Hello Hockey

The start of another NHL season. Wait, didn’t the last one just end? In May or June, sometime in late Spring. Now it’s only October. Don’t these guys need some rest?

So much to learn, and so little time. What’s the difference between the red and blue line? A goal and assist? That one is easy but team points still make no sense. Three for a victory, one for a tie. None for a loss but two for a win in overtime. Too many numbers my brain’s turning to jelly. Tim Hortons or Dunkin Donuts both taste the same. I’d rather watch with a beer. A Molson not Bud. I’ll offer one to the players, they’re always in need of hydration.

Is that guy a Czech or a Slav? Manitoba or Minnesota? So many countries, states and provinces being represented in such a small little rink. It’s like the United Nations decided to hold their annual meeting on ice. Which begs the question, how will climate change affect the sport of hockey? Maybe one day in the not so distant future the game will be played on water with skis instead of skates. Who’s kidding who, it’ll always be cold in Saskatchewan. Siberia too. Or is Russia not letting it’s players compete? Ovechkin’s here so things can’t be that bad. Maybe he can meet with the President to discuss Ukraine, they both live in D.C.

The Original Six are easy enough to remember. There’s Montreal, Toronto, Boston, New York, and Detroit. The last is either Chicago or Philly, that much I know. What ever happened to the Whalers? Last I heard they moved to Carolina. Are there still teams in Phoenix and Nashville? If so, why? Bring back the Nordiques!!! Quebec needs another team. And while you’re at it expand to Seattle and Portland. Hamilton too. Toronto can handle two teams, it’s one of North America’s greatest cities. Mayonnaise on everything. Canadians don’t discriminate.

Who’s good this year? Los Angeles again? They just won Lord Stanley’s Cup. What’s this about Tampa Bay? The Lightning are for real? I hear the Bruins may be good, Rangers too. When will hockey have a Cinderella, a real dark horse? Do the Wild count? The Islanders instead? Have they moved into Jay-Z’s house yet or is that next year? What’s Brooklyn going to do with a team, dress em up in gingham and force them to listen to Bon Hiver?

I like that there are few ads, same as soccer. Football breaks every 30 seconds it seems. Both are violent sports. They should just get rid of all the fighting. Impossible to understand. It’s the culture they say, the history is important. Basketball has a great tradition too but you don’t see LeBron throwing haymakers at Kobe.

This could definitely be the year when I dive deep into hockey. Full reports to follow. 20 loonies I make it past Halloween.

The NHL Playoffs: Best of 8

In the NHL there’s only one thing better than a game 7. A game 8. Think about it.

1 – If all playoff series were best of 8 then as far as owners were concerned more playoff games means more beer and hot dogs and more beer and hot dogs means more stadium renovations and more stadium renovations means higher ticket prices and higher ticket prices means more corporate handouts and more corporate handouts means your ass is stuck on the couch surrounding by a wife, 2.5 kids and a Portuguese water dog named Sir Lancelot.

2 – If all playoff series were best of 8 then the postseason would end in August which means the start of the next season would be less than a month away and players could spend their entire offseason playing ping pong in the clubhouse instead of retreating to far away destinations like Moose Jaw and Minsk.

3 – If all playoff series were best of 8 then the NHL could have a Champions League style format where goals scored by the road team count twice as much as goals scored by the home team thus eliminating the silly need to score more goals then your opponent unless you’re at home. Or is it better to score more on the road? Hmmmmmmm….

4 – If all playoff series were best of 8 then non hockey fans would stop talking to hockey fans about how exciting game 7 was and how they swear they’re going to watch more of the NHL regular season next year that is until they realize that the NHL regular season, much like the NBA, is sorta boring.

5 – If all playoff series were best of 8 then Canada may have more than one team remaining in the playoffs. Actually, that’s not true, the Montreal Canadiens were the only Canadian team to qualify for the NHL playoffs and Montreal is in Quebec which means if they had it their way the province would be a part of France not Canada.

Olympic Hockey Is Good For The NHL

If NHL owners had their way then Saturday’s USA/Russia instant hockey classic would have never happened. At least not with players like Jonathan Quick, Pavel Datsyuk, and T.J. Oshie. That’s because owners are losing money. Or so they say. There is an argument however for these ongoing Olympic Games contributing significantly to the long and short term economic and cultural growth of the NHL.

Ratings reflect an enormous interest in Olympic hockey and it’s therefore only logical that the NHL will benefit from the increased exposure. History and financial data can be skewed to tell a different story but it’s very hard to accept what owners are saying which is that allowing NHL players to compete at the Olympics is bad business for the league. This is an acceptable point of view if the NHL is satisfied with its current fan base.

Hockey is after all in this country a niche sport with a devout, albeit limited, group of fans who consider themselves part of an exclusive fraternity many of whom would rather keep casual sports fans on the periphery rather than include them in the reverie. In this country, the Olympics offer momentum to a sport and league that has always battled the stigma of being America’s 4th major professional sport.

