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The Cup Runneth Over, Just not in Canada…

June 16, 2011 Leave a comment

I am a hockey agnostic.  This isn’t really a preferable situation – sports are always better when you have an invested emotional interest – but it’s just the way things have developed for me over the years.  When I was a kid, I cheered for Mario Lemieux and his Pittsburgh Penguins.  This was probably my first mistake, although you can hardly blame a child for the whimsy that draws him to one team or another.  The Penguins of the early 90s were magical and cheering for them was easy.  They were the best, and Super Mario was, well, Super.  But, of course, he wasn’t invincible and when his back gave way, so ebbed my fascination with the Pens.

For a time I cheered for the Toronto Maple Leafs, because that had been the team of my father’s youth.  That seemed like a noble reason and it might have worked, had I grown up watching the Leafs every Saturday night while perched on his knee, but I didn’t.  So, while I wanted to cheer for the Leafs, wanted to feel their misery after 43 years of miserable heartbreak and ineptitude, I couldn’t.  That pain, anguish, and yearning remained tangible but just out of my reach.

Ultimately I fell into cheering for six teams, or rather, I began cheering for the mere hope that one of six franchises (soon to be seven!) build a team good enough to bring the Stanely Cup back to the country from which it came.  It’s not so much to hope for is it?  For a Canadian team – ANY Canadian team – to win the Cup?  It seems like a reasonable hope, like something worth cheering for.

Unfortunately, it is proving to be a challenging hope to fulfill.  Eighteen long years and 17 NHL seasons (ahem- and one lockout) have passed us by since Patrick Roy and his Montreal Canadiens drank from the Cup.  That’s a lot of Champagne spilled over the years, and sure it’s generally overrated Champagne, but shouldn’t some of it have been spilt in Canada, by a Canadian franchise?

And while 18 years might not seem like such a long time to Cubs fans, it is in a normal sporting sense, an eternity.  Almost two decades have passed without a Cup, do you remember what the world was like two decades ago?

