Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Book excerpt: How the Broadway Bullies kept Gordie Howe from becoming a Ranger

Gordie Howe played an astounding 25 years for the Detroit Red Wings, easily the longest tenure by any player with a single team. He retired in 1971, having just turned forty-three, and then made a comeback two years later with the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association. That match made sense — it gave the fledgling WHA a big name to sell while also giving Howe a chance to play with his sons Marty and Mark — but it was jarring for hockey fans. Gordie Howe in anything other than a Red Wings jersey? It seemed plain wrong.

Well, if you think the sight of a silver-haired Howe in Aeros blue (or, later, Whalers green) must’ve been odd, try to imagine him in his prime, wearing the red, white and blue of the New York Rangers. It nearly happened.

The Rangers were the first NHL team to see something in Howe. Specifically, it was scout Fred McCorry who spotted a fifteen-year-old Howe in Saskatoon back in 1943 and convinced him to come to the Rangers’ training camp. In those days, it wasn’t unheard of for teams to sign players that young, locking in their rights well before they would ever skate in the NHL. The invitation represented a fantastic opportunity for Howe, but it made for a different experience. While we remember Howe as one of the most fearsome players ever to take the ice, he was shy and introverted as a teenager, and he struggled with being away from home. To make matters worse, the Rangers’ veterans decided to give the new kid a hard time. They made fun of him for not knowing how to put his equipment on properly (he’d never owned a full set) and stole his food when it was mealtime. Howe was miserable, and eventually he decided he’d had enough. The future Mr. Hockey walked away from camp and headed back home to Saskatoon.

Later that winter, Red Wings scout Fred Pinckney got a look at Howe and invited him to Detroit’s off-season camp in Windsor, Ontario. This time, the veterans left the kid well enough alone, and Detroit coach Jack Adams liked what he saw. The Red Wings offered Howe a contract and he agreed.

How does hockey history change if those 1943 Rangers ease up on a nervous teenager? It makes for another one of those great “what if?” arguments — although in this case, it’s probably one that Red Wings fans would rather not think about.

Ironically, Howe’s younger brother Vic had a brief NHL career of his own in the 1950s, scoring three goals in thirty-three games spread across three seasons … all of them with the New York Rangers.

Excerpted from “The Down Goes Brown History of the NHL”; by Sean McIndoe. Copyright © 2018 Sean McIndoe. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

>> This excerpt originally appeared at The Athletic

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Which early-season success story could be on this year's Senators?

We’re​ halfway into November,​ which​ means​ the​ NHL​ is​ settling into​ that mid-season grind.​ Teams have largely​ started​ sorting themselves out,​​ and we have a pretty solid idea which ones are good and which are bad, at least in general terms. There’s still lots of hockey left, and plenty of twists and turns for various stories to take. But for the most part, by this point on the calendar we usually know where most teams stand.

But not always.

One year ago today, the Ottawa Senators had just returned to North America after a two-game series against the Avalanche in Sweden. They’d won both of those games, running their record to 8-3-5. They were third in their division and comfortably in a playoff spot with multiple games in hand. Even better, they’d just pulled off a blockbuster trade to add Matt Duchene to the lineup. And remember, they were still just a few months removed from a dramatic playoff run that left them one goal shy of a trip to the Stanley Cup final.

Things were good. And then, almost overnight, they weren’t. As we all know, last year’s Senators were about to fall off a cliff. They’d lose their next seven straight and end up finishing with the second-worst record in the league. Mix in off-ice scandals that dragged into a relentlessly bizarre offseason, and the last 12 months have been a nightmare.

We can hope that no team is about to embark on a similar year, at least in terms of off-ice drama – the Senators feel like a once-in-a-generation outlier there. But in terms of wins and losses, is it possible that any teams that are feeling good about themselves right now might have a cliff of their own looming just around the corner?

Let’s see if we can figure that out. We’ll skip over the team that are already in crisis mode (like the ‘Hawks, Devils, Ducks, Oilers and seemingly half the rest of the league). Instead, we’ll look for five teams that roughly match that 2017-18 Senators profile – over .500, in the playoffs or close to it and generally feeling good like the season is going well. And then we’ll try to ruin those good vibes by figuring out whether it could all go wrong.

