Saturday, November 28, 2009

Toronto Marlies Search for Stability

In an effort to promote the American Hockey League and their quality players, The Voice of Sport will look at teams in the AHL every Saturday throughout the season. The teams in the AHL play an exciting brand of hockey and with a mix of veterans and NHL draft picks; the league is a great place to watch some tremendous hockey at a reasonable price. This week, the Toronto Marlies...

Toronto Marlies Search for Stability

As the only American Hockey League team sharing a city with their NHL affiliate, it can be both a blessing and a curse in Toronto. While players do not have far to travel when called-up to the NHL club and guidance from the organization's General Manager is readily available, the constant shifting of players from the AHL to NHL can leave the roster in a constant state of flux. In the case of the Marlies, the early season struggles by the Leafs, have led to a slow start for themselves as well.

While the Maple Leafs dealt with injuries and poor performances by their goaltenders, using four so far this season, the call-up of Joey MacDonald and James Reimer to the Leafs on several occasions has meant that the Marlies have also had to use four goalies. Adam Munro and Andrew Engelage have seen some action at the AHL level while MacDonald and Reimer have been with the big club.

Reimer, a former Red Deer Rebel (WHL) from Winnipeg Manitoba, has carried the load in nets for the Marlies, posting a 6-1-1 record in nine games, with a 2.29 GAA and a .925 save percentage in his first full season in the league. He recently missed the opportunity for his first AHL shutout in Thursday’s 4-1 win over the Lake Erie Monsters. MacDonald, a member of the New York Islanders last season, has split his time between the Leafs and Marlies. In six games, he has a 2-4-0 record with a 2.83 GAA and a shaky .892 save percentage. Munro, a former Chicago Blackhawk, in his second season with the Marlies, has played six games this season with a 2-2-1 record, 2.49 GAA and a .924 save percentage. Engelage has played only 40 minutes for the Marlies, so his 7.50 GAA and .643 save percentage are not reflective of his abilities - he will spend most of the season in the ECHL with the Reading Royals.

The team has won three games in a row headed into Saturday’s action but they are 10 points behind the Rochester Americans for first place in the Western Conference’s North Division. Twenty games into the season, Toronto has a 10-7-1-2 (win/loss/overtime loss/shootout loss) and 23 points. While there is some distance to first in the division, they are only 5 points out of second place. Toronto ranks 16th on the power play and have been very consistent on the penalty kill, ranking 10th in the AHL. Things need to tighten up defensively for the Marlies, while they have scored 58 goals this season; they have allowed 59 goals against, categories that will need improvement if the team is to make a move in the standings.

With leading scorer Christian Hanson (8 goals, 18 points) currently suiting up for the Maple Leafs, the offence will need to find a rhythm behind Jiri Tlusty (8 goals, 15 points) and Andre Deveaux (3 goals, 13 points). First year AHL player, Tyler Bozak has only two goals this season and the former NCAA star from Regina Saskatchewan will have to increase his productivity for the Marlies. Of course, with the way the Leaf’s season has gone, if Bozak’s play improves, he may find himself in the NHL, leaving the Marlies to search for another legitimate goal scorer.

As the spotlight in Toronto shines squarely on the Maple Leafs, the Marlies continue to establish themselves in a Toronto market that includes the Leafs, the NBA’s Raptors, the MLS Toronto FC, MLB’s Blue Jays and the CFL’s Argonauts. The battle for media coverage and ticket buyers is fierce and even though the Marlies are affiliated with the Leafs, through 11 home games, the Marlies are 28th in the 29-team league in attendance; averaging 3,074 fans per game

In their fifth season in Toronto, questions remain as to the viability of an AHL team in the city but as the Leafs continue to rebuild, the Marlies will eventually be home for the Leaf’s emerging stars. With a good mix of veterans and prospects in the next few seasons, which is the recipe for success in the league, the attendance numbers will continue to increase for the Marlies.

A tough week is awaiting the Marlies, after today’s game against the Houston Aeros (11-10-1-1), Toronto faces two division rivals. The Abbotsford Heat (12-9-2-2) are at the Ricoh Coliseum on Tuesday before back-to-back games against the Hamilton Bulldogs (12-6-1-3) on Friday and Saturday. The Heat and the Bulldogs are five points ahead of the Marlies in the North Division.

Next Saturday at The Voice of Sport, we’ll head South in the AHL, looking at the red-hot Texas Stars. Have a great sports day everyone.

Photo by suki_n on Flickr

Friday, November 27, 2009

Alouettes and Roughriders to Battle for the Grey Cup

This article was first published in the November 27th edition of Main Street Week and is reprinted here with permission from the editors. Drop by to have a look at a great community newspaper or sign up and have Main Street Week delivered right to your inbox every Friday.

Alouettes and Roughriders to Battle for the Grey Cup

As the CFL prepares for the 97th Grey Cup in Calgary's McMahon Stadium on November 29th, the most intriguing storyline is the fact that the Montreal Alouettes and Saskatchewan Roughriders will meet in the championship game for the first time in the history of the league. Considering the numerous all-stars that have suited up for both teams over the years, it is remarkable that this will be their first meeting in the Grey Cup. The Montreal Amateur Athletic Association team defeated the Regina Roughriders 22-0 in the 1931 Championship; however, this will be the first Roughrider/Alouettes match-up.

It has been a season to remember on the Prairies. With a first place finish in the Western Division, the Roughriders earned a home date for the Western Final for the first time in 33 years. The “sea of green” was out in full force, as 30,945 Saskatchewan fans gathered at Mosaic Stadium to help the Riders defeat the defending Champions from Calgary by a 27-17 score on November 22nd.

To put the importance of the victory in perspective, the last time the Roughriders played a Western Final at home, CFL legend Ron Lancaster was at the helm for the green and white. It was a well-earned victory for the Roughriders and their faithful fans and they can now proudly call themselves the Western Champions.

In the Eastern Final at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, the Alouettes handled the B.C. Lions quite easily and defeated the Lions by a 56-18 score in front of 53,792 fans. Montreal QB, Anthony Calvillo, added another CFL record to his 16-year resume with 5 touchdown passes in the game to tie the record for most TD passes in a playoff game. Once again, Montreal is the Eastern Division Champions and they will be the favourites in the Grey Cup game.

The Montreal defence was after Lions QB Casey Printers right from the start of the game, forcing him to scramble for yards and make ineffective passes. Movie buffs may remember the 1968 film, Paper Lions, starring Alan Alda as real-life reporter George Plimpton. In the movie, Plimpton secretly joins the Detroit Lions training camp to try-out for the team and conduct research for a series of articles. When his cover is blown, he must earn the respect of his teammates by surviving the daily scrimmages and practical jokes at his expense.

When he enters a pre-season game as a rookie quarterback, fearing for his life, Alda’s character repeatedly runs towards his own end zone, trying to avoid the rushing defenders and the crushing hits that he is about to receive. With the Montreal defenders cutting through the B.C. offensive line like a warm knife through butter, Printers resembled Alan Alda and probably felt like he played on the B.C. Paper Lions.

The 97th Grey Cup game will be one to remember; for Saskatchewan, it is their second Grey Cup appearance in three years - winning the Championship in 2007 over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The Alouettes will make their seventh appearance in the Grey Cup since the year 2000; with only one victory during that time, Calvillo and the Al’s will look to earn their place in CFL history as one of the greatest all-time teams with a win. Have a great sports day everyone.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Catching Up with the Hershey Bears...

In an effort to promote the American Hockey League and their quality players and coaches north of the border, The Voice of Sport will look at teams in the AHL every Saturday throughout the season. The teams in the AHL play an exciting brand of hockey and with a mix of veterans and NHL draft picks; the league is a great place to watch some tremendous hockey at a reasonable price. To start things off, let’s check in on one of my favourites, the Hershey Bears.

Catching up with the Hershey Bears...

The defending Calder Cup Champions in the AHL keep rolling along, as the Hershey Bears defeated the Binghamton Senators by a 5-2 score on Friday evening. For Hershey, it was their fifth win a row and the team is now 9-1 in their last ten games. The Bears sit atop the East Division with 26 points and they have a five-point lead over the Norfolk Admirals. Overall, Hershey is one point back of the Manchester Monarchs for first place in the Eastern Conference and are fourth in the entire league.

Considering the number of call-ups to the Washington Capitals in recent weeks, a list that includes last season’s Calder Cup MVP, goaltender Michal Neuvrith, it is remarkable that this team continues to win. The overall success of the Bears demonstrates the quality of the organization, the coaching staff and the leadership on the ice from team Captain Bryan Helmer.

General Manager Doug Yingst and Head Coach Mark French have assembled a talented group of players and with the support of the Hershey fans; it is easy to see why the Bears have won 10 Calder Cups in the history of the franchise. As the season approaches the quarter mark, the Bears are in great shape on all fronts; two of their players are in the top-six in AHL scoring, their defence has provided offence without sacrificing their own zone and the goaltending has been exceptional.

Leading the way offensively for the Bears is Quebec City native, Alexandre Giroux. A seventh round pick of the Ottawa Senators in the 1999 entry draft, he is second in league scoring with 9 goals and 24 points in 14 games; only five points behind Hartford’s Corey Locke in the AHL scoring race. Andrew Gordon, another seventh round pick (Washington) in the 2004 entry draft from Halifax, Nova Scotia, is sixth in league scoring with 8 goals and 20 points in 18 games. Both players illustrate the importance of the AHL; as seventh round draft picks, they have flourished in the league and may be taking regular shifts in the NHL in the future.

On defence, their Captain, 17-year hockey veteran Bryan Helmer, leads the Bears. While he is yet to score this season, he has 3 assists in 14 games and his presence in the locker room is immeasurable. (Regular readers will know, Helmer is a personal favourite - had to give him a mention!)

The plus/minus rating can be deceptive at times but it does illustrate a team’s play while 5-on-5 and the Bears defence is led by recent Washington call-up, John Carlson. In 17 games with Hershey this season, he has 10 points and is a +14. Other D-men to watch: Karl Alzner (4 points, +15), Sean Collins (4 points, +7), Patrick McNeill (6 points, +4) and Sault Ste. Marie native Greg Amadio (3 points, +4).

Hershey is third in the AHL in the goals against category due to a committed defensive squad and timely goaltending. Michal Neuvrith and Jason Bacashihua have handled the bulk of the net minding duties this season with former Saskatoon Blades (WHL) goaltender Braden Holtby playing in three games as well. The statistics for these three goalies are remarkable and they are a key factor in Hershey’s rise to the top once again.

Jason Bacashihua: six games played with a 5-1-0 win/loss record, 1.84 GAA and a .926 save percentage.

Braden Holtby: three games played, a 2-1-0 win/loss record, 1.01 GAA and a .967 save percentage.

Michal Neuvrith: nine games played, a 6-3-0 win/loss record, 2.34 GAA and a .915 save percentage.

The week ahead for the Bears will be a tough one as they take on the Springfield Falcons (9-6-3-1, 22 points) Saturday evening, the Providence Bruins (8-9-1-0, 17 points) on Thursday, and then back-to-back games against their East Division rivals - the Adirondack Phantoms (8-6-1-0, 17 points). Next week at The Voice of Sport, we will be closer to home, looking at the North Division’s Toronto Marlies. Have a great sports day everyone.

Photo by Dinur on Flickr

Friday, November 20, 2009

CFL Set for East and West Championships

This article was first published in the November 20th edition of Main Street Week and is reprinted here with permission from the editors. Drop by to have a look at a great community newspaper or sign up and have Main Street Week delivered right to your inbox every Friday.

CFL Set for East and West Championships

The CFL playoffs are underway and the Montreal Alouettes (15-3) and Saskatchewan Roughriders (10-7-1) are preparing to host the East and West Championship games on November 22nd as the road to the 97th Grey Cup continues. The Roughriders won the Western Division for the first time in 33 years and will host the defending Grey Cup Champions from Calgary. In the East, thanks to the CFL's crossover playoff format, the Alouettes will be defending the honour of the East in their game against the BC Lions.

On November 15th, while the Alouettes were resting up and dealing with any lingering injuries from their season, the second place Hamilton Tiger-Cats (9-9) hosted the BC Lions (8-10) at Ivor-Wynne Stadium in the battle of the big cats. The game started slowly, with both teams exchanging several field goals before former Tiger-Cat QB, Casey Printers, took control of the game and led the Lions to a 34-27 overtime victory.

After spending the past two seasons in Hamilton and being released by the team due to his ineffective play, Printers looked right at home with the Lions offence in his second stint with BC. It appears that the 2004 Most Outstanding Player in the CFL will be the player to watch when the Lions arrive at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal. In Hamilton, Printers completed 24 of his 35 passes for 360 yards, passing for one touchdown and running another into the end zone while throwing no interceptions.

The fact that Printers is heating up in time for the Eastern Championship game should worry Alouettes fans. While the Alouettes have not played a meaningful game in several weeks, Printers and the Lions are gaining confidence and looking to build on their first round win. Printers will test the Montreal defence; if he cannot beat you in the air with his passing game, the fleet of foot quarterback can escape the rush and scramble for some big yardage plays on the ground.

Meanwhile, in the West, the Calgary Stampeders (10-7-1) defeated the Edmonton Eskimos (9-9) by a score of 24-21 and earned their playoff date with the West Division winners in Regina. Once again, the field goal kickers were center stage as both teams relied on their kicking game for a 9-7 Calgary lead at halftime. Once the second half began, Henry Burris led the Calgary offence to victory with two touchdown passes. For the game, last season’s Grey Cup MVP completed 19 of his 32 passes for 264 yards through the air, with the two TD passes and no interceptions.

Looking ahead to the East and West Finals, the Roughriders will have a tough time against the defending champions. Not only did they finish the season with identical win/loss records, the Grey Cup is in Calgary this year and the Stampeders would love another Cup victory on their home turf. In Montreal, the Alouettes move across town from the friendly surroundings of Molson Stadium to the cavernous Olympic Stadium.

While it is easy to see why the Al’s head to the Big Oh-No during the playoffs, a larger crowd helps with the financial bottom line, it may be a home game but it is not their home turf. With a dangerous QB like Casey Printers running the offence for the Lions and the CFL’s all-time leader in coaching victories, Wally Buono at the helm, a Montreal loss would result in the BC Lions representing the East in the Grey Cup. How is that for a geographical conundrum? Have a great sports day everyone.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Best Advice for Habs Fans - Hang in There!

Taking a quick glance at the NHL standings this morning, it is hard not to notice the Montreal Canadiens sitting in 12th place in the Eastern Conference, tied with the Boston Bruins with twenty points each. After 21 games, Montreal has a 10-11-0 win/loss record and although the season has just reached the quarter point, the opportunity to make an appearance in the playoffs will fade quickly if they are not careful.

Looking at the teams behind Montreal - Florida, Toronto and Carolina, one has to wonder - if the teams behind Montreal are “bad teams”, where does that leave the Canadiens. Are they as bad as the Leafs and Hurricanes? Are they better then the Thrashers, Islanders and Lightning - three of teams sitting ahead of them in the standings? These are the questions keeping Habs fans and sports columnists up at night...

On paper, this was supposed to be a competitive squad, reshaped by Bob Gainey during the off-season to challenge the top teams in the East. Statistically, the Canadiens are right where they belong - near the bottom of the standings. What is happening to this proud franchise? The unproductive players are supposed to be gone (Koivu, Kovalev and Komisarek to name a few former Habs), the new talent has arrived, a new head coach is teaching his defensive style and yet the problems persist; this team may be worse then last year’s squad by the time the season ends. How did that happen?

The Canadiens are 24th in the league on the power play at 15.9%, they are 17th on the penalty kill at 80.4%, 26th in the goals for department (2.29 per game), 21st in goals against (2.90 per game), and perhaps the most telling statistic, they are 28th in goals scored when playing five-on-five hockey.

It is tremendous to see Tomas Plekanec playing at the level many expected him to reach last season but is it a concern to see him leading the team in scoring? Through 21 games, he has 4 goals and 19 points, while averaging slightly more then 19 minutes of ice time per game. Mike Cammalleri (16 points), Brian Gionta (13 points) and Scott Gomez (11 points) are next on the team in scoring and then the drop-off begins.

One of my personal favourites, Glen Metropolit, has 4 goals and 6 assists to rank fifth in team scoring; he has averaged 14 minutes of ice time per game. When looking at the Habs top six forwards, as much as I hate to say it because I really like the guy, Metropolit should not be one of them.

The young players, expected to raise their games to another level this season, have fallen far short of expectations at this point of the season. Maxim Lapierre (5 points and is -6), Guillaume Latendresse (3 points and is -4), Kyle Chipchura (no points in 14 games and is a team worst -8), Max Pacioretty (4 points and -3), Andrei Kostitsyn (6 points and is -4) and his brother Sergei is somewhere between Hamilton in the AHL and the Russia in the KHL. Combined, these six “future stars” have seven goals this season. Wondering why the Habs cannot score when playing five-on-five, there is your answer.

The Canadiens signed free agent Marc-Andre Bergeron on October 6th because of the injury to Andrei Markov and he leads the Montreal D-men with 7 points, while playing only 16 minutes a game. The team leader in ice time for the D with 25 minutes is Roman Hamrlik (6 points, even rating), followed by Spacek (6 points, +3), Josh Gorges (3 points, +2), Paul Mara (6 points, -7) and before he was injured, Hal Gill had 1 assist and was a -3 in 14 games. The Montreal blue line has seen their share of injuries (which team hasn’t?), but the call-ups have produced zero points when they have been in the line-up - not a good sign when more injuries are a certainty in an 82 game schedule.

The goaltenders have both struggled at times this season and while it would be easy to place the blame at their feet, they will only be as good as the team in front of them. Observers will say that when a team is struggling, the goaltender will have to steal the game. Well, Carey Price did just that against Nashville, stopping 53 of the 55 shots sent his way and Montreal still lost 2-0. What more could Price do - if it was only 1-0, perhaps he should have taken a shot on the Nashville net from his end, he may have better luck then the forwards...

After a shaky start to the season, Price and Jaroslav Halak have improved their play and the numbers are starting to reflect that. Price is 5-8-0 in 13 starts with a 2.99 GAA and a .906 save percentage. Halak is 5-3-0 in 8 starts with a respectable 2.62 GAA and a .904 save percentage. Both could play better but as stated above, they have tried to steal a game or two for their team, only to be let down by the ineffective offence.

Where do the Habs go from here? General Manager Bob Gainey must certainly be working the phones looking for help but we live in the salary cap era and trades are becoming non-existent. What is the trade value of the players on Montreal’s roster? It cannot be too high at this point of the season... If Gainey had a vision of where his team would be at the 20 game point, it would be safe to say this was not it.

The best bet for Montreal management and their fans will be to remain patient. As difficult as that seems, it is the most prudent path to take at this time. With teams like Ottawa, Atlanta, Tampa Bay and the New York Islanders ahead of them, Montreal must stay the course, keep fighting for the puck and shooting everything they can at the net. A few “garbage goals” may result in a victory, which could lead to a winning streak and a move up the standings. The Canadiens are incredibly fast on their skates, if they keep their feet moving, skating hard - they will draw some penalties, allowing the power play to find a rhythm.

The best advice for Habs fans at this point of the season - hang in there! If the team continues to struggle and misses the playoffs, well, at least you still have your draft picks - unlike another Original Six team just up the 401 highway. Have a great sports day everyone.

Photo by HoOn on Flickr

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Atlanta Thrashers have Future All-Star in Evander Kane...

While the rookie spotlight has been shinning on John Tavares in New York and Victor Hedman in Tampa Bay, another rookie is making quite a statement in Atlanta for the Thrashers. Vancouver native Evander Kane has stepped into the Atlanta line-up as an 18-year-old and he is looking right at home in the NHL. His first point came in his first NHL game, with an assist on a goal by Richard Peverley and his first career goal came in his fifth NHL game against goaltender Chris Mason in St. Louis.

Selected fourth overall in the 2009 entry draft, the former Vancouver Giant (WHL) and member of Canada’s World Junior team has made an immediate impact in Atlanta. Unfortunately, the Thrashers are not headline news and Kane’s efforts are overshadowed by the success story on Long Island and the resurgence of the Tavares led Islanders squad.

The Islanders sit in seventh place in the Eastern Conference with 23 points, two points ahead of Kane’s Thrashers as the first quarter of the NHL season wraps up. Tavares leads all rookies in scoring with 9 goals and 19 points in 21 games and he has an even rating in the plus/minus department. Kane is not far behind with 6 goals and 11 points in his first 17 NHL games and he is a plus nine, playing on the third line with Peverley and Colby Armstrong.

One interesting note, Tavares is accumulating points on the Islanders powerplay with 4 goals and 6 assists, while Kane is already killing penalties and he has one shorthanded tally so far this season; he also has three game winning goals to start his NHL career.

Kane is playing a regular shift for Atlanta and Coach John Anderson, averaging 14 minutes of ice time per game. As Ilya Kovalchuk returns to form after missing six games with a broken bone in his right foot, Kane’s point totals should continue to increase as opposing teams give Kovalchuk their full attention. If the Thrashers can sign Kovalchuk long-term and with the emergence of Richard Peverley, Bryan Little and D-man, Zach Bogosian, this team is set to make a run at a playoff spot for several seasons.

The fact that Kane has found success in the NHL is not a surprise to fans of the Vancouver Giants. While he was in the WHL, Kane played 65 games in 2007-08 and had 41 points and during the 2008-2009 season, he helped ignite the Giant’s offence with 48 goals and 96 points in 61 games. Kane was part of the Giants Memorial Cup win in 2007 as a 15-year-old WHL rookie and he is a Gold medal winner at the Junior Championships as part of team Canada in 2009. He also won Gold with Canada’s Under 18 squad in 2008 at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.

Winning seems to follow this young man and with his strong work ethic and natural abilities on the ice, he will be a star in the league for years to come. Atlanta’s Captain, Ilya Kovalchuk, described Kane’s intensity in an article from the pre-season at the Thrashers website. “He skates like the wind,” said Kovalchuk. “He just needs to play the games and get experience from the games. He's got unbelievable talent and there's a lot of fire in his eyes.”

While Atlanta is near the bottom of the league in attendance, averaging only 13,510 fans per game, the management team of General Manager Don Waddell has accumulated a fine group of young talent and they are ready to compete. Whether or not the city of Atlanta is prepared to support their NHL franchise remains uncertain but one thing is clear, Evander Kane is ready for the NHL spotlight. Have a great sports day everyone.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Headshots Must be Dealt with by the NHL

There was plenty of talk at the General Manager's meeting this past week in Toronto regarding headshots in the NHL. As expected, nothing was resolved on the issue; the GM's decided to postpone a decision until their next meeting. While some GM's are starting to come around, one has to wonder what is taking so long. There is adequate information from new research that reveals the long-term, devastating effects of head injuries and the dangers of repeated concussions.

Last Spring, when the NHL discussed the value of fighting in the league, there was an uproar from all sides, management, players and fans. Canadiens enforcer Georges Laraque was invited to speak with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to plead the case of the enforcers. When will the league be more open to a discussion on headshots? Why not form a committee with Eric Lindros, Pat Lafontaine, Keith Primeau and current players like Chris Drury and Sheldon Souray? These men have had first hand experience with repeated concussions and their voices must be heard.

In my conversations with Primeau and Sports Legacy Institute co-founder Chris Nowinski during the summer, both expressed a desire to see a change in the NHL. Primeau would like to see a rule in place that properly deals with headshots on unsuspecting players and Nowinski would like to see the awareness of the long-term effects of repeated concussions properly explained to the players. Primeau made a great point in our interview - he worries that concussions will become a part of the NHL's business model; much like knee injuries and sports hernias.

Part of the problem when dealing with head injuries is that every concussion is different and the effects on each player varies. Do teams rush back their stars too soon, leaving them vulnerable to secondary and tertiary concussions, which may lead them along the same road that Primeau and Nowinski have both been on?

It would appear that Primeau’s fears are coming true; as the current NHL season approaches the quarter-mark, here is a list of the players in the NHL watching from the sidelines due to concussions:

Michael Ryan - Carolina (out until at least mid-November), Andreas Lilja - Detroit (out indefinitely), Sheldon Souray - Edmonton (currently on Edmonton’s road trip but still out), Robert Nilsson - Edmonton (day-to-day with head injury, concussed last season), David Booth - Florida (out until late November at best), Pierre-Marc Bouchard - Minnesota (on IR, out indefinitely), Petr Sykora - Minnesota (out indefinitely), Matt D’Agostini - Montreal (mid to late November), Chris Drury - New York Rangers (listed as doubtful, has missed several games and may end up on the IR), Ole-Kristian Tollefson - Philadelphia (mid to late November), Kurt Sauer - Phoenix (on IR with headaches, missed 28 games between Dec. 07 - Feb. 08 with concussion), Jamie Heward - Toronto (out indefinitely)

Here are the players recently returned to the line-up after being concussed this season:

Jonathan Toews - Chicago, Ben Eager - Chicago, Darcy Tucker - Colorado, Steve Staios - Edmonton, James van Reimsdyk - Philadelphia, Victor Hedman - Tampa Bay

So let’s get this straight, eliminating “staged fights” led to an immediate reaction from the NHL. In a quick search through the NHL’s injury report, 17 players are out or have missed significant time due to concussions and head injuries but the NHL will discuss the situation at a later date and may make changes in time for next season. How many more names will be on this list by the end of the season?

The time to change is now and it is up to us as sports fans to demand change and make the NHL accountable for the safety and the future of its players. The situation does not only include the number of games lost to this injury, the lives of the players after they retire are at stake as well.

In the interview for Main Street/The Voice of Sport, Primeau and Nowinski were asked, how they are now - five years after their last head injuries. Both men let out a slow exhale and said they are slowly getting better but believed that they may never be 100%. Both men were eager to return to a normal life, free of headaches and post-concussion symptoms. Both men have lived through the nightmare of post-concussion syndrome, why are we not listening to them! Have a great sports day everyone - and remember to play safe!

Photo by:nac888 on Flickr

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Bryan Helmer - A Fan of the Game

This article is in the November edition of Main Street and is reprinted here with permission from the editors - Thanks Jack and Sue! Photo by Dinur on flickr...

A very special Thank You to the Hershey Bears for setting up the interview and of course, Bryan Helmer, for sharing his thoughts and taking the time to speak with Main Street/The Voice of Sport.
THANKS Bryan!!

Bryan Helmer - A Fan of the Game

For generations, hockey legends like Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Guy Lafleur and Larry Robinson have inspired youngsters to lace up the skates and head for their backyard and local rinks, hoping one day to join their idols in the National Hockey League. Equally inspiring is the career of Winchester native and American Hockey League veteran Bryan Helmer, a perfect example of the modern day Canadian dream, the dream of playing hockey professionally.

The two-time Calder Cup champion and captain of the Hershey Bears is set to begin his 17th season playing professionally and he has enjoyed every minute of his career, which includes 146 games in the NHL with several teams and more then 900 games in the AHL. Last season, at 36-years of age, his reward for his dedication to the game, besides being captain of Team Canada at the AHL all-star game, was to get the call to return to the NHL for the first time since 2004, this time with the Washington Capitals.

“I wanted to get back, but I never thought that I would,” said Helmer from his home in Hershey Pennsylvania. “When I was in the NHL my son was too young to remember and he was always going over the years, Dad when are you going to get called up? I was like, I’m trying son... and it happened. It was a big thrill to get back there. Now my son realizes that I made it to the NHL and he will remember that.”

Playing with the Capitals was not only personally rewarding for Helmer, it also proved a source of inspiration for his Hershey teammates; perhaps their NHL dreams would come true as well.

“After I got called up and then sent back down, there were a lot of guys that got inspired by it,” recalled Helmer. “A lot of guys kept asking me why I wasn’t in Europe. I told them I always had that dream of making it back to the NHL. Once I did, that obviously gave them inspiration, that maybe they should stay over here.”

With sixteen seasons of hockey behind him, reporters are asking if coaching is in his future, but for now, Helmer is concentrating on his playing career and plans to do so for as long as he can. His tenure as a hockey veteran has made him a great leader in the locker room and he has no problems giving advice to the younger players as captain of the Hershey Bears.

“I love giving advice to the young guys and I love being around them,” said Helmer. “That’s why obviously I am still playing. I am definitely vocal in the dressing room if guys want advice, I will give it. Sometimes if they don’t want it, I will still give it! I enjoy my job and I wouldn’t give it up for the world.”

As a part of the Washington organization, returning to the NHL in a city that has seen a tremendous resurgence in popularity was not lost on Helmer; besides playing professionally, Helmer admits he is a passionate fan of the game.

“Getting called up to Washington and playing with Ovechkin, he’s the best player in the world and I got to play with him. It’s a thrill when you see it that way; I am a big fan of the game too.”

Sometimes the path to your dream is a long and winding road that takes you to unexpected places. Priorities may change but the goal remains the same. For Bryan Helmer, every twist and turn has been worth it. He has achieved goals that others only dream of, all the while, being a true fan of the game. Have a great sports day everyone.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Remembrance Day Thoughts - Main Street Week - November 6, 2009

This article first appeared in the November 6th, 2009 edition of Main Street Week. With permission from the editors, this article has been reprinted here for all of the Voice of Sport readers - Thanks Jack and Sue!

Follow Your Dreams - and the Good Stories too...

As we approach November 11th and Remembrance Day, it is vitally important that we give thanks and remember the veterans of our Armed Forces that have made the ultimate sacrifice, allowing us to live in a free and democratic society. While we may not always agree on the deployment of our troops, there is no doubt that Canada’s men and women are second to none!

Personally, my Great-Uncle, Harry Lister, served in the military in WWII and my Uncle Bill Jackson is an active member of the Legion. My wife’s Grandfather, Macgregor Scobie of Arnprior Ontario, served in Europe during WWII and he has told several stories that leave your heart hurting, while at the same time, these stories inspire you to be a better person.

Mr. Scobie is in possession of a photograph from WWII, which hangs on his basement wall. A group of soldiers are storming one of the beaches on D-Day and a young man has just exited one of the boats. He is up to his chest in the water, carrying a bicycle, headed for the beach and an uncertain future. That young man is our Pop - Remembrance Day takes on a new meaning when standing next to a veteran as he looks at himself in a photograph from the war. It is important to remember, thanks to these sacrifices, we can all follow our dreams.

Many of you already know, for 12 years I was a musician, living and travelling through various parts of Canada, writing songs and sharing them on stage, working towards that “big break”. In 2004, health issues forced a career change and with the support of my wife Dianne, family and friends, I launched my website almost two years ago, joined the Canadian Association of Journalists and began a new career as a sports writer.

For the past sixteen months, I have written my sports columns for Main Street’s monthly and weekly editions with a mix of interviews and sports opinions. It is such a pleasure each time to share the sports news with Main Street readers while interviewing some of my favourite professional athletes. I am constantly surprised by what can be accomplished from my tiny home office here in Toronto and I am looking forward to bringing more sports news to Main Street for years to come.

In a recent conversation with Doug Farraway, a Program Director at the Fan 590 in Toronto - Canada’s largest sports radio station, Mr. Farraway shared an important piece of advice, the same advice I received from Jack and Sue at Main Street; regardless of the league or location, always follow the good stories.

Thanks to the sacrifices of many young men and women, from my family and yours, we can all follow our dreams and the good stories too, no matter where they are. This November, please take a moment to remember the men and women that did not make it home, shake the hand and thank the veterans that returned from the battlefields, make a donation to your local Legion and wear your poppy proudly. Have a great sports day everyone

Sunday, November 8, 2009

NHL Odds & Ends: Monstrous Win for Maple Leafs...

Maple Leafs Make a Statement with Second Win in a Row...

The Toronto Maple Leafs picked up an important two points on Saturday evening, handing the Detroit Red Wings a 5-1 loss at the ACC. While the score gives the appearance of a blow out, this game was closer then the score indicates. For the first part of the game, it was goaltender Johan "The Monster" Gustavsson that was the star for Toronto. Phil Kessel and Wayne Primeau picked up their first goals of the season and Gustavsson made 35 saves in the game; 13 of them coming in the first period, holding the fort while Toronto built up a 2-0 lead.

With the win, the Leafs move within a point of the 27th place Minnesota Wild in the overall league standings and they are now six points behind the New York Islanders for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Despite a horrendous start to the season, the Leafs are in striking distance of the playoffs thanks to picking up points in seven consecutive games, a streak that now includes two wins in a row. A turning point may have been the first intermission of the game against Carolina. According to reports from the media members that follow the team on the road, Head Coach Ron Wilson appealed to the sense of pride in the dressing room. Down by two goals against the Hurricanes, losers of 12 in a row as of Saturday night, Wilson reminded his players they had only one victory in the win column and they should get mad and fight for a win. The team responded with a comeback victory and followed it up with a strong effort against the Wings in the annual Hall of Fame Game.

Luke Schenn was a plus 2 in the game, playing over 18 minutes due to an injury to Mike Komisarek and looked better then he has in previous games. Jeff Finger made a statement on his status as a healthy scratch in previous games, scoring a goal and adding an assist in 18 minutes of ice time.

While not everything is perfect in Leaf Land, they have taken several important steps towards respectability. Ever team usually succumbs to a lengthy losing streak during an 82 game schedule and Leaf fans are hoping their team has their losing streak out of the way and they can ride The Monster into the hunt for eighth place.

Red Wings Injury and Goaltending Woes Continue...

Just when it appeared Detroit's Chris Osgood had found his game, he let in all five goals Saturday night, stopping only 23 of 28 shots sent his way by the Leafs. After three wins in a row, including a shutout in Boston on November 3rd, Osgood was on the hook for five goals for the second time this season. Despite two consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup Finals, Detroit is once again hearing from fans and media members that they need help in nets.

After losing several key offensive players during the off-season, Detroit announced a commitment to defence before the season began but it appears injuries and goaltending will be the Achilles Heel of last season's Western Conference Champions. Osgood's .902 save percentage is 26th in the league, his 2.77 GAA is 23rd among NHL goalies and while his record is 6-3-2, the pair of Jimmy Howard and Osgood must be keeping some Detroit fans up at night. Although Wings GM Ken Holland always stands by Osgood, if he is expected to carry the load all season, he may need some help.

Purely speculation on my part but when Rick DiPietro finally returns to the nets in New York, I would expect Marty Biron or Dwayne Roloson to be on their way to Detroit - if a deal can be made. Think that the Red Wings are OK in nets - backup, Jimmy Howard is 1-2-1 with a 3.42 GAA and a .879 save percentage and Chris Osgood has only played in 43 and 46 games the past two seasons. At 36 years of age, expecting Osgood to start 60 or 70 games this season is unrealistic - Detroit needs help for Osgood in nets and that help does not appear to be coming from Jimmy Howard. If I were Ken Holland, I would have already sent a gift basket or two to Islanders GM Garth Snow with a note wondering what it will take to get Biron on the Wings.

With several key players already out with injuries, Jason Williams left Saturday night's game with an ankle injury. Early reports indicate a broken ankle and he will be out until at least late-December. Add his name to the growing list of Red Wings on Injured Reserve; Valtteri Filppula is out until late December with a wrist injury, Johan Frantzen is out until February with a knee injury and Andreas Lilja is out indefinitely with a concussion.

While it is too early to count out the defending Western Conference champs, it could be a long season in Motown. Perhaps that is a good thing in the end for the Wings. After numerous trips deep into the playoffs and starting the season overseas several times, a drop in the standings could lead to a quality first round draft pick and a return to the top of the standings next year. Add the Olympic break to a struggling, injury plagued team and Detroit may stay in the middle of the pack instead of being in their usual spot at the top.

Carolina not Feeling Sweet about Hurricanes...

Last season's trip deep into the playoffs for the Hurricanes revealed that the team needs to make it deep into the playoffs to come close to breaking even in the finance department. That being said, what will their current 12 game losing streak do to the bottom line?

Already at the bottom of the league with only seven points, several respected hockey writers have been active on Twitter regarding a shake-up in Carolina. One writer said to expect change soon, while another commented that GM Jim Rutherford said, "Changes were coming". In the salary cap era, making significant changes to the roster is difficult during the season; those changes may come behind the bench or perhaps, all the way to the top - including Rutherford himself.

The Hurricanes are 2-4-1 at home and 0-7-2 on the road and have not won a game since a 7-2 victory against the Florida Panthers on October 9th. The only team without a win on the road in the NHL, the Canes must now face their opposition without all-star goaltender Cam Ward for the near future. Ward left Saturday's game against the Blue Jackets with a cut on his leg and is listed as day-to-day until more is known about the extent of the injury. If he misses significant time, the Hurricanes and back up Michael Leighton could see their winless streak continue and any thoughts of making the playoffs evaporate before the season hits the 25 game mark.

Leighton has started one game and played in three this season and his numbers are not impressive. His record is 0-2-0, with a staggering 5.11 GAA and a .813 save percentage - these are not numbers that indicate the Hurricanes will turn things around and start a win streak any time soon.

Carolina appears to be in a constant cycle of missing the playoffs, followed by deep runs to the Conference Finals. With an average of 15,331 fans per game and needing the playoffs to break even, this team may end up on the list of southern teams in trouble. Have a great sports day everyone.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Will it be Miller Time for Team USA in Vancouver?

Does anyone remember the 1988 Calgary Olympics, when Canada still had a National team? I recall a young Sean Burke in nets for Canada, standing on his head for the "home" team, playing well enough to earn a "professional" contract with the New Jersey Devils. Canada had not won gold in "our" sport for many years - but what was wrong with that? In 1994, Canada's juniors joined in the fun, with a young Paul Kariya and Eric Lindros heading to Lillehammer. Since 1998, it has been the big guns from the NHL trying to bring home the gold, with mixed results.

Yes, the Olympics are coming to Vancouver and as much as I would love to ignore the corporate money pit that is The Olympic Games, it is difficult to ignore one of the best hockey tournaments in the world. The Olympics, formerly known as the greatest two-weeks in amateur athletics, is now filled with professional athletes at the Summer and Winter Games, it is difficult to understand why our tax dollars are paying for this... Thank goodness, Richmond now has a Speed Skating Oval - isn't there one still in Calgary?

Here is what the Olympics are all about - the IOC dropped baseball from the Olympics because the MLB would not suspend their season to send players like Derek Jeter and A-Rod to the Games. Now Tiger Woods will get his shot at Olympic glory as Golf makes its way into the greatest two-weeks in amateur athletics.

As Canadian fans and some media members drool over the possibility of winning hockey gold in Vancouver and everyone makes their list of players that should be on the team; debating who should be the captain and who should start in goal for Team Canada, one of the teams that could spoil the fun and the party is Team USA. While the focus north of the border has been on Marty Brodeur and Roberto Luongo, the Team USA goalies are quietly leading the way statistically in the NHL and they are taking their teams to the top of the standings.

Team USA GM, Brian Burke, will have plenty of talent to choose from when he assembles his squad for the Vancouver Games. Leading the way is Buffalo Sabres net minder Ryan Miller. The East Lansing Michigan native and former Hobey Baker Award winner (NCAA) has brought his Sabres to the top of the NHL's Northeast Division.

Selected by the Sabres 138th overall in the 5th round of the 1999 draft, Miller is 9-1-1 this season with a .941 save percentage and a 2.11 Goals Against Average. He leads the league with his save percentage and is second in goals against. Miller and Colorado's Craig Anderson have two shutouts this season, second only to Coyotes net minder, Ilya Bryzgalov. Not many analysts, including this one, expected much from the Sabres this season but Miller's outstanding play has him at the top of the depth chart on Team USA.

Anderson, from Park Ridge Illinois, is a former member of the Guelph Storm in the OHL and after going through the NHL draft twice, in 1999 and 2001, he had been a backup for most of his career. This season, his Colorado Avalanche are burying the competition and are one of the top teams in the Western Conference - and the league. His 10-3-2 record places him in a tie with Nabokov and Fleury for wins, his 2.11 GAA is 5th in the league and his save percentage is a respectable .936%. If Miller and Anderson are number one and two on Team USA, all the countries in the tournament could find goals hard to find in Vancouver.

Also on the depth chart for Team USA is Boston goalie Tim Thomas (Flint Michigan) and LA's Jonathan Quick (Milford Connecticut). While Thomas' numbers are the worst of the four goalies, he is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL's best goaltender and that has to be worth consideration for Team USA. His 4-6-0 record is not impressive but the Bruins have not been impressive this season. Thomas has a 2.60 GAA and a .912% on a struggling team - better numbers then Roberto Luongo and similar to Marty Brodeur's numbers in New Jersey.

In Los Angeles, Quick has emerged as a true number one goalie and coupled with the resurgence of Captain Canada, Ryan Smyth, and the NHL's point leader Anze Kopitar, Quick is off to a fast start (pardon the pun). Quick is minding the fort in front of a young defence, so his numbers are the lowest of the four but he too merits some consideration for Team USA. He has a 9-3-2 record, 2.60 GAA and .901% in 14 starts. His play is a huge part of the Kings return to respectability and if he fails to make the Olympic squad, at 23 years of age, expect him to be the go-to guy in 2014 if the NHL continues their participation in the Olympics.

All of Canada is counting down the days to Olympic glory and a gold medal for the men's hockey team but when it comes time to hit the ice and play the games, it could be Miller Time for Team USA. Have a great sports day everyone.