Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Review: "Game Misconduct", by Russ Conway

"Game Misconduct" is a book that I've always had on my 'To Read' list, and finally got around to this summer.  It is based on the "Cracking the Ice" investigative series written for the Lawrence (MA) Eagle-Tribune by journalist Russ Conway, which outlined many of the crimes perpetrated by Alan Eagleson while he acted as head of the National Hockey League Players' Association and concurrently as a player agent.  It is an outrage to read, and like many similar books, leads you to wonder what if someone had acted sooner, asked the right questions, persisted in the face of abuse or stonewalling...

Mr. Conway covered the Bruins from the late sixties and grew close to a few of the players, notably Bobby Orr.  In 1990, the members of the Cup-winning 1970 team held a reunion to which he was invited, and during that event he spoke to a few players who had tales of being done wrong by their team, the league, their insurance providers.  A great many were suffering physically, mentally and financially due to past injuries, poor or no health insurance coverage, and pitiful pensions.  All of it seemed outlandish, and he decided to do some digging.

In broad strokes, he found Alan Eagleson to be in a perpetual conflict of interest while acting concurrently as a player agent, head of the NHLPA, agent for coaches or management personalities, and promoter of international hockey tournaments, to say nothing of his close relationships with NHL owners.  For example, he needed NHL permission to use their players to stage Canada Cups, so was hard-pressed to drive too hard a bargain during negotiations for collective agreements.  The players he represented as an agent would sometimes have different goals and interests than the rank and file NHLPA member.  His cozy relationship with Bill Wirtz of the Chicago Blackhawks, and the fact he represented their GM Bob Pulford, meant he couldn't go to the wall for NHLPA members who needed their association's support in claims against the Hawks.

And so on, the book is a litany of dereliction of duty, mismanagement and misappropriation of union funds, opaque or secretive bookkeeping practices, outright stealing from certain players, questionable negotiation decisions when bargaining against the owners, such as the failure to obtain free agency for his members, or to obtain any concessions from the league in order to agree to a merger of the WHA and NHL, which severely hampered the players' earning potential by curtailing demand for their services.  Mr. Conway follows the trail by speaking with players who've been wronged or duped by Alan Eagleson, and by examining whatever documentation is available, which is precious little.  Mr. Eagleson would delay, deny, browbeat, insult, and otherwise frustrate anybody who asked pointed questions, who would demand to see the books.

A lot of players come across as pathetic figures, broke, in debt, desperate, and who accepted pitiful settlements from the league and its in-house insurance companies.  Mike Milbury, for once, is the good guy, who perpetually demanded answers and transparency from the head of the union, although he was never satisfied in this area, until a criminal investigation was launched in the U.S.

Others who don't come off very well are our own RCMP, who dragged their feet during the entire investigation, sometimes failing to cooperate with the FBI or other jurisdictions.  Mr. Conway makes a point of reminding readers of the retinue of gladhanders and political hacks Alan Eagleson accumulated during his run, and how political forces may have steered the ship rather than a search for justice.

The Canadian sports press also takes a beating.  Mr. Conway uses their own quotes to hang them, as it were.  The reluctance of Canadian journalists to take on Alan Eagleson, to tell the story of the investigation, of the facts being revealed, is partly due to the myth of the man, how he took on the Commies in '72 and by gosh beat them, and how he represented Bobby Orr, and how he took on NHL owners and won, by forming a players' union, where Ted Lindsay and Doug Harvey among others had failed.  Alan Eagleson was also a good source of material for them, and he wasn't above using NHLPA funds to wine and dine them to curry their favour.

Red Fisher of the Montreal Gazette takes a specific beating, having been an investor in an Eagleson-Orr venture which was foundering.  Mr. Fisher received a $15 000 cheque to indemnify him, vastly more than his investment stake was worth at the time, with the understanding that he'd not speak ill of the NHLPA boss.  This is a grave conflict of interest for a reporter, to be in a business partnership with one of the major players of the world he's supposed to cover, and it's difficult to understand how that came to be.  Certainly Mr. Fisher was taken aback when contacted by Russ Conway on this matter.  

