Friday, September 29, 2017

Grab bag: The Penguins' White House mistake

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Thoughts on the Penguins' White House controversy
- The NHL just made an update to its web site that changes hockey history
- An obscure player whose trophy case got weird
- The week's three comedy stars
- And we cheer up Avalanche fans with some shirtless lip-synching

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Five (rare) times that NHL players got political

"Stick to sports." For years, it's been the go-to plea for a certain breed of fan, the type who want their viewing experience kept free of any sort of politicizing – or at least from the kind with which they don't personally agree.

In the Donald Trump era, it seems like it could also become the NHL's motto.

While the NFL and NBA are at the forefront of the battle over recent player protests (with the MLB chiming in, too), the NHL seems to be desperately trying to sit this one out. League commissioner Gary Bettman had already scolded the players about keeping politics away from the rink, and the very nature of the league itself seems to preclude the sort of activism we're seeing elsewhere. Blake Wheeler and some of his Winnipeg Jets teammates had thoughtful remarks on the situation and the San Jose Sharks' Joel Ward is weighing his options, but they've been the exception as other teams struggle with how to handle things.

And so on Sunday, as the rest of the sports world was rising up against the U.S. president's weekend remarks, the Pittsburgh Penguins were quick to confirm that they'd still be visiting the White House as usual. The statement seemed poorly timed, and was disappointing to many fans, but it hardly caught anyone by surprise. Hockey people just don't do politics.

Except that they do, at least sometimes. The league certainly does – just a few weeks ago, they inserted themselves directly into Calgary's mayoral election. And while it's relatively rare, the league's players will occasionally weigh in on a topic with bigger ramifications than just playing the game and getting pucks in deep.

So today, while the league's current players wrestle with what, if anything, they should say or do to make their voices heard, here's a look back at five times that the hockey and political worlds have crossed paths.

Tim Thomas

It was impossible to watch the reaction to the Penguins' decision unfold without thinking of Thomas, the Boston Bruins goalie who made headlines in 2012 when he refused to join his teammates for their White House visit. Thomas made it clear that his decision was based on his personal politics and view that "the federal government has grown out of control."

Thomas was widely criticized for the decision (including, no doubt, by some of the same voices attacking the Penguins for doing the opposite this time around). Some fans even mocked him with Barack Obama photos in that year's playoffs. Thomas didn't back off on his politics, though, posting occasional opinions on his personal Facebook page.

Thomas sat out the 2012-13 season, and a comeback bid the following year didn't amount to much. He's been out of the league since, and has kept a relatively low profile. To this day, many fans remember him as much for his White House snub as for his two Vezina Trophies or his Conn Smythe Trophy-winning performance during Boston's run to the 2011 Stanley Cup.

Sean Avery

It probably wouldn't even be accurate to call Avery a divisive player. By the end of his career, nobody seemed to like the guy, and to this day he tends to top most lists of the most hated pests in hockey history. And for the most part, he earned it.

But that makes it easy to forget that Avery was also one of the first voices in the NHL to speak up in favor of gay rights, lending his voice to ads championing New York's marriage equality act in 2011. While it was only six years ago, this was before the sports world had heard stories like those of Jason Collins or Michael Sam, and championing gay rights was a rare stance for a pro athlete. And unlike many athletes who speak out, Avery didn't stop at just voicing his personal opinion – he made it clear that he hoped the rest of the league (and its leadership) would follow his example.

While it's true that the NHL almost never gets involved in political or social issues, the push for equal treatment of gay athletes has been a notable exception. Names like Brian and Patrick Burke have pushed the sport to be more inclusive, and many prominent players have lent their support. It's been a rare and welcome example of the league leading on an issue, rather than trailing behind or sitting out altogether. And like him or not, Avery played an early part in that.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Friday, September 22, 2017

Grab bag: Slash and burn

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- The NHL is calling a million slashing penalties. Good.
- We must save the noble emergency backup goalie.
- An obscure player who somehow wound up starting on an all-time dream team.
- The week's three comedy stars.
- And a look back at once of the dumbest moments in preseason history. Phil Kessel is involved.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

New Season's Resolutions for 2017-18

The NHL pre-season schedule is now four days old, which means two things. One, you’re already sick of pre-season hockey. And two, it’s a good time to make some New Season’s Resolutions.

