Tuesday, May 31, 2011

2011 Stanley Cup preview

Ever feel like you're carrying the weight
of a terrible mistake on your shoulders?
The Bruins and Canucks will open the Stanley Cup finals tomorrow night in Vancouver, kicking off a highly anticipated series that has hockey fans asking each other tough questions.

Can the Bruins finally end their 39-year championship drought? Can the Canucks finish off a dominant season? Did you know that Cam Neely was once traded from Vancouver to Boston? No really, did you know that? Would you like to hear about it 300 times in the next two weeks?

We'll start finding out the answers tomorrow night. As we count down to the opener, here's an in-depth look at how the two teams stack up.

Bruins - Nathan Horton leads a group of never-say-die forwards who refuse to throw in the towel, unless there's a chance they could hit a Lightning fan in the face with it.
Canucks - Will rely on timely offense from Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, and whichever forwards Henrik and Daniel Sedin decide to bank a few shots off of to break up the monotony.

Bruins - Tomas Kaberle has been creating a steady stream of scoring opportunities with his crisp passes to the open man, some of which even go to his teammates.
Canucks - Kevin Bieksa is willing to fight tooth and nail to win a championship, assuming "tooth and nail" is the nickname of some skill player who doesn't know how to fight.

Friday, May 27, 2011

A Jets fan's guide to how the NHL has changed since 1996

Of course back then, you just held
down the "neutral zone trap" button
until the game ended 0-0.
The Jets have apparently been cleared for take off. While nobody can seem to agree on exactly when the formal announcement will take place, it's all but certain that NHL hockey will be returning to Winnipeg next season when the Atlanta Thrashers move north.

No matter what you think about the viability of hockey in Atlanta, you have to be happy for long-suffering Winnipeg hockey fans. They never gave up on the NHL, even after the devastation of losing their beloved Jets at the end of the 1995-96 season. Fifteen long years later, their loyalty is about to be rewarded.

But while Winnipeg hockey fans have every reason to be excited, they may be in for a shock. After all, the NHL is a very different league today than it was the last time the Jets were on the ice. Winnipeg fans are in for a major adjustment.

I want to help. So as a service to Winnipeg-based readers, here's a handy guide to the various ways the league has changed since the last time you pulled on your Jets jersey and went to a game.

1996 - The Atlanta Thrashers don't exist yet.
2011 - The Atlanta Thrashers don't exist any more.

1996 - Claude Lemieux earns the contempt of the entire hockey world after driving Kris Draper face first into the boards during the Western Conference Finals.
2011 - Since the play didn't involve a leaping elbow to the head or somebody eating a metal stanchion, it would probably result in Lemieux winning the Lady Byng.

1996 - Goaltender Grant Fuhr sets a new league record by playing in a total of 79 games.
2011 - Goaltender Rick DiPietro sets a new personal record by playing for a total of 79 minutes.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Take the Quiz: Penalty or dive?

It was then that Ted Leonsis realized the
motivational "Drive For a Championship"
dressing room mural was missing a letter.
This year's postseason is quickly turning into the Year of the Dive. While occasional "embellishment" has always been a hockey fact of life, this year's playoffs have seen players, coaches and media complaining that certain opponents are taking the dramatics too far.

The problem has become so noticeable that the NHL reportedly issued a directive to officials to call more diving penalties. But that move appears to have just created more controversy. On Saturday, Lightning forward Steve Downie was even given a diving penalty on a hit from behind that left him injured and unable to return to the game.

It's all very frustrating. Short of using lie detector tests or hiring a mind reader, how can a fan really tell whether a player was diving?

Luckily, the league is on the case. Working with officials and forensics experts, they've put together this handy quiz for fans watching the game at home. From now on, if you think you may have witnessed a dive you can simply take a few minutes to answer these questions and arrive at a definitive answer:

A player has hit the ice clutching his head after a borderline penalty. Which of the following would make you suspect a dive?
a.) The replay doesn't show any significant contact to an area that would normally cause a player to grab his head, such as a typical player's face or Joe Thornton's ankle.
b.) The player reacts to the "head injury" in a way that no other player ever does, such as actually going to the NHL-mandated quiet room.
c.) The team's media guide mentions that the player's off-season training partners are Peter Forsberg, Sean Avery and Marcel Marceau.
d.) The borderline penalty he was reacting to was a delay of game call for shooting the puck over the glass.