Montreal Canadiens

Where they’re at: At 9-5-3, the Canadiens are holding strong in the Eastern wild-card race, not to mention staying within range of the Bruins and Leafs for a top-three spot in the Atlantic. They haven’t gone back-to-back games without a point all season, and the offense has hovered around the top five.

And as an added bonus, the season’s first month has felt like at least a small redemption for the much-maligned Marc Bergevin. The team’s top three scorers are Max Domi, Tomas Tatar and Jonathan Drouin – all players he recently acquired in trades that many of us questioned.

How it could all go wrong: To some extent, maybe it’s already started to. If you ignore the loser point, they’ve lost almost as many as they’ve won, and they haven’t managed consecutive wins since the season was two weeks old.

Beyond that, they’re currently shooting 10 per cent across all situations, which seems on the high side given the talent level on the roster. Considering how much they give up, it wouldn’t take much of a drop in scoring for the Canadiens to go from decidedly average to something south of that.

And if that happens, Montreal is the kind of town where a losing streak can spiral into a crisis. We’ve seen it before, with many of these same players and coaches involved.

Why it won’t: The weird thing about this year’s Habs is that this is the sort of exercise where we’d normally be saying something like “They’re doing it on the back of Carey Price, so if he gets cold then look out.” But they’re not. In fact, Price hasn’t been good at all this year, and wasn’t all that good last year either.

On the one hand, that’s a terrifying red flag; his eight-year extension just kicked in this year, and if they find themselves paying $84 million for sub-.900 goaltending, they’re pretty much screwed. But in terms of right now, you can twist it into a reason for optimism. This is Carey Price, after all. The guy is good. So if they’re already winning when he’s getting lit up, how good will they be if he settles back into looking like a Vezina contender?

As an added bonus, we could point out that Shea Weber will be back at some point over the next month or so, which should give the team a big boost. And with the Panthers, Wings and Senators all struggling, a playoff spot in the Atlantic is there for the taking.

Odds that they’re this year’s Senators: There’s certainly a bit of that vibe, if only based on recent history. But preseason consensus aside, there isn’t all that much telling us that the Canadiens are a bad team right now.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Monday, November 12, 2018

Weekend power rankings: The reckoning arrives

The​ NHL season is​ a lot​ like​ the​ weather​ up​ here in​ Ottawa – once November​ arrives, it can​ get​ real ugly, real​​ quick. And when it does, you’re left wondering if it will ever get any better before the spring.

The first month of the season featured plenty of feel-good stories around the league, with the top half of the standings featuring various teams that were overachieving. But in the last few weeks, the reckoning has arrived. And now it feels like half the league has gone ice cold all at once.

Coming into the weekend, three teams were riding a losing streak of at least five games, with Colorado, Chicago and Pittsburgh all plummeting. And that list didn’t even include the Devils or Hurricanes, both of whom had lost five of six, or the Canadiens (four of six), or the Senators (seven of nine), or the Ducks (eight of ten). By the time you worked your way down to the Oilers, losing three straight by a combined score of 13-5 felt like a hot streak.

The big question of the weekend was which teams would be able to regain their footing and which would continue their plunge. That latter group ended up included the Hawks, who couldn’t muster a goal while dropping their seventh straight in Philadelphia. The Oilers dropped a fourth straight by another lopsided score, this time to the slumping Avalanche. The Devils and Ducks both kept losing and the Hurricanes couldn’t even beat the Red Wings. But the Canadiens picked up a dramatic win, the Senators at least got a split and the Penguins shut out the Coyotes with the kind of performance that might quell some of the talk of imminent changes.

Mixed results all around, as you’d expect in a league where the difference between mediocrity and disaster often feels razor thin. We’ll continue to sort through the stragglers beginning tonight, when the Hurricanes and Blackhawks face off in a game that [checks rulebook] one team probably has to win.

