Monday, 30 April 2012

The NHL post-season is boring, by design

Am I the only one whose interest in hockey has quickly perished after the first round? I tried gamely to get myself in the game, I figured I’d root against the Bruins, first and foremost. I’d root for the Penguins, was anxious to see Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Kris Letang fly up and down the ice, plus Marc-André Fleury is always spectacular. The Canucks hold some local interest, and when they get rolling and start to score, it gets fun.
Now here we are. The Bruins are slain, and that’s good, those worthless, lucky bastards had to come up snake eyes at some point. The Pens and ‘Nucks who I tried to engineer an interest in are dead and buried before I even get on the bandwagon.
I can barely remember who’s in what series now, it’s a conscious effort to grasp it. Who’re the Rangers playing? Nashville has to lose, so as to protect our 2nd round draft choice, but who do I have to root for then?
We’re having to watch playoffs involving only three of the top ten regular season scorers, six of the top twenty. No Sedin twins, no Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, no Jason Spezza, no Joe Thornton. Dale Hunter is benching Alex Ovechkin, Alexei Semin and Nicklas Backstrom in favor of Jay Beagle and Troy Brouwer. Games limp to a 2-2 regulation tie, and we’re told we’re witnessing a great game, not a succession of dump-ins and slashes, and acceptable-in-the-playoffs hooking.
I remember when hockey was fun. I’d get my dose of bloodshed as the Canadiens slugged its way out of the Adams Division, and then the late game would come on, showing Edmonton trying to outskate Calgary or Winnipeg. Those games finished 8-6, were just as intense and hard-fought as the Eastern Conference games, but featured things like passing and strategy and goals sniped from the slot, instead of being bashed in by three or four guys kneeling in the opponents’ crease.
I miss it.

The hang-gliding fatality in Agassiz B.C.

I'm brought to comment on the hang-gliding fatality in Agassiz Saturday.

It's obviously unfortunate that this occurred, I put myself in the boyfriend's place and can't imagine how awful he must feel.  I bought a similar trip a couple years ago, a floatplane trip around Whistler for my girlfriend's birthday, I thought she would get a kick of seeing the geography of our home from high up in the air.  I got an inkling then, and know more clearly now, that this might be more of a thrill for me than it was for her, but she was game and smiled and took pictures throughout.  I never considered the possibility of anything going wrong, you have to trust that the pilot and plane owners are professionals and will have minimized the risk down to acts of god.

In this case, I wish I was confident that the hang-glider was that thorough and competent.  I hate to say it, but it does seem that very simple procedures must have been overlooked, namely, the clipping in and safety-checking of the passenger harness.

I have a few reasons to believe this.  I used to work at a popular zipline tour company in Whistler, was a lead guide during the inaugural season, and was in charge of setting protocols for launching and landing guests in a safe manner.  Most of the work had been done by the owners who had set up the infrastructure and purchased equipment that allowed for a lot of safety margins in terms of load capacity, and for redundancy in systems.  There was a load line and a safety line that were impossible to clip in improperly, for example.  The pulley wouldn't work if a guide, inconceivably, clipped them in wrongly.

My modest contribution, along with my fellow lead guide, was to draft a policy manual and train guides to these policies, and ensure that the highest level of precautions were followed.  We used a progression, where guests would first test out their harness and rig on a 'training line' that was barely a metre off the ground.  This helped to reassure the guests that their harness was quite sturdy and would support them, as well as to introduce them to the clipping procedure and commands, and to instill in them that while we would have lots of fun and opportunities to joke around, the guide was in charge on the launch platform and needed to go through that procedure and needed to be 100% certain that everything was right before they zipped away.

We were very successful in establishing our procedures and conducting our training.  We never suffered a catastrophic failure in equipment or launch procedure while I was working, and the company hasn't since I've moved on.  The owners had the right philosophy and attitude about safety, and never stinted or compromised on it.  When practical realities would intrude and some amendments were considered, I would stand firm and refuse to adapt our procedures, pointing to our success, and always managed to convince the sales team or owners that safety was primordial, and details that were skipped could be those that trip us up later.  I would repeat the motto of the rope rescue company that provided my training in the fire service: "There's a safe way, and a safer way."  We always, after discussion, deferred back to the safer way.

This is in marked contrast to a competitor who started their operation after ours, and tried to compete on the more 'extreme' experience at their site.  One of my friends who worked on their startup decided to leave eventually, because he felt they didn't put a priority on safety.  An acquaintance of mine, who runs a tour company with a similar thrill-seeker quotient and whose focus on safety needs to be unrelenting, and who had previously taken a couple of tours that I led and of which he spoke highly, told me after taking a tour with them how their guides lacked in professionalism and knowledge compared to ours, and how they even enjoined their guests to demean our company in a group cheer, which he said left a bad taste in their mouths.  Of course, this company improperly clipped in and dropped a guest from a considerable height, and she was lucky to only suffer a broken leg.  This is after another guest had also been clipped in incorrectly a few weeks before, but had enough strength to hold on for the entire ride with his arms and reach the other side safely.  And also, after one guest was launched into another guest who hadn't yet cleared the line, with both suffering serious injuries and emotional trauma.  All of these incidents were explained away by the owner, stating that they were learning from these episodes and bringing in changes so they wouldn't happen again.

One guide's remark in response was telling: "You make a million hamburgers, eventually you're going to forget the pickles on one of them."  This attitude is so inane and would have been so foreign to me and my fellow guides, that it would never have been uttered at our site.  We wouldn't have thought of our business as making hamburgers, ever.  We definitely wouldn't have thought that the safety aspect was the pickle on the burger, the condiment, a nicety you can do without.  An extraneous detail.  A peripheral concern.  We definitely wouldn't have had an acceptable, unavoidable failure rate in mind.  Our focus wasn't on pumping out widgets and dealing with the few irksome rejects later, it was on being absolutely sure, every time.  As one owner would say: "Think of your guest as your mother.  Would you let her ride this zipline?"

After watching the video report from CBC News (linked above), I can't help but suspect that the pilot, while possibly being entirely professional and well-meaning, was at least distracted, maybe by the boyfriend and his video camera, and failed to run through a similar checklist.  The hang test on the ground would immediately have uncovered the problem, much as our 'training line' was meant to.  If you sat in your harness and zipped it successfully, the proof was in the pudding.  If there was a problem, either run-of-the-mill or extraordinary, it would immediately be exposed.  A strap might need to be cinched, a helmet might need to be adjusted, and then we were ready.  If this gentleman did do his hang test, maybe he subsequently allowed his guest to unclip for a reason, a final photograph or to hand her phone and keys to her boyfriend, and then he failed to go through the sequence again.

I'm saying this not to pile on the guy.  The investigation will show if there was negligence, but in the meantime I'm sure he feels awful and will need some time before he can hang-glide again.  He will probably always suffer with nightmares, having her hang on to him for dear life, and he being unable to save her.

One reason I feel moved by this story is that something similar happened to me.  My roommate Richie and I, along with a few of his friend (Tiny, Bruce, was Crash there?) went parachuting in the early 90's, it must have been 1992.  We drove all the way down to Abbottsford, and on site saw a small ramshackle building made up of portables and a connected shed, which made us chuckle on arrival and remark on what was the luxurious and glamourous headquarters of our parachute experience providers.  I still have the pictures from this.  In any case, we were excited by the prospect of jumping and might have been a handful of smart-alecks, but the instructors were very thorough and professional and kept control of the day, except at the end, when we were meant to jump.

We were supposed to do a static-line jump from three thousand feet, if I remember correctly.  This was the progression back then, you had to do a certain number of static line jumps, and if you handled yourself properly, you could then graduate to some free-fall jumps, from gradually higher and higher altitudes, with correspondingly more free-fall.  We had done all the theory and ground practice, including the procedure for stepping out of the plane, which was conducted in the fuselage of a retired airplane grown over with weeds.  When we were ready to jump, however, the winds had picked up to such a degree that we were told we may not be allowed to jump.  We made the uncomfortable mention of refunds, but the instructors tried to convince us that coming back another time might be to our advantage, and that they'd throw in an extra jump for our troubles.  Clearly, they wanted to keep our money.  So when the winds died down, they mustered us quickly and piled us in the plane.  We had rock-paper-scissored to see who would jump first and second and so on, but when we got to the plane, the instructor yelled at us in no uncertain terms to get in and never mind who went where.

Which ended up meaning that I climbed in the plane last and would have to jump first, contrary to our intended order.  In any case, we got to the desired altitude, the pilot got the okay from the ground to let us jump, and the side door an inch from my right knee was swung up and out of the way by the instructor.  I could see straight down for miles it seemed.  The instructor nodded his head toward the door, I gulped, and then, with legs stiff from having been in a kneeling position for so long, made my way onto the wing.  One foot on the foot rest, one hand on the crossbeam, the other on the crossbeam, and now I was outside the plane, hanging on under the wing, buffeted by the wind, with nothing but sky all around me.  I was pretty proud of myself for not having messed up the exit procedure, was arching my back as we were shown, and started rehearsing in my mind the next procedure while I waited for the jump signal from the instructor, when all of a sudden his face appeared in front of mine, barely two inches away.  "JUMP!!!" he shouted right in my face, as loud as anyone had ever shouted at me, and I had old-school parents, mind you, and rugby and football and hockey coaches who were perpetually disappointed in me, and even a few girlfriends who had been even more disenchanted with me.  So really, really loud.

Later, Richie told me that I was on the wing for at most a second before he leaned way out and yelled at me.  I let go immediately, he nodded appreciatively and muttered "Good boy" as he leaned back in and closed the door.  To me, it had felt really long, and I thought he was kind of mad at me for something.  Apparently, he was just used to people freezing on the wing, and he had a tactic to counteract that.

So I had let go of the beam and suddenly everything was calm, as much calm as I'd ever experienced.  No more wind noise, no roar from the engine and propeller, just blue sky and quiet.  I enjoyed it for a second, then remembered I had to count, and check my chute opening, and the state of my canopy.  So I started this sequence ("Thousand and one, thousand and two, thousand and three, check canopy, thousand and five...), and followed it until the chute billowed open, caught, and I dropped through my harness.

My fall was arrested by the leg loops of my harness, which had not been cinched up, but were at least attached.  During ground training, we were told not to touch our parachute harness, that the instructors would take care of that.  Possibly because of the rush to get us back on the plane during a period of calm winds, they failed to check my harness appropriately.  I don't remember if the leg loops could be unhooked completely, or just slackened and tightened, I didn't have a lot of experience in that area back then.

In any case, my position was now problematic.  I had fallen so far down in my harness that my helmeted head was trapped between the shoulder straps, their highpoint probably being above the top of my head.  My nose was being abraded by the chest strap.  As I was falling I was supposed to be on the lookout for a giant red arrow on the ground, which would indicate what direction I should turn to by pulling on the brake handles, but I couldn't look down in my condition, the shoulder and chest straps under tension prevented me from moving my head.  I had let go of the brake handles early on, and my hands found my hip belt, which was under my armpits at this point.  I pushed myself up using this, as if I was doing a triceps dip on it, and searched for the red arrow.  It took me a while to find it, I'd drifted quite a bit, and by the time I did, and managed to grab the brake handles again, which meant letting go of the hip belt and dropping down again in my harness, I was off course considerably.  After a while, I did my triceps dip again, saw that I was pointed in the wrong direction again, yanked on a brake handle, and reassessed.  I was now kind of pointed in the right direction but would land three or four fields away from my intended spot.  I saw the instructor on the ground stalk away from the giant rotary red arrow in disgust.

When I finally had walked back to the landing site, having had to jump over fences and trudge through some cow pastures, I was met with a sneering instructor who asked me why I choked in the air, why I didn't follow the arrow, or basic instructions.  I explained what happened and showed him my loose leg loops.  He at first refused to believe that they had failed to tighten them, he kept asking me, in disbelief, whether I had loosened them once on the ground and forgotten about it.  Once I had him convinced, he kind of grew quiet and had a couple of whispering conversations with his colleagues.  He didn't talk to me about what was said, and I was a young punk, and didn't really understand what had happened and didn't make a fuss, there were beers to be drunked.  Amazingly, I wasn't the one who had to buy the first round for being the farthest away from the target, so I took some consolation from that.

A sad epilogue to this tale is that a few years later, a groom fell to his death during a bachelor party at this same operator's site.  His first chute failed to deploy properly, and he for some reason didn't deploy his secondary chute.  Lots of debate ensued about automatic activation devices for secondary chutes, the pros and cons, but to me, I always wondered if the same instructor who failed to harness me up properly was the one who mispacked the groom's chute.

So when I reflect on my close call, on the rush to get us in the air to avoid having to refund our money, on the insistence on not letting us touch our harness or even know anything about them, that it was safer to let instructors handle such matters, and on the emphasis on safety or lack thereof at competing zipline operators in Whistler, I have a strong suspicion on what may have occurred in the hang-gliding accident.  Well-meant procedures were overlooked or ignored.

A final point I want to bring up is that redundancy in safety systems is sometimes a hazard.  Often, because of that redundancy, we'll overlook one system being inoperative because there are two other backups.  We start to rely on the backups to play the primary role.

An example is that of an author who wrote of his travels in the Arctic on a Russian icebreaker along with other tourists.  He mixed in the story of historic polar explorers along with his personal experiences on the ship and while retracing their steps.  He described how there was on board a confusing number of systems for keeping track of all the passengers.  They would sign up for day excursions on board the main ship.  The leader of the excursion would make his own list previously, or on the launch itself.  There was supposed to be a 'buddy system', but this was not policed, so it was ineffective and unreliable.  People would drop out at the last minute, and latecomers were common, without any amendments to the plethora of lists.  Finally, there was a 'Checkin-Checkout' board on the ship, which was meant to be the master, final authority on this matter.

The author one day found himself, while on such a day trip, returning from a solo hike on an island relatively late, but in plenty of time to make the announced departure time of the launch.  Sure enough, as he approached the final rise and looked down on the beach where they were to meet, he observed it leaving.  He ran down and shouted at it, waved like a madman, but was left behind.  He tried to remember which list his name was on, and felt sure there would be a conflict between them.  Further, he was alone in his cabin, with no spouse or companion to signal his absence.  He feared the worst.

If I remember correctly, another launch came to the beach on an unplanned, unscheduled trip, and the author, while relieved to be saved thus, was dressed down by the crew for missing his own boat.  The author didn't protest, only too glad to be safely back on his way to the ship, and not stranded in the high Arctic, destined to a quick death.

Once back on board, he went to check himself back in on the Checkin-Checkout board, a procedure he had been scrupulous about during the voyage and which he had hoped would be his salvation during the anxious couple hours he spent marooned on the island.  To his surprise, he found that his marker had been moved to the 'In' position by someone else, in strict contravention of the rules, which stipulated that each passenger be responsible for their own markers, for obvious reasons.  Had the second launch not accidentally visited the island, no one would have had any way to know he was missing.  He later ran into a disagreeable shipmate, who was his 'nemesis' in the narrative, and who chided him laughingly for not having checked himself back in, and having forced said nemesis to do it for him.  As the author turned purple and tried to explain the folly and serious breach of rules this was, that the reason that he hadn't checked himself back in on the board was that he was definitely NOT back on board, that he could have died from this, the nemesis either couldn't comprehend or wouldn't accept responsibility, and kept blaming the author for not having checked back in, and having forced him to do so in his stead.

It's clear from this account that too many overlapping redundant systems can cause more harm than good, as they create confusion and allow some people to slack off on some systems, trusting that the others will get the job done.  So I'll be interested to learn more about the redundant systems that failed in this instance.

A seemingly preventable accident and a horrible situation, and I offer my condolences to the deceased's loved ones.

The San Diego Chargers Undrafted Free Agents of 2012

Almost as intriguing as the draft for Chargers fans is the yearly haul of undrafted free agents who are signed to tryout contracts.

While these pickups can be considered by some to be the dregs of the 2012 new NFL talent, the fact of the matter is that there are still some very good players left unclaimed as the draft ends, especially since the draft was shortened to seven rounds from 12 in the early 1990's.

Also the Chargers have success in attracting talented but under-regarded players and developing them, whether they come from small colleges, such as Wyoming's Malcom Floyd, who had success in the WAC and was nurtured along to his present status as the Chargers' de facto #1 wideout.  Others were touted by team coaches or college coaches with close ties to the team.  Recently retired perrenial Pro Bowl guard Kris Dielman, was recommended by Chargers Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron, who had coached him at Indiana.  Mr. Dielman started his collegiate career as a blocking tight end, then was converted to a defensive lineman and was ultimately undrafted.  He was developed as a guard by the Chargers staff, with great results.