  • The Toronto Blue Jays were the best team in baseball… sigh.
  • OJ Simpson was a beloved former football player.
  • Roseanne constituted reality TV
  • The internet wasn’t yet for porn.
  • The Pittsburgh Pirates only had one losing season.
  • Apartheid ruled in South Africa.
  • The WWE still got donations from people hoping to save the environment.
  • We listened to Grunge and wore flannel shirts in 90 degree heat.
  • Tom Cruise and Arnold Schwarzenegger were the biggest movie stars in the world, instead of a creepy cult promoter and a creepy former Governor.
  • Nobody’d “Yada Yada’d” Sex yet.
  • Cigars were just for smoking.
  • The Simpsons were still on television… wait, what?
  • George Lucas was still a genius.
  • The US hadn’t elected the Junior Bush… twice.
  • Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, or not.
  • Steroids were just for body builders and East German track stars.
  • The Boston Red Sox were lovable losers, not insufferable, pink hat wearing winners.
  • We’d never seen Britney Spear’s shaved… uhmmm… head.
  • Brett Farve hadn’t yet started retiring and un-retiring 14 times an offseason.
  • Meadow Soprano was still trying to park that car.
  • The inventor of Facebook was nine years old.
  • “Swine” and “Flu” were words that would never be used together.
  • Tiger Woods just went to Perkins for the pancakes.
  • People still read newspapers, rented movies, and watched TV in real time.
  • The Jersey Shore was just a place.
  • Nobody texted, or sexted, or tweeted, and if they poked it was in the privacy of their own home.
  • And, while politicians were still slimy, at least we didn’t have to read about them sending pictures of their “weiners” to women.
I mean, I don’t want to wax nostalgic, but doesn’t that seem like a better time?  At least the Jays were champs, that alone seems better…
The winless streak began, as all streaks do, without anyone noticing.  New York defeated Vancouver in seven games in 1994 in a thrilling series that had all the hallmarks of something we’d see again.  Little did we know that we were about to enter the New Jersey, Colorado, and Detroit reign of trapping terror… Those three franchises would hog the cup for the better part of a decade, winning eight of the next nine titles, by grinding out victories with defense and the grace of a three legged moose.  During that nine year stretch, not a single Canadian team sniffed the Finals.  This should have been a sign to us that something was amiss, but we had bigger concerns, like the lack of Olympic Gold and whether the Expos would stay in Montreal (ok, nobody cared about that, but they should have…).
In 2004, we had our first Cup challenger in a decade and worse, they were playing a team who came from a land beyond hockey’s natural borders, a land devoid of ice, a team from (gulp) Florida.  This seemed to bring home the notion that the Cup had been vacant for far too long, yet while the Flames played valiantly, they were overachieving upstarts.  They had battled out of the West’s sixth seed, but in the final Tampa Bay, with their trio of young Canadian stars (Lecavalier, St. Louis, and Brad Richards), were the favourites and while the series went seven, the Cup did not come home.
After the lockout another upstart Alberta team made a startling run… the Oilers, that last great Canadian franchise, barely squeaked into the playoffs, but upset a Detroit team that had won 17 more games than them in the regular season.  The Oilers then toppled a pair of undeserving California teams, before meeting another sunbelt team in the finals.  Once more, they had just enough to take the finals to seven games, but not quite enough to pop the champagne.  The Cup went to Carolina.
Those Alberta teams played their hearts out and came up just shy, but they were both underdogs.  We were proud of what they’d accomplished and they allowed us to hold a candle to the possibility that another Canadian team might fight, grapple, claw their way back and actually take that final step, but… the streak now was indisputable.  When Ottawa lost in five games the following year to those Mighty Ducks, who amongst us was surprised?
And yet, this year seemed different.  This year we didn’t have an upstart fighting for the Cup, we had the best team in hockey.  A team that was deep, a team that had won 54 of their 82 games.  A team that had home ice.  It all seemed so tangible, so real.  It was there for them to grasp, for us to grasp.  A country once again rallied around them – not everyone in the country, after all some rivalries run too deep, but most of the country.
They won the first game in spectacular fashion and they won the second just as sublimely.  Chants of LOOOOOO rained down as the mercurial goaltender allowed a single goal in 120 minutes of hockey.  It was heady times, the Vancouver Canucks were two wins from the Cup, Canada was two wins from the Cup.  Do you remember those days?  June 4th was only 12 days ago, but doesn’t it seem like 18 years?  So much happened between then and now.
So many goals were scored, so many punches taken.  As it turned out, the best team in hockey wasn’t the Canucks after all.  It was a team from Boston.  Canuck homers will make excuses.  They will say that the injuries to Dan Hamhuis and Mason Raymond were too great to overcome, but of course that logic is like failing to see the forrest for the trees. Winning the Cup is a war of attrition and overcoming injuries (like say to Nathan Horton or Marc Savard) is as much a part of being a winning team as converting on the power play, or effectively pinching the outlet pass.
Over the course of these seven games, the team from Boston just wanted it more, well that and they had the better goaltender.  It really is just that simple.  Grit, desire, and a goalie who doesn’t allow weak goals in bunches.  Sadly, for 18 years, we have not had that combination come together with enough talent to bring home the Cup.  It seems possible, it seems reasonable, but alas it remains something just out of our reach.
So what are we left with?  Rioting in the streets, another parade for Boston, and that obnoxious refrain, “there’s always next year.”
Sigh.

A little more on Habs-Caps…

April 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Bettman’s nightmare

Gary Bettman and his cronies must be banging their heads against the wall asking why, oh why? I mean, NHL brass even took a page out of his old boss’ handbook, by having the refs call a penalty with less than two minutes remaining.* Still, the Habs fought off the six on four (including almost netting the empty netter, after a phenomenal defensive effort by Nicklas Backstrom), ensuring that a major American market, with one of the NHL’s two biggest stars were prematurely sent to the golf course.

*(to be fair, if this were an NBA game, then instead of the penalties being even with four apiece, Montreal would have had 12 trips to the box to Washington’s 2… The NBA, where David Stern manipulation happens!).

