Friday, September 30, 2011

Jake Gardiner should be playing on the Leafs

Jake Gardiner may not make the Maple Leafs once the regular season begins next week. But his absence from the roster has nothing to do with playing ability. He is clearly ready for the NHL. Rather it is a numbers game. The Leafs have 9 defensemen on their roster but only 2 can be sent to the Marlies without placing the players on waivers, - Gardiner and Keith Aulie. He played his usual game against the Red Wings tonight scoring the first goal and setting up Mike Brown later in the game. But if he doesn't start the season with the Leafs, it won't take long before he makes his regular season debut. The boy can skate.

The NHL is changing, for the better

Brendan Shanahan is quickly leaving his mark on the game. He has handed out 12 suspensions for a total of 37 games during the preseason. Some people aren't happy about it. As we get into the regular season players, coaches and fans are going to begin the complain. Shanahan has to stay the course.

Skating 30 mph and slamming a guy's head into the glass is not good for hockey either. Certainly there will be some marginal calls which where the critics will attack from. In the end players like Matt Cooke will have to adapt or leave the game. I do believe that some players' careers will end prematurely just as the crackdown on obstruction killed a few careers.

I would love to see existing 4th line players, the tough, poorly skilled players, disappear. These players often only get 4 to 6 minutes of ice time per game. Those minutes can easily be eaten up by the other forwards. Instead I would like to see teams carry a taxi squad of specialty players. They could be specialists in power play, penalty killing, face offs or shoot outs. These are skills that can win you games. Headhunters rarely win games for you.

Banana thrower didn't realize what he did might be seen as racist?

The attorney for Chris Moorhouse, the man charged with throwing a banana at Philadelphia Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds during an exhibition game in London, Ontario, stated on Thursday that his client is “mortified,” deeply remorseful and worried that his actions have sullied the good name of his hometown.

Attorney Faisal Joseph added that Moorhouse was simply caught up in the excitement of the game and, according to the AP report, “had no idea his actions could be seen as racist.” Yeah. That’s some mighty fine lawyer bullshit. While it makes complete sense that Moorhouse’s attorney would do all he could to competently represent his client and do his very best to cast Banana Tosser Guy in the best possible light, how could this guy not know that throwing a banana at a black man might carry overt racist overtones? On the contrary I am sure he thought that he was being funny. At best he is an insensitive creep and the worst case scenario is just a plain ordinary racist.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Battle of the Blades 3 - week 1

Not sure if this is really week 1 or 2. Since last week's episode was the "pre-competitive" stage it doesn't really count. The competition was spread over two evenings. Guest judge was Darcy Tucker who just grinned and tried to be polite, at least until the end of the second evening when he knocked the Leafs. Ron MacLean and Kurt Browning still look stiff and awkward together despite working together for 3 seasons. The judges are trying to be so nice they are annoying. Bring on Simon Cowell.

Annabelle Langlois & Brad May

Their first performance was a little lame with some air guitar work that had Brad smirking. He really needs to work on his air guitar. The pair performed some impressive lifts which is indication of where their strengh will be in this competition. The other being that this is Annabelle's second run at Battle of the Blades. Brad was more mobile that i thought he would be. Sandra called the pair "equal parts physicality and charisma," and marveled that Brad was surprisingly quick-footed. Darcy suggested "Maybe a couple knee bends to loosen up the hips and the corners," and Jeremy just shouted "Mayday!" Total score: 16.2.

Violetta Afanasieva & Cale Hulse

They skated to terrible Katy Perry song that I don't believe fit into the rock and roll theme. The performance was awkward. Cale looked like a pylon. Violetta is no Shae-Lynn Bourne and as much as she tried could not compensate for her partner's stiffness. Jeremy thought it was "fantastic", how would he know. Darcy liked it probably because the pair are attractive. Sandra provided some incomprehensible comment about she saw "smiling and a lot of thinking." I saw a train wreck and clearly I can't figure out the scores. Total score: 16.6.

