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.