Monday, August 31, 2015

RIP Al Arbour

For me, the first thing I’d think of were the glasses.

That’s a weird thing to remember about a man who indisputably owns a spot on the Mount Rushmore of hockey coaching. But before he stepped behind the bench and built a legendary career as the second-winningest coach in league history, Al Arbour was a solid but unspectacular stay-at-home defenseman who bounced between four NHL teams and various minor leagues over an 18-year pro career. He scored 12 goals in 14 NHL seasons, won four Stanley Cups with three different teams, and was eventually appointed the first captain of the expansion St. Louis Blues in 1967. Arbour, who passed away on Friday after a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s, was also the last NHL player to play the game while wearing glasses.

Glasses have long been the internationally recognized sign of the non-threatening; one pair was enough to allow even Superman to pass for a mere mortal. But on an NHL rink, wearing glasses somehow made Arbour look like the ultimate badass. How tough do you have to be to step onto the ice looking like that? How few craps do you have to give to walk into a world of flying pucks and fists and elbows, and be so unintimidated that you don’t even bother to remove your specs?

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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Five common NHL rules you already know, and the weird loopholes you don't

Pro sports rulebooks are fascinating things. They’re living documents, changing constantly as new rules are added, others are dropped, and still more are clarified and adjusted. But despite that, most of the rules are decades old and familiar to even novice fans. We never actually read the rulebook cover to cover — we’d never need to. We all know the basics, and figure that the rest are just minor details.

And that’s all true enough. But fans really should take some time to browse through the rulebook every once in a while, because there’s all sorts of weird stuff in there. Rulebooks are rarely cleaned up, so stuff of indeterminate origin can linger for decades. Rules you’d think would be simple can go down a rabbit hole that lasts for multiple pages. And then are the exceptions, loopholes, and special scenarios: paragraph after paragraph of increasingly specific language covering situations that, in some cases, have never happened. But at some point, somebody somewhere was concerned enough to add a line to the rulebook, where it will probably stay forever.

The NHL is no different, with many of its most common and well-known rules coming with a “Yeah, but … ” that most fans have never heard of. So today, let’s get out our trusty copy of the rulebook and dive in as we hunt for those hidden loopholes that rarely — and in some case never — come up in actual games.

Here are five rules that you definitely know, and the weird exceptions to them that you probably didn’t.

1. If a player can’t serve his own major, his team must put someone in the box to replace him.

There are all sorts of situations in which a player might be assessed a major penalty that results in a power play for the other team, but that he can’t actually serve by physically sitting in the penalty box. Maybe the offending player is a goaltender. Or maybe he was ejected, or injured on the play.

In those cases, fans know the drill: The offending player’s team has to send over a player to serve his time for him. It’s usually a one-dimensional offensive star who doesn’t kill penalties anyway and can provide a threat to score on a sneaky breakaway once he’s out of the box.

But while teams do indeed have to put a player in the box, they don’t actually have to do it right away. Rule 20.3 makes it clear that a team “does not have to place a substitute player on the penalty bench immediately”; it’s completely legal for them to keep their entire bench intact by just leaving the box empty when the penalty starts, and leave it that way as long as they like. During any stoppage in play before the penalty ends, they can send somebody over to serve whatever’s left of the penalty.

Of course, there’s a slight flaw in that sort of plan, and it’s the reason teams almost never try this particular move: If there isn’t a stoppage, and the power play ends before you can get somebody into the box, you’re pretty much screwed. With nobody to come out of the box, the power play would continue indefinitely, or at least until the next whistle. You can’t get to even strength by having a guy hop over the boards from the bench — he has to come from the penalty box. And to make matters worse, you’re not even technically considered shorthanded anymore, so you can’t ice the puck like you would on a typical penalty kill.

So does it make sense to do it? No, not really. But the rulebook says that you could, and that’s what really counts.

2. A player may not play the puck with a broken stick.

The broken-stick rule is one that most fans know well, even though it doesn’t come into play very often. If a stick breaks, you have to drop it immediately. If you don’t, it’s an automatic minor, as per section 10.3 of the rulebook. Maybe the most memorable recent example of the rule being called came two years ago, when Ryan O’Reilly’s quest to become the first player in 33 years to go a full season without taking a single penalty ended when he was too slow dropping a broken stick in Game 74.

