Sunday, August 24, 2008

5 Ways I Wouldn't Change the NHL

NHL superblogger Greg Wyskynski (the man behind the excellent, if slightly creepily-named Puck Daddy blog at Yahoo!) never seems to have trouble drumming up conversation, but his "5 Ways I'd Change the NHL" series this August has proved a near-perfect antidote for the summer doldrums. The hockeyblogosphere has lit up to near-seasonlike levels as everyone's brother plays Bettman for a day.

Far be it from me to follow a trend (I'm a blogger, for chrissake... that's not trendy at all. Right?). Here's my little tribute to contrarianism: 5 ways that I think the NHL could kick itself in the nuts by trying a little TOO hard:

1) Overemphasizing fantasy and gambling

One reason that the NHL has remained relatively scandal-free over the past decade is that it generally doesn't share in the Vegas-driven gambling culture. While other leagues scramble to counteract a surge in on- and off-field corruption, the NHL has yet to encounter a serious challenge to the integrity of its product (Sean Avery notwithstanding). And perhaps more importantly, hockeyphiles are almost universally focused on the Stanley Cup as their lone objective -- not just keeping the score close enough to beat the spread.

Fantasy hockey is a great way to increase the engagement of otherwise-casual fans, and should probably marketed more aggressively in order to catch up with other sports. But the NHL is better off because of the distance it keeps from organized gambling; the temptation to "hook" fans (and players) into an addictive and destructive habit shouldn't be taken lightly.

2) Abandoning markets

This one strikes a soft spot for me, because I'm what the NHL execs would consider an "untraditional" fan. I am from a place where 6 inches of snow closes the schools, I am frequently out-skated by toddlers in Sidney Crosby jerseys, and the three closest franchises to my home are considered "problems" by most pundits. But in spite of all that, I have spent more time and money and emotion on the NHL than on all other sports combined. In my small rural community I know at least 2 other diehard households who buy season tickets for a team more than 90 minutes away. I would happily stab Claude Lemieux in the eye if it gave the Bruins a top-10 draft pick.

So be careful what you wish for when the "C" word is brought into the discussion. Contracting teams might be a theoretical quick-fix for an overexpanded league, but it is a scorched-earth option that leaves very few relationships intact. The costs are far higher than the rewards.

3) Pushing too hard for uniformity

If variety is the spice of life, the NHL is a veritable jambalaya. The league has become genuinely international, franchises are scattered from southern Florida to British Columbia, and the players vary from Vogue editors to Mike Ricci. Yet as is always the case in big business, the prevailing winds push toward faceless uniformity. It affects everything from the "arena experience" (which is largely driven by the NBA template in most markets), to rink dimensions, to uniform rules. All of this is to the detriment of a league that thrives on its sense of originality and eccentricity.

So let's loosen up a little and allow teams a little creativity with their in-game experience. Why mandate rink sizes when you can allow each team to choose its own floorplan? Let Detroit have extra-wide ice for its puck-moving defensemen, let the Bruins shrink their ice to favor a defensive game (and bring back memories of the old Garden), let the Pens add a few feet to the neutral zone for their young speedsters. Baseball doesn't seem to suffer from its diversity in playing fields.

Furthermore, let's lose the helmets during shootouts. Let's encourage theatrics which allow the fans to relate to the players. And for god's sake, let's ditch the canned hip-hop and bring back the good old days of the in-house organist. NHL, we just want you to be yourself.

4) Changing more rules

To some degree, rule changes were necessary in the wake of the 1990s. The awful controversies over the Crease Rule... goalies racing down the puck in the corners and shooting it back to the neutral zone... teams icing the puck 4 or 5 times in a row. It gives me a headache to even remember some of those games. But after a certain amount of tinkering has been done, you have to stop and let the product sell itself. The game has twice the "flow" it did 10 years ago, and Keith Tkachuk is no longer the model of a 50-goal scorer. Casual fans, especially those who are just returning to the game after being alienated a few years ago, need to be able to recognize and identify with what's happening on the ice. Diehards need some time to bond with new rituals like the shootout and 4-on-4 overtime. Aside from very small tweaks, such as the size of goalie pads, it's time to leave the game alone for a while.