Tanith Belbin & Boyd Devereux

The pair at least dressed like figure skaters. Boyd wore a grey dress shirt with jeans. Tanith wore a sequins black dress. Some of the female skaters looked like they were dressed for pole dancing. Everyone talked about how fast of a skater Boyd was. Man did he look slow out there. He obviously is not yet comfortable in figure skates. Sandra couldn't help but advise the pair to work on their speed and presentation. It was a nice way of saying they stunk. Darcy said the pair was "smooth, silky, and technically sound," proving that he is a Jeremy wannnabe Jeremy made a sound contribution by stating Tanith was "very easy on the eyes." Total score: 16.2

Marie-France Dubreuil & Bryan Berard

CBC keeps trying to sell Bryan's eye injury and his return to the NHL as some sort of incredible superhuman feat. Far from it. It was nice to see Bryan recover although he was just a journeyman the rest of his career. Like the other three performances, it was stiff, slow, and uncomfortable. Marie-France moved around a lot to compensate for the over sized pylon she was skating with. It wasn't pretty. Jeremy said "it was nice of Hell's Angels let Bryan come do the show for us (a reference to hs many tattoos)," then he also hit on Marie-France. Darcy said "you look great out there" because he couldn't think of anything different to say. Sandra said this was Bryan's best performance. So I guess next week might be his last. Total score: 16.5

Kim Navarro & Russ Courtnall

Last season Russ looked awful so I wasn't expected much. Obviously the experience of being back a second season is an advantage. They didn't look so bad. I was pleasantly surprised to see how well their lifts went and how much they were in synch with the music. So instead of giving Russ some credit for his skating the judges rambled on about what a great human being he was. Sandra was close to tears telling him "You're a role model as a father, a son, and as a friend. On behalf of all Canadians, from the bottom of my heart, thank you." Darcy mumbled something about the choice of music. followed this up with the stunningly unhelpful and somewhat contentious statement, Jeremy said something almost as deep. Total score: 16.7

Elena Breezhnaya and Curtis Leschyshyn

Curtis was as stiff as a rusty gate buried in snow. I thought Elena would look much better but perhaps she is still trying to figure out how to skate with rain barrel. The first part of the video below is painful to watch. Naturally the judges gushed over the performance. Sandra called the pair "the purists of the competition," proving that this program needs to find some honest judging. Bring back Toller Cranston. Total score: 16.4

Marcy Hinzmann-Harris & Todd Simpson

Todd is a big goof which actually provided some comic relief. As it turns out Todd fit in well with his fellow hockey players turned skaters - the man can't dance. Surprising he can lift his partner just fine though the mount and dismounts looked very awkward. Marcy word the skimpiest outfit. More suitable for pole dancing than ice dancing. The judges gave their standard "great performance," "loved it top to bottom," and "I liked it." Jeremy just ogled Marcy. Total score: 16.5

Tessa Bonhomme & David Pelletier

The breakthrough pair was left to the end and of curse everyone was wondering the first pairing of a male figure skater and a female hockey player would do. They did not disappoint. It was a surprisingly strong performance, Mainly because she looked more graceful than Curtis Leschyshyn or Russ Courtnall. Jeremy was consistent at least by also hitting on Tessa. She was at least treated as a peer to the other females. "I'm glad I didn't play against you, because I'd have a lot of holding penalties in my time," he said. Darcy made a better joke, poking fun at Tessa's outfit. "With that shirt on, I don't know if you could get away with a Stanley Cup lift," he said. Hey finally Tucker is admitting the Maple Leafs suck. The Toronto crowd booed. Sandra tried to bring in some political correctness by call Tessa "the epitome of the modern woman." Total score: 17.0

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Matthew Lombardi cleared for contact

Matthew Lombardi during a Toronto Maple Leafs practice at the Mastercard Centre for Hockey Excellence in Toronto on Thursday September 22 2011. (Ernest Doroszuk/QMI Agency)

The big surprise over the weekend was not the cuts made by the coaching staff over the weekend. In fact, there will be almost no surprises in the opening game line up barring an injury or two. The Leafs are slowly developing some depth and will not need to rush young players like Jake Gardiner or promote Nazem Kadri before he actually earns a roster spot. The big surprise for me is that Matthew Lombardi has been cleared for contact. The Nashville Predators must be equally surprised.

If Lombardi doesn't incur a set back he might in the opening night line up. The Predator management must be kicking themselves. Not only did they hand over a very good player but they also had to throw in pretty good young defenseman in Cody Franson. Lombardi will be the faster player on the Leafs - faster than Grobovski, Kessel or Kulemin. Lombardi will start off on the 3rd line but if he stays healthy and if the combination of Lupul, Kessel and Connolly do not click, look for Lombardi to move up to play with Phil Kessel.

Maple Leafs roster down to 29 players

Here's the list of who is left in training camp, by position:

Goal (3): Reimer, Gustavsson, Scrivens

Defence (9): Phaneuf, Schenn, Liles, Franson, Gunnarsson, Aulie, Komisarek, Lashoff, Gardiner

Forwards (17): Kessel, Grabovski, Armstrong, Dupuis, Connolly, Lombardi, MacArthur, Brown, Lupul, Orr, Rosehill, Frattin, Kulemin, Bozak, Kadri, Crabb, Boyce,

X - made the team

X - likely to make the team

X - on the bubble

X - going to Marlies or back to Juniors

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Wayne Simmonds banana-throwing incident is Canada's shame

Last Thursday's banana-throwing incident in London, Ontario was picked up by media outlets around the globe. Even non-hockey markets picked up the story. Fortunately the game wasn't televised so the stories were not accompanied by video clips. Below is an amateur video by a fan at the game.

Obviously the banana thrower thought he was being funny. He probably thinks he's not a racist. One thing for sure - he is incredibly insensitive. The incident is extremely hurtful to Simmonds, his teammates and other non-white players in the NHL and other leagues. It is an embarrassment to all Canadians.

London Mayor Joe Fontana released a statement:

"As Mayor, and on behalf of Londoners, I am sending an apology to Wayne Simmonds and the Philadelphia Flyers organization regarding the incident at last night's exhibition game. It was a stupid and mindless act by a single individual, however it reflects badly on our entire community. London is a diverse and welcoming city and we like it that way."

Simmonds released his own statement indicating that he wanted to put this incident behind him. He also acknowledged that racism "really doesn't happen in Canada."

Unfortunately the culprit was never caught because fans in the section refused to cooperate with security staff.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Brendan Shanahan gets tested early

Brendan Shanahan is the new NHL disciplinarian and he is being tested early. Jody Shelley skated hard and gave Darryl Boyce a stiff check from behind in tonight's game. Shelley was given five minutes for boarding, five minutes for fighting sought retribution) and a game misconduct. Boyce didn't return to the game in the second period. As it turns out Boyce wasn't seriously injured - just a broken nose.

After the game Boyce seemed to think it was no big deal which just goes to show how well accepted it is in the NHL to hit from behind. The NHL had just the week before sent videos to all the teams to educate players on what kind of hits would lead to a penalty. Seems players aren't getting it. If you look at the video, not only did Boyce have his backed turned but he had unloaded the puck well before he got hit.

UPDATE: Maybe the players will get it following the 10-game suspension handed out to Shelley by Brendan Shanahan. This is a strong message because the hit didn't lead to a serious injury. Can't remember when a minor injury earned someone 10 days off. But Shelley was suspended twice last season so he is a repeat offender. Clearly a message has been sent out. Can't wait for the first illegal hit leading to a more serious injury.

Maple Leafs training camp survivors

Here's the list of who is left in training camp, by position:

Goal (5): Reimer, Gustavsson, Scrivens, Rynnas, Owuya

Defence (14): Phaneuf, Schenn, Liles, Franson, Gunnarsson, Aulie, Komisarek, Lashoff, Finger, Blacker, Gardiner, Mikus, Holzer, Gysbers

Forwards (28): Kessel, Grabovski, Armstrong, Dupuis, Connolly, Lombardi, MacArthur, Brown, Lupul, Zigomanis, Orr, Colborne, Caputi, Rosehill, Frattin, Kulemin, Bozak, Kadri, Mueller, Crabb, Boyce, Hamilton, Scott, Mitchell, Ryan, McKegg, D'Amigo, Greenop

X - made the team

X - likely to make the team

X - on the bubble

X - going to Marlies or back to Juniors

Jets return to Winnipeg to a thunderous 3 minute ovation

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Hockey Mom of the Year

No self respecting GTHL player would be caught dead with someone like Katia. They can do better.

Road Hockey To Conquer Cancer

On October 1st I'm participating in a unique and worthwhile event - ROAD HOCKEY TO CONQUER CANCER. The Princess Margaret Hospital is using one of Canada's most cherished pasttimes to win the fight over cancer. I'm putting on the equipment and subjecting my aching arthritic joints to dawn to dusk ball road hockey games at Ontario Place in downtown Toronto.

Most people have friends and familiy members that have had to go through the struggle to fight cancer. If you would like to donate to the great cause please follow the link.

Monday, September 19, 2011

3rd line carries the Leafs to exhibition win

Abelimages/Getty Images

Tyler Bozak scored twice, while Colby Armstrong also had a goal as the Leafs took the Senators by a score of 4-2. So it looks like we may have a 3rd line that can put the puck in the net.

Kadri, Bozak and Armstrong started playing together during informal practices this summer. No one on the coaching staff told them to come together. According to Kadri, “it kind of just happened.”

Chemistry can be an allusive thing so lets hope these guys found it.

The game counts for nothing but I'd still rather have a win over a loss. Good to see Jake Gardner with 2 assists. It may be tough for Ron Wilson to send him down to the Marlies.

Battle of the Blades 3 pairings

Yesterday's episode was a complete waste of time. There was absolutely no skating and it turned into a tribute to Wade Belak. At the conclusion of the show they finally revealed Belak's replacement. I had predicted that it would be a former contestant which would make it easier to get by without boot camp. I also guessed it would be a local guy because that would create less chaos in the ex-payer's social life. I would have guessed Tie Domi because he would be more than capable of replacing the popular Belak. Instead it turned out to be Russ Courtnall who would was likely the worse competitor in the history of the game.

Anyway here are the contestants.

Violetta Afanasieva and Cale Hulse:
Violetta is an extreme ice skating world champion who participated in Blades last year. Cale is a former Flames defenceman from Calgary. They're skating for the Canadian Cancer Society, which is close to Cale's heart since his father has been fighting cancer for 12 years.

Tanith Belbin and Boyd Devereaux: Tanith is a five-time U.S. ice dance champion and an Olympic silver medalist. Boyd scored the gold medal goal against Russia at the 1997 World Junior Championships and won a Stanley Cup with Detroit in 2002. His career ended in a Spengler Cup game when a hit fractured a vertebra in his neck. Tanith and Boyd are skating for the Montreal Neurological Institute and Epilepsy: Huron-Perth-Bruce.

Elena Berezhnaya and Curtis Leschyshyn: Elena is an Olympic gold medalist and two-time world champion, whom David Pelletier calls "one of the best pairs skaters in the last 50 years." She and partner Anton Sikharulidze shared a gold medal with David and Jamie Sale after a judging scandal at the 2002 Olympics. Curtis won a Stanley Cup with Colorado and was a third draft pick overall to the Quebec Nordiques. They are skating for the Children's Hospital Foundation of Saskatchewan.

Tessa Bonhomme and David Pelletier: Of course Tessa is Battle of the Blades' first female hockey player. She scored the first goal for Team Canada at the 2007 world championships and was part of the gold medal-winning team at the Vancouver Olympics. David is a three-time Canadian pairs champion, a world champion and won Canada's first Olympic gold medal in pairs skating in 42 years at those '02 games. Tessa is skating for the CIBC Run for the Cure, Sudbury chapter, in honour of her grandmother, who beat breast cancer, and her friend Myra, who didn't. David is skating for Ronald McDonald House Charities.

Marie-France Dubreuil and Bryan Berard: Marie-France, a world silver medalist and five-time Canadian ice dance champion, skated in Season 1 of Blades. In 2000, while Bryan was playing with the Leafs, he nearly lost his eye after getting a high stick in the face. But after numerous surgeries he was able to play seven more seasons in the NHL, winning the Bill Masterdon Trophy for dedication to hockey. They are skating for the Do It for Daron program of the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health.

Marcy Hinzmann-Harris and Todd Simpson: Marcy competed in the Olympics and the Worlds, and later became an adagio skater. Todd was a defenceman and captain of the Calgary Flames. Marcy's playing for the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation and Todd for the YMCA's Y Strong Kids campaign.

Anabelle Langlois and Brad May: Anabelle is the Canadian pairs champion who did Blades in Season 2. Brad is a former Toronto Maple Leaf who won the Stanley Cup with Anaheim. He and Anabelle are skating for Autism Speaks.

Kim Navarro and Russ Courtnall: Kim is a U.S. ice dance bronze medalist. Russ is a former Maple Leaf who also played for Montreal, Dallas and Vancouver. He partnered with Christine Hough-Sweeney last season. He and Kim are skating for Wade's charity, the Tourette's Syndrome Neurodevelopmental Clinic at Toronto Western Hospital, chosen because one of Wade's daughters has Tourette's.

