Photo by woody1778a, used under Creative Commons license

20 years ago today

This day twenty years ago was one of the happiest of my life. I watched my Montreal Canadiens defeat the Los Angeles Kings 4-1 to win the Stanley Cup in five games. Sure I’d been alive for five Canadiens cup wins up to that point, but don’t remember ’76 through ’79, and was only vaguely aware of the 1986 cup win. I didn’t become a hardcore fan until the early 90s, and by 1993 I was obsessed.

It’s all stuck with me so clearly. I can still remember the results of each game in order. I can still name the forward line combinations and defense pairings to a man. I can picture all the crucial points in the playoffs. Vincent Damphousse winning game 3 of the first round against Quebec, the only time the Habs were really threatened. All those overtimes against Buffalo and the Islanders. Guy Carbonneau asking to shadow Gretzky after 99 ran roughshod over Kirk Muller in game 1 of the final. Eric Desjardins’ improbable hat trick in game 2 after coach Jacques Demers rolled the dice with an illegal stick call. Patrick Roy winking at Tomas Sandstrom. John LeClair owning overtime in LA. Demers dressing Donald Dufresne for the final game so he could get his name on the cup. Carbonneau, the captain, letting Denis Savard lift the cup first.

Until that point the Canadiens had never gone more than seven years without a cup win. While it’s nice to celebrate the 20th anniversary of an unexpected win, it’s sobering to think of how much the team, and the league, have changed. Not just for the Habs: no Canadian team has lifted the cup since that night in Montreal, two decades past.


Photo by woody1778a, used under Creative Commons license

Tension grows and the whistle blows

I love sports. The classic match-ups. The iconic venues. The unforgettable moments.

I was lucky enough to be back in Boston last weekend for work. In between conference sessions I had a pretty good steak at Davio’s, made a return visit to Stoddard’s to meet a friend, saw the memorial on Boylston Street, and drank a few good pints of craft beer (Allagash White, Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout, Ommegang Abbey Ale) at the conference’s hotel pub. But mostly I was lucky because I got to experience one of those iconic venues. I got to watch a Red Sox game at Fenway Park, from atop the Green Monster no less.

I ate a ballpark dog and drank a Sam Adams. I leaned out and touched Carlton Fisk’s foul pole. I listened to the crowd sing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” and, much more emphatically, “Sweet Caroline”. I watched David Ortiz crank a 439-footer to straightaway center not a week after his hilariously inspirational speech following the bombings. I watched the Sox beat Houston 7-2 on a blustery April evening and couldn’t think of anything more Bostonian to do.

The next day I flew back to Toronto, just ahead of my parents who flew in from Moncton for a (not quite) two-day stay. We had dinner at Starfish, explored the Distillery District, and sampled some of the breakfast sausage we made last weekend, but the real reason they were here was to see one of those classic match-ups: the Montreal Canadiens vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night. Nellie had somehow lucked into gold seats for the final game of the season, and gave up her seat so that my dad could watch his first NHL game in 49 (!) years and our first together.

Luckily for me, my Canadiens won. I felt bad that my dad had come all the way from Nova Scotia to watch his beloved Leafs lose, but I’m sure he felt the same way I would have had my team lost: just getting to watch such a big game together is now one of those unforgettable moments that sports can sometimes produce.

Photo by Thomas Hawk, used under Creative Commons license

The kid

I watch lots of hockey. Lots and lots and lots. In fact I’m watching a Montreal Canadiens game, en Français, as I write this. I’ve also been to a fair number of games now, mostly at the ACC, as my work sometimes affords me a chance to go. I feel bad about that — I despise the Leafs, and feel bad taking a seat from someone who would dearly love to see a game, but don’t want to be rude to those who invite me, and anyway still enjoy seeing the game played live. You just don’t get a sense, watching it on TV, how fast and fluid the game is.

Last Thursday I was lucky enough to see the Leafs play host to the Pittsburgh Penguins. I’d actually seen that match-up live once before, but with a key difference: Sidney Crosby didn’t play the first time. Last week I got to see the best player in the world live.