5) Insisting that something's terribly wrong

Nothing ruins a relationship like insecurity. Instead of admiring the beautiful, you obssess over microscopic flaws. Instead of enjoying yourself, you wonder what you're missing.

The NHL is not perfect, and never will be. In the year 2050 there will still be diving, obstruction, butterfly goalies, and Chris Chelios (specifically, his preserved brain inside a Terminator body). But at its heart the game of hockey is still a beautiful thing to behold, and it always will be.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Big Bad Bruins... reborn?'s front-page article on Bruins prospect Brad Marchand features the tagline "Getting His Act Together". The gist of the article is that Marchand has plenty of talent but also has a history of disciplinary issues (including being benched by Ted Nolan in juniors). The juicy question: does this guy have enough character to succeed in the NHL?

This has become a familiar refrain in the Bruins front office under Pete Chiarelli's reign. For pretty much every acquisition of the past 2 years you can add the general comment: "He's got character issues but loads of talent -- let's hope he's worth the risk!". In addition to Marchand, the Bruins have rolled the dice on:

Phil Kessel - Allan Muir recently wrote an S.I. article calling him the "NHL version of T.O.". Nuff said.
Blake Wheeler - Gave the stiff-arm to the 'Yotes after underwhelming as a college player.
Carl Soderberg - See previous thread. Arrrrr.

In a best-case scenario these players could be the forward core of a dynasty. In a worst-case scenario it's a lineup of suspects in the murder of a franchise.

But let's not forget that in the Bruins' glory days of the mid-'70s they carried a little swagger to go along with their talent. Phil Esposito, Brad Park, Derek Sanderson, Wayne Cashman... these guys weren't exactly of the Sakic/Yzerman/Bourque school of quiet excellence. All of them brought character risks to the table, and the combination turned out to be one of the most effective in league history. They were the "Bad Boys" of pro sports when Isiah Thomas and Dennis Rodman were shooting on an 8-foot basket.

Whether the Bruins develop a dynastic chip-on-the-shoulder mentality, or implode like so many other ill-conceived adventures in team-building, is going to fall largely in the lap of coach Claude Julien. At the same time that he's managing the team's veteran players (tag-team goalies, mind-melding Ryder and Savard, coaxing a rebound season out of Axelsson), Julien must channel the youthful energy of the prospects into a vision for long-term success.

Of course, Phil Esposito once said the Big Bad Bruins could've won 5 Cups in a row if they'd been a little more focused.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Hockey Hell, Pt. 2

Last week saw the first half of the Hockey Hell Class of 2008 enshrined in immortality. Continuing the ceremonies we turn to the defensive side of the ice:

D Ulf Samuelsson Not many NHL players achieve first-name recognition among fans -- Gordie, Mario and Sid are among an illustrious few. Add to that list a name that reeks of notoriety: "Ulfie". In many cities Samuelsson is considered the dirtiest player of all time; in others he is a shameful episode in franchise history, something best forgotten and not discussed. It is commonly accepted that, in terms of careers altered or ended, Samuelsson had the most detrimental impact of any player in NHL history.

- Most famous for a knee-to-knee hit on Hall of Famer Cam Neely, which effectively cut short his career and likely derailed a Bruins dynasty in the early 1990s. Neely refused to shake Ulf's hand at the end of the semifinal series.
- In the very next playoff series, the 1991 Finals, kneed Minnesota star Brian Bellows.
- Ended the career of Pierre Mondou with a high stick to the eye.
- Fans and players leaguewide tried to concel their secret glee when Samuelsson was knocked unconscious by a Tie Domi suckerpunch.
- Suspended for stick-swinging incident with Mark Messier in 1993.
- Traded along with Ron Francis from Hartford to Pittsburgh in a heavily one-sided exchange, a move that played a key role in the demise of the Hartford Whalers.
- Knocked out Wayne Gretzky's wife. I'm not making this stuff up, folks.
- Managed to get kicked out of the Nagano Olympics in a citizenship dispute; it was determined that he was no longer technically a Swedish citizen. Sweden failed to medal.
- Astoundingly, he was briefly paired with Chris Chelios in what was surely the dirtiest combination of defensemen in league history.
- Unsurprisingly, finished his career with the Flyers.
- Nicknamed "Robocop" for his tanklike body armor, a sure sign of a player conditioned to dole out pain but not to receive it in kind.
- Nearly half his career fights involved an instigator penalty to either him or his opponent.
- Wore a face shield.
- Credited with a Cup-clinching goal when he scored 2 minutes into a game that ended 8-0. How annoying is that?