Ultimately, among many other transgressions and highly questionable practices, Mr. Eagleson is convicted of fraud for funneling money from Canada Cup rink-board advertising revenue to a personal Swiss bank account, and trying to cover his tracks later by attempting to return the money and falsify invoices when the heat was on.  The galling aspect of this is that it's probably the tip of the iceberg, one of the few times he stole money from the players where there was a paper trail, where he got caught.  The many estates and mansions and jet-set lifestyle of the man don't speak of an executive who lives on his paltry pay and commissions.  

Actually, the thing that really galls is his repeated assurances to anyone who'd listen that he never made a penny off international hockey, that he did it all for love of country and the game.  The double-billing for office space for Hockey Canada and the NHLPA, the lavish, undocumented expenses, the sinecures for his family, all speak otherwise.

This is an eye-opening work, which frustrates the reader at times.  Without making a direct comparison, I often felt like I did when I read Stevie Cameron's "On The Farm", and was frustrated that there were so many ways and opportunities to collar this guy but they kept being wasted.  Another book which came to mind was Jon Ronson's "The Psychopath Test", and how it deals with the Hare Psychopathy Checklist.  Mr. Eagleson does check off many of the boxes, notably being inappropriately profane, charming, manipulative, irascible, devoid of empathy, among other traits.  I had to wonder while reading Mr. Conway's book whether Alan Eagleson is not in fact a sociopath.

I will recommend this book, if only to give prospective readers a good background on why and how the NHLPA has come to have such an adversarial stance in its dealings with ownership.  The players have not only been underpaid and bullied throughout much of the history of the NHL, but its union was actively subverted, criminally so, by ownership, and no one had ever been made to pay for this.  Bill Wirtz's son Rocky now owns the Blackhawks and offers up the ludicrous puffery that the team isn't profitable, has never been profitable, after all these decades, and with a salary cap, public funds to build and operate his stadium, and his owning the station he sold the local TV rights to, as well as the liquor distributorship that hold the contract for the arena.

So yeah, a not-quite-enjoyable read, more of an engrossing one, if you have the stomach for it.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Who will succeed Brian Gionta as captain of the Canadiens?

I've always thought that players should vote for their captain.  The role should be filled by someone who can lead his teammates, it's not a fan-popularity contest.

Having said that, there's no obvious candidate to fill the role currently on the Canadiens.  Andrei Markov could be the guy, except that he'd struggle with the media demands, and he doesn't suffer fools gladly.  If he'd accept the role, it'd be great, no one can question him on talent or effort or experience or dedication.  He wouldn't be a warm and fuzzy captain like Trevor Linden or Yvan Cournoyer, he'd be more of the Chris Pronger mold, a do-as-I-say-or-else guy.  Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, leadership comes in many forms.

I don't think P.K. is ready.  He has through his short career been loquacious, intentionally controversial sometimes.  He has played the role of lovable buffoon, and we've seen his teammates be hard on him at first, then loosen the leash somewhat, but still try to keep him in line, and deflate his his ego, through humourous putdowns and pranks as seen on "24CH".

He can transition into a leadership role now, with his contract in hand and status assured, and also because a vacuum has been created by the departure of Josh Gorges, Brian Gionta, Francis Bouillon, among others.  He can take a step forward, and instead of hamming it up for the cameras and the fans, can play the role of exemplar for the young defencemen coming up through the system.  He has more experience, fewer veterans in front of him, he can be less the "Yes, Sir!" rookie type, and more of the "Watch me go" player.

All of us who've been involved in team sports know this dynamic, how when you first join the team you're supposed to fight for a roster spot, for playing time, you observe the veterans and do as they do.  A couple of years later, you're one of the boys, you know your stuff, and you try to take rookies under your wing, show them the way, you speak up when necessary.  This is a natural, normal progression.  Often, you don't even think of this process, you're just nudged in the right direction by the team dynamics.  As a newcomer you can be the ingratiating jokester, but as you become a veteran you tone down that act a bit to lead your teammates, because that's what is needed, you don't necessarily need to be told.