But there’s an exception to the rule. Two of them, in fact, one for each team: the two goaltenders. Goalies don’t have to drop a broken stick, as per Rule 10.4.

Both sections on broken sticks are worth a quick read, because they’re filled with weird exceptions and clarifications that most fans have probably wondered about at some point. For example, players can hand each other replacement sticks, but it’s a penalty if anyone “throws, tosses, slides or shoots” one. A skater can give his stick to a goaltender, but not vice versa. A player who has a stick thrown to him from the bench doesn’t get a penalty; the thrower does instead.

And my favorite random detail: While play is still going on, a “goalkeeper whose stick is broken or illegal may not go to the players’ bench for a replacement but must receive his stick from a teammate.” I’m sorry, but if a goalie wants to sprint to the bench and grab a replacement stick on the fly, I think we should let him. Hell, we should encourage it. I can’t believe Ilya Bryzgalov never tried that.

Speaking of weird goalie loopholes …

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Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Heavyweight Belt of NHL Rivalries

The Championship Belt is one of my favorite recurring Grantland features, having covered everything from NFL quarterbacks to MLB pitchers to action movie heroes. But we’ve never broken it out for hockey, even though it feels like a natural for the sport. That ends today. After all, it’s the offseason, which is one of the times during the year that hockey fans like to argue with each other.

But for what? We could go with the obvious, like handing out a championship belt for the best player or top goaltender, or maybe best team. We could even do the championship belt of the actual pugilists, from Dave Schultz to Bob Probert and beyond. In fact, let’s be honest, we’re absolutely going to do that last one someday. But that day is not today.

No, today we’re going to crank up the degree of difficulty with something a little trickier: the heavyweight belt of NHL rivalries. Hockey has always been made for inspiring hatred between teams; it’s practically why the game was invented. But at any given time in league history, which one rivalry reigned supreme?

First, a few ground rules. We’re looking for rivalries between teams — there’s no individual category here. We’re also limiting this to NHL rivalries, so we won’t be including international rivalries like Russia vs. Team USA, Russia vs. Canada, and Canada vs. Sad Americans Getting Silver Medals.

So what makes a rivalry? This being hockey, bad blood will obviously be a key factor, but it’s not the only one. We’re looking for some staying power — one random brawl won’t be enough to earn the crown — and the stakes matter, too. Two teams may hate each other, but if all they’re fighting over is last place in their division, it’s probably not much of a rivalry. Finally, we’ll invoke what we can call the Ric Flair rule — to be the man, you have to beat the man, so in the case of any close calls, the reigning champ keeps the belt.

Sound good? Then, as legendary enforcer Dave Semenko would say, let’s go for a canoe ride. Anyone want to help set the mood? Ah, yes, I see we have a volunteer.


Thanks, Tie. Let’s head back a few decades, and start at the beginning.

The Original Six era: Canadiens vs. Maple Leafs

Two key points here. The first is that this is a fairly easy call, since the Leafs and Habs were the two best teams of the era. They combined for the most Stanley Cups, they met in the most finals, and they had the best regular-season records. In a six-team league where everyone is a rival to some degree, this is the one that always stood out.

The second point is that, somewhat surprisingly, this is the last time we’ll see this particular combination show up on our list. While the Leafs-Habs rivalry is to this day considered by many to be the greatest in hockey, that’s almost entirely based on history and their rabid fan bases, as opposed to anything that’s happened on the ice. That’s largely because the teams last met in the playoffs in the ’70s, and then spent almost two decades in different conferences, not to mention that the Leafs have been terrible for much of the past 35 years. They nearly met in the Stanley Cup final in 1993, which would have been insane, but it didn’t happen, and despite some recent near misses they’ve yet to meet in the playoffs since. If they ever did, they would probably take the belt back by default, but that’s a debate for another day.

Leafs-Habs will always be an important rivalry, even if it’s just simmering under the surface, and a Saturday matchup between the teams should be on every fan’s bucket list. But if it’s still considered the greatest in the sport, that’s more out of force of habit than anything, which is why the belt won’t be returning here in the post-1967 world.

Runners-up: Wings vs. Hawks, Habs vs. Bruins, and the other 12 rivalries that were even possible in a six-team league.

1968-1973: Bruins vs. Canadiens

Now here’s an Original Six rivalry that didn’t miss a beat once expansion arrived. These teams combined to win each of the first six Stanley Cups of the post-expansion era. The first three of those were anticlimactic; thanks to the league’s ridiculous decision to put all six expansion teams into one division and guarantee one a berth in the final, Montreal and Boston got to take turns stomping the overmatched Blues from 1968 to 1970.

When they weren’t rolling the Blues, they were often facing each other in the playoffs, with the Canadiens winning all three matchups during this era. The best of those came in 1971, a seven-game classic that featured Montreal’s memorable comeback win after trailing 5-1 in Game 2.

Runners-up: Canadiens vs. Black Hawks, Blues vs. North Stars, the NHL’s divisional formatting vs. common sense.

1974-76: Flyers vs. Rangers

You couldn’t do a list like this without prominently featuring the Broad Street Bullies. The question is who to pair them with, given the Flyers were hated by just about every team in the league (and even beyond). In fact, it’s tempting to just say “Flyers vs. Everybody” and be done with it.

But that feels like a cop-out, so let’s give the other spot to the Rangers, the team that came closest to derailing the Flyers during their back-to-back Cup-winning years in 1974 and 1975. That came in the 1974 semifinal, when the teams met in a seven-game classic in which the home team won each game, and which featured enough animosity that even dropping the puck for a simple faceoff ended up being an adventure.

Runners-up: But seriously, the Flyers vs. Everybody.

1977-79: Bruins vs. Canadiens

Boston and Montreal regain the title thanks to a pair of meetings in the Stanley Cup final, both won by Montreal. But perhaps the most famous moment of the rivalry’s long history comes in 1979, when the teams met in the semifinal (with a slam-dunk finals matchup against the Rangers awaiting the winner) and played one of the most famous Game 7s the league has ever seen.

Runners-up: Rangers vs. Islanders, which was just getting started. Speaking of which …

1980-82: Rangers vs. Islanders

This is one of those classic rivalries that has to find its way onto our list somewhere. While the teams had been division rivals since the Islanders entered the league in 1972, and had met in the playoffs for the first time in 1975, the rivalry as we know it didn’t really begin until 1979. That was the year Islanders defenseman Denis Potvin broke the ankle of Rangers forward Ulf Nilsson, all but ending the latter’s career as a productive NHLer and leading to the introduction of perhaps the most famous chant in NHL history: “Potvin sucks.”

The teams faced each other in the playoffs that season, with the Rangers winning in six. That would be the last series the Islanders lost for almost five full years, as they launched into a dynasty that saw them win four straight Cups from 1980 to 1983. Along the way, they faced (and beat) the Rangers every year from 1981 to 1984. That was the last time the Isles would beat the Rangers in the playoffs, although their fans would still get another decade of use out of the withering “1940” chant.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Every Stanley Cup ever won: Did it really count?

The Stanley Cup is the oldest trophy in North American pro sports, having been first awarded in 1893. It’s been won by many teams both professional and amateur, first as a challenge trophy and later as the league title for organizations like the PCHA, NHA, and eventually the NHL.

All NHL fans know how many times their favorite team has captured the Cup, and chances are they’ll recite the number instantly. The Canadiens have won a league-leading 24. The Leafs and Red Wings are next, followed mostly by fellow Original Six teams, with more recent franchises like the Oilers, Islanders, and Devils having also won several. Every Stanley Cup banner that hangs from the rafters is a source of enduring pride for hockey fans, and the more the better.

But let’s be honest … not all Cups are created equal, and occasionally a team wins one under less-than-impressive circumstances. From a purely technical perspective, those championships still count, and the record book duly notes them. But does that mean the rest of us have to sit by and listen to fans of those teams drone on and on about them? Sorry. Sometimes, a Stanley Cup just isn’t worth bragging about.

