Saturday, February 27, 2010

Olympic Thoughts... Canada vs. Slovakia, Looking Ahead to Team USA

Canadian hockey fans got a little drama with their hockey last night, as Team Slovakia and Team Canada battled for a place in the Gold medal game at the 2010 Olympics. Canada eventually emerged with a 3-2 victory, but the team from Slovakia earned the respect of the Canadian players and fans by charging back from a 3-0 deficit with two goals on twelve shots in the third period. If not for a remarkable save by Roberto Luongo with eight seconds left on the clock, on a shot by his Vancouver teammate Pavol Demitra, this game could still be in overtime.

The veteran team from Slovakia, with a good mix of NHL and European players, continued playing a style of game they are famous for in these tournaments, not going on the offensive, sitting back, lulling their opposition into complacency and then pouncing on their mistakes. Unlike the USA/Finland game earlier in the day, which ended with a 6-1 score in favour of the Americans, the Canada/Slovakia game was a solid effort by both teams, making for an exciting finish.

The “Shark Attack” line opened the scoring in the first period on a goal by Patrick Marleau, his second of the tournament and the line of Morrow, Getzlaf and Perry continued their fine play, with Morrow and Getzlaf scoring Canada’s second and third goals. Held pointless by the team from Slovakia, the Richards, Nash and Toews line still performed admirably, with Richards bouncing off several Slovak players, Nash throwing some sound body checks in the offensive zone and Toews even trying to bring down the man/mountain known as Zdeno Chara. Toews ended up on the ice by the way, while Chara stood his ground; still though, it was an admirable attempt, taking on the Boston Bruins giant.

The line of Crosby, Staal and Iginla were without a goal for the second game in a row but they were very effective in the early part of the third period, playing deep within the Slovak zone, attempting to score the fourth Canadian goal. During the early moments of the third period, I remarked to a friend that Canada had better get a fourth goal or else things could get interesting, and they certainly did, as Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jaroslav Halak held his ground, refusing to let that fourth goal slip past him. Canadian fans are concerned by the lack of scoring from Crosby in the past two games but that is the remarkable aspect of this incarnation of Team Canada; someone has been able and willing to step up every game, Crosby’s best effort may come in the Gold medal game. Even when he is held off the score-sheet though, he is incredibly dangerous and garners the full attention of the oppositions best lines, leaving the “Shark Attack” to play against the weaker third and fourth lines as was the case last night.

While the focus here at TVOS has been on the forwards, let’s take a moment to look at Team Canada’s defence. Although he started the tournament a little shaky, Philadelphia Flyers D-man Chris Pronger has become the solid, calming influence on the blue line that he was expected to be, picking up his fourth and fifth assist in last night’s game. His pass from behind the net that set up the first goal against the Russians was stellar, vintage Pronger, settling the puck down behind the Canadian net and then making a crisp pass up the ice. Shea Weber, Drew Doughty and Duncan Keith have played light’s out hockey, especially Doughty, and their play gives all hockey fans a reminder - if you are not staying up late to watch games from the NHL’s Western Conference, you are missing out on some tremendous young all-stars. In the tournament, the seven Canadian defenceman have combined for 4 goals and 24 assists, a remarkable contribution from the blue line.

Looking Ahead:

So, here we are, about to discuss the Gold medal game between Canada and the United States; the match-up that many hoped for and worried about. When facing Team Canada, the common theme amongst their opponents is to survive the first ten minutes and take it from there. Against Slovakia however, Team Canada appeared tentative at times in the first period, perhaps looking ahead to the Gold medal final. Both teams are claiming underdog status heading into the final game of the tournament, as Team USA defeated Canada by a 5-3 score earlier in the tournament, Canada can claim the pressure is on the Americans, after all, they have already defeated Canada in this tournament. Team USA can claim the underdog role, simply by the looking at the roster of Team Canada, saying it was their tournament to win all along and being on home soil, the pressures and the role of favourites, fall to them.

In their first meeting of the tournament, Team USA took advantage of some timely and costly giveaways by Team Canada. However, the young Americans will face a different team in Sunday’s Gold medal game, a much more cohesive and defensively minded squad with all four lines playing responsible and effective hockey. Once again the focus will be on the goaltenders, Ryan Miller of the US and Roberto Luongo for Canada. Miller has been one of the top stories in this tournament, as many analysts expected. The top goaltender in the NHL this season, he has continued his solid play at the Olympics. Miller is 5-0 with a 1.04 goals against average and a .954 save percentage.

The forwards for Team USA have also begun to roll through their opposition. Zach Parise and Ryan Malone have combined for six goals and six assists and Patrick Kane finally found the net against the Finns, scoring two goals to give him three during the Games. The unsung hero for Team USA has to be defenceman Brian Rafalski. His four goals lead the team, as does his total of eight points. He was an integral part in the first meeting between these teams, leading the charge for Team USA with two goals and one assist in the victory over Martin Brodeur. There is little doubt he will receive a little extra attention in the Gold medal game.

One thing to watch during Sunday’s game is the connection between some American players and the Canadian coaches. Rafalski plays for Mike Babcock in Detroit, Ryan Miller is one of Lindy Ruff’s Buffalo Sabres and Jamie Langenbrunner and Zach Parise are part of Jacques Lemaire’s New Jersey Devils squad. Besides the thrill of defeating Canada on Canadian soil, all these players would love to bring a Gold medal back to the NHL and compare them with their Head Coach’s Silver medal.

What can we expect on Sunday? Well, to be honest, who knows? Both teams will be desperate for the win and the title of hockey supremacy that comes along with a Gold medal. The difference will lie in the depth of the teams. Canada is a stronger, deeper team, but the Americans did not get to this point by accident; they are an equally inspired group. In a seven game series, there is little doubt that Canada would emerge victorious; in a winner takes all game, anything can happen and it usually does. This game could be a 4-3 or 3-2 nail biter or it could become a lopsided affair if one team gains an early lead and the other must take some chances in an attempt to get back into the game. Let’s just hope the right team wins eh? I think you know who I am talking aboot...

Photo by tyfn on Flickr.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Olympic Thoughts... Canada vs. Russia, Looking Ahead to Slovakia...

Alex Ovechkin is used to "Rockin' the Red" in Washington but it was a sea of Canadian red that washed over him and the team from the Russian Federation on Wednesday evening. As I wrote in my previous Olympic article, the "real" Team Canada has arrived in the tournament and with four lines firing on all cylinders; the Russian squad was outmatched from the very beginning of the game. Many Canadian hockey fans expected a win on Wednesday, some may have even prayed for a win over their International rivals, but did anyone predict a 7-3 thrashing?

These two teams were expected to meet in the Gold medal game but due to Canada’s slow start in the tournament, they met in the quarter-finals. Not only did the Russian team leave Vancouver empty handed, they left with their tails between their legs. The world’s number one ranked hockey country was absolutely dismantled by Canada, giving the Canadian team their first Olympic victory over the Russians in 50 years. Russia heads home (or back to the NHL as the case may be), to prepare for the 2014 Games and wonder what happened in Vancouver.

Ovechkin was obsessed with defeating Canada in their own rink, going as far as refusing to give interviews to the Canadian media. Was it national pride or a bargaining chip he was after? With NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman undecided about allowing NHL players to participate in the next Olympics, which will be a hotly debated topic during negotiations for the next CBA, Ovechkin would have an argument in his favour if the Russians were the defending Olympic Champions, wanting to retain their title in 2014. Now, he heads home with no medals and an embarrassing defeat at the hands of Team Canada.

So, what went right for the Canadian squad? To put it simply - everything...

After the game against Germany, Team Canada had three lines at full throttle, with only Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Rick Nash searching for consistency. In a great move by the coaching staff, the red-hot Brenden Morrow moved on to a line with the Anaheim Duck forwards and Nash joined the line of Mike Richards and Jonathan Toews - two other red-hot Canadian players. The results, especially for Russian net minder Evgeni Nabokov, were devastating. The Toews, Richards and Nash line shadowed Russia’s top stars, including Ovechkin, throughout the game, shutting the door on the high-powered Russians. Never fans of playing defence in their own end, the Russians were forced into their own zone repeatedly by the crisp passing and strong skating of the Canadians. Their attempts at the long, stretch passes they are famous for were thwarted by the Canadain defenders at every opportunity.

Ryan Getzlaf got the party started at 2:51 of the first period on a goal assisted by Chris Pronger and Dan Boyle. With Morrow on their line, Perry and Getzlaf accumulated six points as a line (four goals and two assists). The newly formed trio of Toews, Richards and Nash accounted for one goal and three assists, while keeping Ovechkin off the score-sheet. The “Shark Attack” line had their quietest night of the tournament with only three assists but fellow Shark, Dan Boyle, found his game with a goal and two assists. Sidney Crosby, Joe Thornton and the seldom-used Patrice Bergeron were the only Canadian forwards without a point in the contest. Did anyone have Jonathan Toews in their hockey pool? His seven points has him in a tie for the tournament lead with Heatley, and Slovakian forwards, Pavol Demitra and Marian Hossa.

When two teams are so evenly matched on paper, as was the case with Russia and Canada, someone must find an edge and propel their team to victory. For Canada, the edge they had over the Russians was heart; no one wants a Gold medal in this tournament more then Team Canada - it is as simple as that. They outplayed, out-hit and dismantled a Russian Team that was supposed to be a super-power. They accomplished the feat with their own abilities and a whole lot of heart.

Looking Ahead:

A day off yesterday brings us to tonight’s match-up against a tough and surprising Slovakian team. Led by Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jaroslav Halak and some incredible forwards of their own, Slovakia has emerged as a contender, fighting their way into the semi-finals. With former NHL great, Peter Bondra at the helm as GM, the Slovaks are a mix of NHL and European players. Their top line is formidable, with the likes of Hossa, Gaborik and Demitra and on defence, they have the Big Z, Zdeno Chara, but looking deeper into the roster, they are nowhere near the talent level of the Canadian squad.

Like the Russian team, Slovakia will not want to spend much time in the defensive zone. Canada must continue their high-octane forecheck, making the defenceman pay for every inch of ice. Once again, staying out of the penalty box is a key to a Canadian victory. Although the Canadians have more depth, the Slovakian power play can be difficult to contain, especially Chara’s bombs from the point. Canada must avoid screening Roberto Luongo, allowing him to see anything coming his way, launched from Chara’s stick.

Much has been made of Halak’s fine play in the tournament and his strong efforts with the Montreal Canadiens this season, stopping 40 shots on a regular basis in the NHL. However, he is not facing an NHL team filled with fourth line grinders and checkers - this is Team Canada. Halak has a 1.97 goals against average in the tournament and a .923 save percentage, but he has never faced a team as stacked as the Canadian roster is - he will be hard-pressed to keep his team in the game.

Inspired by the words of GM Steve Yzerman during the early portion of the tournament to stay the course and keep playing a Canadian brand of hockey, the stars on Team Canada have grown under the guidance of their coaching staff and the confidence Mike Babcock and his staff have in the team. Once again, it could come down to who wants the win more..., which leaves us with only choice in predicting a winner - Team Canada.

Photo by tyfn on Flickr.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Five Canadian Hockey Players Honoured in Vancouver

This article will be published in the February 26th edition of Main Street Week - page 8, 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.

While I have been living in Toronto for the past year, my Dad has phoned on a regular basis, trying his hand a tricking me with some trivia questions or filling me in on some sports news he thinks I may have missed. As a sports columnist, I am proud to say that there is very little news that slips past me and on most occasions, I can come up with an answer to his trick questions. This time around though, I must admit, his most recent trivia question had me beat; which Canadian hockey players are in the Triple Gold Club?

The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) honoured five of Canada's greatest hockey players on February 22nd, along with seventeen of their contemporaries from Europe as the only members of the Triple Gold Club. The “club” is a group of players that have won a Gold medal at the Olympic Games, a Gold medal at the World Championships and the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup.

The members of the Triple Gold Club include:
From Sweden: Tomas Jonsson, Mats Naslund, Hakan Loob, Peter Forsberg, Nicklas Lidstrom, Fredrik Modin, Mikael Samuelsson, Niklas Kronwall and Henrik Zetterberg.

From Russia: Valeri Kamensky, Alexei Gusarov, Vyacheslav Fetisov, Igor Larionov, Alexander Mogilny, and Vladimir Malakhov.

From the Czech Republic: Jaromir Jagr and Jiri Slegr.

Canada's honoured members include Rob Blake, Joe Sakic, Brendan Shanahan, Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger.

Winning a championship at any level is a difficult task; to win on a regular basis is almost impossible. Yet for some players, the chance to step onto the world stage and deal with the pressures that accompany these tournaments is second nature; they thrive on the responsibility and the challenge of wearing their national colours. Fighting through four rounds in the NHL playoffs and winning a Stanley Cup is perhaps the most challenging of the three championships, but the “lose and you go home” aspect of the Olympics and World Championships presents a completely different experience; if a team is unprepared or loses focus, the chance to win Gold could disappear in an instant.

Perhaps the most distinguished player on the list is Canada's Scott Niedermayer. Captain of the Anaheim Ducks in the NHL and Team Canada at the Vancouver Games, the native of Cranbrook BC is in a class of his own when it comes to winning championships. He is the only player in the hockey world with a Memorial Cup (the best team in Canadian junior hockey), a World Junior Championship Gold, an Olympic Gold, a World Cup (2006), a World Championship and four Stanley Cups.

According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, since 1930, more then 15,000 players have attempted to win the World Championship, 9,000 players have attempted to win the Stanley Cup since 1893 and 4,000 players have tried their best to win Olympic Gold since 1920; only twenty-two have won all three. Congratulations to all the players honoured in Vancouver. Have a great sports day everyone.

Photo by John Griffiths on Flickr.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Olympic Thoughts... Game Four - Canada vs. Germany

It is a good news/bad news situation for Team Canada - the good news, they defeated the team from Germany last night by an 8-2 score and the team's true identity is emerging. The bad news, their victory puts them up against Alex Ovechkin and the Russian squad this evening.

While it took three games for the “real” Team Canada to arrive, they have come into form at exactly the right time. It is not that the team was playing poorly during their first three games; they were accumulating plenty of shots in each game but failing to finish off their opponents. One of the interesting items in last night’s game was the fact that instead of making an extra pass, trying to set up the perfect play, the Canadian players were firing pucks off their sticks in a quicker fashion and creating havoc in front of the opposition net. In previous games, the slight delay was allowing the opposition to regain their positions, blocking the lanes from the point, forcing the Canadian forwards to make yet another pass. Last night’s game was a team effort in its truest sense.

Canada finally has three lines firing on all cylinders; the “Shark Attack” line of Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau continued their fine play in the tournament. The San Jose trio has combined for six goals and five assists in four games. The fourth line of Mike Richards, Brenden Morrow and Jonathan Toews continued to display their remarkable ability to bang and crash the opposition, becoming a legitimate shutdown line that will play a key role if Canada hopes to advance. They have also begun to light up the opposition goaltenders. Together, the trio has two goals and seven assists.