These days, everyone in the hockey world is all about being the best version of themselves. The players are in the best shape of their lives, the coaches are convinced that they’ve got it all figured out, and even the team Twitter accounts haven’t burned through all their GIFs quite yet. As fans, we might as well join in. And that means a little self-improvement in the form of some old-fashioned resolutions.

As always, feel free to come up with your own. But if you’re looking for inspiration, here are a few suggestions that I think many of us could find some value in.

Let’s all wait a bit before we freak out over the faceoff-violation rule

The new rule — or more specifically, the new emphasis on calling the existing rule — is already getting decidedly mixed reviews from fans. Monday night’s Senators/Leafs game in Ottawa featured three early faceoff violations, accompanied by plenty of puzzled looks from players and coaches.

It sure seems like the league has done it again, where “it” is coming up with a solution to something nobody really thought was a problem. The crackdown on slashing makes sense; guys were getting hurt, and it was impacting the quality of play. But not one fan has ever watched an NHL game and come away thinking, “That was OK, but I really wish the linesman took longer to drop the puck.” And yet somehow, here we are.

That said, let’s wait until we see the rule actually called in the regular season before we overreact. Sure, they’ll call it a ton in the pre-season because that’s what the pre-season is for. But maybe the players will adjust by opening night. Or, more likely, maybe the officials will ease way up once the games actually matter.

After all, do you think some linesman – not the referee, remember, but a linesman – really wants to be calling multiple power plays every night? Pulling the occasional look-at-me act before a draw is one thing, but here’s betting that most of these guys would rather eat their whistle than make a borderline penalty call that decides a game.

True, there have been other “one toe in the wrong place” rules before, like the old skate-in-crease debacle or the current offside challenges, and they stuck around. But there’s a key difference – those were subject to video review, meaning there really wasn’t room for an official to use their judgment to overlook a minor violation. That won’t apply to faceoff calls, so common sense can kick in and officials can let a few things slide.

Or maybe not. Maybe we’ll get into the season and still be seeing these things called all the time. If so, we can complain then. But until then, let’s try to stay calm.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, September 15, 2017

Grab bag: Changing the rules

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Gary Bettman and the Flames try to bluff their way to a sweetheart arena deal
- ESPN asked 30 players to suggest new rules changes, so I made a power ranking of their answers
- An obscure player from a doomed franchise
- It's the week's three comedy stars, and Matt Duchene is not laughing
- And in the classic YouTube breakdown, we remember that everyone complained about suspensions 30 years ago too.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Five one-team stars who went down with the ship

The Sedins made news this week with an article in The Players' Tribune that seemed to all but rule out the possibility of the twins finishing their career anywhere but Vancouver. With the Canucks expected to finish near the bottom of the standings this year, there had been talk the team could make a Ray Bourque-style trade to send its franchise players to a Stanley Cup contender. That door seems closed now.

That means the Sedins will join players like Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom and Jean Beliveau in the fairly exclusive club of star players who spent their entire career with the same franchise. Of course, those situations were a little different – those players stuck around to play their final seasons for a contender. The Sedins know that likely won't be the case for them.

It's far less common for a star to go down with the ship, playing out their final seasons with the only team they've ever known even though they realize they don't have a shot at finishing with a Cup or even a playoff run. But it's not unheard of – Shane Doan's recent retirement was one example. Here are five more.

Thomas Steen, Winnipeg Jets

Steen is a reasonably direct comparable to the Sedins – a Swedish forward on a Canadian team who had never won a Cup and clearly wasn't going to if he stayed put. Steen broke in with the Jets in 1981, but by 1994 he was nearing the end of the road with no title in sight.