So Andrei would be a great transition captain, he can serve two or three years, and then the title can be handed off to the next player who imposes himself as the dressing room and on-ice leader, whether that is Max or P.K, or by then Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher, Jarred Tinordi, etc.

Why Jérémy Grégoire 'fell' to the sixth round of the 2013 NHL draft.

François Parenteau of "La Presse" wrote a good article on Jérémy Grégoire, and why he 'fell' to the sixth round of the draft in 2013.  

He explains that Jérémy was always a first-grade prospect, but he struggled in his draft year playing for the Saguenéens, to the point where he asked for a trade at the Christmas break.  This may have set off alarm bells in the scouting community, that this kid might be a little too big for his britches.

The author continues that the trade to Baie-Comeau was ultimately beneficial though.  His first LHJMQ season saw him pick up 30 points in 61 games, but he was stuck at 15 points in 35 games the next season when he asked for the trade.  He finished with 17 points in 27 games for the Drakkar, and blew up in the playoffs with 16 points in 18 games.

One reason for his lack of success in Chicoutimi may have been a rift with his coach, who no longer is the Sags' head coach and is back in the CIS with the UQTR Patriotes this season.

The comments to the article also provide some insight.  One poster explains that the olympic-dimension rink in Chicoutimi didn't suit his physical style.  While he has improved his skating this season, the larger ice surface supposedly didn't play to his strengths, and he is much better suited to a North American-sized rink.

Another commenter goes further than the article's author, and states that the coach plainly didn't like him, and didn't rely on him overly.  Of course this can make all the difference in the world, in terms of the player's confidence, and the minutes he receives and situations he plays in (powerplay, offensive situations)l.

So Jérémy Grégoire, who was headed for a disastrous draft year, being left off the NHL's Central Scouting mid-season prospect rankings, managed to save his season and ended up ranked as the 79th North American prospect by Central Scouting.  He was drafted 176th overall by the Canadiens, and last season was a point-a-game player.  

Sunday, 17 August 2014

UFA Kevin Hayes causes a minor stir in the dog days of August.

The reaction to the Kevin Hayes pursuit is hitting all the notes that the Justin Schultz situation did two years ago.  On one hand there are detractors who rightly point out that this player is not a guaranteed superstar, just a prospect, no better than a hundred or so NHL prospects already under contract, at least.  Plus, Mr. Hayes only had his one great season, his breakout year, last season as a college senior, playing against a lot of eighteen and nineteen year old freshmen.

What this narrative fails to point out is that those other, better prospects are already locked up by other teams, they were snapped up at the draft, and a lot of teams never had a shot at them.  Kevin Hayes is now an unrestricted free agent, who can sign with anyone, he'll be found money to the team that signs him, an 'asset' dropped in their lap.  It'll be like adding an extra first-rounder to an organization's prospect pool.

Further, this asset is close to matured.  Contrary to a Mike McCarron or Nikita Scherback, who'll need a few seasons of development in the lower levels, Kevin Hayes is 22 years old, fully grown, pretty much ready to go.  He may need some time to adapt to pro hockey by playing in the AHL, but it will be comparatively short.

Finally, adding Kevin Hayes is virtually risk-free, since he will have to sign an Entry-Level Contract, which is by necessity a two-way deal.  Its salary, its bonus structure, all are governed by the CBA, and if the player doesn't pan out, there will be no cap hit to speak of, he'll toil in the minors until the contract runs out.  The only cost to the team will be to spend one of its 50 contracts-limit slots on him.  Everyone agrees that's not much of a drawback at all.

We see this rationale every spring when undrafted college free agents hit the market.  This year, players like Christian Folin probably entertained offers from twenty teams of more, with the kicker that there was no real 'bidding' war, with the ELC's specifying most of the contract parameters.  Players were left to choose teams based on how they felt they would fit there, in terms of their chances of cracking the roster, geographic location, sytem, etc.  (The Canadiens did relatively well in this gold rush, snapping up Daniel Carr and David Makowski.)