Leafs new third jersey

Pass or Fail: Throwback jerseys for the Senators and Maple Leafs

Over the weekend, an employee at the Buffalo Sabres team store inside First Niagara Center inadvertently placed the above jersey on a rack, which was caught by blogger. Leafs management are pissed. Frankly its the fans who should be pissed. The Leafs keep releasing new jerseys that all look the same. Blue jerseys with a white maple leaf and some combination of white stripes. It's a ploy to get us to buy new jerseys.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Russ Courtnall replaces Wade Belak on Battle of the Blades


Battle of the Blades opened their third season with a tribute to Wade Belak. The tribute show easily fit into the usual first episode which focuses on introducing the competitors. Once again the show was overly dramatic including introducing former Toronto Maple Leaf Russ Courtnall who appeared in last season's Battle of the Blades and agreed to skate again in place of Belak. CBC also felt compelled to dramatize the introduction of the first female hockey player to the show Tessa Bonhomme.

Courtnall, will be paired with Kim Navarro, Belak’s former skating partner. Courtnall, will skate for Belak’s chosen charity, Tourette’s Syndrome Neurodevelopmental Clinic at the Toronto Western Hospital.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

1987 Canada Cup likely the best hockey ever played

There is little doubt that the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union is the single greatest hockey tournament, perhaps sporting event, ever. Due to the political and cultural differences, and the dramatic ending, it is unforeseeable that anything could rival 1972. However the 1987 Canada Cup did rival it. While the Cold War was thawing, the drama was almost equal to 1972. And unlike 1972, the tournament was filled with great play on the ice. In fact most will agree that the 1987 Canada Cup highlighted perhaps the greatest hockey ever played.

The 1987 Cup not only had the greatest player of all time in his prime, but many others as well. Grant Fuhr, Paul Coffey, Viacheslav Fetisov, Vladimir Krutov, Sergei Makarov also were at the highest points of their incredible careers. The series also saw the rise to prominence of a young Dominik Hasek, as well as the elevation of Mario Lemieux to Gretzky's stratosphere.

The round robin went pretty much as expected. Canada and the Soviets finished 1-2 with Sweden and CSSR narrowly edging out the Americans for the final playoff spots. The Soviets handed Sweden a 4-2 loss and Canada downed the Czechs 5-3 to set up the greatest showdown in history.

The best of three series went the distance and thrilled fans world wide. All three games ended with the same score, 6-5. The Soviets shocked the Canadians with a 6-5 overtime win in game one in Montreal.

In the second game in Hamilton, Ontario, the Canadians assumed a 3-1 lead but watched it vanish. The game went into overtime which required a Mario Lemieux tally in the second over time period to force a third and deciding game. Some have called that second game the best game ever played.

In the third game, which was also played in Hamilton, the Canadians fell behind early 3-0 and 4-2. But, by using grit, determination and skill, they rallied in the second period to take a 5-4 lead, which the Soviets would erase in the third period, setting up the last minute heroics.

Late in the third period, Dale Hawerchuk was out to take an important faceoff in his own zone. Hawerchuk won the draw from Valeri Kamensky and tied up the Soviet center. Mario Lemieux got the puck and pushed it ahead to Wayne Gretzky at the blueline. Breaking across center ice with Lemieux and Larry Murphy trailing, Gretzky swooped in on Igor Kravchuk, and goaltender Sergei Mylnikov.

Gretzky, who led all tournament scorers, fed a perfect pass back to Lemieux, who led all tournament snipers, at the top of the faceoff circle. "I had lots of time," said Lemieux, "more than a second. The top shelf was open and I just put it there." For the next minute and 26 seconds, Team Canada would kill time by defending their zone, knowing they were seconds away from being crowned winners of the greatest series in hockey history.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Scouting Report: Matt Frattin

Matt Frattin made his NHL debut in the final game of the season in April and will take part in the Leaf rookie camp and tournament that begins Saturday in Oshawa.

Matt Frattin played defense for the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux for almost 3 season. The Leafs selected him in round 4 (#99 overall) in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. During his junior year at UND he was arrested for DUI, Frattin was removed from the team and his scholarship revoked. He returned to school the following year and paid his own way and was now playing the wing. He scored 36 goals and 60 points in just 44 games.

Frattin uses his excellent shot with a quick, hard release that often catches goalies off guard. He has a stocky build at 6`1 and 206 pounds. He is not afraid to do the dirty work in the corners, but is very effective at the edge of the crease. His added strength over his four NCAA years has strengthened his skating ability and has a chance at making the Leafs in a checking role. He has an advantage over the other rookies because of his age (23) in that he has physically matured more than his fellow rookies.

Friday, September 9, 2011

There is a dark cloud over the hockey world

The game I’m passionate about is going through a very rough time. To some extent hockey is going through a period that this is far worse than any lockout. I thought the game was experiencing a renaissance as a result of rule changes that opened up the game so that it could be played the way it was intended to be played – fast and furious.

The best demonstration of hockey as it should be played was the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Since that time a dark cloud has hung over the game. The incidence of concussions has exploded with over 10% missing games last season with head injuries. Many of the injured are the stars of the game. While concussions have always been an unfortunate part of the game, too many of this injuries have been deliberate hits to the head. This year we saw a series of tragic early deaths from Bob Probert to Wade Belak. Finally the devastating loss of the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team this week. How much can the hockey world endure?

My passion for the game is still there but this isn’t much fun.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

35th anniversary of Super Series '76

The National Hockey League never really supported the idea of the 1972 showdown between Russia's best and Canada's best. They didn't like the fact that their assets - the players - were being used in a series they had little control over. There was even a movement by some American NHL owners to not allow their players to play in the games. However it quickly became apparent that there was little the owners would be able to do to stop the series thanks to the Alan Eagleson led NHLPA. In the end the owners hammered out the best deal they could get for themselves.

The NHL went looking for ways to capitalize on the commercial success of these early games against the Soviets. The Soviets packed NHL buildings to capacity, which generated a lot of revenue for the owners not only in ticket sales but also food and souvenir purchases, as well as television and radio rights and commercials.

The NHL originally planned on a series in the 1972-73 season. Details were leaking out as the 1972 Summit Series was winding down, however no final deal could ever be reached.

That changed in the summer of 1975. Soviet negotiators and NHL governors met in Montreal in June 1975 and after three deals had an agreement.

The agreement became known as Super Series '76. Just after Christmas 1975 two Soviet teams - Moscow Central Red Army featuring a couple of additions from Moscow Dynamo, and the Wings of the Soviet, featuring 5 national team members from Moscow Spartak - would arrive for an 8 game series against the NHL.

The opening game was a convincing 7-3 Red Army victory in one of hockey's holiest shrines - Madison Square Gardens, home of the New York Rangers. The Rangers had the unfortunate task of being the first team to faceoff against the Russians. The rest of the NHL was using this game as it's first real look at them for scouting purposes. The Rangers never had that advanced knowledge and, despite opening the scoring just 17 seconds into the game, were smoked!

"They (the Soviets) are like a team of Yvan Cournoyers, with Gordie Howe's hit," said Rangers defenseman Doug Jarrett, an first hand admirer of the speed and strength of the Soviets.

The following night the Wings of the Soviet pulled off a similarly convincing victory in Pittsburgh. The Wings jumped out to a 5-0 lead early in the second period en route to a 7-4 win. The game was significant for NHL teams as Pittsburgh employed a heavy forechecking system in the second half of the game which produced great results - outscoring the Russians 4-2. Unfortunately it was too little too late for the Penguins on that night.

The Montreal Canadiens took note of Pittsburgh's success and employed it in their game against the Red Army on New Year's Eve 1975. To say there was great anticipation for this game is almost an understatement, as the two greatest club teams in the world were about to faceoff for the first time. And hockey fans on either side of the political drawing line were treated to what many call the greatest hockey game ever played. The Canadiens doggedly pursued not only the Soviet puck carrier but all of his opponents, and the strategy seemed to work. The Habs outplayed the Soviets thoroughly, and outshot them 38-13. But the headlines the following day would read "Canadiens good, but still can't beat Russians" as the Soviets managed to earn a 3-3 tie.

The Buffalo Sabres were the next opponent for the Wings. They perfected the Montreal game plan and earned a memorable 12-6 victory! The Sabres plugged up the neutral zone and physically zeroed in on the Soviet defensemen with great success. The French Connection line of Gilbert Perreault, Rene Robert and Rick Martin had a field day with the frazzled Soviets, while gigantic defenseman Jerry Korab rocked any Soviet intruder into the Buffalo zone. The biggest difference between the Wings and the Red Army was the goaltending. Alexander Sidelnikov tended the nets for the Wings, and often backed up Red Army's great Vladislav Tretiak on the national team.