Of course, the mid-'90s Jets were in even worse shape than today's Canucks. Not only were they a bad team, having finished no higher than fourth in their division since 1990 and failing to win a playoff round since 1987, but they were on the verge of packing up and moving to Arizona. 

So it was no surprise when Steen's name showed up in trade rumors as the 1993-94 deadline approached. The Toronto Maple Leafs were mentioned as a potential destination, and would've made sense – they were a borderline Cup contender that was shopping for veteran help up front. But the deal never happened (the Leafs landed Mike Gartner instead), and Steen returned for one last partial season after the 1994 lockout, during which the Jets finished last in the Central Division for the second straight year.

At the time, that was assumed to be the last season for the Jets in Winnipeg. When a goodbye rally was held after the season, Steen's number was retired to a loud ovation. That made him the first Swedish player to be honored by an NHL team, not to mention a rare case of a player having his number retired when he was still technically active. While the team ended up making a surprise return for one more season in Winnipeg in 1995-96, Steen did not.

So take solace, Canucks fans. Barring a miracle run, the Sedins may be headed towards a Steen-like finish to their careers. But at least you'll still have a team to cheer on after they're gone.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Friday, September 8, 2017

Grab Bag: Was Wayne Gretzky overpaid?

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- The new offside review rule isn't perfect, but it's a good step
- Thoughts on the NHL's Declaration of Principles
- A Duchesne trade... in the obscure player section
- The week's three comedy stars feature bread shoes
- And an old (old, old, old) school debate over Wayne Gretzky's million-dollar salary.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The 2017 offseason bizarre-o-meter

It’s September and training camp is just a few weeks away, meaning for all intents and purposes the NHL off-season is over. The key decisions have been made, the big moves have gone down, and we have more than enough information to separate the winners from the losers, and the good off-seasons from the bad ones.

But there’s another way to look at it, and it’s with a question we like to break out every year around this time: Who had the most bizarre off-season?

To be clear, bizarre doesn’t necessarily have to mean bad. In today’s ultra-conservative NHL, taking the most predictable approach is often the worst possible strategy, with more than a few teams over the years playing it safe and coming to regret it. And sometimes a little bit of creativity can work out just fine, even if it leaves us scratching our heads at the time.

But there’s still something fun about watching a team make its way through the off-season and wondering: Wait, what are they doing?

So today, let’s dust off the Bizarre-o-meter and hook it up to all 31 NHL teams division-by-division to see which ones did the best of job of keeping us on our toes and giving us something to talk about over the summer.

Central Division

Nashville Predators

The off-season so far: They said goodbye to Colin Wilson in a trade, James Neal in expansion and captain Mike Fisher via retirement. They did lock up Ryan Johansen, albeit at a pricey $8-million cap hit for the next eight years.

But their strangest move was: Giving Nick Bonino more than $4 million a season on a four-year deal seemed like an overpayment for a veteran middle-sixer in an otherwise stingy free agent market.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 3.6/10. Nothing all that strange here, in an off-season that turned out to be marginally less exciting than last year’s.

Minnesota Wild

The off-season so far: Chuck Fletcher pulled off a four-player deal with the Sabres that saw him add Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno. He also signed UFA Matt Cullen, and got Mikael Granlund locked up on a three-year bridge deal.

But their strangest move was: Wriggling out of a tricky expansion-draft dilemma for the relatively cheap price of Erik Haula and prospect Alex Tuch. Given that they stood to lose a guy like Mathew Dumba or Eric Staal, that was a win.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 3.8/10. The Wild did well to avoid an expansion disaster. Now the question is whether they’re actually any better.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, September 1, 2017

Grab Bag: The NHL needs a Jagr Draft

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Jaromir Jagr is still unsigned. Here's how we fix this.
- Introducing a new name for overrating one-team players
- An obscure player whose name is fun to say
- The week's three comedy stars
- And as the Flyers prepare to retire his jersey, we look back on Eric Lindros's all-time career highlight: Appearing on Arsenio Hall

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports