Father's day

As you might remember, the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup ten days ago. This made me happy for several reasons, but it made gave Nellie an extra reason to celebrate. Her dad was a Blackhawks fan all his life, right up until his death twelve years ago.

After he died she always said that if the Hawks won the cup, she’d take the picture from the newspaper, frame it and have it placed on his grave.

And so:

Enjoy it, sir.

Oh look, a pumpkin

The Philadelphia Flyers have just defeated my Montreal Canadiens 4-2, thus eliminating them from the playoffs and moving on to play Chicago for the Stanley Cup. It was an improbable run by the Habs, barely squeaking into the playoffs and yet knocking off the #1 regular season team (Washington) in the first round, and last year’s Cup champion (Pittsburgh) in the second. Philly manhandled them, though, shutting them out three times.

It might have been that Montreal was just exhausted after slogging their way through two consecutive 7-game series. Jaroslav Halak stopped over 500 shots in the playoffs. Their best defenseman, and maybe best player overall — Andrei Markov — was hurt in the first game of round 2, and his absence showed in the anemic power play. Ultimately, though, the Flyers did what Washington and Pittsburgh didn’t: they adjusted. The Capitals and Penguins seemed convinced that if they just kept playing the same way they had all year, their talent would come through and win the day. That played right into the Habs’ strategy, but the Flyers had none of it. They crashed the net, unlike the Caps and Pens who just talked about doing it, and Montreal coach Jacques Martin seemed unwilling to use Ryan O’Byrne on D, the one player big and strong enough to clear the crease. The Philly defense cut off the entry pass and punished the Canadiens’ small, skilled players along the wall. Mike Leighton may have recorded the shutouts, but apart from game 2 he was little better than average. The Flyers just choked the life out of the Montreal forwards.

So now the Flyers will play the Blackhawks for the finals. I will be cheering for the latter, almost as enthusiastically as I would have cheered for Montreal had they made it to the finals. Here’s why:

  1. I have come to hate the Flyers as much as the Bruins and almost as much as the Leafs
  2. I have come to hate the Flyers’ fans even more than the Flyers
  3. I like a lot of Chicago players (especially Toews) and the way they play the game
  4. Chicago has always been Nellie’s team, but she cheers for Montreal for my sake. It’s only fair I return the favour
  5. If Chicago wins, the Maple Leafs will be the team who has gone the longest without winning the Stanley Cup. My excitement at this prospect should not be underestimated

So…I’ll take a few days to recover from this heartbreak, and then…go Hawks go.

[     Rut     ] –> Me

Wow. What a game. Tense. Awesome, but tense.

This past week was frenetic; I’ve definitely earned my day off tomorrow. We’re headed out for a wine excursion in Niagara-On-The-Lake, the first time we’ve left the city since we went to France last fall. The weather is supposed to be shit but I don’t care. I need this. And I need some good food. And I need some fresh air. And I need a comfy hotel bed.

And I need to be back for game five.

Chemistry

Tonight my beloved Montreal Canadiens will hit the ice for their first exhibition game of the fall. I’ll miss nearly the entire pre-season, as well as their season opener against the Leafs (blurg!) while we’re in France, but I’m intensely curious about how the team will look.

I’ve held off talking about all the off-season changes Bob Gainey’s made as I wanted to see the final product take shape before commenting. This was the most change I’ve seen my Habs, or maybe any team, go through in one summer. After the disastrous 08-09 season, the centennial celebration in which the Canadiens were supposed to contend for the cup, Gainey knew he had to do something. And what he did was blow up his team’s leadership core and start over.

Saku Koivu, the heart of the team and one of the club’s longest-serving captains, wasn’t signed. Likewise Alex Kovalev, their most talented player and assistant captain. Mike Komisarek and Chris Higgins, both of whom have worn the A and have been projected to eventually don the C, are gone. Alex Tanguay, Robert Lang, Mathieu Schneider, Patrice Brisebois, Tom Kostopulous, Mathieu Dandenault, Francis Bouillon…all gone.