D Sprague Cleghorn
Though unknown to the vast majority of hockey fans, Cleghorn was one of the NHL's earliest stars and was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1958. He pioneered three of hockey's most familiar archetypes: the "offensive defenseman", the "hard-nosed asshole", and the "psychopath who manages to draw criminal charges while playing a child's game". By the time of Cleghorn's untimely death, he was widely considered the dirtiest player of all time (Ulf Samuelsson had not yet entered the competition).

- Violently attacked Ottawa defenseman Lionel Hitchman during the '23 playoffs. Montreal owner Leo Dandurand suspended Cleghorn for the rest of the playoffs (note that the NHL had not yet intervened) and called him an "animal".
- To the best of my knowledge, the incident above was the first in NHL history which resulted in police action -- Cleghorn was charged with aggravated assault and fined $50.
- Launched a violent stick-attack on star Newsy Lalonde for having the audacity to bodycheck Cleghorn's brother Odie. Lalonde preceded Cleghorn as Habs captain.
- In revenge for being traded from Ottawa to Montreal, Cleghorn injured no fewer than four Senators in a single game -- Cy Denneny, Frank Nighbor, Tommy Gorman, and Eddie Gerard. Police were dissuaded from prosecuting Cleghorn for the second time. Ah, the good old days.
- The league gave serious consideration toward a lifetime ban for Cleghorn, yet two teams would not agree to such heavy punishment.
- Led the Canadiens to their first NHL championship, starting a trend that we really could've lived without.
- Was described by one NHL official as a "disgrace".
- Had he played in the age of Youtube, this list would be at least twice as long.

G Ron Hextall

Depending on your point of view, Hextall is either an icon of the NHL's "glory days" or a nightmare from which the league is only now awakening. Far and away the most popular Flyer of the '80s, Crazy Ronnie revolutionized the role of the goaltender in moving puck, and in cracking skulls.

- Holds the all-time record for PIM from a goaltender, with 113 in 1988-89.
- Was suspended for the first 12 games of the following season for his crazed attack on blossoming cheapshotter Chris Chelios during the semifinals.
- Scored a goal against the Boston Bruins (boo). Hextall and Billy Smith were, at the time, the only goalies to be credited with a goal... it is not a coincidence that they were also the two stick-swingingest goalies of their era.
- Carried a career-long reputation for losing big games, starting with the 1987 Finals.
- During those '87 Finals, delivered a slash to Kent Nilsson that is still considered shockingly violent by NHL standards.
- Set a record for "Most Awkward Interview" (also known as the "Naked Interview") with late ESPN reporter Tom Mees.
- Rocked a sleazy 'stache during the 1980s.
- Was replaced 3 times in a 10-7 loss to Pittsburgh in 1989.
- Suspended 6 games in 1991 for slashing Detroit's Jim Cummins.
- Fractured Sylvain Turgeon's arm during practice for the 1987 Canada Cup.
- Involved in the Ultimate Douchebag Trade along with Peter Forsberg, Mike Ricci, Chris Simon and Eric Lindros.
- Involved in the 2nd Ultimate Douchebag Trade, along with Todd Bertuzzi and Adam Deadmarsh.
- Taken to school by Darren McCarty during the 1997 Finals in one of the greatest goals in Red Wing history (after allowing a 60-foot goal to Steve Yzerman in Game 1), leading to his second and last Finals failure.
- He and Roger Crozier are the only two players to win a Conn Smythe Trophy but not a Stanley Cup.
- Engaged in 5 fights during his career, quite a high number for a goalie.
- Finished his career as the most penalized goalie in hockey history, a record that doesn't seem likely to be challenged anytime soon.

There you have it, folks: the starting lineup in Hockey Hell!

Simon - Avery - Lemieux
Samuelsson - Cleghorn

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Carl Soderberg: "Sweden > Providence"

The Boston Globe reports today... well, pretty much the same stuff I reported two weeks ago. But unlike this humble blogger, they're on Pete Chiarelli's speed dial. Therefore they scooped me on this one: Carl Soderberg has decided to forgo Bruins training camp and spend at least one more season in Sweden.

As mentioned in my prior post, Soderberg's ongoing will-he-or-won't-he drama has proved a tad deflating for Bruins fans. At one point his acquisition from St. Louis (for odd-goalie-out Hannu Toivonen) seemed like a shrewd swap -- a mediocre backup goalie who would never see time in Boston for a high-scoring forward capable of partnering with the likes of Savard and Bergeron.

But as is so often the case with European superstars, Soderberg has been less than enthusiastic about playing in North America. According to Chiarelli, the Swede is holding out until he can be an impact player in the NHL. In other words, he wants assurance that he won't simply be dumped in Providence after training camp. Sounds reasonable enough.

But there's a lot lingering in between the lines. Soderberg is 22. He would be trying out for a team heavy on prospects in the 18-22 age bracket. Why does he feel he can't already be an "impact" player in a youth-heavy organization? Is he really capable of hanging with NHL talent if he can't beat out Blake Wheeler for a roster spot? Isn't he at least confident enough to attend camp first, and then make a decision about his prospects? Frankly, a 22-year-old who is almost certain he'll end up in the minors isn't much of a prospect to begin with.

More importantly, there's the matter of what would happen if Soderberg did commit to playing on this side of the pond. Clearly he's more comfortable staying in Sweden and will only make the leap if he's assured of an NHL-sized paycheck. We've heard this story before: European dynamo becomes sulking recluse after cutting ties with home country to play in big, strange American city. The last thing the Bruins need on the roster is a guy who's pining over a girl in Stockholm during the second overtime of a playoff game in Montreal.

With Phil Kessel and Blake Wheeler already fitting the role of "budding young star with character issues", Soderberg might find his decision to be a bit more permanent than he expects.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Hockey Hell: Inaugural Inductions

This week the US Hockey Hall of Fame released the names of four honorees for 2008 -- Brett Hull, Brian Leetch, Mike Richter and Cammi Granato. Better selections could not have been made; these four players represented the best of USA Hockey over the past two decades, both individually and as key players on Olympic and World Cup teams.

There could be no better time than this to announce the inaugural Hockey Hell Class of 2008. The purpose of Hockey Hell is to recognize those players whose are the true villains of the game. In hockey there’s a code of honor that transcends the rulebook, and fortunately the vast majority of players respect that code… those who don’t are sent to Hockey Hell. Qualification is based upon dirtiness, notoriety, famous cheap shots, “pest” factor, and my own personal disdain.

Without further ado, I introduce the 1st Line of players to be inducted into Hockey Hell:

C - Sean Avery
No player in the "New NHL" could be considered a better candidate for Hell membership than Sean Avery. In fact, he might be the most despicable athlete currently competing in ANY sport. From his lame on-ice antics to his un-hockeylike addiction to the tabloid limelight, he has a well-earned reputation as a first-class douchebag. If there was a trophy that was the opposite of the Lady Byng, it would be the Lady Avery.

- Though Avery played half a season with the '02 Wings, they decided to leave his name off the Cup.
- In 2002, the Kings traded star defenseman Matheiu Schneider to the Red Wings for Avery, Maxim Kuznetsov, and two draft picks (the better of which produced Jeff Tambellini, who at age 24 is looking like a first-round bust). Avery did his part to ensure that the Los Angeles franchise remained firmly at the bottom of the NHL toilet bowl while handing the Wings a star player they didn't even need.
- During the lockout, Avery played for the Motor City Mechanics alongside fellow power-tools Chris Chelios and Derian Hatcher. Sadly, Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller chose not to make a movie lampooning this nightmare of a franchise.
- In a sign of douchebag solidarity, Avery rushed to Jeremy Roenick's defense during the 2005 preseason by stating that "French guys" wearing visors were "running around and playing tough and not backing anything up." Avery later appeared in a movie, as a Ranger no less, making anti-francophone comments toward Maurice Richard.
- Following on the aforementioned incident, Avery was accused of calling Georges Laraque a "monkey".
- Less than a month later Avery was fined by the league for perhaps the most comical attempt at diving I have ever seen. At this point Hockey Hell preliminary screening forms began to arrive in his mailbox.
- Avery was kicked off the Kings. Yes, kicked off the KINGS.
- As a Ranger, he was overwhelmingly voted the "most hated" player in the league.
- The league needed to amend a rule in the middle of the playoffs just to keep his childish antics in check.
- Astonishingly, Avery has claimed that he wishes to be a fashion editor (!!!) after retiring from hockey. He has cultivated a jetset personality which has seen him grace the pages of "People" and "Vogue".
- He has been dumped by Rachel Hunter and Elisha Cuthbert, in both cases after they realized that he was not Mark Messier.
- He is now a member of the Dallas Stars.
- His headshot photo sums it all up. (someone help me out with a link)

LW - Chris Simon
Crossing the line from "pest" to "psychopath" is an easy thing to do, especially when you're a 6'3" Indian with a history of alcoholism. Chris Simon is a classic case of boom-or-bust, having nearly transcended into legitimacy with a 29-goal campaign during the height of Dead Puck. But a series of ugly infractions cost Simon the gains he had made, both in terms of professional advancement and in fan sympathy.

- Played in 7 different cities.
- Before ever playing a game, was involved in the Ultimate Asswipe Trade along with Eric Lindros, Peter Forsberg, Ron Hextall and Mike Ricci.
- Dropped the N-word on Mike Grier... granted, in retaliation to a taunt about his Native American heritage.
- Suspended for nearly an entire season's worth of games, in 8 different incidents.
- Suspended 25 games for intentionally slashing Ryan Hollweg in the face.
- Suspended 30 games for slew-footing and then stepping on the leg of fellow douchebag Jarkko Ruutu.
- Will finish his career playing in Russia, having left the NHL in total disgrace.

RW - Claude Lemieux
Perhaps the most despised player in the history of the game, the Lesser Lemieux pushed the boundaries of dirty hockey. Only the rare athlete -- a Pete Rose or Bill Romanowski -- combines unsportsmanlike conduct with a high level of play as well as Claude the Fraud. In a sense, he is like a Bizarro Mario.


- Players in his draft class (1983) included Bob Probert, Esa Tikkanen, Mark Messier, and Stu Grimson.
- By far the most skilled forward in his Hockey Hell class, Lemieux finished his career with 4 Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe trophy, and the #8 ranking in all-time playoff goals. The fact that he was a forgettable player in the regular season suggests he was going slightly less than 100% prior to the month of May.
- Helped the Canadiens to their first Cup in the post-WHA era, eliminating four teams (Bruins, Whalers, Rangers, Flames) who had more-deserving fanbases. During the Finals he bit Calgary's Jim Peplinski on the finger.
- Was traded to the Devils (!) for Sylvain Turgeon, who scored 14 goals in two seasons with the Habs.
- Once asked Eric Desjardins if the "C" on his sweater stood for "selfish".
- Was perhaps the most central figure in the seminal Avs/Wings clashes of the late 1990s, playing a very clear "villain" role in a monumental clash between class and douchebaggery.
- During a 1995 Finals game, concussed Vyacheslav Kozlov with a sucker-punch to the side of the head. Days later, he laid out one of the biggest cheapshots of the 1990s with a hit from behind on Kris Draper that required plastic surgery to make Mark Hamill cringe. This was the trigger that led to the greatest Dino Ciccarelli quote of all time: "I can't believe I shook his friggin' hand". When Dino's appalled at your lack of class, you're really scraping rock bottom.
- Was a member of the Douchebag Dream Team (aka the 1996 Colorado Avalanche) along with Patrick Roy, Peter Forsberg, Adam Foote, Chris Simon, Mike Ricci, Mike Keane, and Marc Crawford.
- Anyone bothering to read this blog already knows about the Turtle incident. It pretty much speaks for itself.
- An ill-advised appearance on the TV show "Pros vs. Joes" led to Lemieux hooking and flagrantly high-sticking an amateur during a one-on-one drill.
- Without question the most evil-looking player in NHL history.

Next week: Defensemen and a goalie in the Inaugural Class.

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