The cause célèbre is of course Antonio Gates, who played football in high school but decided to concentrate on basketball at Kent State.  Being seen as too short to be a successful power forward in the NBA, he switched gears and scheduled workouts with NFL teams and was snapped up by the Chargers, the first team he auditioned for.  His story has inspired all teams to scour other sports for athletes who could have success in the NFL, and we will see more rugby and basketball players as the competition for talent intensifies.  Pro Bowlers such as the Saints' Jimmy Graham and the Packers Jermichael Finley are part of the new breed of tight ends ushered in by Mr. Gates, pure athletes who are too tall and too fast to be covered effectively by cornerbacks, safeties or linebackers.  We can hope that our fourth round pick Ladarius Green has the same kind of success.

As the spring 'voluntary workouts' are conducted and we get to know these undrafted guys, we'll start to get a sense of who they are and what they bring.  We'll start to have favourites.  Last year, Bryan Walters stole our hearts with a pre-season Week 1 kickoff return for a touchdown.  We all saw him as our second shot at Wes Welker, a plucky small receiver out of an unlikely school (Cornell) who could succeed through dedication and smarts rather than great physical gifts.  Of course, roster pressures and injuries prevented him from being kept on the back burner and simmering for a while, we couldn't wait for him to mature and had to throw him on the field where he delivered relatively pedestrian results.  He was eventually cut late in the season when needs in other areas made him a luxury we couldn't afford, Vincent Brown was the WR the team needed to invest its coaching energy and roster spot on.  We wish Mr. Walters good luck in trying to catch on with the Vikings this year.

Another diamond in the rough was Darryl Gamble, a linebacker from Georgia who impressed during the pre-season and was placed on the practice squad.  He was activated in December, injuries depleting our Linebacker corps to the point of desperation, and he didn't embarrass himself.  He'll have his work cut out for him again this season to make the squad, but we do need help at LB, so he does have an opportunity, let's hope he takes it.

A quick perusal of this year's hopefuls shows six Wide Receivers, a lot of them in the classic mold of the Chargers receivers of late, meaning quite tall.  I counted four of them at 6'4" and another at 6'3", which may mean more about the direction the sport is going than a San Diego predilection, and I like it.  I'm going to miss Vincent Jackson, I'm already bummed we had to let Seyi Ajirotutu go last season, I want some giant WR's on this team giving 5'10" cornerbacks nightmares.  Of note, Paul Cox is one of these 6'4'' receivers, and he happens to hail from Mississippi Valley State, which should ring a bell for those of you who like Hall of Fame receivers.

The fact that six out of twenty are WR's says a lot I think about how the team feels about its roster strength at that position.  We are left with a lot of maybes with Mr. Jackson gone to Tampa.  If Malcom can stay healthy, if Vincent Brown can progress and build on the flashes he showed last season, if Robert Meachem is ready to step forward and be a frontline WR instead of the complementary piece he was in New Orleans, if Eddie Royal can be the multi-threat force he was as a rookie, before injuries and subpar quarterbacking robbed him of his magic, then we'll have a solid corps.  But that's a lot of ifs.  Chances are slim that this all falls into place.  It could be another long year for Philip Rivers, especially with Mike Tolbert gone and Antonio Gates slowing down.

A mild surprise is that only 3 DB's are part of this group.  I expected to see more invites, with the team hoping to hit on one of them.  We've drafted a lot of corners and safeties in recent years, and get competence, we get journeymen, but no stalwarts.  Antoine Cason is another guy we counted on who plateaued last season, if he didn't actually regress.  We need all these guys we keep adding to the roster to grab this opportunity, to seize the day, instead of hanging on and being replaced by other lackluster players down the road.  We need to stop the churning and get some stability.  It's up to Mr. Cason, along with Darrell Stuckey and Shareece Wright and Marcus Gilchrist to step forward and assume the responsibility for this defence.  Eric Weddle can't do everything, and Quentin Jammer needs some help.

Friday, 27 April 2012

The Chargers are drafting well?!!?

What a pleasant change from A.J. Smith and the Chargers after the first three rounds of the draft.  No surprise pick from out of the blue.  No workout warrior who 'has a high ceiling' but can't play right now.  No gambles on players with great talent but rocks in their head (hey there, Antonio).  No huge expenditures in assets to trade up to grab a guy who turns out to be underwhelming and might have been available at the original slot anyway (hey there, Ryan).

Instead, he seems to have grabbed the best player available, starting with Melvin Ingram in the first round.  While I was petrified that they would grab another one-year wonder pass-rusher from Illinois (hey there, Robert) in Whitney Mercilus, they ended up with the highest-graded pure pass-rusher in the draft.  He's first and foremost a football player who's adapted to many positions over his career, and seems to have no holes.  He's big, mobile, fast, productive, smart and a leader.

In the second, they strengthened the defensive line with Kendall Reyes, a team captain at Connecticut who played well, and did well at the Senior Bowl and at the Combine.  The Chargers were intrigued enough that they brought him in for a visit, and came away even more impressed.  So they didn't have to overthink or trade up to get the player they wanted, a player who makes sense in terms of his ranking and team needs was available.

In the third, they get a team captain off a very successful major college program in LSU safety Brandon Taylor.  Again, not a headscratcher or a huge reach or a player who looks great next to a tape measure but is a big project.  Instead, they got a football player, a guy who has played in the biggest games and produced.  Bill Polian on ESPN explained that third-rounders all have holes in their résumé, so a team's success derives from taking players who fit in well in your team schemes and philosophy despite their flaws.  Mr. Taylor's 'hole' is his lack of size for a strong safety, but I prefer guys who can play as opposed to guys who 'have a high ceiling' but can't play and choke under pressure.  The cost of a sixth rounder to move up in the third to get him is a very affordable one, as opposed to some of the organizational wealth Mr. Smith has surrendered in the past to acquire players such as Eric Weddle, Ryan Matthews and Jacob Hester, sometimes needlessly.

The Chargers in recent years have been one of the dumbest teams in the NFL, committing errors of omission instead of errors of commission.  They've fumbled balls, and taken bad penalties, and whined to the ref and lost their composure in big games, when the clock was ticking down.  They've been the exact opposite of the Patriots, a team built with winners and players and smart guys who perform in the fourth quarter.  I'm glad that we're moving away from the Antonio Cromarties and the Vaughn Martins of this world and grabbing character guys who love and know football instead, guys who can step in immediately and play rather than guys who will monopolize coaches' time and stay clean on Sundays.

The next Canadiens General Manager will be a leader

Lots of controversy over who the next Canadiens GM should be, and even on how the search is being conducted.  Some claim it's too secret, or that it's taking too long, or that the wrong candidates are being interviewed.

One lightning rod of criticism has been NBC analyst Pierre McGuire and his fitness to assume the role.  A lot of fans endorse his bona fides, many seemingly positively influenced by his work on TSN 990.  Those who don't listen to this station, obviously including a great majority of francophone fans, are puzzled by the enthusiasm for his candidacy.

Most of the debate revolves around his qualifications, with boosters touting his reputed encyclopedic knowledge of hockey, while detractors point out his lack of experience in management, his being passed over for similar positions for almost two decades now, as well as the poor impression he made when he filled the GM role in Hartford.

I think an important qualification required of a successful candidate is being overlooked, and that is leadership ability.  The next GM will be the man who will set the tone for the organization, and represent the team to the rest of the league as well as its fans.

Long gone are the days when the GM was almost a one-man band, à la Punch Imlach or Sam Pollock.  The league is too complex, there is too much data to process for any one man.  Our management can no longer be a wizard, it needs to be a strong team of capable men, led by an accomplished, confident person.  If anything, the previous régime, with Pierre Gauthier having centralized decision-making and keeping most of the team functions for himself, shows that this may be a recipe for disaster.  The new wave seems to be to have a GM lead a front office filled with bright people and to harness the cumulative brain power to make the best decisions possible, as emulated by Steve Yzerman's team in Tampa Bay, for example.

Another important component of the job the GM will fulfill is to represent the team to its players and prospects, as well as to the rest of the league.  Mr. Gauthier, it is now finally clear, failed miserably in this respect.  He was reportedly loathed in the locker room, and feared for his capriciousness more than respected for his personality and his accomplishments.  He lacked important qualities in a modern leader, such as warmth and empathy and generosity, as demonstrated by the Ottawa cookie incident and the way Mike Cammalleri was traded and how he was refused his request to keep his jersey as a souvenir.