Plenty of players came back in return, and on a talent-by-talent basis they’re as good or better as what went out the door. The interesting part of the great reset of 2009 was the fact that Gainey looked at his core of veteran players and decided he simply wasn’t going to win with that group. Loathe as I am to admit it, he was completely right. There’s been something lacking on the Canadiens team for a long time, something intangible…usually teams use words like chemistry or cohesiveness to describe it. Maybe it was heart. Short of Koivu, who would probably run through walls or kill a hobo if that’s what it took to win, there were a lot of guys on the team who would disappear when their backs were against the wall. But even Koivu, with all the heart in the world, often couldn’t get his name into another gear in crunch time. The effort was there but the execution wouldn’t come.

So, Gainey brought in Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, Jaro Spacek, Hall Gill (!), Travis Moen and Paul Mara to reform the bulk of the team. Whether they can produce the chemistry Gainey’s looking for, or whether the departure of the old guard allows others to finally step up, remains to be seen. There are already early whispers of better chemistry in the room, so we’ll see if that sticks. Interestingly, those comments about chemistry came from Carey Price, upon whom success this season hinges more than anyone. If Price doesn’t bounce back from a bad year, all of Gainey’s machinations may be for naught.

However, the time for introspection is passed. The time for hockey is…uh, tonight. I can’t wait to hear the sweet sounds of blades carving ice and boards being rattled.

Go Habs go.

Make it seven…but not how you think

If you live in Canada you’re likely tired of hearing about Jim Balsillie’s attempts to buy the Phoenix Coyotes, a team which recently declared bankruptcy, and move them to Hamilton. The league is fighting it, obviously. Technically the Coyotes are their franchise, and I’m pretty sure that if I walked into a struggling McDonald’s in downtown Phoenix and announced my intention to buy it and move it to Toronto, the McDonald’s head office would have something to say about it.

Predictably Canadian hockey fans have turned this into a proletarian struggle against the hockey politburo, and Labatt has played the faux-patriotism card. It doesn’t make that much difference to me what happens; in my view there’s one team I love (the Montreal Canadiens), one team I view as a hated rival (the Boston Bruins), one team I view with a mix of loathing and bemusement (the Toronto Maple Leafs) and 27 other teams I don’t really care about all that much.

From a tactics standpoint, though, I think Balsillie’s going about this wrong. The pressure on Bettman’s not going to work in its current form. Here’s why:

  1. Bettman doesn’t care about the whirlwind of patriotic fervor north of the border. He’s not Canadian and feels no call of the hockey motherland, and knows that not a single Canadian will stop watching hockey just because of this, so his market is intact.
  2. Perhaps most importantly, Bettman knows that moving a team out of an American market and into a Canadian market will net him positively zero new fans. None. Rien. Zip. Putting a team in Copps Coliseum won’t suddenly create a whole new batch of hockey fans to put up TV ratings and merchandise revenues. The market’s pretty much at saturation already; Hamiltonians (?) willing to see a game try to get Leaf tickets or Sabres tickets, since Buffalo is nearby, and the rest watch on TV. Now, there aren’t a ton of fans in Phoenix that he’d be giving up, but every one gained there (however long that takes) is new. Also keep in mind that Phoenix has roughly six times the market population and a lot more disposable wealth than Hamilton, recession of no. Even counting any better TV deal the league could get for another southern Ontario team, Bettman would see a move like this as a net loss of fans, and as giving up one of the top ten markets in the US.
  3. There are serious logistical problems with this move. Let’s say for a second that Balsillie’s move goes ahead. Phoenix is in the western conference of the NHL; Hamilton would almost certainly be in the east. The league would now be unbalanced; 14 teams in the west, 16 in the east. To rebalance sensibly, the league would have to move one of the two most westerly teams to the western conference. Those two teams would be Hamilton and Pittsburgh, the latter’s arena being about 4 miles further west than Copps. Bettman would either be faced with the ridiculous situation of having Hamilton in a difference conference than either Toronto or Buffalo (despite them being only a few miles apart) or of throwing Pittsburgh, home of the league’s great white hope, out of the east coast TV market and into the worst travel schedule in the league.
  4. Bettman, ultimately, doesn’t want to be bullied, and Balsillie’s moves have certainly felt very aggressive thus far. Right or wrong, it’s a bad way to deal with a guy who’s probably developed a Napoleon complex over the years.