But which ones? That’s a tough call, so I went through each and every Stanley Cup and determined which ones hockey fans should feel obligated to recognize as legitimate championships. Let’s start all the way back in 1893, as we try to answer the eternal Stanley Cup question: Does this one really count?

Pre-NHL era, 1893–1916: This was during the days when the Cup was a challenge trophy, which means that anyone who could manage to get a half-dozen guys together could have a shot at it. Until 1912, you didn’t even have to wait until the end of the season; you just showed up with some guys and took your shot. Also, half the time the “puck” was a frozen pinecone and the game ended when one team’s goalie fell through the ice and sunk to the bottom of Lake Athabasca.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

The early NHL, 1917–1942: By this point the NHL had officially formed. But the league was in a transition period, which is to say that literally anybody could have a franchise as long as they had a few thousand dollars and an arena that wasn’t actively on fire. That led to an extended period when the Stanley Cup would be awarded because the Seattle Metropolitans edged out the Flin Flon Junior Knickerbockers, and the rest of us are supposed to act as if it matters. The only people who pretend this era actually counts are, in descending order of importance, history nerds, nonagenarian shut-ins, and Ottawa Senators fans.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

The Original Six era, 1943–1967: Here’s a little-known fact about the Original Six era: It had only six teams. If your office hockey pool had only six teams sign up to play, you would cancel it. Winning a league with six teams in it is basically the equivalent of winning the 2002 NL Central. Do you care who won the 2002 NL Central? Exactly.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Montreal Canadiens, 1968, 1969: After the 1967 season, the NHL finally got around to expanding. But it did so too quickly, doubling the size of the league in one shot. That watered down the available talent badly, with all the new rosters basically stocked with minor leaguers. Even better, the league put all of those terrible new teams into one division, which meant one of them made the final every year. If you win the Stanley Cup by sweeping the expansion St. Louis Blues, which the Habs did both these years, it doesn’t count.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Boston Bruins, 1970: They won the Stanley Cup by sweeping the expansion St. Louis Blues. Also, the guy who scored the winning goal wasn’t even touching the ice at the time.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Montreal Canadiens, 1971: Montreal coach Al MacNeil benched Habs legend Henri Richard midway through the series, and MacNeil was fired shortly after even though his team won. If your first order of business after a Stanley Cup win is to immediately fire your head coach for incompetence, even you know it didn’t really count.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Boston Bruins, 1972: The original engraving for this win listed the winners as “BQSTQN.” I’ll repeat that, just so we can all appreciate it: They somehow decided to put two Q’s in the word “Boston.” Maybe buy a vowel and try again in four decades, Bruins.

Verdict: Dqesn’t cqunt.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Key details from today's NHL/MLB partnership agreement

Bruins. Flyers. Fenway. This image is the top Google result
for "things not involved in the 2015 postseason".

The NHL made some rare August news today, announcing a partnership with Major League Baseball that will see the latter’s MLBAM media division take over the NHL’s web, mobile and streaming services. It’s a big deal, one reportedly valued at around $1.2 billion, and as you would expect with an agreement of that size, it contains lots of fine print.

Luckily, DGB spies were able to get their hands on the deal, and reported back with some of the key details in today’s agreement between the two sports giants.

  • will get to give “earned run average”, “strikeouts” and “home runs” confusing new names and then claim they just invented them this year.

  • Both sides agree to indefinitely continue playing that hilarious “Act like you’re actually going to bring a beloved former franchise back to the province of Quebec” joke.

  • The NHL grudgingly agrees that MLB can continue to call 40 fat dudes in flip flops half-heartedly hugging each other a “brawl”.

  • MLB officials clarify that the league’s new rules about having to remain in contact with the box at all times will continue to apply to baseball players only, so calm down, Jamie Benn.

Five weirdly unbreakable NHL records

Hockey fans love records. Whether it’s goals or saves or penalty minutes, we can all recite a handful of league marks and argue over which current star is most likely to break them.

Unfortunately, the shifting nature of the pro game has left many of the league’s most famous records all but out of reach. Nobody’s ever going to get close to Wayne Gretzky’s 2,857 career points, or Teemu Selanne’s 76 goals as a rookie, or Glenn Hall’s 502 complete games. The same can probably be said for Bobby Orr’s +124 rating, and Dave Schultz’s 472 penalty minutes in a season, and any number of other longstanding records that were set in eras when the game was played differently.

But those are the ones that most fans know. Today, let’s dig a little deeper to find five obscure records that are virtually unbreakable, at least anytime soon. You may not have heard of at least a few, but that’s OK. Read on, and they might even win you a few bar bets.

1. Most Goals Scored in One Game (in Which the Player Did Not Play)

It’s a relatively common refrain among hockey fans. “Right up until he scored that goal, I didn’t even notice him out there,” we’ll say about some notoriously enigmatic sniper. “He was invisible. I didn’t even realize he was playing.”

But late in the 2013-14 season, Nathan Horton took it one step further: He managed to get credit for scoring a goal in a game in which he quite literally did not play.

This one ends up being kind of complicated, as the “game” actually spans across two different matchups. On March 10, 2014, the Stars and Blue Jackets met in Dallas. At about 2:44 into the first period, Horton scored to give Columbus a 1-0 lead. Minutes later, the goal was all but forgotten when Stars forward Rich Peverley suffered a cardiac event and collapsed on the bench. Peverley survived, but the disturbing scene led to the game being postponed.

A makeup game was scheduled for one month later. But in the meantime, the NHL had to figure out how to handle the six minutes played in the first game. On the one hand, the league wanted to play a full 60-minute game, since fans were being asked to pay full price for tickets. On the other, it wouldn’t be fair to the Blue Jackets to start over from scratch, since they’d been leading when the original game was postponed.

The compromise: Horton’s goal would count, going into the official box score as being scored at the 0:00 mark of the first period, and the Jackets would start the game with a 1-0 lead.

But in the month between games, Horton was injured and couldn’t play in the rescheduled game. It all led to Horton getting credit for one of the strangest official stat lines in NHL history: no shots on goal taken, 0:00 of ice time, and one goal scored.

(This remained the most confusing and unimaginable accomplishment of Horton’s career right up until the following season, when he was traded for David Clarkson.)

2. Most Consecutive Stanley Cup Final Appearances by an Expansion Team

With the NHL starting down the path to adding teams for the first time in over a decade, it’s worth looking back at how past expansion teams have done. The record isn’t pretty. Some teams, like the Sharks, Senators, and Capitals, were embarrassingly bad for years before finally gaining respectability. Others, like the Ducks and Lightning, were merely below average. And some, like the Thrashers, Scouts, and Golden Seals, never found success in their new homes at all.

And then there were the St. Louis Blues, inarguably the most successful franchise team in the history of the league, if not in all of pro sports. In their very first season, they won their division and went to the final. In the next two, they were even better, appearing in the final twice more. From the moment they stepped foot on the ice, the Blues were the undisputed class of the West Division for three straight years.

That sounds impressive. And it is … just as long as you stop reading right about here.

The NHL’s expansion in 1967 spelled the end of the Original Six era, doubling the size of the league by adding six new franchises, including teams like the Kings, Flyers, Blues, and Penguins that are still around today. That was a good thing. But because this was still the NHL, they had to find a way to make the whole thing completely ridiculous. And that’s exactly what they did by coming up with the brainstorm of putting all six expansion teams in the same division.

That left the league with two divisions: the East, featuring the established six teams, and the West, featuring all of the terrible expansion teams. In that first expansion season in 1967-68, the Flyers finished first in the West with just 73 points, which would have been good for sixth in the East. That imbalance continued through the 1968-69 and 1969-70 seasons, with even the East’s very worst teams finishing ahead of almost everyone in the West.

But the playoff system was based on divisions, guaranteeing both the East and West the same four spots and assuring that each division would send one team to the Final. In each of the first three years, the West’s representative would end up being the Blues, who’d dutifully show up to face one of the East’s powerhouses. Not surprisingly, the Blues got creamed all three years, racking up a combined final record of 0-12.

It wasn’t until another round of expansion in 1971 that the league finally mixed the divisions and restored some competitive balance to the Final. The Blues lost in the first round that year, and they haven’t been back to the final since. At a lifetime 0-12, it’s hard to blame them.

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