I'm not sure when these undrafted college free agents first hit public consciousness, when they first garnered attention as opposed to being considered minor-league fodder, the dregs of pro hockey, but for me it was in the eighties, when the Red Wings made a big splash signing two of them the same season.  At the time the Red Wings were a pitiful team, they'd been at the bottom of the standings for years, and must have decided to try this avenue to improve.

They won the bidding war for Ray Staszak, a big, fast, high-scoring college player who reporters explained might be comparable to Bill Barber.  And at the time, there were no limits on contracts, no salary cap, but also no set entry-level deals, so there was in effect a true salary auction, and the Red Wings paid through the nose to sign him.  There was a lot of pressure on him to produce, since he was as a rookie earning more than most pros were at the time.  Unfortunately, he never developed as envisioned for them.

The other guy they signed, the next-best player available, was a two-way smart player named Adam Oates.  I remember thinking his name didn't really fit for a hockey player, it wasn't a cool hockey name like Ray Staszak, and so what if he's a passer.  Those guys are everywhere, you can get a Pierre Mondou anytime at the draft.  Sure enough though, this would be the guy who would justify his big rookie contract with the Wings and go on to even bigger and better things.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Can the Canadiens trade a Pateryn-Nygren package to the Dallas Stars for Brett Ritchie?

SI's Allan Muir linked to a blog post on how Dallas' defencemen are all lefties.  Every single one on their NHL roster.  And Jamie Oleksiak, the giant prospect they're waiting on, is also leftie.

I've harped on the fact that, in the later rounds, the Canadiens have concentrated in the last couple of seasons on right-handed defenceman.  They drafted Jarred and Nathan in the first round, but every other defenceman picked up was a rightie, after Mac Bennett was chosen five years ago.

I've guessed that it wasn't entirely by chance that Trevor Timmins was focusing on righties, that they weren't unfailingly the 'best-player available', that there was method to the madness.  If your blue-chippers, those you can almost count on making it, are lefties, maybe all of your longshots should be right-handed, to even things out.

We've got a backlog of righties in Hamilton, with Greg Pateryn, Morgan Ellis, Darren Dietz, and now Dalton Thrower.  Magnus Nygren is in the fold for now, as a mature offensive d-man prospect, and he's righthanded.  Josiah Didier is continuing his college career in Denver, and even-longer-shot Colin Sullivan is playing in the USHL, and yes both are righties.

And we added two more righties with 3rd-rounder Brett Lernout at the draft in June, and Nikolas Koberstein in the fifth.

So are we in a position to deal with Jim Nill's Stars?  Surely he sees that his defence needs a major tweak, a shuffle to balance it out.  There seems to be no help on the way, their farm system is also skewing to the left.  Julius Honka, who they drafted in the first round this year, is a rightie, but he's smallish and might be a few seasons away from being able to help.

It would be better if Magnus Nygren and/or Greg Pateryn were a step closer to the NHL, that they'd progressed to the point where Nathan Beaulieu is right now, a player who should have a roster spot out of training camp.  Magnus Nygren has an impressive skillset, and Greg Pateryn had a solid, almost surprising AHL season.  They're not Evander Kane-worthy trade pieces, but to a team like the Stars, who are more desperate for right-handed help on the blue line, they might be kind of sparkly and tempting.

And the Canadiens could spare a couple of righties without being left destitute.  If one or both of those guys leave, the Bulldogs, our system can continue chugging along, every other prospect takes a step up the ladder and we keep rolling.  In fact, it might be healthy for our organization, and spur the development of the other guys, allow them to play more minutes in all situations.  Dalton Thrower might not be headed to the ECHL anymore.

And what could interest Marc Bergevin in return?  Might he want to take a superfluous leftie like Jamie Oleksiak off their hands, since they already have too many of those anyway?  That might be nice, everybody wins.