Bettman’s not going to be won over on ideological grounds. If Balsillie really wants a team in Hamilton he’ll have to appeal to Bettman’s interests: money. If he wants a team he’s going to have to pay for it. Bettman knows he’s protecting a dying franchise, but he’s trying to save face, so how do you let him do both?

You offer to buy the Buffalo Sabres and move them to Hamilton.

Half of the attendance at a Sabres game is people from southern Ontario anyway. To placate the rest maybe you offer Sabres ticketholders first crack at Hamilton season tickets, or discounts. Maybe you even call them the Hamilton Sabres.

For the right to do this, you pay the league a special franchise relocation fee (call it whatever the hell you want) which they’ll quietly use to prop up the Coyotes and boost their marketing. Bettman gets to keep his big US market, he doesn’t lose any fans, his TV revenues will likely go up (Hamilton’s in CBC territory, Buffalo is not), he doesn’t have to realign the league and it looks like he stood up to Balsillie.

Buffalo has struggled financially in the past, declaring backruptcy in 2003 (just three years after making the cup final), so this wouldn’t be a stretch. Moving a team into Hamilton would almost certainly spell the end for the Sabres anyway. If Balsillie’s willing to pony up the cash, the leauge ends up with more viable franchises overall than before.

Thoughts? Is that crazy? Or does some/all of it make sense? Is it a moot point because the Leafs will nix any team infringing on their market.

Look at what Don Cherry hath wrought

Two nights ago I saw highlights of a disgusting play by Carolina forward Scott Walker. He punched Bruins defenceman Aaron Ward in the face, even though Ward hadn’t dropped his gloves and still had his hands by his sides. Here’s the video:

Almost as disgusting, though, was the NHL’s punishment. Walker wasn’t suspended, even for a game. He wasn’t even given the automatic 1-game suspension for taking an instigator penalty in the final five minutes of a game. That was rescinded. He was fined a token $2,500. The league’s explanation was that Ward could have defended himself but didn’t, and he could see the punch coming. Psychologists refer to this as blaming the victim.

Far be it from me to defend the Bruins — I hate them with a fiery passion, and want badly for Carolina to knock them out of the playoffs — but one thing they did masterfully well on their way to eliminating the Canadiens was not take penalties. The same discipline that should be an admirable trait for a team may have cost Aaron Ward his orbital bone.

I’ll never stop loving hockey, but with every incident like this my hatred for hockey’s so-called “fighting culture” grows. Nobody could look at this incident impartially and think it was anything but patently absurd.

So it goes.

As I write this Boston is running away with game four against Montreal, and is about to sweep the Canadiens out of the playoffs. This isn’t unexpected — the Bruins finished first in the east, Montreal eighth — but it’s certainly disappointing.

Had Montreal been healthy and played well they might’ve stood a chance against Boston, but they weren’t and they didn’t. Tonight Montreal was missing Andrei Markov — their best defenseman, leading scorer and best player overall — and three more top-seven defensemen: Mathieu Schneider, Francis Buillon and Patrice Brisebois. They were also missing top-line winger Alex Tanguay and #2 center Robert Lang, who’s been out for months. With a roster full of spare-part defensemen and discombobulated lines, they stood no chance. Boston rolled four lines at Montreal who just couldn’t keep up, couldn’t get to loose pucks, couldn’t get the puck out of their own end. Part of this was due to Montreal not consisting of, or playing like, a playoff-worthy lineup of late, but some of it was also due to the kind of systemic breakdown that a good team like Boston can grind you into.