Three nights later the Wings, who were kept under heavy seclusion by their coach following the humiliating loss, attempted to redeem themselves against the Chicago Blackhawks. The Hawks employed the same physical game plan against the Soviets, but ultimately that plan backfired as they drew several costly penalties. The Soviets would capitalize on their extra-man advantages, winning 4-2

The Red Army returned to action on January 8th against the Boston Bruins. The Bruins fired 19 shots in the first period alone, but could not beat Tretiak who was again stifling NHL shooters. He was so good in this game that Bruins' coach Don Cherry admitted "Tretiak is incredible." After two periods the game remained tight, but the Soviets pulled away in the third to win 5-2.

The Red Army win meant the Soviet's could celebrate. The win gave them a 4-1-1 record with 2 games remaining, meaning the Soviets had won the 8 game showdown. But there was still two very important hockey games remaining.

The Wings finished their series by playing against the up-and-coming New York Islanders. The Isles were a couple of years away from their NHL dynasty years, but were still a top NHL team in 1976. They were unfortunate not to get a win against the Soviet Wings. The Isles didn't seem to get untracked offensively in this game - they sported the most feared power play in the NHL but could only muster 1 goal on 8 opportunities against the Wings. That would prove to be the only goal they would score. Their defense had a strong game, but a couple of "flukey" goals by the Soviets gave them another victory, this time by the score of 2-1.

The final game saw the Red Army - the best team outside of the NHL - suit up against the Philadelphia Flyers. While many will say that Montreal was still the best team in the NHL at the time, the fact is the Flyers were the two time defending Stanley Cup champions and thus earned the right to call themselves the NHL's best.

The Soviets had already handily won the series against the NHL, but the Flyers were determined to make sure the Soviets wouldn't defeat the Stanley Cup champions under any circumstance. The Flyers roared out in typical Broad Street Bully fashion - physically punishing, often by bending or outright breaking the rules, any Soviet in sight.

The Flyers dominated the opening period, and were very disciplined. But late in the period defenseman Ed Van Impe tried to decapitate Soviet superstar Valeri Kharlamov with a vicious elbow. The Soviets protested what they felt was a deliberate attempt to injure, and actually left the ice for a period of time. They would return, but never re-emerged as the Red Army team we grew to hate and secretly love. The Flyers dominated the game - out shooting the Soviets 49-13 and outscoring them 4-1.

Other than the Van Impe incident, the Flyers had represented the NHL valiantly as the Stanley Cup champions in one of the most memorable and talked about games in hockey history. They saved the NHL some prestige in an otherwise disappointing 2-5-1 tournament. They even went as far as to proclaim themselves as the undisputed world hockey champions.


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Are the Maple Leafs good enough this season?

Brian Burke didn't make too many changes to the 10th place Toronto Maple Leafs during the offseason. He added two forwards. two defensemen and two assistant coaches. However, the Leafs have already undergone a considerable make over and there are only three players on the roster (Nikolia Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski and Luke Schenn) who were on the 2008 opening day roster.

The Leafs have been woefully weak at centre since Mats Sundin left for free agency (or was pushed out the door). Since that time, the teams offense has sputtered. The signing of free agent Tim Connolly is expected to address this weakness and hopefully push Phil Kessel to the 40-goal plateau. Connolly is a skilled player with a long history of injuries. I don't see how a change of scenery will have an impact on his health. Still Burke signed him for only 2 years so the risks are relatively low, except Connolly on the sideline isn't going to help Kessel's production. The Leafs were able to pick up Matthew Lombardi's contract from Nashville because Lombardi has yet to recover from a head injury that he incurred 11 months with no certain timetable for recovery. Should Lombardi make it into the Leafs' lineup and Connolly remain healthy the Leafs will actually look good at the centre position. In fact last season's number 1 centre, Tyler Bozak, would be relegated to the 4th line.

Picking up Lombardi turns out only costs the Leafs some cash and cap space but no significant player, prospect or draft pick going back to Nashville. In fact, the Leafs were able to pry away defensemen Cody Franson in the deal which provides the Leafs with another solid young defenseman. In addition, Brian Burke used a second round draft pick from the Tomas Kaberle deal to acquire John-Michael Liles as a replacement for Kaberle on the powerplay.

More important, Burke forced coach Ron Wilson to address the moribund special teams by firing Keith Acton and Tim Hunter and replacing them with Scott Gordon and Greg Cronin. The anemic Leaf offense can largely attributed to a weak powerplay. A significant number of goals in the NHL are scored on the powerplay and the Leafs for far too long have had to rely on goals while playing 5 on 5. Too make matters worse, their penalty killing was also weak. If the new coaches can improve the special team situation then a playoff spot is a possibility.

Yet no team makes the post season without strong goaltending. The Leafs management believe they have the real deal in James Reimer based on his 37-game stint last year. They better be right because they have no backup plan. Other than Jonas Gustavsson, no other goalie in the system has even played one NHL game.

Burke has suggested that these improvements are enough to overtake a couple teams in the East and put the Leafs in the playoffs. He wouldn't name which teams he considers to be vulnerable and I'm not sure it's that self evident. Washington, Boston and Philadelphia, despite their emake, are still the cream of the East. Pittsburgh is an elite team even if Sidney Crosby plays only half a season. Tampa Bay certainly looks to be an improving team. Meanwhile the Rangers and Buffalo strengthened themselves considerably during the off season. That perhaps leaves Montreal vulnerable but passing the Canadiens will only put the Leafs in 9th spot. So it will a dog fight once again to make the post season.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Insurance company dies boy prize after amazing hockey shot

A boy who made an unlikely hockey shot into a small hole from centre ice while standing in for his identical twin brother will not get a $50,000 prize, the official who organized the event said Thursday.

The company that insured the event last month, Odds On Promotions of Reno, Nevada, will donate $20,000 to youth hockey in Minnesota in the twins’ names, said Vance Vinar, Jr., who organized the fund-raising event for the Faribault Hockey Association, located near the boys’ home in southern Minnesota.

Three days before making the unlikely shot that captivated America, 11-year-old Nate Smith had his arm in a cast. The boy told his father to write the name of his identical twin, Nick, on three raffle tickets that gave a shot at a $50,000 prize.

But when it was time for the event, Nate’s arm was out of the cast and Nick wanted to hang out with friends rather than wait around the rink for the contest. So Nate shot a puck into the 1-1/2 inch high by 3-1/2 inch wide target from 89 feet away. Former NHL player Tim Bergland, who has watched video of the event, called the shot 1 in a million.

The boys’ father, Pat Smith, initially wrote Nick’s name down on a form given him by organizers but later felt guilty and admitted to contest officials that the wrong twin had taken the winning shot.

“You’ve got to do what’s right,” Smith told Reuters last month. “You don’t want to teach kids to lie no matter how much money is involved.”

Will Wade Belak's death raise awareness of the need for treatment for depression?

There is a stigma surrounding mental health issues including depression. People are clearly uncomfortable talking about it. I'm just talking about the general population but when we are talking about professional athletes, it's virtually a taboo.

Many friends and teammates were unaware that Wade Belak suffered with depression. It's the culture that exists in hockey dressing room that inhibits openness. Just think about it. Hockey enforcers spend most of their professional career on the bubble. They get paid close to the NHL minimum salary for most of their career, often playing on 4 or 5 minutes per game. They frequently find themselves sitting in the pressbox, not because of poor play but because the team has no need for an enforcer in some games. There is always several players in the AHL more than ready to fill the role should a spot become open. Enforcer don't like to report injuries for fear of having to sit out and potential lose their spot on the roster. You are the tough guy afterall. You are expected to watch the back of smaller teammates. Adrian Dater in an article in the Denver Post refers to "Faustian Bargain" of the NHL fighter.

This is not exactly the environment that would encourage players with mental health issues to come forward and seek treatment. Even if it is all confidential, these guys aren't going to take that risk. No wonder hardly anyone knew how much Belak was suffering.

Hockey spokespersons like Don Cherry don't help. He loves the image of the big tough Canadian kid. Depression?! That makes you a momma's boy. It's obvious the image is false. They are like everyone else. They suffer from anxiety, self-doubt and even depression. In fact, there appears to be a link between blows to the brain's frontal lobe and depression.

So who is watching over the enforcers while they watch over their teammates? No one. Do we really need fighting in hockey? There really isn't any in the playoffs. The playoffs doesn't appear to be wimpy games played by pacifists. If eliminating fighting improves the quality of life of players and ex-players and saves a few lives, isn't it worth it?

But more importantly, maybe the coverage on sports radio shows will encourage listeners who are reluctant to seek treatment to get some help. TSN's Michael Landsberg who suffers from depression has been very open about his illness. He was very close with Belak and was one of the few people who knew about the demon's inside Belak's head this past few years. More people need to step forward. It can save lives.