To be honest, it freaked me out a little. Like I said, I watch a lot of hockey, and I’ve gotten pretty good at reading the play, spotting the open man, guessing where the next pass will go, identifying openings and seams which — if exploited — could lead to a goal. So, normally when I watch a game I feel like I’m about half a second ahead of the play. But not with Crosby. With Crosby, I was behind. Actually, I was completely out of the play. Two or three times he passed the puck somewhere I hadn’t been expecting, to a space I didn’t know was occupied until his teammate had the puck on his stick. Like the one at the 2:38 mark in this video, behind his back to Pascal Dupuis who was so open Crosby was likely the only player on either team who knew he was there.

The Pens came from behind to beat the Leafs 3-1, and I got to see Sidney Crosby play, so I was a happy guy.

Oh, and we had dinner at Aria before the game, my first time there. It was…just okay. I wouldn’t go out of my way to go back, but it’s certainly better than most other options that close to the ACC.


Photo by Thomas Hawk, used under Creative Commons license

Photo by twiddleblat, user under Creative Commons license


The NHL is back. Finally.

This Saturday arenas will be filled with hockey games, including Montreal facing off against Toronto. Finally.

The Canadiens have ended the Scott Gomez experiment, as I (and every other Habs fan) had hoped. They’ll have to eat his salary, but at least it should no longer be a distraction. Finally.

The fans are ready.

The TV networks are ready.

The players probably aren’t ready but they’re certainly eager.

NHL hockey. Finally.


Photo by twiddleblat, user under Creative Commons license

Embroiderer > King

Back in high school, my friend’s kid brother — who was a pretty good goalie for his age — got to attend a training camp with Patrick Roy. I don’t think Roy was there much, but said kid brother reported back that one of the instructors, an already-drafted QMJHL goalie named Martin Brodeur, was going to be even better than Roy.

Naturally I was dubious. For Canadiens fans (which I was, as were this friend and his kid brother) Roy was practically royalty.  We’d watched him talk to his goalposts on his way to a surprise cup in 1986 as a rookie. He’d won three Vezina trophies in four years. I didn’t know it yet, but I’d soon watch him win another cup in 1993, another upset for which he’d win his second playoff MVP award. Of course, I watched him leave Montreal in a blaze of ego, and then suffered through watching him win two cups (and another Conn Smythe trophy) with the Colorado Avalanche while my Canadiens foundered. He elevated a team with loads of talent which just couldn’t get over the hump, and delivered two cups to Colorado. When he won his fourth cup I considered him the greatest of all time.

But even then I know he might have a challenger. Brodeur won the Calder trophy as top rookie in 1994, and won the cup the next year. Brodeur was never as dramatic as Roy…no fiery exits from New Jersey, no winking at a forward he’d just robbed…just 18 seasons of all-star play. Four Vezinas (one more than Roy), two Stanley Cups, and the all-time records for wins, shutouts, and single-season wins.

I had posters of Roy on my wall. I had his jersey, and wore it to school the day after they won the cup in 93. I think I still have his rookie card somewhere. But when the CBC asked yesterday, “Is Martin Brodeur a better goaltender than Patrick Roy?” I had to say yes.

One never wants to decide between his hero and the man who knocks them off the perch, even on a topic as silly as hockey. But, unpalatable as that was, I realized how lucky I’ve been to watch (and see live, in Brodeur’s case) the two best goalies in the history of hockey play at the same time.

How to fix the Montreal Canadiens, 2012 edition

As I type this I’m watching the Montreal Canadiens play their 13th-last game of this dreadful season — they currently sit last in the Eastern conference and 28th out of 30 in the NHL. They have no hope of making the playoffs. They ditched some trade bait at the deadline and have picked up some decent prospects and picks (five picks in the first two rounds in the upcoming draft) so that’s cause for optimism. Still, more changes are made if they’re going to make the playoffs. Not that the Habs management is calling me up for advice, but here’s what I (and, I think, anyone who’s thought about it for twenty seconds) would do:

  • Trade (or, worst case, buy out) Scott Gomez. His 0.297 points per game for $7.5 million just doesn’t work. You can’t play him ahead of Desharnais or Plekanec, and you’d be holding back Eller’s development (not to mention Louis Leblanc’s) if he’s not the #3 centre. Unless Gomez wants to take a pay cut and become a defensive specialist (hee!) on the fourth line he needs to go.
  • Try to get something — anything — for Kaberle, Campoli and Nokelainen. At the very least let Campoli leave town.
  • Move Rene Bourque to the 3rd line. Bourque, Eller and Travis Moen (if they can keep him around) would be a very good, very physical 3rd line.
  • Use some cap room to sign a second-line winger to play with Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta. A scoring winger with some size would give the Canadiens a second scoring threat to compliment the Pacioretty-Desharnais-Cole top line. Add the afore-mentioned third line and an intimidating fourth line featuring Ryan White and Brad Staubitz (if he re-signs) and your forward lines are actually in pretty decent shape, I think.
  • With P.K. Subban, Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges and Alexei Emelin the core of the defense is solid, if a little fragile. Assuming Kaberle and Campoli leave town, Montreal would need a veteran 5th D-man to bring along prospects like Raphael Diaz and Jarred Tinordi. Yannick Weber seems to be a spare part under coach Randy Cunneyworth, but having a guy who can play D or forward is helpful.
  • No help needed in net: Carey Price is it.

I’m sure I’m missing a bunch of nuance, but at least if Mr. Gauthier calls me in the off-season I’ll have some conversation-starters ready.

"How we treat our warriors when the battle is over"

One of the films I really wanted to see at TIFF this year was The Last Gladiators (imdb | tiff), a documentary about hockey fighters. But it wasn’t high on Nellie’s list, and when you only see five films in the festival you pick ones that you’re both hot for. I wanted to see it because it was about hockey and because it was directed by Alex Gibney and because the main subject was Chris “Knuckles” Nilan. But mostly I wanted to see it I feel like it could be a document of a turning point that we can’t quite distinguish yet because we’re in the middle of it.

Just before the film festival began Wade Belak, until recently a Toronto Maple Leaf known mainly for his fighting, committed suicide. In August Rick Rypien, another fighter, also committed suicide. In May former New York Rangers enforcer Derek Boogard died of an overdose of alcohol and painkillers. This was the backdrop for this documentary, most or all of which wouldn’t have been there when Gibney started filming.

But the fact that I would describe these guys as “fighter” or “enforcer” distinguishes them from the likes of Nilan. Nilan could play. Three times he scored 15+ goals in a season. In six of his seasons he was a plus player. Over his career he earned about a point every 3 games. Boogard and Belak, by comparison, earned a point every 17 games or so, though they were defensemen; Rypien, a forward, earned a point about every 7.5 games. Those three were the type of player commonly referred to as “goons”. So was Nilan, no mistake, but Nilan could play. Likewise, Bob Probert — probably the most feared fighter in the league during the late80s and early 90s — twice scored 20+ goals in a season and averaged a point every 2.4 games. Probert, by the way, struggled for years with drugs and alcohol and died at the age of 45. Even the talented among this contingent weren’t immune from whatever demons haunted them.

There are more stats and anecdotes pointing to the fact that fighters were, and are, a tormented bunch on the whole. That alone should be an emotional jolt sufficient to give the Don Cherrys of the world pause, and wonder whether the price fighters pay is justified. God knows, the logical line of reasoning hasn’t worked.

For the first few years after the NHL expanded from 21 teams to 30 it was fashionable to slag expansion for diluting the talent pool in the NHL. By and large it did at first, but as Europe opened up and talent development in the US accelerated, the talent filled the roster spots. But no talent pool exists to feed the requirement for goons, and so the makeup of teams changed. Before expansion, when the likes of Nilan and Probert played, it was much harder to be a “single-purpose” goon…that is, someone on the team solely to fight. Nilan’s job was to protect talented Montreal players; Probert’s job was to protect Steve Yzerman. Dave Semenko’s job in Edmonton was to protect Wayne Gretzky, just as Marty McSorley’s was in LA, but both men could play. The 21-team market was small enough to filter out the pure goons; you only made an NHL team as a fighter if you could also score or play defense. As so many new teams now felt they needed enforcers, they filled their rosters with what remained: pure fighters. It may seem a subtle difference, but it’s an important one:  if you were a player who happened to fight, like McSorley or Probert, and the game called for playing, you played. You skated, you shot, you backchecked, you cleared the front of your net, and you won. You played hockey. If a fight was needed — a concept that had been around for decades, but became glaringly apparent with the goonish tactics of the Flyers and Bruins in the 70s — then you fought. Today, there are several players — on each opposing team — whose sole purpose in the league is to fight. Their skills aren’t enough to call them up from the minors, or even draft them, if they didn’t fight. This, in the common pro-fighting parlance, is “knowing your role”. And this is what’s killing the game.

The result of what I describe above is staged fights. Everyone knows that the second enforcers from both teams are on the ice, they’ll fight. That’s what they’re there for. It’s all that they’re there for. They’re not sticking up for themselves, or retaliating* for a dirty play against their star teammate. They’re fighting because, if they don’t, they’re out of a job. This self-sustaining economy has infected the league, and it makes the game so goddamned boring and predictable. You see these set pieces coming ten minutes away, and they just don’t mean anything. The fighting doesn’t help the game — far from it, it generally slows down what is otherwise the fastest pro sport on the planet — and it’s usually anti-climactic. The fact that during the playoffs you almost never see fighting suggests it isn’t in any way necessary…it’s just a sideshow during the season, a bad habit that people can’t seem to shake. It’s junk food. It’s reality TV. It’s dutch elm disease, rotting away at something beautiful.

I could have probably spared you this bloody great rant and just pointed you to Jack Todd’s much better argument in the Montreal Gazette a few weeks ago, but it warrants repeating: ban fighting. As Todd says, it’s “cruel, backward and unnecessary.” It’s also really fucking boring.

* I don’t endorse this bullshit either. Part of the reason why league discipline has been such a joke over the years is because it’s assumed that any dirty play will result in the victim’s teammate “straightening the guy out”. I’m hopeful that recent clear and substantial discipline meted out by Brendan Shanahan will improve things.

Say it ain't so, Joe

Last Wednesday I flew to Atlanta for a conference. I sailed through customs and security at Pearson and thought I was en route to the most effortless flight of all time, but then the Air Canada workers strike bit back…the ground crew forgot to file some paperwork to get us across the border, so we sat on the tarmac for an extra half an hour. That delay allowed a huge thunderstorm to roll into Atlanta ahead of us, and that storm shut down the airport, so we circled for almost an hour. By the time we got on the ground we were two hours late. It then took me (I’m not kidding here) twenty minutes to get out of the airport; no one warned me that the terminal is so long you have to take a train from one end to the other. Anyway. I checked in to the Westin Peachtree (avoid if you’re in Atlanta — it has great views, but is old and shabby once you get past the lobby), headed to the bar and watched the end of the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals. I never actually left the hotel for the next 24 hours, heading straight to the airport for my return flight…pity, I’d found a few decent-looking beer places in the city and was hoping to try one or two of them on for size.


Back to that game 7 for a minute. In the official order of my preference for who wins the cup, it goes Montreal first (obviously), then any of 26 other teams, then Philly, then Boston, then Toronto. So it really does pain me to say that Boston deserved to win the series. They played like the better hockey team, even if they weren’t. It also pains me that the likes of Zdeno Chara and Brad Marchand get to hold a cup, but that pain is somewhat offset by my happiness for Tim Thomas winning his first cup, and for Mark Recchi ending his career with yet another championship. As I watched the final game end and the Bruins start to celebrate, I thought that what would sting the most was that Montreal came so damnably close to knocking the Bruins out in the first round — losing only in overtime of game seven. But, of course, what would sting the most the next morning was the insanity of the rioting in downtown Vancouver, an embarrassment felt by the whole country. Surely, with Canadian teams having lost in the finals five straight times since 1994, you’d think we would be used to it now.


After the traveling and frantic catch-up at work, I was hoping for a quiet weekend of doing as little as possible. That almost happened. Friday we just had a simple dinner out and drank some wine. Saturday we did some errands and generally enjoyed the gorgeous weather and then I actually had a nap. Seriously, a nap. I never have naps. I usually can’t sleep during the day no matter how hard I try. But yesterday, since I was on twelve hours sleep over the previous three nights, I curled up on the bed and went to sleep for a couple of hours. Until an emergency came up.

We found out Smokeless Joe, one of our favourite beer joints, would be closing in two weeks. And that night was the last time our friend Kaylea would be working there.

A dire situation indeed.