The good news is that there are still a few great teams in the league. The bad news is that it really is jut a few, and we’re still struggling to fill the top five with teams we actually feel good about. We’ve got another newbie to welcome this week, so let’s start there …

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a summer of keg stands and fountain pool parties.

This is week six of the power rankings, and it ends up being the sixth straight week with a different team slotting in at number five. Three of those previous five teams dropped out of the rankings the very next week, including last week’s pick, the Flames. Does that mean something? It might indicate a league that’s still very much in flux at the top. It might also indicate that I’m just bad at this.

Will the curse of the five-spot continue with this week’s team? Let’s find out.

5. Minnesota Wild (11-4-2, +9) – Yeah, it’s probably time to start taking them seriously.

Honestly, this is probably too low for the Wild, who are one of the hottest teams in the league. That’s not some short-term streak – after losing four of their first five, they’ve gone 10-2-0 to move into second spot in the Central, two points back of the Predators. They just finished a brutal seven-game road trip, coming away with 10 of 14 points and now they’re home for six of the next seven.

They’re doing with it with contributions from the older veterans and Vezina-caliber goaltending from Devan Dubnyk. That’s not always the most sustainable model, but if they need to make adjustments, Bruce Boudreau can handle it. He’s pretty good at this.

In case you’re wondering, the Wild don’t get the Predators again until March, when they face them three times. That’s probably way too far ahead to get excited about, but there’s at least a chance that it will end up deciding the division and maybe serve as a playoff preview.

4. Winnipeg Jets (10-5-1, +9) – I’m showing some faith in the Jets by keeping them ahead of the red hot Wild. But a pair of 5-2 weekend wins over the Avalanche and Devils gives me enough cover to overrule the standings and go with my gut.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Friday, November 9, 2018

Grab Bag: Avery vs. Brodeur, thoughts on the Senators' Uber ride, and enough with early-season stats

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Thoughts on who's right and wrong in the Senators' Uber fiasco
- These early season stats are out of control
- An obscure player with an unbreakable overtime record
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a classic YouTube breakdown of the Sean Avery/Martin Brodeur incident...

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The top secret schedule for Monday’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony

The​ hockey world will​ come​ together​ on​ Monday​ to​ celebrate Hall​ of Fame induction​ night, capping off​ one​ of the very​​ best weekends on the season calendar. Legends from the past join the stars of today to honor the newest members of the sport’s most exclusive club, as part of a lavish and often emotional ceremony in Toronto.

This year’s class features six new Hall of Famers: Willie O’Ree, Martin Brodeur, Jayna Hefford, Martin St. Louis, Aleksander Yakushev and commissioner Gary Bettman. They’ll be celebrated all weekend long, including before Saturday night’s game between the Devils and Leafs. But the main event comes on Monday, when they’re formally inducted into the Hall.

That’s a big night, and it has to be planned carefully. Luckily, my DGB spies managed to get their hands on a copy of the schedule for the evening’s events.

7:30 – Induction ceremony begins. Opening remarks. Attendees are thanked. Brief interpretative dance by Justin Williams and the Carolina Hurricanes.

7:35 pm – Induction of Martin Brodeur begins.

7:36 pm – Somebody asks Sean Avery to sit down and stop waving his arms because he’s blocking everyone’s view.

7:40 pm – Special video highlight package commemorating Brodeur’s never-to-be-broken records such as 691 career wins, 125 career shutouts, and 7 trillion airings of that “midlife crisis” car rental ad.

7:45 pm – Touching speech by Brodeur in which he thanks all those who were involved in his NHL career.

7:46 pm – Murmurs of confusion as everyone tries to remember why he just mentioned the St. Louis Blues.

7:50 pm – Induction of Aleksander Yakushev begins.

7:51 pm – Courtesy pause for younger North American fans to google “Aleksander Yakushev” and then totally pretend they didn’t just have to do that.

7:55 pm – Video package highlighting how dominant Yakushev was during the 1972 Summit Series, and we quickly realize we may have been a little bit too effective when Bobby Clarke runs out and breaks his ankle out of force of habit.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic