We’re Moving…


So…this blog has been FAR quieter than I’d like…

Trouble is, my life has changed over the past year to the point where I can’t run a blog by myself, at least not a regularly updated one. I can contribute, however.

And so I’ve teamed up with a Canadian and an American friend of mine on a new NHL blog, It’s written by¬†a Leafs fan, a Devils fan and Pens-fan me. So THAT should be…um…diverse. You get a view from both ends of the NHL table. ūüôā

Treading Frozen Water launches today at www.treadingfrozenwater.wordpress.com. I’ll see y’all there from now on along with Matt and Zach.

Thank you to everyone who’s read this one, commented or indeed just stumbled upon it. Hopefully you’ll take a gander at TFW too.

See y’all there. ūüôā

 

The Quick And the (Brain) Dead: Western Conference Final Preview


Yes, I probably should have started previewing playoff matchups when the playoffs actually started, but a combination of work hunting, NHL watching and trying to resolve the NHL’s greatest dilemmas (thoughts like “is Danny Briere a rat-faced weasel, or a weasel faced rat?”, “just how the hell do the New Jersey Devils manage to get so much noise from an arena without giving Snooki and The Situation free tickets and instructions to argue in the stands?” and “just how does Claude Giroux play so well with the tongues of the entire NBC announcing team wedged firmly up his backside?”) got in the way. That’s not to say I haven’t been watching with great enjoyment. And now I have a few minutes free and the urge to ramble, so away we go with the Western Conference.

This wasn’t supposed to happen.

The NHL’s Western Conference final this season is a final to make hockey traditionalists grind their teeth in anger. Not because of the prospect of the product on the ice-in fact the coming matchup between the Phoenix Coyotes and LA Kings is likely to be one of the highlight series of this year’s playoffs.

But it’s a series between one team that somehow failed to truly light the West up in the regular season (how the hell did the Kings end up an 8th seed?!) despite having all the pieces to do so, and another who (according to hockey purists at least) should have been dead (or playing in Hamilton, which some would argue is almost the same thing) years ago. After all, as Don Cherry and other hockey dinosaurs never tire of telling us, usually at great volume…YOU CAN’T PLAY HOCKEY IN THE SUN BELT.

If there was a movie remake of a fairly obscure Western starring Sharon Stone and Leonardo Di Caprio planned around the matchup between these two teams, there can frankly only be one title.

The Quick and the (Brain) Dead

As well as proving that I’ll go to pretty much any lengths to get an obscure movie reference into my column, the above title pretty much focuses on two of the main features of these two team’s playoff runs.

The Quick is of course Jonathan, LA’s goalie, who not only has an awesome surname as far as goalie attributes go but will be one of the major reasons the Kings win the series. He’s the rock on which the Kings build, the tree on which they weave their skilful web.

The Brain Dead? Phoenix Coyotes’ Raffi Torres, who has been suspended by the NHL after a moronic hit on Marian Hossa and left his team better for it.

Then of course there’s the hockey goaltending demon who appears to have taken the place of Mike Smith for this playoffs. Well, in fact the whole of this season. Let’s not forget that in Tampa last season he was a backup, with a save percentage of .890 and judging by Twitter was known by Tampa fans as Mike “fucking” SMITH. (as in “Mike fucking Smith let in another one)

This year, he’s .930 in the regular season, carrying a 948 save percentage after starting every PO game AND appears to have got over that strange recurring habit of dropping to the ice like a shot duck every time an opposition forward farts in his general direction.

It gets weirder with the Coyotes, though. They’re a team that have three skaters in the top 30 in PO points (Antoine Vermette at 12, Mikkel Boedker at 26 and Rusty Klesla at 30) going into the WCF. For comparison, Philadelphia have three in the top ten as of now…and are out. By that measure Phoenix staying in while Philly are eliminated is the hockey equivalent of the Bachelor turning down Scarlett Johansson for Deena from Jersey Shore. It just isn’t something you could ever see happening beforehand if you have a working brain.

And yet happen it has. Somehow, every team that goes to the desert gets an attack of Yote Fever. Whether it’s the heat, the surrealness of going to Glendale and seeing real-life fans in the stands and more of them every time you go, or just one of those weird illnesses that comes around in the hockey world once in a while, it’s taking over Arizona-more to the point, the team are infected with optimism.

The Coyotes aren’t a team who will fill the highlight reels, but they are a team who will win games. They’re playing like a team whose lives depend on success. And Glendale is finally responding to them. After a few false-starts in the playoffs before, this appears to be the season the Yotes have finally shook off the last remaining sneers and established themselves as a legitimate force in the Western Conference.¬† Whether a loss in this series will kill all that momentum remains to be seen.

Speaking of momentum, many are saying that LA have the momentum going into this series after eliminating the #1 and #2 seed so far. If they eliminate the #3 seed it’ll not only be the first #8 seed to make the Stanley Cup Final since Edmonton in 2006, but they’ll also have done it in the hardest way possible-by eliminating the 1,2,3 seeds. (sure, you can argue that Phoenix are only a 3 seed cause they managed to come out on top in a STUPIDLY close and relatively low-point-scoring Pacific Division while other teams in the West were lower seeded only due to their division location, but so be it).

LA definitely have the more visible talent. Who do you think the top scorer was for Phoenix in the regular season? Nope-it was Radim Vrbata. RADIM VRBATA. In terms of “name recognition” he’s hardly on a par with Dustin Brown, Mike Richards, Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar…hell, even Jeff Carter.

(While we’re on the subject of Jeff Carter, he annoys me. Mainly because he pulled the MOTHER of all “trade me” tank jobs in Columbus (he had all the get-up-and-go of a freshly run-over skunk on the ice in Ohio) but partly because I’m amazed someone who thinks “defence” is what you have around “de garden” can still be considered a key player on a playoff team).

But anyhow,

Back in July I picked the Kings to win the Stanley Cup, mainly because of their fearsome amount of talent. They look like a team peaking at just the right time. And that’s why, Mike Smith or no Mike Smith, I think the Yotes run ends here.But I don’t think they’ll go down without biting a chunk our of LA first.

I predict LA in six for this one.

Lions Led By Donkeys: Why The GB National Team Will Never Be Successful


This is a post that it hurts to write.

The Great Britain national ice hockey team currently ranks just outside the top 20 in the world. Over the past few years it’s solidly established itself at the second tier of international hockey-that twilight world of teams who aren’t quite good enough to join the really good nations, but good enough to think that one day, they might.

This is quite impressive. However, it’s nowhere near where the team could be. And it’s nothing to do with the fault of the players proudly wearing the GB shirt.

British ice hockey off-ice is a murky world. It’s populated by a mix of dedicated and proud people genuinely working for the better of the sport and those who seem to see the whole thing as some sort of personal pride project.

It’s a world seemingly driven by ego as much as pure pride. An incestuous, closed world which is hard to get into and once in, harder to stay in and keep personal pride and principles intact-at least if you want to be successful. Knowing the right people and more importantly having influence with the right people and boards is key.

Individually, those involved in the running of the sport are often shrewd, engaging and passionate about their chosen calling. Over the past few years the GB management team, led by coach Paul Thompson and GM Andy Buxton, made huge strides towards taking the national team to a level they had only, briefly tasted once before.

What’s made more amazing is that they achieved these great results and took the team to the brink of qualifying for World Championship hockey despite being sabotaged at every turn. Maybe not intentionally but sabotaged nevertheless.

The ruling bodies of British hockey agree that one of the major problems with the GB team is getting the players together to play warmup games, training camps, obtaining icetime, and money.

However, the same ruling bodies are often populated by those running the British clubs-clubs that they’ve often invested considerable amounts of money into and want to see a return on.
The British leagues, unlike many of the top leagues in Europe, run continuously without breaking for international tournaments like many of the top nations in Europe. The reason cited? It would harm the clubs, who depend on regular incomes of one home game a week in order to pay their players and keep operating.

Oh-and the GB staff? They’re all staff drawn from British clubs, who draw whatever pay they get (often none, but sometimes a little) from those same clubs. National pride may be a wonderful thing, but cold hard cash will always win in a fight between club and country.

IHUK pleads poverty, hence the lack of funding. However, this is an organisation which makes money from every single ice-hockey player in Britain by insisting that they are registered (at 50 pounds a year for adults) to play the sport. It’s an organisation which can afford to have a chairman based in Canada.

It’s also an organisation which spends no money on promoting the national team or even the sport in the media. Coverage of the national team is even less than the meagre amount given to the clubs.

And yet somehow, it’s not the fault of the people running the sport that it has no coverage. Somehow, it’s acceptable for a national team to have no warm up games and play no matches in its own country for a year (and only two the year before that).

Somehow, it’s acceptable to select a coach who can’t even make the opening game of the World Championships because his club team haven’t finished their season-and select players who have the same problem.

These are not new problems-they’re problems that have gone on for many years and will continue to run as long as club hockey takes precedence over country hockey.

And with the same people running the national team board as run the Elite League board, that will not change any time soon.

It’s worse, however. Prominent figures in the British game have said that women’s hockey (a sport in which GB rank higher than their equivalent men’s team and is funded almost entirely voluntarily) isn’t important. Which is one way of alienating most of the population to the sport straight away…

People are calling for changes. However, I believe the chances of that happening are minimal…simply because there is no genuine impetus at the top levels to do so. The Buxton/Thompson regime and the strides made under it were the exception, not the rule.
Traditionally, Britain is not a nation that prides itself on mediocrity. But with those running ice hockey in this country, it seems that’s just fine as long as the clubs keep ticking along somehow.

And that is a truly tragic attitude. One that I can’t see being changed any time soon.

 

Hockey Heresy: Why The Pens Should Trade Sidney Crosby


First things first: No, that title isn’t a joke.

This is going to be an article in which I do, in fact, attempt to argue the case for my team trading the almost-universally-acknowledged (except in Washington, Russia or Michigan) best player in the world.

Nothing like making a nice, quiet, uncontroversial return to blogging after a few months’ absence due to real life getting busy, is there?

In starting this post we’ve already learned that typing “trade” and “Crosby” in the same sentence will not in fact get you struck down by a thunderbolt of a slapshot from the hockey gods, but that’s not to say I didn’t duck anyway.

We also know such a trade will probably never happen because Ray Shero would be run out of Pennsylvania by a mob wielding flaming Eastons and dressed in #87 jerseys the moment he announced it at a press conference. Although on the plus side, discussing it would probably cause Pierre McGuire to spontaeneously combust live on air and Mike Milbury to be rendered catatonic…both of which would improve NBC’s hockey coverage immeasurably in the eyes of many.

But that’s not to say we shouldn’t talk about it.

First of all…like it or not, Crosby is an UFA next year, so this conversation would at least come up. So is¬†Jordan Staal-a player who currently makes 4 million but has proved his worth to the Pens so many times over you can bet there is a big wage increase in his future. We’re just bringing up the “what do Pens do” debate a little early.

Second…Sid is, to coin a terribly painful but possibly apt phrase, “slightly used”. We’re not talking about the league’s greatest player any more. We’re talking about the league’s greatest player “if he recovers properly from injury”.

We’re talking about a player who has played only 8 games since January last year due to concussion issues-someone who already has one aborted comeback behind him, however glittering that comeback was.

We’re talking about a player who earns 8.7 million dollars a year but already has speculation following him about possible retirement, at the age of 24.

We’re talking, if you’re brutally, painfully honest, about a true world hockey superstar, but one who has some serious issues.

There was a player in the late 90’s who was supposed to be “the next great one”, showed incredible talent and then suffered a concussion after putting up eye-watering numbers and being given the C for his team to universal acclaim. He came back and all seemed well, but then suffered another that kept him out of the game for a season. He was never the same player again, suffering a major drop in production as teams kept signing him for major money in the hope he could return to his past world-beating form.

That player was Eric Lindros, who is viewed as one of the greatest “what ifs” of modern hockey.

I am not saying now that Crosby is going to follow the same career path. But I am saying that every day that goes by without a Sidney Crosby in the lineup means it has to be considered as a possibility.

For my next argument for trading Sid, though, we have to leave Pennsylvania and travel WAY south, to Tennessee and theNashville Predators.

Much has been made about the fact that they have three marquee players hitting FA close together in Ryan Suter, Pekka Rinne and Shea Weber. Reams of paper have been written about the choices David Poile faces, with most hockey journalists agreeing they can only take two of the three forward.

This year, Pens’ big contract worry will be¬†James Neal, who’s an RFA and can probably expect a pretty substantial wage rise after his production both this season and based on past form. The Pens will have 9 million of cap room so can probably absorb it, although that doesn’t take into account any FA moves that may happen.

Next year? Staal and Crosby both become UFA’s, and¬†Tyler Kennedy¬†becomes an RFA. The year after,¬†Evgeni Malkin¬†andKris Letang¬†become UFA’s. So does¬†Brooks Orpik.

So in the next two years, the Pens have to find a way to keep four of their “marquee” players, all of whom can, under the current CBA, command up or near the single-player limit. Even leaving out Kennedy and Orpik, both of whom would be key Pens-if you have to lose one of those four sooner rather than later, which goes? The best two-way center in the world, , one of the best snipers in the game, one of the top-three offensive d-men in the¬†NHL, or¬†an injury-prone superstar with concussion issues who may or not be back to his best,¬†all four of whom will be in their mid-to-late-twenties (the prime of a hockey-player’s career). Keeping all four is not an option-and you’re planning long rather than short term.

Put like that, the words “injury prone” and “concussion issues” suddenly loom REALLY large, don’t they?

Then consider who Crosby would bring in in a trade. Any number of picks you could care to name, and/or a superstar or several in return.

Here’s a hypothetical trade at the deadline that works under the cap (I know-tested it on capgeek.com)

PIT trades Sidney Crosby (C), Steve Sullivan (RW) and Phillip Samuelsson (D)

CLB trades¬†Rick Nash¬†(LW),¬†Jeff Carter¬†(C), CLB’s 1st round pick in 2012.

This is a trade that would a) singlehandedly revitalise hockey in Columbus even if Crosby doesn’t play another minute this season due to anticipation alone b) gives the Pens both a Crosby replacement (Blue Jackets are already talking about putting Carter on the block) and one of the best wingers in the game to address their notorious lack of depth there, AND the first overall pick in the next draft.

Sure. It’s a gamble for both sides. But if you’re the Columbus GM, would you not take that trade in a second?

Here’s another:

PIT trades Sidney Crosby (C)

CAL trades¬†Jarome Iginla,¬†Alex Tanguay¬†and CAL’s 1st round pick in 2012 and 2013

Yes, the Pens get older, but at a stroke they get one of the best wingers in the league, (signed til 2013) a creator for the second line (signed til 2015) and another high pick or two. Meanwhile, Crosby playing in Canada would probably break the hype meter as we know it, make the¬†Calgary Flames¬†relevant again outside Alberta, and bring hope to a franchise that’s been run into the ground the past few seasons.

Admit it. Even though you’re still scoffing, you’re slightly intrigued…

The very fact you’re thinking about those trades and even considering if they could work shows how the hockey world has changed with Crosby’s injury. Now, he’s mortal. And mortals get traded.

I’m not saying the Pens should cut loose Crosby now or that it’s their only option. I’m not even saying that it would work out best for them in the long run…after all, the very nature of injuries and careers means they’re unpredictable. This is also an analysis that doesn’t take personalities and team chemistry into account that much. But then, GM’s have to be able to think objectively-the new realities of the NHL mean that sentiment will often take a back seat to cold, hard financial or practical necessity.

And as Crosby himself has been shown to be vulnerable after all, maybe, just maybe, he has shown that in today’s NHL, the word “untradeable” no longer applies.

Paul Wheeler is a Pens fan, and sporadic writer on the NHL and the British EIHL for PucksATP when not doing PBP for the Coventry Blaze in the British¬†Elite League. If you’re not offended by the odd rude word and random hockey ranting at all hours, you can follow him on Twitter at @fourthlinewing

Hockey Heresy: Why The Pens Should Trade Sidney Crosby


First things first: No, that title isn’t a joke.

This is going to be an article in which I do, in fact, attempt to argue the case for my team trading the almost-universally-acknowledged (except in Washington, Russia or Michigan) best player in the world.

Nothing like making a nice, quiet, uncontroversial return to blogging after a few months’ absence due to real life getting busy, is there?

In starting this post we’ve already learned that typing “trade” and “Crosby” in the same sentence will not in fact get you struck down by a thunderbolt of a slapshot from the hockey gods, but that’s not to say I didn’t duck anyway.

We also know such a trade will probably never happen because Ray Shero would be run out of Pennsylvania by a mob wielding flaming Eastons and dressed in #87 jerseys the moment he announced it at a press conference. Although on the plus side, discussing it would probably cause Pierre McGuire to spontaeneously combust live on air and Mike Milbury to be rendered catatonic…both of which would improve NBC’s hockey coverage immeasurably in the eyes of many.

But that’s not to say we shouldn’t talk about it.

First of all…like it or not, Crosby is an UFA next year, so this conversation would at least come up. So is¬†Jordan Staal-a player who currently makes 4 million but has proved his worth to the Pens so many times over you can bet there is a big wage increase in his future. We’re just bringing up the “what do Pens do” debate a little early.

Second…Sid is, to coin a terribly painful but possibly apt phrase, “slightly used”. We’re not talking about the league’s greatest player any more. We’re talking about the league’s greatest player “if he recovers properly from injury”.

We’re talking about a player who has played only 8 games since January last year due to concussion issues-someone who already has one aborted comeback behind him, however glittering that comeback was.

We’re talking about a player who earns 8.7 million dollars a year but already has speculation following him about possible retirement, at the age of 24.

We’re talking, if you’re brutally, painfully honest, about a true world hockey superstar, but one who has some serious issues.

There was a player in the late 90’s who was supposed to be “the next great one”, showed incredible talent and then suffered a concussion after putting up eye-watering numbers and being given the C for his team to universal acclaim. He came back and all seemed well, but then suffered another that kept him out of the game for a season. He was never the same player again, suffering a major drop in production as teams kept signing him for major money in the hope he could return to his past world-beating form.

That player was Eric Lindros, who is viewed as one of the greatest “what ifs” of modern hockey.

I am not saying now that Crosby is going to follow the same career path. But I am saying that every day that goes by without a Sidney Crosby in the lineup means it has to be considered as a possibility.

For my next argument for trading Sid, though, we have to leave Pennsylvania and travel WAY south, to Tennessee and theNashville Predators.

Much has been made about the fact that they have three marquee players hitting FA close together in Ryan Suter, Pekka Rinne and Shea Weber. Reams of paper have been written about the choices David Poile faces, with most hockey journalists agreeing they can only take two of the three forward.

This year, Pens’ big contract worry will be¬†James Neal, who’s an RFA and can probably expect a pretty substantial wage rise after his production both this season and based on past form. The Pens will have 9 million of cap room so can probably absorb it, although that doesn’t take into account any FA moves that may happen.

Next year? Staal and Crosby both become UFA’s, and¬†Tyler Kennedy¬†becomes an RFA. The year after,¬†Evgeni Malkin¬†andKris Letang¬†become UFA’s. So does¬†Brooks Orpik.

So in the next two years, the Pens have to find a way to keep four of their “marquee” players, all of whom can, under the current CBA, command up or near the single-player limit. Even leaving out Kennedy and Orpik, both of whom would be key Pens-if you have to lose one of those four sooner rather than later, which goes? The best two-way center in the world, , one of the best snipers in the game, one of the top-three offensive d-men in the¬†NHL, or¬†an injury-prone superstar with concussion issues who may or not be back to his best,¬†all four of whom will be in their mid-to-late-twenties (the prime of a hockey-player’s career). Keeping all four is not an option-and you’re planning long rather than short term.

Put like that, the words “injury prone” and “concussion issues” suddenly loom REALLY large, don’t they?

Then consider who Crosby would bring in in a trade. Any number of picks you could care to name, and/or a superstar or several in return.

Here’s a hypothetical trade at the deadline that works under the cap (I know-tested it on capgeek.com)

PIT trades Sidney Crosby (C), Steve Sullivan (RW) and Phillip Samuelsson (D)

CLB trades¬†Rick Nash¬†(LW),¬†Jeff Carter¬†(C), CLB’s 1st round pick in 2012.

This is a trade that would a) singlehandedly revitalise hockey in Columbus even if Crosby doesn’t play another minute this season due to anticipation alone b) gives the Pens both a Crosby replacement (Blue Jackets are already talking about putting Carter on the block) and one of the best wingers in the game to address their notorious lack of depth there, AND the first overall pick in the next draft.

Sure. It’s a gamble for both sides. But if you’re the Columbus GM, would you not take that trade in a second?

Here’s another:

PIT trades Sidney Crosby (C)

CAL trades¬†Jarome Iginla,¬†Alex Tanguay¬†and CAL’s 1st round pick in 2012 and 2013

Yes, the Pens get older, but at a stroke they get one of the best wingers in the league, (signed til 2013) a creator for the second line (signed til 2015) and another high pick or two. Meanwhile, Crosby playing in Canada would probably break the hype meter as we know it, make the¬†Calgary Flames¬†relevant again outside Alberta, and bring hope to a franchise that’s been run into the ground the past few seasons.

Admit it. Even though you’re still scoffing, you’re slightly intrigued…

The very fact you’re thinking about those trades and even considering if they could work shows how the hockey world has changed with Crosby’s injury. Now, he’s mortal. And mortals get traded.

I’m not saying the Pens should cut loose Crosby now or that it’s their only option. I’m not even saying that it would work out best for them in the long run…after all, the very nature of injuries and careers means they’re unpredictable. This is also an analysis that doesn’t take personalities and team chemistry into account that much. But then, GM’s have to be able to think objectively-the new realities of the NHL mean that sentiment will often take a back seat to cold, hard financial or practical necessity.

And as Crosby himself has been shown to be vulnerable after all, maybe, just maybe, he has shown that in today’s NHL, the word “untradeable” no longer applies.

 

Paul Wheeler is a Pens fan, and sporadic writer on the NHL and the British EIHL for PucksATP when not doing PBP for the Coventry Blaze in the British¬†Elite League. If you’re not offended by the odd rude word and random hockey ranting at all hours, you can follow him on Twitter at @fourthlinewing

Shanny, You’re The Man(ny)


It’s been a while thanks to being busy as hell with other writing commitments, but with hockey season in the UK off and running and preseason beginning in the NHL, I reckon it’s about time we came back, don’t you?

So, Songs of Ice And Fire is off and running again, and while many are watching the NHL preseason games looking for some great revelation of who the next NHL star is going to be (oh, and in that vein, this Nugent-Hopkins kid can’t half play, right?), to my mind we’ve already seen the most significant thing we’re going to learn, at least until the regular season begins in October, and here it is:

Brendan Shanahan replacing Colin Campbell is the best thing to happen to the NHL this offseason.

Sure, he was no slouch on the ice either…in fact, he was one of my favourite players growing up DESPITE the fact he was a Red Wing when I first fully became aware of the sport. (For the record, I treat the Red Wings like I treat vegetarianism-I know they exist, I know they are very popular, I have no problem with them but I really cannot see their appeal, even with Datsyukian help. Just the style of play leaves me cold)

I missed his St.Louis and Hartford days and first run in NJ, but Shanny was popular with me partly for his skills and partly because he definitely did not muck around. If there was dirty work to be done, he did it, and did it well.

Off the ice, in his new role as VP of player safety, it appears that the big guy is taking the same approach and not messing around right off the bat. And frankly, it’s about bloody time.

Not only are there suspensions happening, but they’re not paltry ones either. Pierre Letorneau Leblond checks Matt Clackson from behind…5 games. Jody Shelley just about tries to kill Darryl Boyce…10 games. Not only that, but there are videos, with Shanahan himself as the star, explaining decisions with video review so there can be no doubt of the thought processes.

Here’s the Shelley vid, courtesy of NHL.com:

http://video.nhl.com/videocenter/console?catid=35&id=124282

The subtext of these videos are simple…

Hey. NHL. There’s a new sheriff in town. And he is NOT pissing about. Behave, or he’ll get you.

TSN’s James Duthie has already reacted cynically on Twitter to these suspensions, saying that “For vets, suspensions for pre-season is like their wives banning them from watching the View”

Sorry, James. I’ll break my reaction to that down for you to one-syllable words so it beats your snark filter and actually gets in.

You’ve. Missed. The.¬† Point.

It doesn’t matter that these suspensions are, in the big scheme of things, not going to impact the players that much in the regular season.

It matters that Shanahan, in his role, is setting the standard of NHL discipline in his r√©gime early, he’s setting it clearly, and the message is simple.

Play dangerously, and you’ll be punished.

This, with the best will in the world, wasn’t always the case under Colin Campbell. Mainly because the suspensions seemed to depend on who you were, what team you happened to play for, and for all we knew about the decision-making process, whether or not Campbell was cranky because a Starbucks barista had left the whipped cream off his morning mocha latte that day.

And, of course, there was the “I don’t want to make a decision so I’ll pretend it never happened” verdict. Or, as in Campbell’s words “the incident was a hockey play”.

Obviously, it’s early right now so no-one knows how this will play out, but if it’s a sign of things to come in the NHL disciplinary system, then the NHL could finally have done something truly positive in the war against outright dirty play.

We can but hope.

Blazing Passion: Farewell, Wade Belak


“They keep dying, Paul. They just keep dying”.

These were the words of my girlfriend, a fellow hockey fan, when she rang me to tell me of another death among the ranks of NHL enforcers on Wednesday night.

Today, the hockey world is mourning another fallen team-mate, with former Avalanche, Flames, Maple Leafs, Panthers and Predators enforcer Wade Belak being found dead in Toronto on Wednesday night at the age of 35.

He’s the third NHL enforcer to pass away this off-season, following Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien. And once again we see the tributes from players and fans on Twitter, the tribute articles like this one. We’ve been seeing them too often recently.

Wade Belak was a player known and respected throughout the world of hockey, and wherever he played he became a fan favourite for his sense of humour, willingness to stand up for his team-mates and honest, hardworking style. But he was never considered amongst the stars in the NHL.

After all, enforcers rarely get to be considered franchise players at any point in their professional careers. We can safely assume from the tributes of those that knew and played with him that he never really expected to be, either. Belak took immense pride in his role protecting his team-mates and often said he felt lucky to be able to earn his money playing a sport he loved.

But maybe, occasionally, he wondered what it would be like. All hockey players do. After all, they’re human.

When the NHL lockout took place and he left North America to play abroad during the long days of the 2004/05 season, Belak got to find out what it was like to be not the best player on not only a team, but maybe in a whole league.

He found himself in a city in central England, a country which views its hockey a little differently to North America. A country where hockey is a minority sport.

A country where, if they don’t go to the rink, fans can only see games televised through the team’s¬†Internet sites, or through one hour-long highlights show a week and one live game a month on satellite TV (and when Belak was here, they didn’t even get that little luxury).

A country where soccer, rugby and cricket rule supreme.

But in the industrial city of Coventry, a slightly rundown but proud place famous for being one of the British centres of motor vehicle production (whose closest equivalent in the US both population and history-wise is probably Detroit, & is the home of the Coventry Blaze, one of the most successful teams in British ice-hockey) the name of Wade Belak is as legendary, if not more so, then it is in the hockey metropolis of Toronto. And right now, hockey fans in this town are grieving just as much as anyone in Maple Leaf, Avalanche, Panther, Flame or Predator country.

After all, Wade played for us, too.

The British Elite Ice Hockey League is a league where relative fringe AHL players can become superstars. Most of the overseas players come from either the ECHL or CHL. The top scorer last season was Jon Pelle, who scored 110 points last season after scoring 40 points¬†the season before at the CHL’s Rapid City Rush.

In a league where CHL players can be superstars and the visit of a far-past-his-prime Theo Fleury is seen as the highest point of modern British hockey, in a country which has only ever had a handful of players even drafted to the NHL in the modern era, and only one even come close to making it (Northern Irish fans try to claim Owen Nolan, but most see him as North American along with Steve Thomas), fringe NHL players are a golden commodity.

When Belak came to the small, 2,500-seater rink in Coventry to make his debut there was barely a seat spare for his first game, and the excitement amongst hockey fans in my home town was palpable.

We’ve got an NHLer! Our small team has got a bona-fide NHL player!

Belak skated onto the ice to a warm reception. Even those who didn’t know hockey that well (and in Coventry there were a fair few at that time, as the team had only been in the city for four years in a city where soccer is king) knew that this guy was something out of the ordinary.

For a start, this was a player who, despite being questioned for his skill at an NHL level, projected a level of calm assurance which few Coventry fans had ever seen. His reputation may have come before him for those who knew, but even if you’d never seen a hockey game before that November night, you could tell that this was a big Canadian that you simply didn’t mess with.

He scored that night, a few hours after getting off a flight from Canada. If my memory serves me correctly, he also landed a hit that made the boards shake right round the rink on his first shift. The sharp collective intake of breath around the rink was clearly audible.

Jesus. So THAT’S what an NHL check looks like!

Throughout the rest of the season, Wade Belak worked himself deep into the hearts of Coventry hockey fans. His approachability off the ice (in Britain fans and players routinely mix in the rink bar after the game) meant that he was a fans’ favourite, and his sheer presence on it meant that the Blaze quickly became the most feared team in the league by opposition forwards. The defensive line of Belak and former ECHLer and DEL player Neal Martin was accepted by almost everybody as the best pairing in British hockey.

The team only lost once in regulation time between Belak’s signing and the end of the season, securing the league title with three games to go as the Blaze won every trophy it was possible to win in British hockey, including the playoffs.

And, just like in Toronto, any time a Blaze player needed someone to step in and back them up, Belak was there.

Blaze fans still talk of a late-season night in Cardiff, in the second leg of British hockey’s cup competition, the Challenge Cup Final. Blaze had won the first game in the two game series vs the Cardiff Devils (who had then-SJ Shark Rob Davison on their squad) 6-1, and with the match decided on aggregate goals and a five-goal lead, some thought the second leg was a mere formality.

It wasn’t. In one of the greatest games in Blaze history, the Devils went 4-1 up in their own rink in front of 2000 screaming Welsh fans and nearly a thousand travelling Blaze supporters, and came within a whisker of snatching the cup before Coventry stormed back to win the game 5-4 and the tie 11-5.

Up to this point (and beyond it, too), the NHL enforcer had mainly kept his gloves on, revelling in the increased icetime and offensive chances he’d been given. Coventry fans had seen Belak’s power once or twice, but he’d not fought for fun.

It was in this game, however, that the big blond boy from Saskatoon burned his name into the hearts of Blaze fans forever.

Late in a game that had already had several fights, Devils forward Russ Romaniuk checked Martin, the Blaze’s premier offensive blueliner, hard into the plexi from behind, injuring his collarbone.

With Blaze fans screaming for Romaniuk’s blood, Belak crossed the ice from his defensive side, grabbed the Devil, span him round, calmly dropped the gloves…and quietly and efficiently destroyed him.

The message was clear: You hurt my team-mate, whoever they are, and I will hand out justice in the most painful and immediate way possible.

It was a truly fine example of what an enforcer’s role is meant to be, executed by one of the best in the game.

After he returned to the NHL with Florida and Nashville, the BELAK #3 Maple Leaf shirts were still worn proudly at the Skydome, and still are today. Many Blaze fans consider themselves Leafs fans because of Wade’s time here.

And every off-season, when two or more Coventry hockey fans would meet and the talk would turn to off-season transfers and signings, someone would invariably say “wouldn’t it be great if we could get Wade back?”

Last Wednesday night, the Blaze had a pre-season game against those same Devils, and won 7-3. After the game, around 10pm British time, the fans were celebrating in the rink bar as always when news came through of Wade Belak’s death.

The noise level dropped, and the joy at a fine win which promised much for the coming season ebbed away as the news spread through the bar like a black cloud. Within minutes, people were on their phones, looking for confirmation.

Sadly, they got it.

In tribute to Wade, the Blaze are planning to hold a minute’s applause before this Saturday’s home game against Dutch side Geleen Eaters.

I can state with certainty that, while he may have only been part of Coventry hockey for a season, that round of applause will be loud and long.

In fact, it will be so loud that the hockey gods themselves will need earplugs. A man like Wade Belak deserves nothing less.

Farewell, Wade. Toronto and the rest of North America have offered their thanks, now fans of your British team offer ours.

From everyone involved in hockey in Coventry, thank you, sir. May you rest in peace.

7.8 Steps To Sabres Heaven: Farewell, Chris Drury


So, I seem to be in something of a tribute-writing frame of mind recently. After the Rick Rypien post received such good reviews last week, I was contemplating returning to the grind of offseason previews, and then Chris Drury announced his retirement.

I’ve been watching hockey (as in been interested in it) properly since 2000, and it was in this year I was first able to properly follow the NHL thanks to it being shown on British TV, on the relatively-new Channel 5. They only showed one game a week on a Wednesday night, and it was usually the Red Wings or the Maple Leafs since they were presumably the feeds that were easiest to get hold of or something.

However, they also showed NHL On The Fly, and it was through this and the successful season of the Colorado Avalanche (they won the Stanley Cup that year) that I first became aware of a young American centre called Chris Drury. Even back with my little knowledge of the sport of hockey, I could see that this was a player who was far more than your average run-of-the-mill NHLer (if there is such a thing).

After all, by then he’d already won baseball’s Little League World Series, an NCAA championship, a Hobey Baker award…this was a man who was already more decorated at 22 than many get in a career. He added to his resume by becoming the only player in history to win both the college MVP award and the Calder Memorial Trophy as NHL rookie of the season.

Through that season and the following ones, he became one of my favourite league players not only for his skills but for the fact that he seemed to have nerves of titanium. No less a player than Joe Sakic said “if you need a goal, you need Drury on the ice”.

Many will look at his Stanley Cup, two silver Olympic medals with team USA and the fact that he was captain of the Rangers AND the Sabres and think “that’s a pretty useful pro hockey career, all told”. Fans of his teams will remember Drury’s speed, skill, amazing hands and ability to score goals when his team most needed them wherever he went-to the point where he earned the affectionate nickname “Captain Clutch” during his time in both Buffalo and New York. US hockey fans may also remember his scoring of the go-ahead goal against Canada in the US’s 2010 Olympic victory.

But perhaps the best tribute to the most famous son of Trumbull, Connecticut, is not a list of accolades or achievements. For me, it’s one goal and one goal only. A magical goal scored on the night of May 4th, 2007, against the New York Rangers. A goal which was one of the most dramatic in Sabres history, and a fitting example of just how skilled and talented Drury was.

There are 13 seconds left in regulation in game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference semi finals. New York Rangers are leading 1-0 at the HSBC Arena after the first two games have been split, and are close to a crucial away win which could swing the series in their favour. The Buffalo goalie is pulled, but the Rangers ice the puck and give the Sabres one last chance to equalise with six men. This is what is officially known as “the last chance saloon”. And as the whistle goes and the crowd look down at their captain and number 23, they pin their hopes on him, hoping that he can once again carry the weight of 20,000 people’s dreams as he’s done so often in an Avalanche and Sabres jersey.

Drury lines up for the faceoff in the offensive zone. He loses it, but then wins a battle along the boards with Michael Nylander, and plays a pass out in front with ten seconds remaining. The puck finds Tim Connolly at the point, who puts absolutely everything into his shot, clutching at a goalscoring chance with the desperation of a drowing man at a lifebelt. Drury, from his point behind the net, is scrambling to get back out into the mass of bodies in front of Henrik Lundqvist.

Nine seconds left. Thomas Vanek is the quickest forward to react as Lundqvist pads Connolly’s shot away, and swings desperately at the loose puck as Drury goes by him, twisting to face the net. The puck hits Lundqvist again.

Eight seconds. Drury finds the puck on his stick. With Lundqvist scrambling across and four NY Rangers heading towards him trying to get anything on the puck, he doesn’t have time to consider an option. He reacts on instinct, and shoots.

The puck climbs like a homesick angel into the top corner of Lundqvist’s net, and with 7.8 seconds left, the Sabres are level. And those inside the HSBC arena and watching at home have witnessed their own little miracle.

The scream of joy from the crowd is biblical. Even the roar greeting Maxim Afinogenov’s game winner seems slightly muted in comparison. After all, Afinogenov scores goals fairly often, and not always the important ones.

When Drury scores, it always seems to mean something special.

The Sabres closed out the series, but were beaten by the Ottawa Senators in the Conference Finals that year.

Drury kept going, though, heading to New York and doing the same thing the next year, scoring the series-winning goal for the Rangers against the New Jersey Devils.

However, injuries and knee problems meant that his career ended this season at the age of 35, after his contract was bought out by the Rangers. In his retirement Drury left the league quietly, under no great ceremony, but he will be remembered by this hockey fan and many others as a shining example of determination, pride and hard work triumphing more often than not.

Farewell, Captain Clutch. And the best of luck. Hockey is the poorer for your retirement.

Dropping The Gloves With Yourself


I need to make three apologies before I start this post, which has been “inspired” (if you can use such a word in this context) by my reaction to the tragic death of ex-Vancouver Canuck and Winnipeg Jet Rick Rypien this week, at the age of 27.

Firstly, sorry to those who have been waiting for the latest in the NHL reviews. Had a lot on this week with various other projects so will catch up with those as soon as I can.

Secondly, I apologise in advance that this post may venture into territory some may find a little darker than your usual hockey blog. You’ve been warned.

And thirdly, to those of you who may finish reading this and think that it doesn’t really have a coherent point, I apologise also. It kind of comes from the heart, this one…for reasons that you’ll see shortly. If anything, think of it as some sort of tribute to a fallen warrior…if that doesn’t sound too clich√©d.

Now, on we go.

This has been a terrible off-season for the NHL. Not so much for any events on the ice as for the loss of two men way before their time…first Derek Boogard earlier this off-season, and now Rypien. Both men were in their late 20’s, physically fit, and both had had some time away from hockey due to injuries.

The Boogaard death was tragic in itself, and I reacted to it the way most people did-with sympathy for his family, sadness that a player who was fun to watch was gone while still in the prime of his career…all the usual emotions.

But Rypien’s death hit me differently. As the news broke and speculation (still not confirmed, we should point out) spread and continues to spread that Rypien may have taken his own life,¬† my thoughts this time round were not just a case of “wow, that’s tragic” this time.

They were a reaction of¬† “holy shit. That could have been me”.

It was and is heavily speculated around the NHL that Rypien suffered from mental health issues. Very few specifics were ever released, if any at all, but they did cause the third-line grinder/enforcer to take several leaves of absence from the game he loved over his career.

And because of this, he’s a player who I identified with a little more than most.

Now-before you start thinking “who the hell is this guy and what does he know?” sure, I’m not an NHL player. I’m not someone who has or probably ever will have to deal with the pressures engendered by playing sports for a living.

But I am someone who has struggled and continues to deal with mental health issues. In my particular case, it’s a (thankfully) mild form of bipolar disorder.

This causes me to have fairly frequent and unpredictable mood swings. There are some days where I am immensely happy, positive, creative, and feel like I can do anything I wish. These are the incredible, manic-high days, and they are fairly rare.

Then (and thankfully these are the most common) there are the “normal” days. Sometimes these are better, sometimes worse, but usually, they work out alright, similar to those of almost everyone else on the planet.

But there are other days still. These are the ones when I’m convinced that anything I do isn’t good enough (including any posts on this blog), I’m pitied rather than tolerated by anyone I know, and any contribution my life could possibly make has no value to anyone or anything on the surface of the planet. Thankfully, they are usually rare and if they do happen, I have lived long enough with this problem and evolved coping strategies that help me get through. In fact, few people can probably tell when I’m having one of those days…a fact that gives me immense pride.

But still, I have to fight with myself to get through. And once or twice in my life, I’ve dropped the gloves with my inner trouble self and come perilously close to losing.

Several years ago, in the grip of one particularly bad swing, I found myself standing on an overpass late at night, standing staring at the cars passing beneath, and just for a fleeting second, the thought entered my head…

“Would it really be such a bad thing if I just jumped?”.

I tore myself away from that rail with several thoughts-family, friendship…all the clich√©s that people say help in such a situation.

But I’m also convinced to this day that hockey played a part, however small, in saving me.

My attempts at playing hockey are with a group of friends at an amateur level in a hockey backwater country. I can skate a little, handle a puck, and kid myself that at the level I play at I’m not that bad, but I have always known that hockey for me is nothing more than something I do for fun.

But what it is is an escape. On the ice, no matter what kind of day I’m having, I know that any of the internal fights that I have with myself stop. I’m happy. Hockey is by far the best antidepressant I know. And this, perhaps, is one of the reasons I love it so much-because of a truth that in my case seems to be evident:

Demons don’t skate.

But the Rypien case has shaken my faith in that truth, just a little. It seems that even playing the game he loved couldn’t help. Rypien, a player who was know for his lack of fear and willingness to take on any opponent at any time, a player who appeared to be finally dealing with his problems and was immensely hopeful of getting back into the NHL with the Jets after dealing with the kind of problems that simply can’t be properly explained to anyone who hasn’t dealt with them, may have been challenged by his demons to drop ’em once too often. And this time round, after years of dealing with it, there is the chance that maybe he just didn’t “wanna go” anymore. And that is the scariest thing for me.

Rypien is not the first hockey player to suffer from mental health issues. Tom Cavanagh, a former San Jose Sharks forward, committed suicide in January this year-he had been diagnosed as a schizophrenic and was institutionalized several times.

The thing that makes both these deaths so tragic for me, and hockey in general, is that these are men who played a sport they loved, had fought battles off the ice that few people could conceive, and (certainly in Rypien’s case) looked like they were recovering.

It raises the question…how many other NHLers are out there fighting lonely battles, fearful that they’ll be stigmatized by fans and players alike as weak for admitting that they perhaps aren’t supermen, that they can’t fight their feelings alone.

But most of all it reminds us that these players who we pay to watch are not perfect. They’re flesh and bone too, and they sometimes need help. And it reminds us that the toughest battles in hockey aren’t fought in the corners or in front of the net by many, but in their own minds.

For that reason, Rick Rypien should be viewed with true respect.

Whatever people thought of his style of play, he battled for years with a foe that never stops coming, never gives up, never gets tired, and wants nothing more than to kick the living crap out of anyone it comes into contact with. And he battled hard and well, just as he did on the ice.

Tragically, though, this was a case where the demons won. But I hope that it leads those who may be battling similar issues to realise that in the game of live, sometimes maybe you need someone to back you up when you drop the gloves, and there is no shame in asking. I found my help in hockey and the people I share it with…and it’s probably one of the reasons why I’m still here to write this.

RIP, Rick Rypien. You dropped the gloves and stood up against an opponent that no-one ever should have to, and you fought well enough to inspire this writer who you never met and only ever saw you on TV to continue to do the same every single day. Thank you, sir. May you find peace.

City Of (Future) Champions?: Edmonton Oilers


It’s been a lean few years in Alberta. With Calgary and Edmonton both missing the playoffs last year in the West, and Edmonton finishing bottom of the NHL both last season and this, the “City Of Champions” label applied to Edmonton is looking a little..well, outdated right now.

25 wins last season despite the coming out parties of Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle mean that this off-season, something big had to happen to get the hope back in Edmonton. This wasn’t just an “Oil Change” that was needed, but a whole new engine.

So-has it happened, or do the Oilers still have a way to go yet?

This Rexall Place off-season has been a tale of two Ryans first and foremost. One is a returning legend, and the other has the fanbase hoping he can become one.

The forward pack may have more skilled names on it, it may have players with better statistics, but the fact remains…when you think of the Edmonton Oilers team since the great days of Gretzky, Kurri, Messier and Coffey, you think of one name first…

Ryan Smyth. This man has made a legitimate case to have his #94 raised to the rafters at Rexall Place…drafted by the Oilers in 1994, he is as much a part of the Oil folklore as any player on the great 80’s dynasty. At the age of 35, he’s returned to the city after four seasons away, for his 13th in an Oilers jersey. His signing made the city happy like few others have. This guy bleeds blue and gold.

He’s joined by the next generation of Ryan. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a flashy centre taken first overall by the Oilers to join Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Sam Gagner, Linus Omark and Magnus Paajarvi on an offence loaded with young, exciting forwards. Shawn Horcoff and Eric Belanger provide the veteran leadership, with Ales Hemsky adding the flashiness. Make no mistake-this is a talented group even if Nugent-Hopkins spends another year in junior. The only thing that can stop them being effective is themselves.

On defence, Rexall has seen a big new arrival in Cam Barker from Minnesota. The big defensive blueliner will shut things down at the back end along with Andy Sutton and Theo Peckham, while Ryan Whitney, Ladislav Smid and Tom Gilbert will be relied upon to lead the transition. This isn’t the standout group in the NHL star-wise, but it is a good one. It has backup, too, with big, young and nasty 2008 draft pick Colton Teubert pushing to step up into the rotation also.

The Achilles heel of this Oilers team may be in net. Nikolai Khabibulin is good but at 38, his best years may be behind him. Devan Dubnyk played 35 games last year, winning 12, but he will need to prove in pre-season that he’s ready for the job and take his play up another level.

Prospect-wise, Tyler Bunz and Olivier Roy are on the horizon, but are probably not ready for NHL hockey just yet, barring a major breakout.

So…how much can the Oilers improve this year?

For a start, they can’t get any worse. Playoffs are probably a stretch this season, given that they’ll need to win near-as-dammit double the amount of games they did this season to get a playoff place. Is this do-able? Maybe on the silver screen, but in real-life not that many miracles happen.

However, Edmonton has hit rock bottom and is now on the way back up. This season will show the first shoots of recovery at least-if the Oilers can find a truly good starting goalie, make a few big trades or Khabibulin has an career Indian summer, they may still be in the playoff picture come March.

But this is an Oilers team that will really come good one or two years from now. Be patient, City of Champions. Good times are slowly coming back.