A more realistic, and more attractive target might be Brett Ritchie though.  A big right winger who can crash and bang  but has offensive talent and can produce, that would fill a few needs on our team.  He's had one season in the AHL, and did well there, he's getting close to the NHL, and could really help fill our hole on right wing.

He wouldn't come cheap, the Canadiens would have to ante up more than a Pateryn-level prospect or two, there'd have to be a package and it would sting a little bit, but what makes it feasible, in my mind at least, is that both teams have what the other needs, the trade pieces align very well.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Review: "Journeyman", by Sean Pronger

As he often derides himself, Sean Pronger is famous for having a little brother, namely Chris.  Even though Sean as an NHL player measured in at 6'3" and 220 lbs, he had to look up at his 6'6" brother, literally and in terms of their respective hockey achievements.  His good grace in dealing with his lot and the constant comparisons are evident throughout his memoir "Journeyman: The Many Triumphs (And Even More Numerous Defeats) of a Guy Who's Seen Just About Everything In the Game of Hockey", which he co-wrote with his friend Dan Murphy of Sportsnet fame.

The book is a thoroughly enjoyable read, and delivers on the promise of an insider's look at the world of the fringe NHL player, with the trades and demotions to the minors and recalls, the anxious summers waiting for a contract and the toll it takes on a player's psyche and on his family life.  While the subject is dealt with frankly, it's also a humourous account, with many self-deprecating potshots.  Mr. Pronger doesn't deal in 'Woe is me.'  He is very aware that even the life of a minor-league hockey player is pretty good, considering he's getting paid very well to play a game he loves.

There is a foreword by Brian Burke, in which he recounts that he had a hand in drafting both Sean (with Vancouver) and Chris (with Hartford), and that this makes him "one for two".  Having gotten that witticism out of the way, Burkie is highly complimentary of the character, the person that is Sean Pronger, and also the type of fully-committed player he was.

The authors launch right into the tale, starting with a vignette from Mr. Pronger's time in the ECHL playing for Knoxville.  We then flash back to his draft day, his time at Bowling Green in the NCAA, his graduation and subsequent halting start to his pro hockey career.

While reading, I was forced to compare this book to a similar work I read recently, "Tales of a First-Round Nothing" by Terry Ryan, and can say that without question "Journeyman" is a much stronger effort.  It's a much more readable, coherent account, and delivers on what the reader wants, which is what happened, when and how did it happen, and why did it happen.  We get a much fuller picture and more satisfying read from Mr. Pronger than we do from Mr. Ryan.

I suspect much credit should go to co-author Dan Murphy, who among other duties acts as between-periods host of Canucks telecasts.  While he is not the wordsmith and jokester that co-host Don Taylor is, he is an able and knowledgeable reporter and media person, and very well-spoken.  Putting two heads together on this project must certainly have helped the final results.

Another reason this is a better read is that Sean Pronger confronts his lack of success in the NHL head-on, realistically describing his 'low ceiling' and how his game was centred on effort rather than talent.  Further, he is a more sympathetic figure than Terry Ryan, possibly because we get a sense that he expended every effort, on the ice and off, and during the off-season, to make a career for himself.  "Journeyman" is replete with stories of working out before and after practices, during games when he was a healthy scratch, and over the summer.  All of this is notably absent from Mr. Ryan's book.

Further, Sean Pronger probably has better tactics than Mr. Ryan, in how he listens to his agent, and how he approaches the game, and his coaches when he wants more ice-time and opportunities.  In comparison, Mr. Ryan tells how he clashed with his coach, and his efforts to impress are limited to pugilism with the other teams' heavyweights.  It does seem that Sean Pronger had a clearer plan of what he needed to do, and while he doesn't entirely succeed, he does eke out a decade-long pro hockey career.

There are many insights in the book on how a borderline NHL'er deals with teammates, veterans, newcomers.  He explains the weird situation in the AHL whereby he goes to war every game with his teammates, yet is in constant competition with them, jockeying for position while they await the next recall or at training camp.  He has a few brushes with greatness, notably playing with Wayne Gretzky on the Rangers, and with Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya with the Ducks.

On a topical note, he was in the Canucks' lineup the night Todd Bertuzzi assaulted Steve Moore.  I imagine he might be called as a witness by the Canucks/Marc Crawford/Todd Bertuzzi in these proceedings, as his comments on the matter play well in their favour.  Anyone wanting to know more about what happened that night will certainly get one clear perspective by reading his book.

Another interesting chapter deals with his experience in Europe, playing with Frankfurt in the German First Division.  We tend to think of players going to Europe getting paid generously, with other compensation like housing and a car being supplied by the team, and playing in a less-intense league, a semi-retirement, semi-vacation.  His memories are not that rosy, and we come to understand that some situations are not ideal, which is informative when we think back to Max Pacioretty's experience in Switzerland during Gary Bettman's Third Lockout.  Some of what Max was up against sounds very similar to what Mr. Pronger recounts.

There are many, many other reasons to read this book, such as his time playing for Pat Burns with the Bruins, or his time in the Canucks' system playing for the Manitoba Moose in Winnipeg.  His anecdote in the bar with Kevin Bieksa and Sergei Fedorov's 'little' brother Fedor is hilarious.  Even though the reader knows there is no ultimate payoff, no Cinderella ending, the pages fly by.

I have no hesitation in recommending "Journeyman", it's an engrossing, rewarding read, and helps the average fan fill in the picture regarding what the fourth-liner with the one-year, two-way contract goes through.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

The Mount Polley Mine disaster.

I'm still in shock at the incredible demonstration of corporate malfeasance and greed as well as the provincial government's abdication of its obligation to act as the watchdog for the public good in the case of the Mount Polley Mine disaster.  The headline to this linked article reads:

Mount Polley Mine tailings pond dam stable: Imperial Metals

Meaning, the bathtub is now empty.  No further cause for concern here, people.

The company president Brian Kynoch gives the corporate-speak meaningless statement that they "take full responsibility", but immediately goes on that:

"The dam is an independently engineered structure (emphasis mine) that operated within design limits and specifications. Monitoring instruments and onsite personnel had no indication of an impending breach," the company said.

Meaning: "We didn't build the thing, just accepted the lowest bid from a contractor."

How's that for pre-lawsuit manoeuvring?

Meanwhile, B.C. Energy and Mines Minister and industry lapdog Bill Bennett had this nugget for us to weigh:

"We will determine the cause of the event and we are determined to prevent an incident like this from happening again," Bennett said in a statement.

Meaning: "But not so determined as we were before in our assurances to everyone that this kind of disaster could never happen."

I would love to be able to read the public consultation process notes before this mine was allowed to open, when concerned citizens who raised objections were probably dismissed as cranks and tree-huggers by the company and ministerial staff.

I'm sure their fears of a tailings spill were poo-poohed, with insiders exasperatedly claiming that a breach was impossible, the dam would be "over-engineered", there would be sensor equipment, monitoring staff, etc.  And once the project was pushed through, and profits were paramount, not safety or the preservation of nature or job-creation as previously claimed, standards slowly dropped.  Sensor equipment was allowed to fail and not repaired.  Maintenance on the dam fell off.  Training and staffing levels dropped, because operating costs detract from bottom line results.

But that's what we get with Christy Clark's neo-con cabal of a 'Liberal' government.  She rode to power with a very passé campaign platform plank of "Blame the unions!", but business is given free rein to run amok.  Her ideals that industries should self-regulate lead us to these situations, where mine inspector staffing levels are cut back, and their powers are curtailed.

This dam was inspected years ago and warnings were issued, but there were no penalties for non-compliance.  Because it's more important to "get government off our backs" and to "cut red tape" than for the government to actually serve its function, which is to protect citizens and the common good from rapacious individuals and corporations.

So get your bloated corrupt face smudged with charcoal all you want Christy, you're already covered with it, you're in it up to your neck.