And so Montreal will slip into the postseason with a whimper, and tomorrow the Montreal dailies and sports blogs will cry that this is not how the famed centennial season was supposed to go. A season which started with so much promise and faded so badly in the second half, which hosted an amazing all-star game but saw the coach fired shortly after, which ended with a team virtually unrecognizable from the potent weapon that began the season. I remember watching an exhibition game against Detroit when the Canadiens and Wings looked like sure locks to meet in the Stanley Cup final. How things change.

Let’s go Canucks.

Komisarek vs. Lucic, part II

Beginning Thursday night, for the 32nd time in their history, the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins will face each other in the Stanley Cup playoffs. This is as storied a rivalry as exists in sports — TSN recently listed some of the more memorable meetings over the past forty years — and I’m more than a little bit excited about it.

That said, I give Montreal almost no chance to win. Boston finished first in the east, miles ahead of the Canadiens. The Habs sucked after the all-star break, and seemed to turn it around before struggling down the stretch when the Leafs cheap-shotted their leading scorer and best defenseman Andrei Markov, knocking him out of the lineup. The Bruins owned the Canadiens this year.

But…when these two teams meet, it can always get crazy. Last year the roles were reversed — Montreal #1, Boston #8 — and it took Montreal all seven games to finish them off. Their final regular season game, last Thursday, was a classic and went to overtime before Boston won. In the past few years Montreal beat Boston as both an 8 seed (2002) and a 7 seed (2004). So I think the odds are against them, but if Alex Kovalev and Carey Price can turn it on, Montreal could pull off the shocker.

Final note, courtesy of Joe: the Bruins have some awesome tv ads:

So that explains why I never made the NHL

Those of you who’ve read Malcolm Gladwell‘s latest book Outliers know the chapter about hockey players, where he describes the disproportionate number of hockey players with birthdays in the first few months of the year. Gladwell’s theory is that, because of the Jan 1 age cutoff between levels of minor hockey, those born earlier in the year have a size and development advantage over others as they have an extra 6-11 months under their belt. That doesn’t sound like much, but the difference between 6 years old and almost 7 years old is substantial enough that the older players tend to move into accelerated programs, which gives them an advantage. Gladwell then shows several examples of teams whose rosters skew to the early months of the year.

Tonight, after watching my Canadiens blow a late lead, and lose in the shootout to drop the ninth of their last ten on the road, I wondered if their roster followed the same pattern as the elite teams Gladwell described. Based on the 20 players they dressed tonight, here’s how it breaks down:

Jan: 2
Feb: 3
Mar: 1
Apr: 1
May: 2
Jun: 2
Jul: 0
Aug: 2
Sep: 0
Oct: 3
Nov: 2
Dec: 2

That’s 55% in the first half of the year, 45% in the second half. Not exactly overwhelming. Even if I include the other six players who didn’t dress tonight, it’s 58% to 42%. Still nothing to write home about. So I’m faced with three hypotheses:

  1. Gladwell is wrong
  2. Gladwell is right, but my team is an abberation
  3. Gladwell is right, and this explains why my team sucks

So I went looking for more data. My first stop: the Detroit Red Wings, defending Stanley Cup champs and by any measure an elite team. They’re also at 58% born between January and June, the same as Montreal. Then I checked the Boston Bruins, the top team in the NHL this season: also at 58%. Canada’s gold-medal winning major junior team, an all-star team for players in a very specific age range, clocked in at 64%, with 14 of the 22 players born before June 30, but even that isn’t exactly a drastic difference.

Anyway, I know that’s only a sample of four, but I’d prefer to think that hypotheses #1 is correct rather than #3. I’m not holding my breath though.