Our next GM needs to have a forceful, imposing personality, one who commands attention and respect by his personal attributes and his accomplishments.  The Canadiens were a force in the league on the ice and in the boardrooms when Sam Pollock and Serge Savard were at the helm.  They were not when Irving Grundman and Réjean Houle were, two men with meek personalities who would not be a team captain as a player or even for a college term project.  We thought Bob Gainey would rectify this situation, and he may well have despite the Scott Gomez trade, but events in his personal life overtook him and his legacy has been tarnished, and not only by his successor.

In any case, the next incumbent needs to be able to affect league decisions the next time one of his players is the target of an assassination attempt, or be an agent for positive change when league rules are being discussed at a GM meeting, or negotiate from a position of strength when he negotiates with a free agent's representative or another GM for a trade.  He needs to have the bearing that a Serge Savard brought to the role, and a Réjean Houle did not.

So our criteria for selection must include these components of leadership.  The candidate must have shown that they can work in a management hierarchy, accept responsibility and deliver results, and show capacity to grow and develop.  They must be able to develop and nurture personal relationships and be a part of a productive, successful team.  They must command respect when they enter a room and when they speak.

The selection committee will determine who of the remaining candidates best embodies all these qualities, but again, when I think of Mr. McGuire, I don't see him possessing these.  He could very well function as a lieutenant, but he does not have the requirements to be at the wheel of the good ship Canadiens.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Boston Bruins fans and their team are correspondingly awful

I can't believe the Tweets that were sent out by Boston fans after the Bruins lost Game 7 in OT against the Capitals when winger Joel Ward banged in a rebound on the insipid Tim Thomas.  In 2012.  The unvarnished hatred and bigotry of some of their 'fans' spewed out in social media is jarring.

First, that these feelings are still harboured by people who are sentient to the point of being able to operate complicated machinery like a phone is staggering.  Second, that they would air them out in public, that they would think these feelings are acceptable fodder in any company is mind-blowing.  This isn't forty years ago, it's the 21st century.  Didn't these guys see "Do The Right Thing"?

Whether this is a resurgence from the darker, outer fringe of society, being enabled by the Tea Party and the Republican Party, as well as their propaganda arm of Fox News and Breitbart, and their constant vilification of President Obama and the 'welfare poor', or dark-hearted fans hopped up on the violent, lawless and ill-tempered style of their defeated team, venting their disappointment in a voluntarily hurtful manner, it is completely unacceptable and there must be swift backlash, in terms of the moral majority (the real kind) quickly voicing their disapproval.

So, shame on you, ignorant fans of the Bruins.

As always, it's important to restate the words of Morrissey and The Smiths, who said it best: "It's easy to laugh, it's easy to hate, it takes strength to be gentle and kind."

One of the boards I visit is the San Diego Union Tribune's Chargers website, and they have changed their format recently so that to comment on stories, users must use their Facebook ID.  This removes the ability for posters to create a fake account, firehose the blogosphere with poison as long as they can, and when their privileges are suspended are free to create another account at a later date.  Since people's comments are attached to their Facebook account, I've noticed that the level of discourse has improved markedly, personal attacks are rare, and there is virtually no profanity to be seen.  This may be the way of the future: a poster can be private or even anonymous, but always accountable.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The Chargers at the draft

We're feeling relatively ambivalent about the NFL Draft on Thursday as Chargers fans.  It may be the modest results obtained in the last few years, with precious few impact players joining the team compared to a plethora of projects and players with promise who still need to be developed and players who spend a worrisome amount of time on the injured list.

Also, looking at the dozens of mock drafts that have been flying around for the last three months, there isn't one player that quickens the pulse or gives you a rooting interest, one that you hope will be available when pick #18 rolls around.  On the contrary, there have been a troubling number that slated Whiney Mercilus as the logical choice as the Chargers hand in their pick to Roger Goodell.  Great, another hybrid DE-LB pass rusher from Illinois, one who'll have to learn the position and has only had one decent season, like we need the second coming of Robert English.

My wish, with a mishmash of prospects at that position and no one standout, is that the Chargers trade down to the bottom of the first round and gather some extra picks.  With so many holes on the roster and so many underperformers, there isn't one or two players who will make the difference, we need roster strength and depth.

Danny Kristo stays at UND for another year

So I guess we don’t have to worry too much about Danny Kristo not signing a contract for next season. Based on what we read he seems to love college hockey at UND and wants to graduate and have another shot at a national championship. This is fine, especially if he puts it all together and has a great season, it’s a good development opportunity for him, personally and athletically. We have a bit of an avalanche of prospects hitting Hamilton next fall, one fewer rookie may make it easier to absorb everyone.
The news that Darren Dietz will stay in Saskatoon to have a shot at the Memorial Cup, which his team will be hosting next spring, also contributes to a more manageable situation in terms of bodies and rookies for the Bulldogs. Mr. Dietz also has a great opportunity to play on a powerful team next season and be in a leadership role as they compete at the highest level.

(EDIT: It has been brought to my attention that Mr. Dietz is ineligible to play in the AHL next season, he is too young and has too few CHL seasons played, so he was always slated to remain at Saskatoon.  I will amend my projections accordingly.)
I had posted in March about how the farm team might look next season, we now are getting a slightly clearer picture. Once minor details such as the hire of the Canadiens' General Manager and the team’s management structure are announced, as well as the coaching staff’s identity and once we have determined our 2012 draft haul, we’ll revisit the issue. We may even know by then if the Bulldogs will be strengthened by veteran help at centre.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Hockey Night in Canada must be revamped

Mike Boone in his Liveblog on the CBC telecast of the Senators-Rangers game says: “What a joke this network has become.”

They do a few things well. Their opening montages set to music are usually outstanding. Elliotte Friedman is excellent. So is Jim Hughson.
They just have to get rid of a lot of deadwood and fossils and neanderthals: Don Cherry, Mike Milbury, P.J. Stock, Bob Cole.
Then, be advocates for hockey being played fast and tough and fair, spectacular, fan-friendly hockey where talent and skill is prized, over size and churlishness at all costs.
If we must have a between-periods joke segment, let’s have Norm MacDonald and Brent Butt riffing on hockey and the issues of the day. I’d watch that, instead of switching channels to see what else is on.

Please, let's put Bob Cole out to pasture

Can we all agree that Bob Cole has had a distinguished career, and his voice evokes a lot of fond memories in Leafs fans, but that he is now well beyond his ideal retirement date? Especially with all the talent out there itching to have his gig? The guy doing the play-by-play for the CBC broadcast of the Bruins-Caps game has a great, sonorous voice but uses an understated tone, great stuff. Let’s hear more of him next season. Mr. Cole can write his memoirs, and gloss over his homer, shameless, pandering “They’re going home!” call when the Soviet team walked out in protest of the excesses committed by the Flyers in their Super Series game.

P.J. Stock loves the Bruins but hates actual hockey

 Once again, I couldn't disagree more with P.J. Stock.  During the post-game comments on his beloved Bruins' loss, he disagrees that the Benoit Pouliot slashing penalty should have been called.  His reasoning is that many other infractions such as those aren't called during every NHL game.  He adds that Johansson "didn't fall".  This is so ridiculous.  If Mr. Johansson had fallen, Mr. Stock would have whined that it was a 'soft' call, and accused him of diving.

The play couldn't have been more clear.  Marcus Johansson had puck possession in the offensive zone, was trying to create a scoring chance with it, when Benoit Pouliot, a full stride behind, slashed him twice on the leg/hip, to try to slow him down or make him lose puck possession.

We regularly bemoan the lack of offence in the NHL and search for ways to increase scoring.  My contention is that if only all the holding, grabbing, slashing and gooning was penalized so as to make it a rare incidence instead of prevalent, scoring would soar.  Offensively gifted players would be allowed to shine.  Players who find themselves a step behind, like Mr. Pouliot in this instance, should have no other recourse but to put their head down and skate dang hard to try to catch up.  They shouldn't be given the easy out of 'little hooks' and 'minor' slashes to rectify their positional or talent disadvantage.

Unfortunately, the NHL rulebook allows slashing, as long as it's not too much slashing.

(from the NHL Rulebook:

61.1 Slashing - Slashing is the act of a player swinging his stick at an opponent, whether contact is made or not. Non-aggressive stick contact to the pant or front of the shin pads, should not be penalized as slashing. Any forceful or powerful chop with the stick on an opponent’s body, the opponent’s stick, or on or near the opponent’s hands that, in the judgment of the Referee, is not an attempt to play the puck, shall be penalized as slashing.

This is an unnecessary and detrimental distinction.  It normalizes illegal tactics.  It makes the rule infringement a judgment call.  The bar or limit of what is tolerable tends to creep up as the pressure increases, and leads to situations where Mr. Stock can argue that due to the stakes involved, an infraction shouldn't be called.  Finally, this distinction advantages the goon/checker type of player at the expense of the talented scorers and playmakers.  Alexander Semin and Marcus Johansson can play hockey without having to slash.  Scott Thornton and Greg Campbell would be of no further use to any team if this standard was applied.

Again, if I was King, or at least NHL Commissioner, the rule would state clearly that any contact of the stick with an opponent is a penalty.  Period.  Your stick may only be used to play for the puck.  Any slash or hook or trip or hold with it is an automatic two minutes.  If the play was an aggressive foul, like a slash with intent or crosscheck with purpose, it's automatically doubled.  Now Evgeni Malkin can fly up and down the ice without having to concern himself with the 'physical' side of hockey.  Claude Giroux and Sidney Crosby can busy themselves with trying to score and dazzling us with their creativity, instead of being bogged down in a morass of intimidation and ending up fighting each other.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Brendan Shanahan is a weather vane

Some of the harshest criticism on Brendan Shanahan’s performance as VP of Player Safety.
We often question or deride each others’ credentials as a fan based on a position taken in the past which proved to be wrong. So we often take a moment to present our bona fides when discussing issues or presenting an opinion, ie: “I hated the Gomez (Chelios, Roy, LeClair-Desjardins, …) trade from the moment it was announced.”
“I can’t believe the Canadiens drafted Fischer (Chouinard, Kostitsyn,…), I knew at the time they should instead have drafted ….”
“I loved the Erik Cole (Alexei Emelin, Jeff Halpern, …) signing from day one.”
Well, in this case, I need to come out and admit that I had full confidence in Brendan Shanahan when he was appointed. I snorted at others who pointed out, presciently, the he himself was a borderline thug who was suspended multiple times. I figured his track record on the competition committee ensured he would be a breath of fresh air, and that he couldn’t possibly be worse than the fatally-biased and under-equipped Colin Campbell. Right?
Well I admit now that I was wrong, and the naysayers were right. The naysayers were right when I and a few others got all excited in the pre-season when he doled out ‘record’ suspensions, and they cautioned us to wait until a ‘star’ had to account for an act of violence, and to wait until the games mattered. You were right, crusty curmudgeons and cynics. I was naive, I bought the Big Lie, I drank the Kool-Aid. It is business as usual. Jeremy Jacobs, Colin Campbell and Don Cherry are still steering the ship.
Mea maxima culpa.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Draft revisionism

An issue I have when we look at past drafts is how we'll wonder at what a great pick someone is who got plucked in the 6th or 8th round and who turned out to be a superstar (Andrei Markov, Theoren Fleury, Pavel Datsyuk...).  While some of these guys may have been someone the organization had a hunch on, it's not clear that there was conviction that this was a can't miss player that they must have, or else that player would have been drafted in the first or second round, right?

So how do we attribute credit?  Was such a homerun a good guess of what the pitcher was going to deliver, along with good technique from the batter resulting in good contact?  Or was the batter clueless and just 'taking a cut' and hit the sweet spot?  Was the player drafted in the fifth or sixth round being championed by a scout starting in the second round who grew ever more strident and convincing as the rounds passed, until he convinced the Director of Scouting to take a shot, or was he number 22 on their list of available goaltenders, someone who was ranked, practically, even with the guy at number 12 or 32, and was chosen because he was the next guy on the list?

I'll use the NFL as an example.  The draft plays a larger, more immediate role in a team's fortunes in the NFL, since they draft players in their twenties instead of teenage years, and their greater maturity usually means they're mostly ready to play that year, instead of having to spend a few years in junior and the AHL.  Another factor is that player careers are much shorter, it's very rare to have one play a decade with the same team, so you are constantly replenishing talent and bodies.  Finally, because the players are 'plug and play', you can draft for roster need, instead of taking the far-sighted view and just grabbing the best available player.  If you need a cornerback for example, you can plan on getting a starter in the first or second round of the draft and fill a hole in your roster that way.

The classic case of drafting wizardry is the New England Patriots grabbing Tom Brady in the 6th round of the 2000 draft.  While the Patriots were shrewd in eventually pulling the trigger on him, they were also 'lucky', and also just as blind as all the other teams in underestimating him.  While he was a successful quarterback at Michigan, he was also in a constant battle with Drew Henson for playing time.  The latter was a better physical specimen and athlete, and was a two-sport athlete, so the Michigan coaches were afraid he'd switch to baseball fulltime if they didn't give him playing time, while Tom Brady had already committed to football and given up playing baseball.

As the linked article shows, New England coach Bill Belichick liked what he saw of Mr. Brady, but hesitated for various reasons, one of which being that they were secure at quarterback with Drew Bledsoe as their starter.  Even in the fifth round, when their turn came up, they couldn't believe he was still on the board, but rationalized it by thinking that the other teams must also be seeing the same red flags they were, and so Mr. Belichick went ahead and drafted two forgettable players ahead of their eventual choice in the sixth round.  So the Patriots do get some kudos for finally looking at the positives, but this is not an untarnished expression of organizational genius.

Hockey has fewer of these classic cases, since we don't often get the backstories on how a team selects its draft choices.  One famous story we can go back to and have discussed before is the New York Islanders' draft of Mike Bossy.  They were presumably working off a list of their preferred choices in the first round when their turn came up at #15.  

"Who's left?", Islanders General Manager Bill Torrey is reported to have asked of his chief scout.

"Mike Bossy, can score, can't check.  Dwight Foster, can check, can't score," was the reply.

"Get me the scorer, we'll teach him how to check," snapped Torrey.

Again, an inspired choice, and the Islanders look prophetic in drafting him, but would they have picked the Hall of Famer if somehow giant defenceman Barry Beck had still been available?  Probably not.  So how much credit do they get for picking the right player out of what they thought were two options left to them?

The Canadiens meanwhile had drafted Mark Napier ahead of the hometown phenom, with the rationale that he was just as good a scorer, but had played a year of pro hockey in the WHA and and survived it, so he was more likely to be a productive NHL'er than the reputedly fragile Mike Bossy.  The Canadiens, in this case, richly deserve the opprobrium for overthinking what should have been the natural choice.

Another draft that is often dissected by Canadiens fans is the 2006 draft.  The Canadiens skillfully manoeuvered and traded down from 16 to 20 in the first round, picking up an extra second-rounder in doing so, and still got their man in David Fischer.  While he was evaluated as a late first-rounder at best by prognosticators, the Canadiens had been following him since his early teenage years and were convinced he was a pillar of their future.

Nowadays, revisionists look at this draft and rue that Montréal didn't grab francophone Claude Giroux instead, and see it as another example of institutional incompetence.  In fact, Mike Boone clearly shows in the article linked below that instead of faulting the Canadiens for picking David Fischer, it's the Flyers who should be lauded since they gambled and took an undersized skill player from the under-regarded LHJMQ higher than he was ranked, and they hit the jackpot.

Also instructive is the second round, where the Canadiens picked big scorer Ben Maxwell, the 49th player taken.  Immediately after, the Boston Bruins grabbed Milan Lucic from the Vancouver Giants.  This is another set of picks that now look idiotic/inspired depending on the evaluator's perspective, but again, at the time, Mr. Maxwell was more highly rated by most scouts than Mr. Lucic.  As I always like to point out, Ryan White was ranked even higher than both as the #7 prospect from the WHL, with Ben Maxwell at #12 and Milan Lucic at #14.

This is where backstory might be helpful, and maybe Mr. Boone can come to our rescue with this question, but I have a hunch that if the Bruins had picked at #49 in front of the Canadiens, they still would have picked Mr. Lucic.  

While Ben Maxwell was a player with relatively low profile in his draft year, Milan Lucic was already seen as being a leader, impact player and difference-maker on the eventual Memorial Cup winners, despite his stats not being as impressive as Mr. Maxwell's.  It is reasonable to assume that his skillset would have fit in really well within the organizational philosophy of the Bruins and that he would have been more highly prized by them than by other teams.  So the Bruins do get extra credit for 'reaching' for Mr. Lucic, snapping him up ahead of where he was normally slated to be taken, and ahead of the higher rated Ryan White, who the Canadiens moved up in the third round to get when he kept 'sliding'.

I often wonder what if at the Canadiens' draft table, someone had piped up and asked if they should risk drafting Mr. Lucic just so as to avoid seeing the Bruins getting him and then having to face him eight times a year, would that have carried the day, or whether he was ever on their radar, especially that high in the draft.

What this speaks to is the organizational stability in Boston, with Harry Sinden having steered the ship for decades.  Love 'em or, more likely, hate 'em, the Bruins have played the same style since the seventies, and have scouted and drafted accordingly, and then developed their players to the same purpose.  This gives them a great advantage in that it restricts their focus and allows them to concentrate on fewer players who fit into their philosophy, it gives them more clarity of purpose and reduces the likelihood of too many options causing 'paralysis by analysis'.

The Canadiens have the opportunity with the current front office shakeup to re-instill the team's philosophy.  We had a nebulous sense recently that there was no such clear guiding principles, in that for example Mr. Gainey had obtained speedy smaller skaters at forward, while Coach Martin favoured a defence-first style that seemed ill-suited to his personnel.  It can be hoped that we in the future have a consistent vision of what the team should look like and how it should play, from the ownership on down, and that this will be promulgated by the GM, scouting, coaching, and player development staff.  We can hope that this philosophy will rely firmly on the team's history and legacy, and that the emphasis will be to build on some of the momentum which has been allowed to ebb since the glory years of the seventies and eighties.

As far as the best way to determine which team has been the best success in drafting, both the methods used by Ed Wiles of the Vancouver Province ( and Andrew Berkshire ( have their merits, and show the Canadiens in a positive light, which goes to Trevor Timmins' and his staff's credit.

I contend, as Mr. Berkshire does, that it doesn't take a genius to draft a Sidney Crosby or a Evgeni Malkin once Alex Ovechkin has been removed as an option, or a Nail Yakupov.  The Canadiens will draft a player at #3 overall this June who will have lots of promise but some warts, and it will be hard to debate the merits of this pick with any certainty until three or four years from now.

I do think that the real test of an organization is how they do with the late first-round picks, as well as their second-rounders and third rounders.  The Canadiens have historically done well with these guys, often grabbing unheralded players from the Québec league who turn into stalwarts for years.  We have quite a few second-rounders coming up in the next couple years, and these will determine the team's future and give us an accurate read on how skilled we are at evaluating and then developing talent.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

With all the draft talk going on in Montréal Canadiens fandom, there was some discussion about the poor quality of the players picked in the 1968 NHL draft, the last time the Canadiens got to pick 3rd overall.
What we need to remember is these guys were the leftovers after most of the talented teens in Canada were already signed to contracts by NHL teams and playing in their farm system. For example, the Bruins signed Bobby Orr at the age of fourteen, winning out against the Maple Leafs and the Canadiens, among others.
The universal draft came later, at which point players played until they were twenty years old in junior before being drafted, with the oddball U.S. college guy or European player thrown in. This practice was a great advantage to owners, who with the advent of player agents, were having to pay ever higher signing bonuses to players and their parents to reserve their rights. With the draft, a player’s rights were owned by one team only, there no longer were any bidding wars.
Until the WHA came along, but that’s another story.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

The Leafs, the Jets, the Canadiens, everyone wants to get bigger

Watching the Top Ten plays of the regular season on TSN, and once I was over the fact that #10 and #9 were two ex-Canadiens who left the team with no tangible return, I really enjoyed the spectacular plays.  Breathtaking save by Ondrej Pavelec, dazzling stickhandling, both Penguins supernovastars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin contributing....

One thing I didn't see in the Top Ten was a goalmouth scramble.  A goal scored from a 'dirty area'.  A player 'taking his man' at the faceoff.  A player being responsible without the puck.  Truculence.

Yet in today's wrap-up in both Toronto and Winnipeg, both GM's spoke about getting bigger.  Unequivocally.  As if more size is an unalloyed boon.

No one spoke about needing more skill or skating or putting on a better show for the fans who cough up more than $100 per seat.  No one said we need talent on this team.  Once Brian Burke was done blaming Brian Gionta for the underwhelming performance by his un-pedigreed, flash-in-the-pan out-of-nowhere goalie, he explained that his team wasn't big enough to play the way he wanted it to.  Again, not lacking in talent or scoring or defence or goaltending, but merely size.

I fear for the children.

Andrei Markov does not comment on P.K. Subban's progress

The scene at the Brossard training complex yesterday as the Montréal Canadiens cleaned out their lockers and met the media for the last time in this difficult season was meant to be one of meekness and personal responsibility, as well as a profession of faith that the next one would be radically different, if only through strenuous, diligent effort over the summer from each individual.

Most players got the script and followed it.  Josh Gorges bravely answered questions and defended all his teammates by way of backing Scott Gomez.  Erik Cole was appropriately glum, describing how he didn't expect to lose so much when he signed his contract last summer.  Various players disclosed nagging injuries, and some announced whether they would be heading to the World Championships.

So in this relatively innocuous setting, Andrei Markov managed to provide enough grist for the mill to last us until next fall's harvest.  He was asked to comment on P.K. Subban's development over the season, to which he snapped: "Next question."  The journalist, more surprised than insistent, probed: "You don't want to comment?"  His succinct reply was delivered with a rictus that said more than his "No."

My first reaction to this new tempest in a teacup is to wonder why this question was asked at all.  It kind of made sense last season to ask Hal Gill about P.K. since they were on the same pairing and he played a widely-touted mentorship role.  It would also be appropriate if P.K. had had a stellar season and was in line for a Norris Trophy or some other honour, or even if at the other end of the spectrum, he had had a disastrous season which endangered his status with the team, à la Scott Gomez.  It would make sense for the members of the Two and a Half Men line to comment on each other's season.  It is understandable that the Calgary Flames were all asked about a potential future without Jarome Iginla, since that is a question central to the identity of that team, and no one shirked their duty to respond and add their contribution to the Iggy legend.  

Andrei reacted completely differently.  He according to the analysts on RDS allowed his frustration with the public's fascination and beguilement with the callow defenceman to get the better of him, and couldn't voice the rehearsed platitudes that every NHL'er is familiar with.  (As an aside, it's noteworthy that there are other unnamed players who reacted in the same way to the same question, with one stating that P.K. does pretty much what he wants both on and off the ice)  Andrei's response was expected to be that P.K. had come a long way and still had lots of room to improve and was promised to a bright future, but he couldn't spit the lines out.  

Which according to François Gagnon of La Presse and RDS, says more about Andrei than P.K.  Mr. Markov is a magician and leader on the ice, but a difficult person off it and somewhat lacking in leadership in the dressing room.  He is famously prickly with the media.  He has been coddled and insulated from the media his whole career, based on his lack of ability to communicate in English when he first came to North America.  He has been allowed to coast on this dispensation his whole career, and was taken to task by the panel on l'Antichambre for it.  

Michel Bergeron was irked when pointing out that Andrei has been drawing a full salary for two seasons which he largely spent on the injured list, and that the least the fans who pay his salary can expect is a proper response to questions asked by the press.  He referred to the quip Andrei had after his first game against Vancouver, when he was asked about his surgically-reconstructed knee and replied: "It's still there."  While this is acceptable if delivered truly as a joke, Mr. Bergeron suspects that it's more of a reflection of Mr. Markov's attitude that dealing with the media is a barely tolerable annoyance.  As Michel Bergeron put it, when he and his players had to face the media at the end of a season, he would steel himself by preparing as he would for a visit to the dentist, and would internally repeat his mantra: "Ça va prendre dix minutes....  It will take ten minutes..."  Apparently this is more than Mr. Markov can achieve.

More than anything, what this episode shows is the lack of leadership and direction on the team, one that is fraying at the edges after a long season of losing.  The Antichambre panel, which also included Mario Tremblay and Michel Thérrien, explained that there were no coaches available to monitor the proceedings, which led to a last day of class with no teacher in the classroom atmosphere.  They conjectured that team captain Brian Gionta got everyone to attend and face the music, but in this environment of flux team cohesion took a hit.  They went on to say that with Mr. Gionta injured and Hal Gill traded, there was little veteran presence on the team.  Scott Gomez has been neutered by his own impotence.  Mathieu Darche can be a good lieutenant but is not able to play a frontline role on the ice and in the dressing room.  Tomas Plekanec doesn't have the personality for it.  Which leaves Erik Cole, who is a first year player, and Josh Gorges, who is on the cusp of being a veteran, and is also a role player.  They concluded that the next GM will have a lot of work to do over the summer.