Yes, Montreal is the NHL’s most important franchise, but only in a historical sense. The league does not want a Canadian team, even one with as many Stanley Cups as the Habs, knocking off a large American market, and it especially doesn’t want a playoff that doesn’t involve its two signature stars, Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, playing as long as possible and at some point meeting head to head. There is no other way to look at this, while I’m ecstatic, and my old friend Big Sexy is giving out lap dances, Gary Bettman is probably trying to figure out a way to fire the referee who called goalie interference when Washington scored less than a minute in to the third period.

Ovechkin-Crosby

While we’re talking Crosby-Ovechkin, I must admit that heading into the Olympics, I really felt that Ovie was the best player in the NHL. Now? Well, really there’s absolutely no way that you can say Ovechkin is better than Crosby. I’m sorry, you might think that Ovie’s a more natural, dangerous goal scorer than Sid the Kid, but the writings on the wall. Sidney has a cup, he has a Gold medal, and he has his team in the second round. Their teams met last year head to head and Crosby’s team won the all important game seven (in Washington, ouch, maybe they should avoid getting home ice next year). I know that hockey is a team game and I’m always clamoring that you can’t use team titles to judge individuals in a comparison, but… if Ovie wants to be the best player in the world, he has to get more than two points in the three most important games of the season.

In the Olympic final, when the game went in to overtime, with the absurdly exaggerated expectations of 34 million Canadians (not me of course, I had everything completely in perspective…), Sidney Crosby took control of the game. He grabbed the puck, drove to the net, pursued the puck when he lost it, kept after it as it got caught in the refs feet, flipped it to Iginla, drove to the net and buried it. Easy, peasy. Game over, gold medal won. Last night I kept waiting for Ovechkin to do the same and he tried… He did have a couple nice runs, and even had one shot slip through Halak’s pads, before deflecting off his backfoot wide. But for all of Ovie’s talents, he never managed to do what Crosby did for Canada in that gold medal game. Three games and a soft two points for Ovechkin.

There’s still thousands of words yet to be told in this debate. The story has barely finished the first chapter, with each of them still relative babies, but now, today, on April 29th, there can be no debate over who’s better between the NHL’s two signature stars.

Halak’s payday

Jaroslav Halak is a free agent and in a league where goaltending is everything, he just made himself a lot of money. Assuming he doesn’t disintegrate against Crosby’s Penguins, Halak should be looking at a significant pay raise over what he would have earned a week ago. The pressure will be on the Habs to keep him locked up, but goaltending starved teams are everywhere and they will aggressively pursue a backstop who toppled the Capitals.

Choking Dogs, Men of Steel, and a Goaltending Legend…

April 28, 2010 1 comment

Wow. I think I might actually be speechless, or at the least suffering some mild cardiac arrhythmia. If you are a sports fan and you weren’t watching Washington-Montreal game seven tonight, well… I’m sorry for you. That ladies and gentlemen was the pinnacle of sports. You have a league’s most storied franchise facing its (theoretical) best team. You have an offensive powerhouse facing a franchise steeped in goaltending tradition. You have Ovechkin… You have Halak. You have 18,000 rabid fans witnessing their team go down in a hail of flames. Basically, add it all up and what you have is a giant bowl of awesome.

One-nil Montreal for most of the game, the tension was absurd. Washington was swarming like wasps around a half eaten hot dog, blasting shots from every angle and crashing the net like Vince Vaughn on a crab cake. Once again, Jaroslav Halak was retarded. Seriously, saying he stood on his head would be quaint. He did more than stand on his head, he stood on his feet, his elbows, his stomach, his ears, his butt, his… well, you get the picture. For a franchise that has seen men like Bill Durnan, Jacques Plante, Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy stand between the pipes, I seriously doubt that the Habs have ever had a three game clinic like Halak just provided for our pleasure.

