68 points in 52 games…not too shabby for a defenseman.  In fact, he was a very good defenseman for years, winning the Governor’s Trophy as the IHL’s best defenseman three times in the 80s.  He was considered by many to be the “Bobby Orr of the minor leagues”.  When he finally retired from playing, he took over coaching duties with the Ice Bats, then moved on to the Arkansas Glacier Cats before eventually moving on to the ECHL and the Augusta Lynx.
It’s ironic (or maybe not) that he ended up with the Augusta Lynx.  For all his prowess on the ice, by most accounts he was even better on the links.  He made a living for years as a golf pro, and some said he could have made it on the PGA tour if he had had any inclination to do so.  In any case, he always did what he loved and loved what he did.  Stress wasn’t even in his vocabulary.
That’s why it came as such a shock to me to find out on Monday that he had passed away suddenly after suffering a heart attack.  That didn’t make any sense.  Guys like Burty don’t have heart attacks.  They just don’t.  I couldn’t believe it.  I still can’t.

I ran into Burty a few times over the years.  Hockey is a small world and paths tend to cross more than once.  The one thing I remember most about Burty is that he always had time for you.  He never was too busy or in too much of a hurry to stop and ask you how you were doing, what you had been up to, how the family was…anything.  He made me feel special every time we met.  There aren’t many people like that in the world today.  And now there is one fewer.  Jim Burton was a true gentleman, in the very best sense of the word.  He will be missed.

Just so I don't end completely on a down note, here's a little desert music from one of my favorite Tempe bands, The Chimeras (now known as The Pistoleros).  Seemed appropriate.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014


Today I’m experiencing mixed emotions.  On the one hand, I’m ecstatic that the NHL season is beginning tonight (even though my Coyotes don’t open their season until tomorrow night).  On the other hand, however, I’m saddened by the loss of the Central Hockey League.  I worked in the CHL for four seasons, beginning with the WPHL/CHL merger of 2001.  I had worked the four previous seasons with the Western Professional Hockey League’s Lake Charles Ice Pirates.  When Lake Charles didn’t make the cut for the merger, I went to work for the Lubbock Cotton Kings for a season, then spent the next three seasons with the New Mexico Scorpions.  Having been through one of these mergers before, I know what people are going through.  For the teams that make the cut (in this case, all of the remaining CHL teams), there is joy at the 11th hour salvation of your hockey team.  For several WPHL teams, there was no joy.  Thousands of fans lost their hometown teams that they loved so dearly.  I’ve seen that happen all too many times, and it never gets any less painful for those involved.  Luckily, this ECHL/CHL deal spared several teams and their fans that pain.  I only wish this deal would have come along in time to save the Arizona Sundogs and Denver Cutthroats, two CHL teams that suspended operations over the summer.  Rumor had it that both teams closed up shop in the hopes that they could hook up with the ECHL after sitting out a season (to avoid a legal conflict owing to a non-compete clause with the CHL).  If that truly was the case, I hope that they can get things sorted out so that those teams may join the ECHL later.  Otherwise, that’s two more fan bases without a team to root for.  This strategy doesn’t always work.  I know there are still people in Bossier and Shreveport hoping to see their beloved Mudbugs take the ice again one day.  As a former rival of theirs, I hope to see that too.
The Central Hockey League has a long and storied history.  In actuality, there were two professional leagues that went by that name.  The Central Professional Hockey League began play in 1964 as a feeder league for the NHL.  They shortened their moniker to Central Hockey League in 1968.  I guess they figured the Professional part was implied.  Either that, or truth-in-advertising laws became an issue.  In any case, the “old” CHL was the premier minor hockey league for the better part of a couple of decades, with teams stretched at various times from Tucson, Arizona to Birmingham, Alabama and from Cincinnati, Ohio to Seattle, Washington.  They finally ceased operations in 1984.  A new league sprouted up in 1992 with teams in six of the old Central League cities.  Some of the teams reused the names of the previous teams to attract the old fans, and since hockey fans love history and tradition it only made sense to revive the CHL name.  The “new” CHL had operated continuously ever since, until yesterday.
The Western Professional Hockey League began play in 1996 with five teams in Texas and one in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  They doubled in size the following year with their first expansion, adding three teams in Louisiana and three more in Texas.  After competing with the Central League for expansion cities, the WPHL merged with the CHL in 2001, keeping the CHL name and logo for its history and brand recognition.  Eventually, all of the old WPHL teams folded (the Fort Worth Brahmas were the last to close up shop after the 2012-13 season).
I was excited about the merger in 2001 because it meant a lot of new cities and arenas.  It did not disappoint.  Some of the cities were a real pleasure to travel to, with great old buildings and enthusiastic fans at every turn.  I really miss the CHL (and the WPHL).  I have many great memories of my time in the league, and I made some lasting friendships that I will always cherish.  I was sad to see the league struggling over the last few years, along with the constant rumors of the league’s impending demise.  I’m glad that at least the remaining teams will continue on in the ECHL, which is a great league.  I’m saddened by the loss of the CHL, but the ECHL is now stronger than ever.  I take comfort in that.

But then…that’s just me.

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, though 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.