I was glad to hear them agree that a lot of this stuff is what happens when a team is losing, and that winning cures a lot of these ills.  I know that getting beaten regularly makes the game less fun, makes the group going for a beer after games smaller, and the mood more subdued.  When your flakey goalie lets in a couple of beach balls or your stubborn fly half insists on kicking the ball away in every situation instead of circulating it, it grates on you and wears you down and leads to you snapping at each other over little things.  When the team is playing well and winning, you forgive your teammates their little foibles and ruefully admit their strengths and value their contributions instead of focusing on their failings.

Earlier in the season, Carey Price was asked about P.K. in a different setting, and he jokingly said that P.K. is a giant idiot who does entirely too much talking on his own already, and that there was therefore no need to say anything about him or add to the discussion.  This was delivered with a wry smile, so most took it as a good joke with the merest sprinkle of truth, but it is now easy to see that Carey was trying to send a gentle message and hoping that it would sink in.  And we get a sense that it does, and then a day later it hasn't quite done so yet and the message must be delivered again.  It brings to mind the famous Magic Johnson quote about Vlade Divac, that: "He's a quick learner, but he forgets quick too."

P.K. is still young and has shown a lot of improvement over this season.  For a while, he seemed uncontrollable, but Randy Ladouceur's iron glove approach seemed to take effect when the necessarily more subdued approach of Hal Gill had gone as far as it could.  We discussed last season how veterans can only influence rookies so far, since they're still teammates and need to get along.  At one point, a coach has to step in and establish boundaries and expectations, and discipline players who fall astray of these.  We applauded Mr. Ladouceur's presence behind the bench and his constant communication with his charges, that was what we had been clamouring for, instead of Perry Pearn's and Jacques Martin's phlegmatic laissez-faire approach.  Michel Bergeron often says that a coach's job is to say something and then repeat it and repeat it, to constantly remind his players.  This approach will benefit P.K. and the other young defencemen in the long run.

We can understand that P.K. is still a work in progress, and for all his promise is still a diamond in the rough and needs a lot of polishing.  We should not be surprised at this, since it was the scouting report on him coming out of junior, that he had first-round talent but big question marks when it came to coachability and attitude.  Let's hope that the next coaching team finds the right formula to allow him to deliver on his physical tools and potential.

Monday, 9 April 2012

The Kaberle trade: shrewd deal or monumental gaffe?

We often talk at cross-purposes on the Tomas Kaberle deal. Supporters mention his points per game pace, and the low price paid to acquire his services. They mention how everyone wanted Jaroslav Spacek gone anyway, and how he would have walked away for free in July, or traded away for very little at the trade deadline.

Opponents don’t really care about these points. What ticks them off is the acquisition of an overpaid player who has two more years left on a contract while his skills are in steep decline. They mention the lack of defensive skill or involvement, his lack of strength which not only makes him lose puck battles, but avoid them altogether. Another big beef is the lack of energy, joy and passion demonstrated by him, how he floats seemingly unaffected through losses and scoreless streaks.

So we should almost table the subject. No camp is willing to acknowledge the other’s points. It’s as unproductive a discussion as some of those in the political arena where the positions are so hardened that the same bombs are lobbed at each other with no effect, since both sides have heard and ignored them for years.

Tomas Kaberle is a polarizing figure on the team and forces us to agree to disagree. It’s on the to-do list of the next GM. Let’s drop the baby in Solomon’s lap, as it were. Let’s agree to abide by his word.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin dirty?

Great article by Cathal Kelly on the hatchet job being perpetrated against Sidney Crosby.

The Penguins have been identified as a threat to win it all by the ‘muck and grind posse’ in the media, which is seemingly dominated by former Flyers and Bruins. These guys have an agenda to maximize the chances of their former teams to win the Stanley Cup, and also to justify the ‘style’ of hockey that they played when they were active in the league. So the Penguins, led by players such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, skilled scorers and skaters who play a spectacular, fan-friendly brand of hockey, must be vilified as not playing the right way, like Terry O’Reilly or Moose Dupont used to. So now somehow, we’re supposed to believe that Mr. Malkin and Mr. Crosby are villains, instead of the league’s poster boys, as they rightfully should be.

It’s a smear job similar to that against the Canucks last year, when they were dubbed ‘The Most Hated Team in Hockey’ and also branded as divers and whiners. This enabled the Bruins to spear and crosscheck and mug them down to their level and eke out a win, and the refs to overlook even more infractions from the dark-jerseyed and black-hearted Bruins than they normally would have. The table had been set for an institutionally-condoned bias against the Canucks, epitomized by the disparity in punishment received by Aaron Rome and Johnny Boychuk for the season-ending hits they delivered. Mr. Rome knocked Nathan Horton out of the series with an almost borderline late but clean hit, one that was reminiscent of the hits that put Scott Stevens in the Hall of Fame, but which resulted in a suspension for the rest of the playoffs for the perpetrator. Meanwhile, Johnny Boychuk interfered with Mason Raymond and drove him bent over into the boards, breaking his back, with all this occurring with the puck nowhere near and Mr. Raymond never having possession of it. Mr. Boychuk skated away scot-free, and Mason Raymond was helped off the ice to the jeers of the Boston crowd, and wasn’t ready to return to action until midway through this season.

We see the hypocrisy in the criticism directed at Sidney Crosby for attempting to give as good as he gets, with Neanderthals like Don Cherry trumpeting that this justifies the treatment he is getting and will surely receive during the playoffs. So really Sidney should turn the other cheek and be a pacifist, like Daniel Sedin did in last year’s playoffs when he was being bolo-punched by the reprehensible creep Brad Marchand. We all remember how the media lionized Daniel Sedin for his patience and courage and strength of character, and how the league and its officials rushed to the aid of an NHL scoring champion, pillar of a community and true gentleman.

I’ll empower myself to speak on behalf of Mr. Malkin and Crosby, and make a deal with Flyer assistant coach Craig Berube, he of the 1000 game, 60 goal, 3000 penalty minute career: if his guys don’t crosscheck or facewash or rabbit punch or spear or headlock or slash or chirp them constantly after the whistle sounds, neither will the Penguins stars. How’s that for a deal? Let’s really ‘let them play’, as in, let the talented players play, instead of letting the no-talent pluggers hang on for dear life to the stars and clutch and slash them down to their level, as that expression has come to mean. Let’s let Evgeni Malkin swoop into the opposition zone without a Flyer trailing a full stride behind, slashing away just below the ridiculous threshold that needs to be met before a ref finds the whistle in his zippered pocket, knocks the cobwebs and lint off it and actually calls a penalty. Let’s let the stars play, as the NFL and the NBA and Rugby Union do, by allowing the stars who bring us out of our seats to flourish, instead of favouring the Mike Houghs and the Dwight Fosters of this world.

Somehow I suspect Mr. Berube won't agree to my deal.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Mathieu Darche, Yannick Weber, Raphaël Diaz

The post-mortem has begun, and fans are already clamouring for some heads to roll, and players to be shipped out of town, almost out of spite.

Some of these assessments are unfair, especially when it comes to Mathieu Darche. He's a consummate pro who works hard at everything he does. He's certainly cost-effective. People who focus on him as a problem don’t seem to grasp that there isn’t an NHL-ready youngster in Hamilton being denied an opportunity to move up to the big leagues. While most of us agreed that he was miscast on the powerplay by Coach Martin, Mathieu has a spot on this roster next season unless the Canadiens manage to sign three or four NHL forwards in free agency. This is unlikely to happen, so let’s have Mathieu hold down the fort next season while Louis Leblanc, Blake Geoffrion and Brendan Gallagher play heavy minutes in Hamilton.

I was hoping for more from Yannick Weber and Raphaël Diaz to a lesser extent this season. We need to sign a cheap defensive defenceman for a couple of seasons while we wait for the cavalry to arrive from Hamilton in 2013. Mr. Diaz gets sent down to Hamilton and plays a lot of minutes, since he’s not waiver eligible, and is one of the first callups. Mr. Weber gets another chance to show what he can do, hopefully with fewer injuries and being asked to only fill a #6/Powerplay role, he can come back more mature and effective. He needs to go train with P.K. and develop some strength over the summer.

Frédéric St-Denis has convinced me that he deserves a shot. I’m underwhelmed by his size and pedigree, but he seems to be smarter and more mature than our fringe, smaller defencemen. Let’s give him an opportunity next season as the #7 D and see what he can do.

Game 82: Montréal 4, Toronto 1

I didn't really watch the game tonight, it was more as if I had it on as background mood music. I spent my time online at, chin wagging with other regulars through the magic of a clunky site. I should have paid more attention, seeing as it was the last Canadiens game for a long long time, but couldn't muster up the discipline. It was like the last day of school, or this one time when I got laid off and spent a day organizing files and getting them ready for handoff and cleaning out my desk. My mind was elsewhere.

Precisely, it's stuck on the draft, and free agency on July 1, and on the news conference(s) which will announce our new management and coaching teams, and training camp, and the Bulldogs training camp and drooling over the raft of new prospects. So it's not like I was cheating, I was thinking of my true love the whole time.

Erik Cole, Max Pacioretty, Brad Staubitz in the empty net for his first goal as a Habitant, Tomas Plekanec on a 5 on 3 penalty kill, yada yada, great game. The Leafs suck. I wouldn't trade my team for three of theirs.

The win was a good way to end the season, and since the Oilers couldn't muster up a win, didn't cost us a steep 4 points on the draft lottery. Seeing the fans receiving jerseys from the players was great, although CBC cut away to the Jets' game too quick, I had to do some lightning quick PVR work to tune in the festivities on RDS.

Speaking of Don Cherry sucks, the knee on knee collisions are not a result of the clampdown on headshots, as he moronically asserts, but rather the result of the 'finish your check' mentality prevalent in the NHL, which allows players to hit others long after they've had possession of the puck, and the resulting mania of GM's to amass on their rosters goons and lunks who can't skate. These guys either extend a knee or reach out with an elbow as they're missing their target, as Brooks Orpik did and Darcy Hordichuk demonstrated in trying to decapitate Ryan Kesler in retaliation for Maxime Lapierre having had the audacity to bodycheck him.

After the game I watched the Canucks win the President Trophy, and I think I'll make it my new job to follow these guys through the playoffs, call it a civic duty as a transplanted British Columbian. Let's all hope for a good final involving the Canucks at full strength against the Penguins, a final with no villains, and skating and scoring and entertaining hockey instead of thuggery.

Friday, 6 April 2012

The NHL's ridiculous system of discipline

I've addressed in the past how the NHL has a bizarre system of on-ice discipline. It is accepted that the referees will not catch every infraction, despite the relatively recent addition of a second referee and extra set of eyes, due to the pace of the game, so two current practices were evolved.

One is that the players will police the game themselves, in order to keep a lid on dirty plays committed out of the officials' sight. This creates a league where intimidation, thuggery and outright assaults are tolerated to a great degree as a necessary or even noble product of the game. So that a big, tough player is prized more highly by General Managers than a smaller more talented player.

Another is that the referees will 'manage' the game, chatting constantly with the players on the ice, directing them as to what is expected, telling to stop hooking or freezing the puck or cross-checking or else they'd have to whistle them for a penalty. Often, an infraction isn't really an infraction unless the referee has had a chance to enjoin the guilty party to cease and desist. You hear them all the time: "Let go! Let go!"

"Keep it moving! Keep it moving!"

"Easy with the stick... Next one I'm going to have to call it."

It brings us to ridiculous situations like today's announcements that Brooks Orpik will not receive extra discipline for his potentially career-ending knee-on-knee check delivered to Derek Stepan. Mr. Orpik is the exact type of rugged, hard-nosed player with limited skill and mobility who is perennially chosen over the more talented Martin St. Louis of this game.

The play itself is unremarkable in that it happens routinely in the NHL. A player lines up an opponent for a big open ice hit, invariably coming straight at him. The other player notices this, sometimes at the last minute, and veers to one side or the other. The would-be bodychecker will then be at a disadvantage if he misses him, since he will be out of position with the puck carrier behind him and with a clear path to the net. So the bodychecker, who cannot allow this to happen, out of a partial reflex and competitive spirit, reaches out to at least put some kind of a hit on him and slow him down, and this unfailingly results in the knee-on-knee collision.

Mr. Orpiks received a five minute penalty and a game misconduct for his hit, but no further suspension, even though these are the kind of hits that rupture ACL and cartilage in players' knees and ends careers. This hit is seen as a by-product of the physical game, regrettable but unavoidable.

Meanwhile, adding to the ridiculousness, Wild defenceman Nate Prosser received a one game suspension for a head butt to Jamal Mayers. This incident occured during a tedious, meaningless scrum in front of the net, hard on the heels of players 'rushing the net' when the goaltender obviously had the puck frozen under his glove. During the scrum, Mr. Mayers, who is precisely the kind of untalented mugger the NHL favours, swatted at Nate Prosser's head and face with his right hand. For a moment both players stood face to face with their sticks and hands tangled in front of them, at which point Mr. Prosser reached out with his head and headbutted Mr. Mayers in the face. Mr. Mayers suffered a cut lip in this exchange, but the intensity of the headbutt would have been described by apologists as nothing more than a 'love tap' if contact had been made with the glove of Mr. Prosser instead. If he had crosschecked/gloved Mr. Mayers in the face with more energy and purpose, and if Mr. Mayers had retaliated in kind, this would have been seen as good spirited competition by two warriors trying to send a message. At most they would have received cancelling two-minute minors.

Again, the message is clear. Players like Mr. Orpik and Mr. Mayers will be celebrated by the league and their thuggery will be tolerated and explained in the context of murky concepts like honour and toughness. If Mr. Orpik almost ends a player's career due to his need to play physically to continue to have a career in the NHL, that's the cost of doing business. You can't have an omelet without breaking a few eggs. If Mr. Mayers heads to the net and mugs it up after the play when the whistle has blown, that's just spirited play and par for the course, he's making sure the goalie isn't too comfortable. Elbows, punches, facewashes, crosschecks, these are just tactics. But if a headbutt is delivered, that's outside The Code, and will be punished. One type of violence is cool, another is beyond the pale.

The NHL can't seem to get out of its own way. It promised us that it would favour a more open, spectacular product as an apologia after the lockout, that offence and skill and speed would be championed, as the NFL had done, and the NBA, and Rugby Union, among other sports. We bought it. Bob Gainey bought it.

Instead, the inmates are running the asylum, with the Bruins family having taken over the Board of Governors and the Ministry of Information like the Borgias with the Holy See. The goon is ascendent in the house of the NHL. The Flyers and Rangers have put the Penguins and the league on notice as to what will happen during the playoffs.

It would be so simple to avoid two incidents like these. Make each offence a strict liability, where the player's intent or the resultant damage or injury doesn't factor into whether a suspension will be imposed. The responsibility for preventing a knee on knee collision rests with the bodychecker. If he lines up an opponent and connects like Scott Stevens or Alexei Emelin, fair game. If however his target observes him and ducks, the bodychecker must let him go, and can't reach out with an elbow or knee. If he does connect with an elbow or knee on knee, a minimum sentence is incurred, regardless of the situation, or that the opponent wasn't stretchered off the ice. Punish transgressors harshly, to change the mindset. The players must know that there's no tolerance, no margin for error with these moves, to change the culture.

Same thing with blows to the head. No matter that it's delivered by an elbow or gloved hand or bare hand or stick or whatever, they're not allowed. A glancing blow, a love tap, a vigourous shove, a hard gloved punch à la Milan Lucic on Mike Komisarek, they're all no gos. No facewashes. No contact with the face or head of the opponent is tolerated. Period. Nate Prosser can't headbutt Jamal Mayers, but neither can Jamal Mayers swat his head. After the whistle when the play is dead. No excuses, no deviation. Game misconducts and game suspensions are automatic, with escalators for repeat offenders. Problem solved.

These issues are too intractable for Gary Bettman and Bill Daly and the feckless Colin Campbell to solve, however, occupied as they are trying to convince the authorities in Phoenix that they have three, no four! interested parties to purchase the Coyotes, just dying to, right around the corner. But it really isn't that complicated. The lawsuits are just about the corner boys, how about you at least put up a sham front of proactiveness.