But hockey is a sports with a significant amount of main stream potential. There are stories out of New York City, which is to be fair a good hockey town, of sporting goods stores selling out of Team USA hockey gear after T.J. Oshie finished off the Russians on Saturday. To show you the influence this game had on social media – as accurate an indicator of growth and popularity in the 21st century – Oshie, the St. Louis Blues forward, gained 45K new followers hours after his stellar performance in the shootout.

Perhaps the NHL doesn’t look at these analytics and automatically see dollar signs but it should. An American player like T.J. Oshie becoming more recognizable is a marketing slam dunk, sorry…hat trick, for the NHL. How many non-devout hockey fans even knew who Oshie was before Saturday? Very few. But today, average fans can’t wait to get their hands on his jersey, or Google his wife, and if the NHL were smart they’d figure out a way for this exposure to translate at the box office. (How about buy 4 hot dogs get two more free in honor of Oshie’s 4 for 6 shootout performance?)

Also, the NHL needs to consider how much pride individual players take in competing for their respective countries. Bruins defenseman and team captain Zdeno Chara felt it was such an important honor to be selected as Slovakia’s flag bearer that he asked to skip Boston’s final two games before the break in order to be present for the Opening Ceremony. Alex Ovechkin, perhaps the most dynamic goal scorer in the NHL has said that even if the Washington Capitals didn’t give him permission to compete in these Olympics that he would have played anyway because representing Russian, the host country, was that important to him.

There are certainly a fair number of NHL players in Sochi today who’d rather be home in the plush comforts of a five star hotel instead of the summer camp styled bunks of the Olympic village but if you look around the Bolshoy Ice Dome you probably won’t see many disgruntled faces. (Putin doesn’t count!) Players are competing at an incredibly high level and the speed of the game looks and feels like it has been bumped up several notches. (Think Stanley Cup finals on a larger surface and without fighting.)

Hockey really is a beautiful game to watch and the NHL shouldn’t cower from the exposure or hide behind the financials. The sport is in a better position today then it was before the lights went dark in NHL arenas across North America and owners shouldn’t run for this reality. Think of it as a gift. A gift from the Black Sea.

Those In The Know: Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup Champs

Blackhawks ParadeThose in the know say that hockey players are some of the most down to earth, hard working athletes in professional sports. What does that say about baseball players or bobsledders?

Those in the know say that more than 2 million fans showed up to Grant Park Friday afternoon to celebrate the Chicago Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup, their second championship in 4 years. Wish Americans cared as much about voting as they do parades.

Those in the know say that the Tuukka Rask and the Bruins were less than 80 seconds from forcing a game 7. Bryan Bickell and Dave Bolland must not be so good at math.

Those in the know say that the Hawks were the best team during the regular season. I guess they forgot to tell the Boston Bruins who proved to be more than adequate sparring partners.

Those in the know say that captain Jonathan Toews is the heart and soul of the team,  a competitor so determined to win a championship that he was willing to play through an upper body injury which kept him off the ice during the 3rd period of game 5. Patrice Bergeron and his punctured lung are not impressed.

Those in the know say that Corey Crawford could be beaten high, glove side. That’s better than directly at him.

Those in the know say that Bruins’ giant defenseman Zdeno Chara needed to be physically challenge by pushing the puck into his corner. Now that KG and Paul Pierce are off to Brooklyn the Celtics could use a power forward.

Those in the know say that Patrick Kane remains a wizard with the puck and an opportunistic goal scorer who came through when it counted most. Too bad he can’t grow a mustache.

Those in the know say that playoff beards starts to smell after about the second round of the postseason. Johnny Oduya could really use a bath.

Those in the know say that the “H” in Hjalmarsson is silent. No wonder the Swedes are so happy, they don’t have to waste valuable time and energy pronouncing unnecessary consonants.

Those in the know say that in hockey the post series handshake is the best example of sportsmanship. What then about the slashing, tripping, fighting, eye gauging, and fish hooking?

Those in the know say that this Blackhawks win has no karmic effect on other Chicago sports teams. Which means of course that it’s going to take more than a few Wrigley Field renovations to bring the Cubs their first World Series championship since 1908. Then again, you’re Cubs fans, you already knew that.

view from Grant Park courtesy of @TheHockeyProbs

Bandwagon Backlash In The World’s Most Famous Arena

Since when did New York Rangers fans become such elitists? All you hear from the 19,000 or so hockey diehards in NYC is how annoyed they have become by all the “new” Rangers fans that have started to emerge from the various high rises and brownstones now that the team has reached the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1994 . It’s like these precious few hardcore Rangers fans are all members of Skull and Bones each with their own Amex black card and a personalized Friars Club jacket. NHL Hockey is really not that hard to understand after all (even without the glow in the dark puck) thanks in large part to the soothing harmonic analysis of Doc Emrick who has a way of explicating even the most convoluted of scrums and line changes.

Furthermore, as a society we need to come together and do a better job of defining the term “bandwagon fan”. What exactly is the etymology of the term “bandwagon fan”? Is it similar to the root/story behind expressions like “dark horse” and “scapegoat”? Whatever the case may be, this phrase conjures way too many negative connotations and late arriving fans are generally underserving of such scrutiny and disdain. Is there really anything wrong with supporting a team only when they are successful? No offense to hockey “hardos” but it is not as if you needed to watch every single New York Rangers regular season game to be able to appreciate and understand the impressive run the team has been on en route to their Eastern Conference Finals series against the New Jersey Devils. There are certain things that even a “bandwagon fan” can decipher.

For instance, it doesn’t take a diehard New York Rangers fan to notice that Henrik Lundqvist isn’t just a pretty face. With all due respect to Bryant Gumbel, there is a whole lot more to the Rangers goalie than his steely blue eyes and perfect pitch strumming on the six string. Lundqvist has kept his team in games with some picturesque “pad stacking” and cat like reflexes obtained during long, cold winters on the fjord. The one knock on Lundqvist is that he can be beat glove side but it easy to overlook the Swedes shortcomings when he’s busy perfecting his newest look.

You don’t need to be a diehard with a Stefan Matteau jersey to tell that the Rangers boast one of the youngest, most talented rosters in the NHL. The strength of their team, beyond Hank, is a quartet of defenders: Dan Girardi, Michael Del Zotto, Ryan McDonagh, and Marc Staal. All of these blueliners are both spry and supremely gifted. Girardi, whose face is slowly beginning to resemble that of Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein, has come up with several timely goals in the playoffs including an absolute laser beam of a slap shot in Game 1 against the New Jersey Devils.

Then there is McDonagh, the American with an Irish last name from the Twin Cities who played his college hockey in Wisconsin. Quite a memorable journey for such a dual threat who has been called upon to shutdown Alex Ovechkin and now Ilya Kovalchuk. Some people even think that McD has the type of offensive game to remind fans of Ranger great Brian Leetch. Marc Staahl and Michael Del Zotto have both logged a significant amount of time on the ice during this postseason because they play with the type of physical style and controlled aggression that John Tortorella loves and appreciates.

Speaking of the Rangers head coach, you don’t need to be a diehard fan to understand that Torts is an absolute lunatic. If you were to settle on just one adjective to describe  John Tortorella what would it be? Intense? Ornery? Combustable? Passive aggressive? Whatever the term, there are many players, or reporters for that matter, who do not want to end up on his bad side. Torts blood runs hot. Like eruption of Mount Vesuvius lava hot. His players are like the innocent Roman citizens of Pompeii who coexist peacefully until the moment their coach heats up and explodes with anger, burying the team in 10 minutes of volcanic ash and vitriol. Torts is also like that disapproving father that kids spend their whole lives seeking approval from. This phylum of coach works for a young team like the Rangers but the schtick can wear thin when dealing with a much more seasoned group.

Back to the youth movement for a second, you don’t need to be a Ranger diehard to see that Chris Kreider has the potential to be the most explosive player on the ice. When he picks up a full head of steam he looks like Devin Hester returning a punt. His speed is without parallel, perhaps only matched by fellow winger Carl Hagelin who might be just as fast as Kreider but lacks a lot of the same size and physicality and is often pushed off the puck by larger defenders. Again, even a bandwagoner can figure this stuff out.

You don’t need to be a Ranger diehard to notice that with his facial hair Brian Boyle looks like he should be filming Young Guns 3 with Emilio Estevez and Lou Diamond Philips or that Ryan Callahan plays with the same type of will and tenacity as a former Rangers captain who also happened to date Madonna. Just about any fan can tell that Brad Richards get super pissed off when the referees tells him to get out of the faceoff circle for premature “faceoffing” or that Mike Rupp is a high stick away from enciting a riot across the Holland Tunnel the scale by which we haven’t seen since the time Sylvester Stallone saved Judging Amy from the rising waters of the mighty Hudson.

And finally, you don’t have to be a Ranger or hockey diehard to realize that the Los Angeles Kings have gone 10-1 in the playoffs thanks largely to the play of their goaltender Jonathan Quick. The Milford, CT native, and Avon Old Farms alum, has stacked the City of Angels on his pads and led them to within 2 games of the Stanley Cup Finals. A Western Conference Championship would be the Kings first since 1993 when the team was led by the Great One and this great mullet. Not that the Rangers are already looking past the Devils but you don’t need to be a diehard fan to understand that in hockey the only thing that matters is the Stanley Cup. Even a bandwagon fan knows that.

view from Kings/Coyotes Game 2 courtesy of @tsontakislaw