Saturday, 19 August 2017

2017 Rugby Women's World Cup: Canada 98, Hong Kong 0

Just catching up to the Women's Rugby World Cup on the PVR, and it was a laugher for the Canadian women against the overmatched ladies from Hong-Kong, a 98-0 slaughter.  Women's rugby has a shorter history, and there are great differences in talent and participation levels between countries, as we see in other sports like hockey for example.

Rugby is also a sport that lends itself to huge blowouts.  When you're faced with a team that is bigger/stronger/faster/more talented than you are, and you're getting shelled and run through and run over, it's hard to keep your focus and tackle just as hard as you can and run all out, especially as the second half drags on.  You lose your desire and the other team piles it on and you get sulky and bitter and dejected.  You don't necessarily stop trying, but it's hard to sacrifice yourself in a lost cause.  You start looking at your teammates and wondering if they're working as hard as they should, you think the opposite fullback is being a bit of a glamour boy and deserves to be put back in his place, you question if your own teammate's hamstring pull was all that bad and whether he just pulled himself and left you to deal with the mess, and your own game falls apart.

It's easier to desultorily backcheck in hockey, to coast around once you get up to speed, to just get in position and clog up a lane, but in rugby, once you stop running and once you stop hustling to the breakdowns, there's no way to limit the damage.

Magali Harvey has a great name for rugby, and a great game.  Fast, agile and good with her ball handling, she scored five tries and made us question, again, why she wasn't included on the Olympic squad in Rio.  The coach explained at the time that the best team isn't necessarily built from the best players, that he was looking at the program in a holistic manner, keeping an eye on the future, blah blah blah, but it all sounded like hogwash to me.  With the P.K. Subban situation having just exploded, it was hard to not see parallels, a massively talented player and a coach who couldn't get on the same page.

 Another athlete who caught the eye was Canadian captain Kelly Russell.  The big, strong and fast #8 was all over the field, surehanded with the ball, solid in her tackles, always supporting the ball carriers.  She chipped in three tries herself.

So a good start for the team, but one that shouldn't carry too much weight, Hong Kong being known as one of the 'minnows' at this tournament, just happy to be there.

[Further reading from]

Another crucifixion of Gary Bettman, this one occasioned by the expansion draft.

(June 18, 2017)

One more point about this expansion draft, about Gary Bettman being tone deaf, and not seizing on opportunities to grow the game. I’ve read over the years quite a few apologists claiming that the NHL is a business, and that he’s doing his job since he’s increased NHL revenues. My retort to that is that the reason we love hockey and consume it ravenously isn’t that it’s a business like steel-making or the insurance gambit, but rather that we have grown up with the game and are emotionally attached to our team, to our game’s greatest players. There’s a romance associated with hockey and its history, and an affection for the players we grew up with.

And, while it’s true that NHL revenues are growing, they’re doing so at a slower pace than that of the NFL, NBA, MLB and PGA. Heck, even soccer is growing at a faster rate than than pro hockey. The rising tide of exploding media revenues and ticket prices somehow isn’t raising our leaky boat as well as all the others. If anything, Gary is underperforming compared to his counterparts.

We’ve seen many, many blunders committed by Visionary Gary, one of which may yet be averted, namely his stated refusal to let NHL players compete in next year’s Winter Olympics. Added to his three lockouts of the sport, and it gets difficult to assert that Gary really does like hockey, when he stands in its way so often.

He claimed after his Second Lockout that he wanted to open up the game, to increase offence, but in practice, after an initial blip, he’s allowed GM’s and coaches to strangle the life out of the games, to promote defence over offence. We see this in how the NHL allows slashing and hacking routinely, as evidenced by the recent playoffs, and by Marc Méthot’s exploded finger.

We see it in how the sport is guided by veteran high-profile coaches like Mike Babcock, Ken Hitchcock and Claude Julien, all of who preach ‘responsible’ hockey, ‘playing the right way’, and ‘being on the right side of the puck’.

Meanwhile, Linus Omark is playing in Europe. Yes, that Linus Omark. The one who caused Don Cherry to turn purple with rage. Who wasn’t showing the proper “respect” for the game, according to various NHL players.

And meanwhile, NHL GM’s and pundits contorted themselves to find a way to protect goalless wonders like Jordie Benn and Brendan Gaunce from being claimed, horrors be, by the Las Vegas Gilded Questing Troubadours.

Gary Bettman also has a false sense of what fans want to see, how they want to be entertained, evidenced by his lame awards ceremonies, or his puzzling ‘samurai’ TV ads after his Second Lockout. Of course, these ads were motivated by a desire to focus on the sport in general, instead of spotlighting its stars.

Which is remarkable, given his background in the NBA, and the way that league goes all-in when it comes to marketing its greatest stars. At the time, the NHL had marketable, TV and fan-friendly stars such as Jarome Iginla and Vincent Lecavalier, among many others, it could have leaned on to re-launch the league to its fans. Instead, it cooked up a cockamamie campaign centered on a faceless, nameless anonymous warrior-player embodied by an actor. Ludricrous.

And this leads us to the expansion draft, and the release of the protection lists for every team. For months this has been discussion fodder for hockey fans, and this morning is all the rage on social media and hockey blogs. The expansion draft process sells, yet Gary at first didn’t want to release the lists, under the pretense that it might embarrass some players. More likely, the desire was that GM’s not be assailed for their decisions, that they not be held to account a couple years down the road. Or that they not have to have tough conversations with some players and their agents.

Sanity prevailed though. Probably due to the realization that these lists would be leaked anyway, the NHL backtracked upon its initial decision and allowed the lists to be disseminated to the fans. Which is what is right and proper and practical, never mind the ruffled feathers.

But it’s not the first time the League tries to operate in secret, or states its preference in that regard. We all remember Gary’s boneheaded statement that fans don’t want websites like CapGeek, don’t care for that type of information, when his blessed salary cap has actually made that knowledge central to any hockey discussion.

There was also the 2005 Entry Draft. The NHL and Gary came out of his Second Lockout battered and bloodied, exhausted by the more than year-long fight, and only signed the new CBA in July. Feeling rushed for time, and thinking this was the best way to go, Gary decided that the next draft would be decided by a lottery, and it would be held by phone, away from the cameras, because who has time for anything else?

It took the people at TSN to intervene, and make the league realize that, as broadcast partners, they wanted/needed that content, and that hockey fans were actually greatly interested in where Sidney Crosby would end up. Without TSN, the lottery might have been held in relative secret, and we can imagine all the conspiracy theories that would have been fueled by that move. Frozen envelope anyone?

And we often hear that Gary is merely a shifty lawyer who does the owners' bidding, but it’s imprecise to say that he’s a lawyer for the owners. He’s actually the NHL Commissioner, that’s his job, and he probably has a retinue of actual lawyers to do the drudge work.

It’s such a simplistic way to look at it, that he’s merely doing the owners bidding, and therefore is blameless in the various catastrophes that befall the NHL regularly under his dictatorship. I worked for a restaurant manager once who painted on the wall in a backroom, “Did you make a sale today, or did you just take orders?” Do you think that that cantankerous cuss, with the smarm and the eye-rolling just takes orders, or do you think he makes a sale once in a while? Do you think the owners are of a single bloc, or do they maybe differ on certain matters, and that Gary may influence where they decide to go?

Your lawyer can and will often decide what’s best for you, will recommend a course of action, and you’re usually wise to follow it. Sometimes, you’ll put your foot down, and make the decision. “We’re suing”, you’ll tell her. Or, “I don’t have the money to take this to court, let’s settle as best we can.” But usually, your lawyer has a big influence in your decision, in your direction.

Same with your doctor. He’s the expert, the guy you trust to help you decide. If he wants to be all aggressive and operate and go with an array of treatments, who are you to argue? That’s what you pay him for. Sure, sometimes you’ll choose a treatment option, or go get a second opinion, but mainly, you’ll trust your doc to guide your decision-making.

And you can’t convince me that Gary’s divisive, adversarial style and abrasive personality is strictly to align with the owners, that it doesn’t come naturally to him. To believe that Gary isn’t always spoiling for a fight, that he’s a meek and weak underling to Jeremy Jacobs is not tenable.

Gary Bettman may be seen to serve the owners well with his ornery approach to every question/battle. But there is another way. Sure his penny-pinching ways save money for the owners directly, tangibly.

But what if they’d hired an inspiring leader instead, a supportive manager who understood that while you’ll save a couple dozen bucks by sending a busboy home on a not overly busy night, you’re better off in the long run, in the big picture, by keeping him and ensuring he’s motivated and enjoys his job, and by allowing the waitresses and other staff to have comparatively more time to spend with their guests and upsell them and provide them with a better evening and better experience, which will grow revenues in the long run with their return visits. Maybe the couple dozen bucks that drop to the bottom line tonight are fool’s gold, maybe it’s a false economy.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and unsurprisingly, the NHL chooses the wrong way, by choosing the short-term dollar over the longterm health of the game. It chose profit over fan experience again and again, and now wonders why the NBA has zoomed by it in terms of revenue and ratings, even as they cash their one-time expansion cheques from William ‘Shiny Hockey’ Foley.

So one more big spitty raspberry for Gary Bettman and his insensate grasp of what the sport needs and the fans want. With you at the helm Gary, the NBA can sleep soundly and worry-free. And maybe that’s been the plan all along.

Friday, 18 August 2017

The Canadiens' enduring #1 Centre search

On the Canadiens' historical failure to obtain #1 or franchise centres, the thought occurred to me, and I wonder what you guys think, but is there a true blue #1 centre that we could have drafted recently, within the Bergevin tenure or shortly before, that we overlooked? Strictly in the first round mind you, I’m not talking about a long shot or anything, but at our draft position, was there a Mark Scheifele or a Ryan Johansen or a Sean Monahan who we could have picked and then plopped onto our roster for a decade as a Top 6 centreman and team leader that we passed over?

We’ve been looking for our ‘gros joueur de centre’ ever since I was a kid, since we traded away Peter Mahovlich, and we had interludes with Bobby Smith and Pierre Turgeon, but the quest continues, and I don’t think recently we’ve had a chance to fill that need neatly and easily and botched it by drafting a tough grinding winger instead.

I’m asking the question before going on to Hockey DB to do my own research, maybe I’m forgetting about an obvious case, but the only example I can think of recently of a big talented centre who was passed over in favour of someone else is Anze Kopitar for Carey Price. And that's not so recent, actually.  I admit I wasn’t paying much attention back then, remember reading that the Canadiens had picked this kid Price from B.C., fifth overall, and my kneejerk reaction was “Not a goalie!…” But I didn’t know what the other options were aside from Gilbert Brulé, and wasn’t the accepted wisdom back then that Anze Kopitar was certainly intriguing, but not necessarily a no-brainer, there were doubts about picking a Slovenian player so high?

Anyway, I’m just thinking out loud, but it’s my sense that we just haven’t been ‘lucky’ at the draft, that we’ve not had the chance to pick high when a franchise centre was up for grabs, that we’d have a chance at.

Even last June, we had the #9 pick, and it’s clear in my mind that Mikhail Sergachev was the best option for us. No shot at Auston Matthews, no shot at Pierre-Luc Dubois, and with reservations about Tyson Jost (size), Logan Brown (skating and skill level, conditioning) and Michael McLeod (maybe not a Top 6 centre), Mikhail Sergachev, the kid with all the tools and no visible flaws was the way to go.

Another thought I get about can’t-miss franchise-centres and how easy/difficult they are to find is when I think back to the 2012 draft. We held the #3 pick, and we all had our hearts set on Alex Galchenyuk, but it wasn’t a sure thing. Nail Yakupov was pretty much guaranteed to be the first overall pick, but the Oilers then as forever needed defence, so it was possible that they might take Ryan Murray instead, or that they’d prefer Alex to Nail, since he was a more valuable centre.

And Columbus at #2 seemed likely to pick Ryan Murray, although they might also go off the board, they might snatch our centre right before our very eyes.

So we had long and far-ranging discussions on social media about what the Canadiens could or should do, if we couldn’t pick Alex at #3, or even as a strategic move, to maximize our assets.

A lot of this talk was on the idea of trading down a few spots to draft Mikhail Grigorenko, who had started the season as the top-ranked CHL prospect for the next draft, but had a difficult season marred by injury and illness (mononucleosis). Or, some discussed trading down further to the middle of the first round and drafting one of Brendan Gaunce or Radek Faksa. The thinking was that they were just as good or almost as the more ballyhooed Galchenyuk and Grigorenko, that you could get your big centre that way and stockpile another asset, maybe a late first or early second round pick.

The Flames’ Jay Feaster, the day of the draft, shocked a few people by choosing centre Mark Jankowski out of Stanstead College (?) 21st overall, and then proclaiming him the best prospect in the draft.

Fast forward a few years, and we have to admit that the scouts had these players properly ranked, with Alex as the best centre prospect, and Grigo a few slots back, then Brendan Gaunce, Radek Faksa and Zemgus Girgensson in their own mid to late-first round tier.

For me, seeing the travails of Brendan Gaunce as a Canuck, seeing his ‘ceiling’ creep lower and lower every season, it puts the difficulty of finding and developing big talented centres in perspective.

In all this, I’m receptive to the argument that five years on, it seems the Canadiens are no further ahead than they were when Marc Bergevin took the reins, in terms of still relying on the same core group, save the P.K.-for-Shea swap. Sure, Gally and Chucky are now mature and in the meat of their careers, they’re no longer raw rookies, but on the flip side, Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Markov are nearing the end of the line. We’re seemingly treading water.

The only way Marc Bergevin’s hot seat cools off is if the young players all take a big step forward, Charles Hudon, Jacob de la Rose, Mike McCarron, Daniel Carr, if they can be a wave of fresh legs and energy, and organically replace the offence and minutes that is lost by the departure of Alex Radulov, Lars Eller, Dale Weise, guys who contributed to the success of the team in the recent past.

But in terms of not getting that #1 centre, I don’t think Marc Bergevin has much to account for. There hasn’t been one available to us since Alex Galchenyuk, and we took him. That’s how you get these guys, you have to draft a Sean Monahan or a Bo Horvat. They’re tough to acquire otherwise, especially if most players list us as a forbidden team on their limited NTCs. If Eric Staal and Joe Thornton and Vincent Lecavalier don’t want to come here, there’s not much Marc Bergevin can do about that at the trade deadline or when July 1 comes around.

I would argue that we haven’t had a Connor McDavid or Sidney Crosby available to us certainly, but not even a second-tier franchise centre, if there is such a thing, a Sean Monahan or Mark Scheifle, that we could have claimed for ourselves.

I think this can help us put Marc Bergevin’s “failure to obtain a #1 centre” in context. He didn’t have one to pick up in the draft, but he also didn’t trade a first round pick for a hill of beans and then see that pick become a Jeff Carter.