A high stick appears to make contact with a player's face. After he recovers from the initial contact, you can see that the player is:
a.) Visibly shaken by the impact.
b.) Wiping away what appears to be blood.
c.) Wiping away what appears to be blood, while holding a handful of empty ketchup packets.
d.) Nonchalantly performing his own root canal on the bench in between shifts (Martin St. Louis only).

Friday, May 20, 2011

Rating the NHL's relocation candidates

This picture was taken in August, by the way.
It's looking more and more like moving day could be coming to an NHL city near you this summer.

Well, maybe not all that near you, assuming you're not in the southern United States. But with the Coyotes treading water and an apparently deteriorating situation in Atlanta, it seems almost inevitable that at least one NHL team will have a new address soon.

But where? Several cities have been linked with the league in recent years, many with strong cases to make. But each candidate also comes with a unique set of challenges, and success is far from guaranteed. It goes without saying that the league is under heavy pressure to make the right choice.

I want to help. So I've put together a list of some of the most frequently mentioned candidates for NHL relocation and carefully considered the pros and cons of each one.

Hamilton, Ontario
Background: Jim Balsillie has been trying to move a team to the city for years, but has been rejected as a potential NHL owner on the grounds that he has actual money.
Pro: Hockey players are often said to have their best years in their late 20s; if the same applies to hockey arenas, Hamilton should be all set.
Con: If Hamilton ever gets an NHL team then Toronto will want one too, according to the guy in the next cubicle who still says "Whazzup" and quotes dialogue from the Austin Powers movies.

Seattle, Washington
Background: Were actually the first American city to win the Stanley Cup back in 1917, thanks to a late goal by rookie Mark Recchi.
Pro: Recently had their NBA team blatantly stolen from them, so probably wouldn't feel bad about doing the same to some other city.
Con: Unpredictable weather patterns in the Pacific-Northwest can sometimes cause springtime heat waves so sudden that fans need to remove their shirts on live television.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Should Canadian hockey fans be cheering for the Canucks?

Canuck forward Ryan Kesler hugs
a miscellaneous hockey player
There are two unavoidable facts of hockey life that every Canadian fan will be reminded of at this time of year. The first is that none of the country's teams have managed to win the Stanley Cup since 1993. The second is that, because of that drought, Canadian fans are expected to switch their allegiances en masse once the country is down to its last remaining team.

This year, that team is Vancouver. Yet despite the President's Trophy-winning Canucks representing what's probably the country's best chance at a championship since the lockout, many Canadian fans seem hesitant to climb onto the bandwagon.

That view seems short-sighted. While it's understandable that fans of the other five Canadian teams would be reluctant to even temporarily support another team, it says here that it's the logical move.

So if you're a Canadian hockey fan and find yourself still on the fence about rooting for the Canucks, consider the following list of good reasons to throw your support behind the nation's last hope.
  • Geologists and historians assure us that, in the strictest technically sense, Vancouver is part of Canada.

  • Manny Malhotra has been a feel-good story as he attempts to resume his playing career after a devastating eye injury, instead of just going straight into refereeing like anyone else would have done.

  • Admit it, it would be fun to watch Roberto Luongo win a Stanley Cup and still be roundly criticized for not doing it "clutchily" enough.

  • If you do decide to root against them and Mike Gillis finds out, uh oh, here comes another press conference.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Surprises from the NHL's brief filed in the NFL labour dispute

Everyone who's really serious about
reducing concussions, raise your hand...
Football fans are having a rough off-season. With a messy NFL labour dispute heading into its third month with no end in sight, fans now have reason to fear that the league may lose part of the upcoming season to a work stoppage, if not the entire year.

Of course, that's a feeling hockey fans know all too well. And this week, the NHL found itself linked to the football labour dispute in a more concrete way. The league reportedly made an appearance in the protracted courtroom battle between the NFL and it's decertified players association, filing a legal brief urging a judge to side with the owners.

The move caught many observers off-guard, and raised an obvious question: What sort of insight could the NHL really have to offer into football's problems?

Plenty, as it turns out. I managed to obtain a top secret copy of the NHL's brief, and found that it contains detailed advice that NFL owners will no doubt find invaluable. Here's a selection of highlights from the filing:
  • The cover page of the document has a note in what appears to be NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's handwriting reading "Should I have heard of these guys?"