The coaches have also discovered their top line for the tournament, with Sidney Crosby and Jarome Iginla joined by Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal. In his third Olympic Games, Iginla has demonstrated why he is on this team by scoring five goals in the tournament. Crosby has three goals and three assists and Staal’s three assists last night give him five points (one goal and four assists). The trio looked very comfortable together and their down-low cycling of the puck and precision passing will be a factor in tonight’s contest versus the Russians.

The only line not clicking at the moment is Ryan Getzlaf, Cory Perry and Rick Nash; however, they showed some signs of life in the third period last night. All three are tremendous NHL players, but for whatever reason, it has not gone their way in these games, leaving them to form a line together simply because everyone else has found their chemistry with other players. Patrice Bergeron was brought in as a face-off specialist and thirteenth forward and he saw limited ice time but that was expected to happen at some point during the Games, as Canada finds their line combinations and eventually shortens the bench. It is not a knock on Bergeron’s play, it is simply the fact he was brought in to play a certain role - and he is.

Roberto Luongo started for Team Canada in nets and was good when called upon; stopping 21 of 23 shots sent his way by the German team. The net minding duties in the tournament belong to Luongo now and his first real test comes tonight. In the tournament, Luongo has a .947 save percentage, second only to Sweden’s Henrik Lundqvist.

Looking Ahead:

It is a win and you stay in, lose and you go home situation again this evening against Russia. Most analysts expected these two powerhouse teams to meet during the tournament, but most, including myself, believed it would happen in the semi-finals or the Gold medal game. One of these countries will head home much earlier then expected and their fans will be disappointed.

One key for Team Canada this evening - stay out of the penalty box. Head to head, I believe the Canadians should win this game; however, if you allow the Russian power play unit of Ovechkin, Malkin, Kovalchuk, Gonchar and Markov on the ice too many times, Luongo, Brodeur or even St. Patrick Roy in his prime could do little to stop the offensive onslaught.

The Russian team is relying on several players from the KHL to fill in their roster and while these are talented players, the depth on the Russian squad is no match for Team Canada. Once again, look for the Morrow, Richards and Toews line to see plenty of action, especially if Canada has the lead late in the game or needs a wake-up call at any point. They may even see action in a checking role against Ovechkin, Semin and Malkin. The newly formed top line of Crosby, Staal and Iginla must continue their newfound chemistry and if Perry and Getzlaf are not getting the job done, it may finally be time to shorten the bench and roll with three lines.

The game tonight could be one for the history books, as one of the supposed “favourites” coming into the 2010 Olympic Games is going home empty handed...

Photo by tyfn on Flickr.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Olympic Thoughts... Game Three - Canada vs. the United States

Busy day ahead, so here are some quick thoughts on the Canada - USA game from last night...

The question on every Canadian hockey fan's mind today, "Is it time to panic"... The answer is no - not yet at least. Despite Canada's 5-3 loss on Sunday evening to Team USA, the road to Olympic Gold for Team Canada is still accessible, it just got a lot longer.

With the loss, Canada fails to automatically advance to the qualifying rounds and must make their way through Team Germany on Tuesday to have the chance to take on the dreaded Russian squad on Wednesday, led by Alex Ovechkin, Andrei Markov and Evgeni Malkin (to name a few). The gauntlet has been thrown down to Team Canada - win and you stay in, lose and the tournament is over. While a date with Germany was not the preferred route, the tournament has mirrored the 2002 Games in a way; Canada finished the preliminary rounds in Salt Lake with a 1-1-1 record and went on to win the Gold.

So, what happened last night? First, to borrow a line again from Steven Colbert, “A tip of my hat” to the American team and especially Buffalo Sabres net minder Ryan Miller. Going in to the tournament, everyone was aware that the calibre of goaltending on all the teams was top-notch, with Miller being the front-runner. A hot goalie can kill a team’s medal hopes in an instant during these tournaments. Last night did not kill Canada’s medal hopes, but Miller certainly inflicted some major damage.

Despite out shooting Team USA by a 45-23 margin, it was Miller’s night to shine in Vancouver; time after time, he made spectacular saves. Knowing they needed a similar effort from their goaltender, Team Canada left Martin Brodeur to fend for himself on a few of the goals against... and Brodeur did not help his own cause on a few occasions as well.

Once again, Team Canada had plenty of flash, but little finish in the game; the second time in a row this has occurred. It is difficult to say why this is happening, but Canada has yet to play a true Canadian game. They have yet to take out their opposition’s defencemen with bone-crunching body checks. A few have been thrown but they have yet to make the other team pay a steep price for space on the ice. Did anyone have Brian Rafalski in their hockey pool? He finished the night with two goals and an assist and besides Miller, Rafalski was the difference last night.

Moving Forward:

Brenden Morrow has been the most physical Team Canada forward and yet he had played the least amount of any Canadian players heading into the game against the USA. With the exception of the “Shark Attack” line, the Canadian forwards have been inconsistent. Perhaps it is time to create a solid line of grinders with Morrow, Mike Richards and Jarome Iginla. It is time to shutdown the opposition’s best forwards, something that the Crosby line could not accomplish last night. If Ovechkin is given as much time and space that the Americans had last night, the results will be worse then 5-3.

In nets, the easy decision is to start Luongo on Tuesday, but is it the right one? I have been a strong supporter of Brodeur being the go-to guy in this tournament, but perhaps it is time to pass the torch to Luongo. Brodeur appeared shaky at times versus Switzerland but his performance in the shootout appeared to illustrate that he was ready to carry the load. At times last night, he was out of position, over-playing the puck behind the net when all he needed to do was settle the puck down for a defenceman to carry it up ice. He can win the game single-handedly with a strong performance in net, but he was not going to win the game by scoring; what was he thinking when he batted the puck out of the air, right to an American defenceman? I will always wonder about that play...

Everyone is entitled to a bad game now and again, but in these tournaments, one more bad game and it is all over. As much as I hate to say it, not that Luongo is not a great goalie, but it is time to put Brodeur into the backup role and see what Luongo can do in front of his home fans in the arena formerly known as GM Place. Brodeur has answered the call from team Canada on numerous occasions, now it is time for him to let someone else take on the challenge.

The next test for Team Canada, Tuesday’s game against Team Germany... The winner moves on, the loser goes home. If Canada was looking for a dramatic trip to the Gold medal game, they’ve got it now...

Photo by tyfn on Flickr.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Olympic Thoughts... Game Two - Canada vs. Switzerland

It took a shootout to decide a winner in Canada's second game of the Olympic tournament last night but Team Canada finally prevailed by a 3-2 score over the 1996 New Jersey Devils - check that, it was Team Switzerland. Despite out-shooting the Swiss team by a 47-23 margin, Anaheim Ducks net minder Jonas Hiller and the rest of the Swiss team did their best impression of Martin Brodeur and the Devils, and it almost worked. Canada fired 18 shots at the Swiss net in the third period but failed to score, sending the game to overtime and eventually to the shootout.

If the Swiss team had prevailed, the headlines would be focused on Hiller today but make no mistake, it was a total team effort from the Swiss. Playing against a Canadian Team that is still searching for its identity, the Swiss erased a 2-0 deficit with two goals in the second period by Ivo Ruthemann and Patrick Von Gunten. Team Canada relied on their “Shark Attack” line of Heatley, Marleau and Thornton for their two goals.

With several turning points in the game, two important factors for Team Canada was the emergence in the third period of Philadelphia Flyers Captain Mike Richards and Dallas Stars Captain Brenden Morrow. Both players began laying some heavy hits in the Swiss zone, forcing Marc Streit and his fellow defencemen to pay a steeper price for their space on the ice. Anyone wondering why Richards and Morrow were included on the team got their answer last night; on a team loaded with stars, these two are the gritty sandpaper there to rub out the opposition. The same can be said of Patrice Bergeron; brought in because of his face-off prowess, Bergeron won several key face-offs in the Canadian zone.

Another “TSN Turning Point” last night was the high stick to the face of Sidney Crosby during a face-off in the Swiss Zone that went uncalled by the referees. After regaining his composure during the shift, Crosby took a pass and broke in on Hiller, clearly driven by awesome talent and anger. He almost scored the go-ahead goal on the play but once again, Hiller was the difference.

During the shootout, the fate of Canada rested on Crosby and Martin Brodeur and both players answered the call. Brodeur, with ice in his veins, was spectacular in the shootout. Perhaps realizing that letting a goal in would lead to a national disaster, he shut the door on the Swiss shooters. For Crosby, heading to center ice for a second time in the shootout, his eyes and the expression on his face clearly illustrated, “This is my team and by the way, I am pissed off about the stick in the face.” Did anyone expect anything less then the winning goal when Crosby scooped up the puck at center ice and drove to the net?

Perhaps this battle with the Swiss was exactly what Team Canada needed early in this tournament - a hockey game. Much like the 2002 Games, which saw Canada lose their first game and barely win their second, some adversity will solidify Canada into a real team. Say what you will about the Canadian team, full credit must go to the Swiss for playing a full sixty-five minutes. They have yet to enter the top-six group of Canada, the United States, Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic, but they are certainly on their way. Last night’s game will bring the Swiss even closer to becoming one of the elite hockey nations in the not too distant future. Do not count them out in this tournament; they may yet create an upset in the medal rounds. They could grow into a very dangerous team by 2014.

Moving Forward:

Looking ahead to game three against the United States on Sunday evening, Team Canada must change their game slightly to prepare for an even tougher test against the young Americans and the upcoming medal rounds. Once again, Team Canada needed a reminder from their coaches that this is not the NHL’s all-star game. Too many extra passes, light checking and a lack of grit and sandpaper, which is the true Canadian game.

Look for Head Coach Mike Babcock to begin to shorten his bench in the upcoming games. While the International rules allow for extra players on the bench and Babcock has rotated all his players, sharing the ice-time as evenly as possible, the time has come to give certain players the ice-time that they need to be effective. Crosby made a definitive statement last night and while there are numerous candidates for team leader, the Pittsburgh Penguins Captain is ready to carry this team on his shoulders; it is time to put the weight on his shoulders, he is clearly ready for the challenge.

The question on everyone’s mind for the next two days will be who will start game three? In my opinion, the job still belongs to Martin Brodeur. While there is some debate about the first goal he allowed, give the Swiss forward Ivo Ruthemann some credit, two millimetres to the right and the puck is off the post and out. The second goal came off the skate of Patrick Marleau, deflecting into the net, leaving Brodeur no chance on the play.

While Luongo recorded the shutout in his game versus Norway, he was never truly tested. Brodeur on the other hand, was tested by a determined Swiss team and his play demonstrated his status as a goaltending legend. Much like Patrick Roy in the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals, Brodeur knows when he cannot allow another goal and he shuts the door on the opposition. He has found his game and along with Crosby, he should be given the chance to put this team on his shoulders and carry the weight of the world or at least the weight of Canada’s expectations.

Questions about Jarome Iginla’s health after a shoulder to the head against the Swiss - according to TSN’s Bob McKenzie, everyone is healthy at this point of the tournament.

Game three versus the United States is Sunday, February 21st at 7:30 in the Eastern Time zone.

Photo by tyfn on Flickr.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Canada's 2010 Men's Hockey Team - A Lesson in Chemistry

This article will be published in the February 19th 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.

During my time at Laurentian Regional High School in Lachute Quebec, it is fair to say I was an average student. While I excelled in my English and History classes, other courses like Math and Chemistry eluded me; not for lack of great teachers, it was easier for my mind to grasp concepts like writing, Canadian history and my specialty, daydreaming about sports.

Luckily, for Canada and the men's Olympic hockey team, the management group of Steve Yzerman, Kevin Lowe, Doug Armstrong and Ken Holland must have excelled in Chemistry class; the players that they have assembled for the Olympic Tournament is a textbook lesson in team chemistry. Every player named to the roster has worn the red and white Canadian sweater in the World Junior Championship, the World Championship, the World Cup or the Olympics.

One of the first chapters in Team Canada’s chemistry lesson is NHL chemistry. Canada’s General Manager, Steve Yzerman, brought in one of the NHL’s most proficient forward lines. All members of the San Jose Sharks, Patrick Marleau is skating with his NHL linemates, Dany Heatley and Joe Thornton during the Olympics. The Sharks are near the top of the NHL standings thanks to the offence provided by this trio. Thornton is fifth in league scoring with 16 goals and 75 points, Heatley is ninth with 32 goals and 66 points, while Marleau is thirteenth with 38 goals and 64 points. By adding Sharks defenceman Dan Boyle to the mix, with his 11 goals and 45 assists, Canada’s power play could be devastating.

Team Canada also includes the Chicago Blackhawks top defensive pair of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith. Second in scoring among NHL defencemen, Keith has 11 goals, 52 points and is a plus 23 in the plus/minus rating (goals for and against while at even strength). Playing a more defensive role, Seabrook has 3 goals and 22 points with a plus/minus rating of +21. Joining Seabrook and Keith from the Blackhawks is 21-year-old Jonathan Toews. Currently in his third season in the NHL, Toews is emerging as one of the rising young stars in the league, his 19 goals and 47 points places him fourth in scoring on the Blackhawks.

Another important lesson when looking to build team chemistry will be the ability of the players to assume a leadership role. Led by two-time Olympian and Anaheim Ducks Captain Scott Niedermayer, nine players representing Canada wear the “C” for their NHL clubs. They include Roberto Luongo (Vancouver), Brenden Morrow (Dallas), Jarome Iginla (Calgary), Jonathan Toews (Chicago), Mike Richards (Philadelphia), Eric Staal (Carolina), Rick Nash (Columbus) and Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh).

Canada’s roster also includes seven players that wear the “A” as Assistant Captains on their NHL clubs: Duncan Keith (Chicago), Shea Weber (Nashville), Chris Pronger (Philadelphia), Dan Boyle (San Jose), Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim), Joe Thornton (San Jose), and Partice Bergeron (Boston).

While the true test of Canada’s hockey team does not come until Sunday when they take on the United States in the final game of their group round, the pressures on the team have been mounting since the seventh place finish in the 2006 Games. Thanks to the lessons of the past, Steve Yzerman and his fellow managers have focused on talent and chemistry, making this group of Canadian players one of the greatest teams ever assembled. Have a great sports day everyone.

Photo by tyfn on Flickr.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Olympic Thoughts... Game One - Canada vs. Norway

With the drop of the puck and a clean face-off win by Sidney Crosby, Canada's first game of the Olympic hockey tournament was underway. The opposition for Team Canada was Norway, a team making their first appearance in the Games since 1994, when they hosted the tournament in Lillehammer. Steve Yzerman and his management group watched from above with Assistant Coach Ken Hitchcock as their months of planning and scouting came to fruition on the ice. When the first period ended 0-0, many Canadians were holding their breath, worried they were about to witness a repeat of the 2006 Games, which saw Canada finish seventh behind countries like Switzerland.

In their post-game reports, some media analysts called Canada's first period "lacklustre" and "unspectacular". Really? What was expected of a team that gathered for their first practise on Monday evening and their first game on Tuesday? In these types of tournaments, the goal of these early games is to progress and demonstrate improvement in each period and each game, which Canada clearly did.

The first period for Canada was a "second" practise, finding the proper line combinations and easing any nervousness and butterflies out of their systems. With approximately three minutes left in the first period, Ryan Getzlaf and Patrice Bergeron delivered some quality hits on the forecheck and Team Canada realized that while they are a group of all-stars, this was not the NHL's all-star game. They also began to realize that the carpenter working the net was not Joseph the Carpenter but Pal Grotnes, a 32-year-old Norwegian goaltender and full-time carpenter. The message in the first intermission from the coaching staff should have been, "practise is over, time to play hockey."

With some subtle line changes, Jarome Iginla joined Sidney Crosby and Rick Nash on one of the top lines (well, aren't they all top lines on Team Canada?), the scoring drought dating back to the last Olympic Games was broken with a power play goal by Iginla, assisted by Crosby and Drew Doughty. Three goals in the second, five in the third and Canada finished the evening with an 8-0 win to start the tournament.

Not to give away the topic of my Main Street Week article, which will be available here at The Voice of Sport on Friday, but team chemistry was the key to victory in this game and will be throughout the tournament. On one power play last night against Norway, four out of five players were members of the San Jose Sharks. On another power play later in the game, we saw three members of the Anaheim Ducks, joined on defence by Chris Pronger, a Stanley Cup champion with the Ducks in 2007. The management group certainly left some all-stars off the team, but with their selections to represent Canada, they have truly built a team in its truest sense.

Starting in goal for Canada and hearing the familiar chants of "Loouuuu", was Montreal native and current Vancouver Canuck, Roberto Luongo. Stopping all fifteen shots he faced on the evening, we may have seen the last of Luongo in the Canadian net. With 2002 Gold medal winner, Martin Brodeur set to start game two against Switzerland, barring a loss; Brodeur will start game three against the United States and should be in the net for the rest of the tournament. Marc-Andre Fleury is in Vancouver as well, but it is expected he will not see any time on the ice, other then in practise.

Luongo and Brodeur are both “everyday” goaltenders, they are most effective when they play on a regular basis. Luongo’s last start came on February 14th against Minnesota, where he allowed five goals on 32 shots - he was pulled from the game. Brodeur’s last start came on February 13th against the Carolina Hurricanes. He allowed four goals on 22 shots and was also pulled from the game. If Luongo starts game three, Brodeur will have one start in over a week, which is something the New Jersey goaltender is not accustomed too.

While it was a wonderful tribute to Luongo’s abilities, giving him the start in Vancouver, Head Coach Mike Babcock’s master plan has to include Brodeur as the number one goaltender. If the team starts to rotate Brodeur and Luongo on a game-to-game basis, both goaltenders will fall out of rhythm and the results could be disastrous for Team Canada and their fans. Someone will have to become the “everyday” goaltender for the team and my money is on Brodeur being the man.

Game two of the tournament is Thursday evening (in the Eastern time zone), with Switzerland providing the opposition. Look for a more structured, harder hitting first period from Team Canada. Practise is officially over and the Games have begun.

Photo by tyfn on Flickr.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Abbotsford Heat in the Hunt for an AHL Playoff Spot...

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 (running late this week, newspaper deadlines on the weekend). 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's team - the Abbotsford Heat...

The Calgary Flames have moved their AHL affiliate several times in recent years. From 1993 until 2003, the team was located in St. John New Brunswick, where they appeared in the Calder Cup Finals on two occasions as the St. John Flames, winning the 2001 Calder Cup over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. After leaving the Maritimes, the team headed to Nebraska, becoming the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights (Ak-Sar-Ben - Nebraska spelled backwards). Despite on-ice success in their second season, the franchise struggled at the gate amidst rumours that the team was on the move again. The rumours proved correct, as the moving vans returned and brought the team to Moline Illinois, becoming the Quad City Flames.

The Quad City Flames missed the playoffs during their two-year stay in Moline, finishing sixth and fifth in the West Division. After those two disappointing years as the Quad City Flames and in search of some stability, the AHL affiliate of the Calgary Flames has taken up residence for the 2009-2010 season in the 7,018 seat Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre. Now playing as the Abbotsford Heat in the Western Conference's North Division, the team is drawing an average of 3,840 fans per game and the results on the ice have improved slightly as well.

Leading the way for the Heat is former Manitoba Moose left winger, Jason Jaffray. The native of Rimbey Alberta is in his first year with the Flames organization after spending four years with the Moose. After playing his junior hockey with the Kootenay Ice and the Swift Current Broncos (WHL), Jaffray was not selected in the NHL’s entry draft. He worked his way through the ECHL and AHL before finding a permanent spot on the Manitoba roster. During his time on the Prairies with the Moose, he played in 33 NHL games with the Vancouver Canucks during the ‘08 and ‘09 seasons, scoring 4 goals and adding six assists. This season, he leads the Heat in scoring with 18 goals, 23 assists, 166 shots on goal and he is a +16 in the plus/minus department.