Over games five, six, and seven, with the odd numbered games on opposition ice, Halak saved 37, 53, and 41 shots, while giving up 3 goals. In case you don’t want to do the math (and I can’t blame you if you don’t), that’s 131 saves in a 134 tries against the NHL’s top scoring team. Or, it’s an absurd .978 save percentage. I don’t know how the rest of Halak’s career will play out, but what Halak just accomplished is how legends are born.

And it wasn’t just Halak. The men in front of him, players seemingly made out of steel, dropped their bodies in front of everything leaving a Capitals’ stick. Tonight alone, the Canadiens’ blocked 41 shots. FORTY ONE. That’s insane. Hal Gill, a mountain of a man blocked 6, as did Andrei Markov. Ryan O’Byrne blocked five, Tom Pyatt four, and another 11 Canadiens threw their bodies in front of a shot or two. Think this was just another game?

Before game five, the Capitals had not been held to a goal or less in any home game this season. Halak and Montreal’s defenders did it twice in the span of five days. Insane. I know that some in the media, including the Emmy winning Tony Kornheiser, will call the Capitals choking dogs and that’s valid.

They did squander a 3-1 series lead and they did gag on a great season and home ice advantage, but when Halak saves 41 shots and his teammates block another 41, well…. That’s 82 times the Capitals shot the puck. For their part, the Habs had 16 shots on goal, with Washington blocking another 12. Add that up and by my math you have 82 shots to 28. Let’s just repeat that for emphasis: eighty-two to twenty-eight. Sure, on some level the Capitals choked away this series, but they also dictated the play.

They dominated the Canadiens, swarmed all over, controlled the puck, shot the lights out, but they just could not break the wall. Eighty-two times tonight the Capitals put stick to puck and only once did that puck find the back of the net. You might say that the Capitals choked this game away, but I would say that they were beat. They were beaten by a goaltending legend and his men of steel.

To Shoot or Not To Shoot…

April 12, 2010 Leave a comment

Yesterday a strange situation evolved on the NHL’s penultimate day. In a game for the final playoff spot in the East, Philadelphia beat New York in a shootout to send the Rangers home for the summer and the Flyers to the playoffs.

Naturally, this has led to histrionics about how a playoff spot could be determined by something as capricious as a shootout. I should, I guess, preface my thoughts on this topic by admitting that I feel about shootouts the way Elin Woods feels about pancake house waitresses. Why do I have such animosity towards shootouts? Well, it might have something to do with England in 1996. Or it might have something to do with Canada in 1998, or England in 2004, or possibly England in 2006. Who can say?

The point is that I hate shootouts. I also dislike gimmicky endings to games. So, when the NHL implemented the four-on-four overtime, followed by shootouts to determine tie games I saw it as exactly what it was… a flailing half court heave by a league suffering from flagging interest. Honestly, it was no worse than MLB adding interleague games in 1997, but it just felt like appeasing the attention deficit with monkey’s lighting fireworks.

In the end however, it seems to have worked. The overtime has a little more oomph and the shootout, while gimmicky, has brought an extra element of excitement. While I wouldn’t go as far as saying that I enjoy the concept, I will hedge away from saying it’s an abomination.

So, I would hate to see the NHL overreact to this flukey situation. How likely is it that we will see another season end with two teams playing each other in the final game fighting for a playoff spot? Then, how likely is it that those two teams will not be able to settle things in 60 minutes of ice time?

Does it suck that the Rangers lost a shootout to end their season? Yes, yes it does, but they did have 81 other games to get the job done and they did have 60 minutes in which to knock off the Flyers. They didn’t, so it came down to the gimmick. Such is life. It’s not quite like England losing two straight tournaments to the Portuguese on stupid, f***ing, lame, a$$, penalties. Whew… breath deep, breath deep…

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Hockey Gold and NHL Brass…

March 7, 2010 Leave a comment

On Friday afternoon I was out for a run* and as I passed by the local elementary school, a boy, perhaps no more than nine years old, emerged from the parking lot on a skateboard, a Canadian flag tied as a cape on his back. As he skated off, the flag flapped behind him, a vision of the supermen he had surely watched win hockey gold only five days before.

I was struck then by how many young Canadians became hockey fans last Sunday. Fandom is on many levels an obsession and it is an obsession born in various ways. Sometimes it is developed through the love of a parent (for instance, Big Sexy cheers for Les Canadiens, because his father cheered for Les Canadiens), sometimes it is created out of a repetition of watching, but mostly the obsessive quality necessary for fandom is generated supernova style when a juvenile mind watches a superlative game on the grandest of stages.

The passion, the intensity, and the simple poetry of witnessing the very best in the world compete, creates a love of the game and a love of the victorious team. This is a strong bond that can survive decades of lethargy. When I was twelve the Jays won the World Series, when I was thirteen they won again. Since then they’ve never won ninety games in a year, never been to the playoffs, never played meaningful September baseball. Yet, year after year I watch them. I know the names of all forty guys. I know the youngsters who might help one day, and I get excited when in May they’re randomly leading the division.

Last Sunday’s game, which can only be considered one of the greatest games of all time and was nothing other than hockey gold, had that effect on thousands of young minds. It was probably so powerful that it had that effect of thousands of young adults, perhaps even American adults who watched in record numbers to bear witness to a potential upset.

What they saw was not just a game played at the highest level, on the grandest stage, with a last second comeback, and a hero’s ending. What they saw was also unsoiled, pure hockey. Did you know that there were only two penalties each per team? The final thirty-seven minutes of hockey were unblemished by high sticks, by reckless boarding, by holding, tripping, or cross checks. They were quintessential.

The real question then, is whether the NHL can capture any of the audience that witnessed that perfection and keep their attention. As many of you know, while I love Olympic hockey, I’m largely indifferent to the hockey played in the NHL. There are too many teams, which means too many players, which means too many guys who can’t compete with their talent and thus must compete by slowing the game to their skill level.

Over the last five years, blessed with an influx of breathtaking young talent, the NHL has worked hard to improve its product, speed up the game, increase scoring and eliminate the clutching and grabbing that saw 2-1 games become the norm for a decade of play. They deserve credit for this, I guess. But it has not been enough. The game that was played in Vancouver last Sunday, was not the same game I watched this week upon the NHLs return.

Perhaps the biggest issue, is also the most controversial. I’ve long thought myself apathetic to fighting in hockey. It’s not that I want to watch the fights, but I never really felt that they were detrimental to hockey. I was wrong. Fighting has no place in hockey. Why should it? What does it bring to the table?

Supporters of fighting in hockey argue that because it’s an aggressive, physical game, it is necessary for the players to occasionally shed their hostility through fights. A logic that might be dubbed, the self-policing mentality. Yes, hockey is a tough physical sport, but it is no more physical than football and fights in the NFL are rare. NHL players need to fight, because they’ve always been allowed, or more accurately encouraged, to fight. But continuing to do something because it’s always been done is a form of cowardice.

Are there a few fans that follow hockey only for the fights? Sure, probably, but if they are only interested in the sport for the fighting, are they really fans at all? The alternative camp, is the exceptionally larger one that considers NHL hockey to be a mere step above MMA as a violent cult sport. Did some of those people watch on Sunday? Did they reconsider their opinion? And if so, did they then tune in to watch Friday night’s Vancouver-Chicago game, where 37 seconds into play, gloves were dropped and players were fighting. To what point? To settle some previous score? Really? I certainly would not blame fans who tuned in after the Olympics saw that display and thought, ‘nope, not the same game.’

I want the NHL to become stronger and for Canada’s game to be more than a niche sport. I want the league to capitalize on the gold that was last Sunday, but mostly, I want the league to ensure that all those caped children riding down the street on skateboards have a thriving sport to follow for the next fifty years. The first step in ensuring that future, is shedding the brass knuckles whose time has long passed.

*In no way does Sports on the Brain condone the use of exercise, this was a one time mistake brought on by the unseasonably warm weather. The author regrets it and apologizes to any he may have harmed.

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