  • The brief contains a lengthy section titled "How to keep a straight face if the players start to swear that they'll never accept a hard salary cap."

  • The league includes a helpful suggestion that the NFL consider generating some publicity by holding an outdoor game at a football stadium.

  • From force of habit, the brief includes multiple references to the Winnipeg Cardinals.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A brief history of NHL playoff goats

The Maple Leafs react to the announcement
of that night's starting goalies
The second round of the playoffs has already brought its share of surprises. And while that has some fans looking forward to the conference final matchups, others are dealing with bitter disappointment.

Many in Philadelphia are pointing fingers at the team's trio of underperforming goaltenders. Capital fans watched so-called superstars like Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin disappear for much of the team's shocking sweep at the hands of the Lightning. And despite his team still leading the series, struggling Sharks' star Patrick Marleau has been labelled "gutless" by former teammate Jeremy Roenick.

Of course, assigning blame after a tough loss is nothing new, and the NHL has a long history of fitting players for goat horns. When the pressure is at its highest, it doesn't take much -- one bad game, one mistake, one momentary lapse can be all it takes to change a reputation forever.

Let's take a walk through the history books and spare a moment to mourn some of those in the hockey world who may never live down their moment of postseason shame.

April 21, 2003 - Philadelphia goalie Roman Cechmanek gives up an embarrassing goal while struggling to retrieve his trapper, leading the Flyers to vow to never again employ a goalie with a functioning glove hand.

June 7, 1994 - Pavel Bure fails to score against the Rangers on a critical penalty shot in the Stanley Cup finals, partly due to a great reaction by Mike Richter but mostly because Gary Bettman had snuck onto the ice and flipped the net over.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Signs your second round is not going well

Pictured: The Flyers' best goaltending
option. Also pictured: Sergei Bobrovsky
and Brian Boucher
After a first round that many agreed was among the most entertaining ever, it's perhaps no surprise that the second round has seemed like a letdown by comparison. That's at least partly due to Stanley Cup favourites struggling badly.

The top-seeded Capitals are already out, victims of a stunning sweep at the hands of the upstart Lightning. The Flyers find themselves facing a 3-0 hole against the Bruins, and the Red Wings are in the same hole against the surging Sharks. Even the powerhouse Canucks have had their share of scary moments thanks to Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne.

While an unexpected playoff collapse may seem stunning as it happens, in hindsight we can often find subtle clues that we missed at the time. And in fact, if you know what to look for you just may be able to detect some indications of impending doom for your own favourite team.

Here are a few key signs that things aren't going well for your team in round two. Don't read any further if you want to be surprised.
  • When reporters ask your head coach how he got that mysterious scar on his face, he answers "About an hour ago, when the owner came after me with a broken off tequila bottle."

  • After every bad game your goalie disappears into the video room to spend hours studying tape, but you just found out the "tape" is labelled "Tips and techniques from Philadelphia Flyer goalies, 1992 to present".

  • The only "upper body injury" your team has suffered recently was when the goal judge behind your net went down with carpal tunnel syndrome.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Team Canada's application form for the World Championships

These two exciting young players will
lead Canada at the World Championships.
every year, for the rest of their careers.
While this year's Stanley Cup playoffs continue to occupy most of the attention, there's another hockey tournament going on these days featuring NHL players. The international World Championship is under way in Slovakia, and Canada is a heavy favourite to win a medal.

Most fans know that the Canadian squad was assembled by Maple Leafs assistant general manager Dave Nonis. But not many of us understand the process that goes into picking a roster for this sort of event. How does a guy like Nonis make sure he has the right men for the job?

The answer, as it turns out, is pretty much the same as any other job: an application form, which all interested players must fill out before being considered. And I have a top secret copy of this year's form:


Dear Canadian hockey player,

Thank you for your interest in representing Canada at the 2011 World Championship. In order to help up select the best roster possible, please fill out the following application.

First name: ____________ Last name: ____________

Have you ever played in the World Championship tournament before?
( ) Yes
( ) No
( ) Not sure; nobody ever remembers what happened in this tournament in previous years.

Have you previously represented Canada at the World Junior Championships?
( ) Yes
( ) No

If so, what was the result?
( ) Won gold medal.
( ) Disgraced entire country.