We sprung into action, throwing some food down our necks and arriving to find two plum spots waiting for us at the bar. We got the scoop, and sat down with the intention of having three each. Which, of course, ended up being five each. Or possibly six, if you count the vanilla ice cream and Nickel Brook Green Apple Pilsner float that Steph made for me. We drank and laughed and listened to blues and were especially happy to see Colin and Eddie, our favourite bartenders before Kaylea began working there, show up later in the evening. We said (and hugged) our goodbyes, not knowing if or when we’d see them all again, and left the place that’s been one of Toronto’s best beer bars and our unofficial living room for the past…I don’t know, eight years?

Hopefully it’ll come back in some incarnation, but it’ll just never be the same.

Steph, Kaylea, Eddie and Colin


Signs of spring: birds singing. Snow melting. Taxes. Maple syrup. Flowers blooming. Bruins/Habs.

Tomorrow night Montreal will face Boston in the playoffs for the fifth time in ten years. True, that’s not quite as frequent as in the years before the 1993 shift to conference vs. divisional playoffs, when they met each other in the playoffs nine straight years. But this year has a little extra zing, thanks to Zdeno Chara’s attempted decapitation of Max Pacioretty last month.

I don’t see Montreal trying to go after the Bruins physically. First, they can’t. Second, if physical retaliation were their plan they would have tried it during their final meeting of the season, in which Boston demolished them 7-0. No, the Canadiens’ only intended revenge would be to knock off the third-seeded Bruins. But I don’t see how they can do it. Boston is too big, too strong, too fast. Montreal has been without their two best defensemen, Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges, for the better part of the year. Montreal’s only star player is Carey Price, but Boston goalie Tim Thomas is also one of the best in the league on many nights.

If Price steals a few wins, Thomas gets rattled, Boston’s scorers dry up and Montreal gets a second straight heroic playoff from guys like Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and P.K. Subban, then maybe they’ll pull off the upset.

If, if, if. Go Habs go.


I’m fortunate to cheer for a hockey team which has won six Stanley Cups during my lifetime. That’s right, Leafs fans under the age of 43: six. Suck it. Anyway, I’m too young to remember much about the first four of those Canadiens cup wins (in consecutive years from 76 to 79) except that it was during those years that I decided Montreal was my favourite team, much to my father’s chagrin. I only vaguely recall the arrival of St. Patrick (Roy) to win the cup in 1986, as I didn’t really start paying attention to hockey until I was fourteen. It was 1989, and Montreal had made the cup finals again in Pat Burns‘ first year behind the bench.

The Canadiens lost to Calgary that year, but it set a precedent for Burns: he had a habit of making a big impact in his first year with each team he coached. He won the Jack Adams trophy that year as best coach in the NHL. Making the traitorous move to Toronto in 1992, he led an underdog team of Maple Leafs to game 7 of the conference finals, before Wayne Gretzky eventually shot Doug Gilmour in the neck, peed on his corpse and threw the puck into the Toronto net with his bare hands. Or at least that’s how Leafs fans describe it. Nonetheless, Burns won the Jack Adams again for his role in turning Toronto into a contender. He would eventually be fired, but won a third Jack Adams trophy in his first year coaching the Boston Bruins. In 2003 he led the New Jersey Devils to the Stanley Cup, his first and only cup win. A few years later he would step down because of the cancer that would eventually spell the end of him. Pat Burns died last Friday.

It was a fitting coincidence, then, that Montreal and Toronto were to face each other the following evening. Montreal — as is their custom — held a touching and tasteful ceremony of remembrance before the game. It is well the game was not set for Toronto; I shudder to think how that tribute might have gone. The Canadiens then went out and stomped all over the Leafs, winning 2-0 for Carey Price’s third shutout in six games. Price looked, as he has all season, calm and focused and confident. After the game Price revealed to reporters that his inspired play of late may have had something to do with the very man the fans celebrated last night.

“He was a special person and he did a lot of great things in this league for both teams,” Price said of the 58-year-old who had success as coach in Montreal, Toronto, Boston and New Jersey before his illness drove him to step down in 2004.

“He left me a message before the season started and I was really touched. He gave it to (assistant coach) Kirk Muller and he passed it on to me.”

Asked what Burns said, Price just said: “That will always be here with me.”

Thanks Burnsy.