Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Cincinnati Bengals might go winless in 2011

Montreal Canadiens fans crucify their team for relatively anodyne reasons. Every decision is under the microscope. Whether a signing or trade or draft pick, most will usually cause at least two factions to coalesce, each trying to convince the others that they are wrong, and all believing that management stuffed the call, or the preceding decision that forced the current one.

We're lucky we're not fans of the Cincinnati Bengals. They are a hard-luck franchise that has trouble attracting free agents or retaining their own players, and have to specialize in reclamation projects such as troubled tailback Cedric Benson. They play in a homely cold-weather Rust Belt town. They used to have a charmless homefield in Riverfront Stadium. Now the city and fans are on the hook for funding the brand new Paul Brown Stadium essentially on their own. The deal is so bad that the Wall Street Journal wrote an exposé on it, and the report is being used as a cautionary tale in other cities negotiating to build their own new stadiums.

Now their quarterback Carson Palmer has chosen to retire rather than continue risking his life in futility. Team owner and General Manager Mike Brown, who is the son of legendary team founder Paul Brown, and who is depicted in a popular Cincinnati comic strip as a Charlie Brown character, refuses to trade Carson.

Sports Illustrated feature writer Michael Rosenberg is a lifelong Bengals fan and has written many columns on their tortured history, has another another article currently which agonizes over the Carson situation. The best line is when he states the following: The Bengals have abused their fans so much over the years, they might as well hold an annual Punch Your Customers In the Face Day.

Monday, 25 July 2011

One 'outside the box' way to improve the Canadiens

I think that a big part of the long-term success of the Montreal Canadiens would be to hold the league accountable for its refereeing. If I’m Mr. Gauthier, I have a couple of AV guys going over each game’s footage and catching all the penalties which weren’t called, on both sides. In my mind’s eye, every time an infraction is called a 2 or 5 minute is added to the game’s tally, pinball machine style, complete with sound effects. The video guys also pour over other games and highlight inconsistencies.

These video documents are provided to the league with frequent phone calls and visits to the offices in New York to drive home the message. The league won’t cave, but you can pressure it and deviate it slowly from its present course, kind of like a tugboat working on a huge freighter. At least it counteracts the barrage of misinformation and cretinism from the Philadelphia-Boston-Toronto Axis of Evil.

Working behind the scenes is key, but the threat of staged leaks us always hanging, as is the nuclear option of releasing these videos to the public openly.

Best part of our plan is that this lobbying effort is pushing the game in the right direction. Second-best part is that the Canadiens can afford this, have the resources and footage available for every game with multiple angles, and it doesn’t count against the cap, so you’re essentially improving your team for free.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Hockey dreams

So we got the good news that Andrei was rehabbed and good to go, and that we had just signed him to a four-year deal, and we were all happy and cheering and laughing, crowding around him on the ice. The team feels real good, and so do I because we will be paired together this season. It’s a good match, he’ll be the puck carrier and he’s a righty, I’m lefty and I’ll cover him when he takes off. I never go much further than the opposition blue line anyway.

Last year was tough but we made it through somehow. Alain Moreau injured his knee right at the start of the season, and he tried to baby it and come back a couple of times, he played maybe five games all year, but without any success, he was not effective, and it hurt. He’s big and strong and has good offensive instincts, good in the corners, think Robert Picard if he had delivered on his promise, so it’s a huge missing piece.

So it was down to three of us on defence. Normand Chevrette is our captain and best player, he’s the tallest guy in the league but skates with elegance and deceptive speed, think Larry Robinson but with the temperament of Jean Ratelle or Jean Beliveau. He’s good defensively, but he’s so smooth that aspect of his game doesn’t really stand out, with his long reach he just pokes the puck off the opponent’s stick and he’s off skating down the ice with it. Jean Farly is his counterpart, shorter for a defenceman but he skates all day, he’s fast and smooth and effortless, think Bryan Leetch or Phil Housley. He has a wicked wrist shot and slap shot, so much so that our coach Mini tabbed him to take a couple of penalty shots during the season, even though we have some forwards with good scoring touch.

And then there’s me. I’m big and slow, kind of like Craig Ludwig but without his panache, and when I have the puck I zip it to my right where Jean or Normand can do something with it, or I bang it off the boards into the opponents’ end. This gets so predictable that whenever I do get the puck the opponent wingers skate over to the boards right away and body up on them, trying to block my flip, so once in a while I pass up the middle to a centre to keep them honest.

All season long we essentially roll with three lines and three defenceman. At first our coaches think this won’t work, that we’ll get gassed, so they put a forward on D but now we have a guy back there who doesn’t know what he’s doing, and our forward lines are all jumbled, and it’s not effective. We give up on the experimentation and find our gear. The three of us really pace ourselves, we have tonnes of ice-time so we can choose our spots to make the big hit or rush the net. The forward lines run like clockwork and Roger, the cerebral assistant coach, keeps on them to backcheck constantly to help us out. Jean and Normand Chevrette get most of the powerplay time, and I get to play almost the entire penalty kill shifts, that’s one facet of the game my ‘style’ fits well. We do surprisingly well and make it to the finals but lose against Plomberie Langlois, they just have more horses than we do.

So you can imagine how stoked we are to have Andrei back. Me and him talk about what we’ll do and decide that we’ll play our regular position, but switch up after the faceoff during power plays and he’ll play left and I’ll be on the right side, I’ll be ready for one-timers off his setups. My shot is Svobodian, with Gingras-esque accuracy, but I’ve been working on it all summer, banging pucks and tennis balls at a piece of plywood propped up against the garage door, I think I may surprise a few goalies. My dad is pissed at all the damage to the door though, I guess I missed the plywood a few times, and he yells at me pretty bad. I know Sidney Crosby didn’t get that kind of treatment for wrecking their washing machine, and Wayne’s dad used to flood a rink for him to skate on in their backyard every year, nothing was too good for him. This lack of parental support just may hamper my playing career.

Anyway, we have to stop celebrating because the season is about to start, the new Forum is packed for the first game and is rocking. We skate back to the bench and realize we kind of goofed because the doors haven’t been installed yet, we’ll need one per defenceman. The hinges are already up and I’m pretty handy with a toolbox, and I’m not on the first shift anyway, so I offer to put them up. The puck drops and I get down to business, but quickly realize that I can’t install six doors on one doorway and one set of hinges, they won’t be able to swing past each other for one, so I’m really stumped, but then realize that they’re not really doors, they’re more like tabs or toggles, we’ll flip them forward or back depending on who is on the ice, kind of like those ‘In-Out’ boards you see in offices, it’ll help us keep track. The toggles are about the size of draft beer tap handles, white with our name printed in red, and I will put them in vertical order according to our depth chart, which means I’ll be the fourth name down, but when I look up I realize Andrei is no longer on the bench, he’s on the ice, and now he just scored. Everyone is crowding around him and congratulating him. I’m a little sour that he didn’t wait for me, and that the coaches sent him out there without me, and now I’m really worried that I’ve lost my defence partner, and I’m looking at the guys on the bench to see who I’ll end up playing with, but now I wake up and I’m all wound up and it’s daylight outside anyway so I might as well get up, and can this darn season get going already? I used to dream of Elle McPherson or Marge Simpson or the breakfast waitress at the Wildwood, but this is ridiculous.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Things heard at the hockey game

I was on another site and contributors were asking what are the stupidest things you've ever heard while watching a hockey game. I had two stories to chip in.

My uncle, who was a bit of a wag, would shout: “Tuuuuuuue” (Kill) whenever a Canadiens was lining up an opponent for a check. He was very proper and droll, so even as a boy I knew he was kidding and mocking other blood-thirsty fans, but he cracked me up every time. He would start real low with the ‘u’ and drag it out, sometimes while polishing his glasses. This was the same man who would excitedly exclaim: “S’il avait pas manqué le filet, elle etait dedans!” (If he hadn’t missed the net it would have gone in!), or “Si le gardien l’avait pas arrêté, c’était un but certain!” (If the goalie hadn’t stopped it that was a sure goal!) He would make these absurd pronouncements as if they were profound, and made watching hockey a hilarious event.

One other was told to me by my buddy Scott who grew up a Jets fan. He said the Winnipeg Arena could be very quiet, with reserved but knowledgeable fans watching the action. One night he had tickets in the upper reaches of the arena, and nearby there was an enormous fan with a grease-stained jersey stretched tight on his belly. He had a booming voice that carried well, and he would shout his observations at strategic moments, the usual stuff about the Jets sucking. At one point however, during a lull in the action while players waited for the faceoff, the fan stood up again and took in a deep breath. “Neufeld!…”, he thundered, in a deep low voice, with a slight pause to get everyone’s attention, “…you’re a n*****!!!!”

Now Scott is a good story teller, and he has been caught embellishing a couple of times, but he swears this ricocheted around the arena and that the players on the ice heard it and shuffled around, embarrassed. Ray Neufeld was also waiting for the puck to drop, but didn’t react. The good people of Winnipeg in the area absorbed this and there was a hush in the crowd, as they sat there in disbelief. A couple seconds later, a couple of fathers and concerned citizens in the crowd, some of who had already talked to this guy and had asked him to keep his mouth in check a little, turned on him and started to let him have it. The creep shot right back and swore at everyone trying to talk sense into him, they started swearing back, it very quickly escalated into a shove by the creep. He instantly was swarmed by a half-dozen men who pounded him and got him to the ground, until security showed up and dragged him away, to a standing ovation from everyone in the section.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Hockey fights and profit

There is out there the perception, and some say the myth, that 'Americans only watch hockey for the fights'. More properly, I think the myth is that the casual hockey fan will buy tickets or tune in because of fighting, and will lose interest if it is purged from the game. The 'clinching' argument is always that nobody goes to the bathroom or to the beer stand when a fight breaks out.

I think this is a fallacy. As an analogy, I can say that motorists always slow down and gawk at a motor vehicle collision scene, but that doesn’t mean we should not work to eradicate them. People are curious, and two people fighting will always have shock value, like the collision, and will pique their interest. That doesn't mean it is desirable.

Living near Vancouver, I’ve had the ‘pleasure’ over the years to see the Canucks play the Wild, and I will tell you that most of those were yawners, and that when a fight started everyone was jolted awake and stood up and screamed. To me that doesn’t prove that fighting is good for hockey, it proves that grinders and checkers slow the game down to a dull dullness. If we encourage artistry and skill, we will be entertained by the game itself, rather than by a sideshow.

Owners are apparently fearful that banning fighting would hit their bottom line. I say that, as always, the NHL is laughably short-sighted, and are giving up a lot more money by allowing fighting. If the game was allowed to be as open and spectacular as it could be, casual fans who are turned off by stifling defensive hockey and thuggery would flock, and would more than make up for a few dinosaurs who can’t get their fix of violence and stop watching. What would you rather watch, two guys wrestle and hit each other in the helmet, or Alexander Ovechkin scoring on his back?

Monday, 18 July 2011

Trouble for the Oilers?

Sheldon Souray states that the organizations he played with during his career, New Jersey and Montreal, are “top shelf”, but he specifically excludes Edmonton.

First, the LA Kings's General Manager Dean Lombardi rants about their conduct during the Ryan Smyth trade, and now this. Is it a statistical blip, or is this something indicative of something broken in Edmonton?

I want the Canadian franchises to be healthy, and Edmonton has me worried. Sure they have young talent, but they are almost automatically excluded as a free agent or trade destination because they are a small-market, cold-climate destination. If their management team and organization is also viewed as bush league, what happens five years down the line when the Canadian dollar weakens and Taylor Hall et al all become free agents and leave?

The secret to a small-market team is for word-of-mouth between players to praise it as a place to work and live. Montreal doesn’t fit the label of small-market, but we suffered in the past with players refusing to come here, and that seems to no longer be the case. Players who are here want to stay here, and they tell their colleagues as much. Edmonton seems to be headed down the path to disaster.

Does anyone have any insights into the Oilers situation? Is this a Steve Tambellini problem? I remember his work with the Canucks, he was seen as a bright young executive and set to do some good work for whoever hired him.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

The need for size at centre in the NHL

It’s the stuff hockey wet dreams are made of, the big skilled tough centre who will lead the team to the promised land. He wears the captain's 'C' on his chest and feeds deadly snipers on his wings a steady diet of soft saucer passes in the other team's slot. He wins faceoffs, is responsible in his zone and can drop the gloves and give an opponent an attitude adjustment.

We Canadiens fans have been whining of our need for a “gros joueur de centre” since the late 70′s, even while we were winning Cups. We had Peter Mahovlich, all 6'5" of him, but he wasn’t physical enough we said, and when he started to stickhandle he’d stop skating and lose the puck. We eventually traded him away, but that's another story.

It was such a big problem that we passed over magical Denis Savard for Doug Wickenheiser in the 1980 draft. Denis Savard had grown up and played junior hockey in the Canadiens backyard, in Verdun. Instead of drafting the hometown favourite, the Canadiens instead drafted Mr. Wickenheiser, himself a phenom out of Regina who had scored 89 goals the previous season. What cinched it was that Mr. Wickenheiser, at 6'1", was three inches taller than Mr. Savard. I remember as a kid reading in La Presse how Le Professeur Ronald Caron crowed about this selection and said Mr. Wickenheiser would soon centre Guy Lafleur and Steve Shutt for years.

It didn't turn out that way. While Mr. Savard was a perennial All-Star and possibly the most spectacular player in the NHL for a time, Mr. Wickenheiser played three uninspired seasons in Montreal, and was traded partway through the fourth, a denouement welcome by all parties.

We have had the big centre in Montreal occasionally but then we’d not appreciate them as much as they deserved. I think of Bobby Smith, who didn’t score enough we said, and Pierre Turgeon, who should have been more of a scrapper with his size we thought. His skill set was not enough, we wanted him mucking in the corners with Basil McRae and Dwight Foster.

The obsession with size doesn’t stop with centres though, and it’s not just the Canadiens. Nobody ever brags about how they just drafted a great small winger. Nobody trades for a small defenceman because he’s small. If you have an underperforming tall goaltender and an overachieving small goaltender, who do you keep?

I was looking at the 1987 draft last night, because that’s what I do on Friday nights, and again saw how Theoren Fleury lasted until the 8th round, the 166th pick, two picks after the Canadiens drafted Will Geist. He was coming off a season in the Western Hockey League during which he scored 61 goals, and 43 the previous one. Obviously production wasn’t a problem. If he had been 6’1″ 195 lbs he would have been drafted early in the first round. If he had been 6’4″ 225 lbs he would have bumped Pierre Turgeon for first overall.

Obviously the way the NHL is constituted now, how the game is played, and seeing how the Canucks were mugged of the Cup by the Bruins and the Head Office in New York, size will continue to be a deciding factor in how players are drafted and developed. Guys like Etienne Brodeur and Martin St-Louis will continue to go undrafted despite their production.

Another basic element though is what we as human beings feel when confronted with people of large size. It brings us back to when we were kids and had to crane our necks to look up to our cousin who was over six feet tall, even taller than dad, or that neighbour down the street who is a policeman who plays rugby and is so big he almost can’t fit in his Jetta. Large men catch our eye, and when a scout or GM sees a player of size, he will favour that player over the smaller one who is probably a little better. It’s a visceral reaction that is hard to ignore, and we’ll keep ascribing a disproportional value to it.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

The incurable optimism of NHL fans

Interesting take by Mr. Stu Hackel of the Montreal Gazette and Sports Illustrated. Follow the link to his thoughts on which teams in the NHL Eastern Conference improved with this off-season's free agency period ebbing as the major talent has been signed to contract by various teams.

While I don’t think Mr. Hackel’s analyses are off-base, this exercise reveals the futility of trying to determine with accuracy which teams improved and which didn’t.

By my count, Mr. Hackel has 7 teams in the East improving, but just 4 holding steady and 3 regressing. Mathematically at least, that doesn’t sound plausible. I understand that we could have half the conference make a modest increase in points at the expense of 4 weak sisters who will be repeatedly trounced while four hold steady, but the law of averages would indicate that maybe five will improve, five would tread water and five would fall back. That might be a better starting point.

When we prognosticate, we are too ready to hold the play of veterans as givens. We also assume that promising rookies will improve over their previous season. We then take for granted that this player’s horrible season was an aberration, and that this year will be much improved, as we Montreal fans did with Mr. Gomez last summer. Finally, all these injuries which befell some players, which were completely unpredictable, will surely not plague it this coming season.

So to that core of a team that will improve by sheer unstoppable momentum, we then plug in skillful Jean-Guy Beauxbeauslaque and bruising Brock Granett, savant additions by a shrewd GM, and conclude that the team will no doubt be much improved.

We always fail to take into account the young Pouliots or Latendresses who fail to deliver on their promise and appear stalled in their development. We gloss over the potential travails of veteran Halperns or Hamrliks who while willing to give everything they have unfortunately don’t have much left to give. We don’t take into account that one or two players will be juggling an affair and a divorce at the same time during the season, and may be preoccupied. We forget that the player who just signed the long-term deal may ease off the gas pedal during dryland training over the summer. We are oblivious to the spoiling of team chemistry, of which player may have sexted another player, when all he really meant to do was sext that other player’s wife. And we refuse to be brutally realistic in these modern-NHL-times we live in, and look at the lineup and strike one Top 6 forward, one Bottom 6 and one D with a season-ender knee or shoulder, and then flip a coin to determine if our goalie will tear his groin and be out forty games, and be ineffectual the rest of the season.

It speaks to the mind of the fan, how we invest so much hope in our teams and how we see better days ahead. I think we fans, and really people in general, are inclined to see the future as a better place where problems are solved and happiness is gained, damn the tsunamis and earthquakes and global recessions.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Scott Gomez

Scott Gomez had a very poor season last season for the Montreal Canadiens, and he was the first to admit it in a post-mortem season interview. Much of the disappointment stems from his poor production, having only notched seven goals and adding 31 assists.

Fans have been criticizing Mr. Gomez for not shooting enough, while others say his shot is so weak he should never shoot and must pass instead. He also had a very poor faceoff win percentage.

I believe that Mr. Gomez can get back on track by rededicating himself to his physical fitness. Being in shape will take care of a lot of the shooting and faceoff problems Mr. Gomez was having.

To have a good shot you need to be able to bend your stick, you need upper body strength.

In the faceoff circle, hand-eye coordination and reflexes aren’t all you need. You need to have upper-body strength so your stick isn’t casually pushed aside or batted away. You need total body strength, and especially in the legs and core, if your sticks are locked up and now you need to push your opponent and kick the puck back with your skate.

You need cardio and muscular endurance so you’re not fading at the end of your shift, of the period, and of the game, as well as the second game in back-to-backs.

A report from Montreal radio station CKAC shows Mr. Gomez hard at work in the gym back home in Alaska, and explains that he paid for the Canadiens' strength and conditioning coach to fly over to ensure he is following his assigned program properly. Personally, I hope he’s not in Alaska all summer, that he takes a few weeks to go train with Mr. Cammalleri or Subban or Gionta, since it’s hard to stay motivated and really push yourself when you’re alone in the gym, but this is a noteworthy effort on his part.

If Mr. Gomez trains hard , I believe he will have more zip on his shot, he will trust it more and will surprise goalies instead of lofting wobbly creampuffs at them. This will make him a much more complete, less predictable player who is harder to defend. He might feel more confident along the boards and he won’t be manhandled in the faceoff circle either.

Mr. Gomez returning to form would bode well for the Canadiens' prospects this season. As the #2 centre and a player assigned lots of icetime by coach Jacques Martin, his production is critical to the team's success.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Jaromir Jagr doesn't understand the need for an apology

One of the more delicious plot twists in the NHL free-agency period which began on July 1 was Jaromir Jagr’s decision to sign a contract with the Philadelphia Flyers, the arch-villain rivals of his former team the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and its readers are having an aneurysm over it.

Mr. Jagr had stated two years ago, while playing in the Russian KHL, that he, for the honour of rejoining his original team and out of respect for his idol, mentor, and current Penguin owner Mario Lemieux, would go so far as to sign a Collective Bargaining Agreement one-year minimum contract. In this last month, while Mr. Jagr was hard to pin down or even locate, his whereabouts being as uncertain as Schrödinger’s cat, Mr. Svoboda did profer that his heart was in Pittsburgh. After all, he still owned a home there.

On June 30th, various rumours surfaced from Pittsburgh that there already was a deal with the Penguins in place, that Mr. Lemieux and Mr. Jagr had spoken and the contract only needed to be signed.

Fast-forward to yesterday, with Mr. Jagr unable or unwilling to face cameras and deciding instead to take part in a conference call. He variously states that it’s difficult to explain his joining the Flyers, because his English is rusty, and he would have an easier time in Czech or even Russian (there is no word as to whether an interpreter was offered by a dogged Pittsburgh media scrum), and also that he had a good conversation with Chris Pronger, the now undisputed top dog in the Philadelphia kennel, after abrasive pups Mike Richards and Jeff Carter were shipped out. That heart-to-heart chat with noted wit and confidant Mr. Pronger, and murky existential leanings too tenuous to grasp with his rudimentary English, a language he only started picking up twenty years ago, are the only reasons we are provided.

Of course, the Flyers will pay Mr. Jagr $3.3 million this season, as opposed to reported offers from the Penguins and other teams in the $2 million range. This detail was not mentioned as a contributing factor to his decision, despite Mr. Jagr’s well-known gambling issues and problems with the U.S. Revenue Service. There were many other offers from many other teams for more money, he claims.

He is not made of stone however, and is foggily aware that this turn of events may not play well in Pittsburgh. For this he made the quarter-hearted faux-apology that transgressors make nowadays, seemingly baffled that their conduct wasn’t appropriate. They ask pardon not for their actions, but for the fact that these, however impenetrably, ‘may have offended others’.

The Montreal Canadiens were reportedly ‘in the race’ for Mr. Jagr’s services, although General Manager Pierre Gauthier flatly denied that he was interested. He is to be congratulated for not getting sucked in to this charade, only to be used to spur the bidding war.

Mr. Jagr was seen in sober circles to be an interesting acquisition this off-season. He was thought to be more mature, and be motivated to add to his legacy before retiring. It is obvious however that he is still the same unpredictable person who is solely concerned with his material well-being and that concepts such as ‘team’ and ‘honour’ are as foreign to him as he claims English is.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Jaromir Jagr credibility at an all-time low

Link to a great article on the reaction in Pittsburgh on International Man of Mystery Jaromir Jagr up and signing with the Philadelphia Flyers, their hated in-state rival.

Mr. Gauthier, the Montreal General Manager, said all along that the Canadiens had no interest, yet there were 'rumours' that they were in the race to sign him. Of course, this process once again taught us to not believe anything coming from Mr. Jagr, and that his agent Petr Svoboda is a carny barker. The interest from the Canadiens might have been a smokescreen by Mr. Svoboda, or just Mr. Gauthier doing his due diligence, but once again he garners points by stating right off the bat by stating we were not interested, and not letting himself get distracted by the sideshow.

Once again, well done Mr. Gauthier.

Now please go sign Shane O'Brien, and fast forward the calendar to September for us. Summer is overrated.

NHL should observe Canada Day

Why is July 1st the date that the NHL chooses as the end date of contracts and thus the start of free agency? I know it makes sense to have it after the draft, and July 1 is kind of easy to remember, but doesn’t it make sense that a League that employs hundreds of Canadians, has seven franchises in Canada, and is home to millions of fans in Canada, should observe its national holiday? Would the American franchises even tolerate such guff, if we tried to make July 4 the beginning of the free agency period?

It was kind of ridiculous that the teams making presentations to Brad Richards and his agents yesterday would get to the office building and hit their nose on a locked door, due to the holiday.

Am I the only one who thinks that’s odd? Wouldn’t it be just as easy, and much more respectful, to make the date the first Monday after July 4? Or the first Saturday if they want fans to have the opportunity to tune in?