Hockey fans will certainly recognize the Sutter name; after all, six of the Sutter’s were integral parts on their NHL teams. Brent, Brian, Darryl, Duane, Rich and Ron Sutter played a combined 4,994 regular season NHL games and 603 playoff games, bringing six Stanley Cups home to Viking Alberta. The second generation of Sutter’s are now on their way into the NHL, with Brent’s son Brandon playing for the Carolina Hurricanes and Darryl’s son Brett as a member of the Heat. A sixth round pick (179th overall) of the Calgary Flames in the 2005 entry draft, Brett Sutter is in his third year in the AHL. In 52 games this season, Sutter has 6 goals and 10 assists for the Heat. Last season, Brett suited up for the Calgary Flames on four occasions and scored his first and only NHL goal (so far).

Coming off a 5-1 victory over the Toronto Marlies on Monday afternoon, the Heat find themselves third in the North Division, four points behind the second place Rochester Americans and sixteen points behind the division leading Hamilton Bulldogs. With a 26-23-4-4 win/loss record, the Heat are in the hunt for a playoff position. However, they have allowed 167 goals, while scoring only 151; their power play is 24th in the league at 14.5% and the penalty kill is last in the league at 79.1%. Looking for a long playoff run in their new hometown, the Heat will have to improve on these statistics if they wish to have a realistic shot at the Calder Cup.

Photo by Pioneer98 on Flickr

Friday, February 12, 2010

Canadiens Prepare for Life After Gainey...

Montreal has been the scene of several top stories this week: The Canadiens lost power play specialist Marc-Andre Bergeron for 6-8 weeks with a knee injury and have called up P.K. Subban from the Hamilton Bulldogs in the American Hockey League as his replacement. The Washington Capitals came to the Bell Centre on Wednesday evening riding a franchise record 14-game winning streak that ended with Montreal's 6-5 overtime win. Dominic Moore arrived to shore up the penalty kill in a trade with Florida and General Manager Bob Gainey stepped down, handing the reins of the team to long-time assistant, Pierre Gauthier.

So many storylines, but by far the biggest news out of Montreal was the announcement that Bob Gainey was stepping down as General Manager of the Canadiens. A surprising move for many hockey fans, but with the Habs fighting for their playoff lives again this year, can we honestly say it was unexpected? Montreal is right where many analysts expected them to be - searching for consistency and a playoff spot. However, in La Belle Province, simply making the playoffs is not the goal, bringing the Stanley Cup “home” is the plan every year. Unfortunately, the last time the plan worked was in 1993, leaving fans clamouring for roster changes and accountability.

After six years in one of the NHL’s highest profile jobs, it was becoming evident during his dealings with the media around the Christmas holidays that Gainey was running out of steam. The pressures of winning, coupled with the flurry of celebrations for the Canadiens 100th anniversary, led to many extra duties and off-ice distractions for the entire team.

Speaking with the Montreal media (the press conference is available at, as he announced his resignation, Gainey revealed one of the key factors behind the move.

“Pierre (Gauthier) and I met in December and I let him know that I wouldn’t be signing an extension with the team in the summer when my contract was set to expire. Nothing specific led to my decision. It came down to wanting to have more control of my time. It’s a lifestyle decision. I knew I wasn’t ready to do this for another four, five or six years.”

Perhaps the most intriguing element of Gainey’s decision was the timing; one week before the Olympic roster freeze and three weeks before the NHL trade deadline. Gainey has left several key roster decisions in the hands of Gauthier; Tomas Plekanec, Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak, three integral parts of the team, are all looking for new contracts at season’s end. However, Gainey and Gauthier have been working in tandem for several seasons and one would think that they are on the same page when it comes to roster decisions. Gauthier has already contacted Plekanec’s agent about resuming contract talks and he is willing to keep both Price and Halak as their goaltending tandem for the rest of the season. A healthy competition for the starting job could be the push the Canadiens need to solidify a playoff position.

Moving forward, Habs fans are asking, what happens next? The legacy of the Canadiens is now in the hands of long-time NHL executive Pierre Gauthier, as he becomes the 16th man to hold the honoured position. A former scout with the Quebec Nordiques, Gauthier has thirty years of experience in the NHL. He previously worked as a General Manager in Anaheim (twice) and Ottawa. One of Gauthier’s key moves in Ottawa that led to a turnaround for the Senators was the hiring of Jacques Martin, the current bench boss in Montreal.

On the trade front, Gauthier has already made a move, bringing in 29-year-old Dominic Moore from the Florida Panthers for a second round draft pick in 2011. Moore, a native of Thornhill Ontario, is a penalty kill and face-off specialist and in 48 games with Florida this season, he has 8 goals and 17 points. A veteran of 353 NHL games, Moore was selected in the third round (95th overall) of the 2000 entry draft by the New York Rangers. A free agent at the end of the season, Montreal is his seventh NHL team.

So now, the Canadiens and their fans prepare for a playoff push and life without Bob Gainey. Will the change at the top filter down to the rest of the team? With Gainey’s blessing, Gauthier now has control of one of the most storied franchises in sports; it should be interesting to see which direction he takes the organization. More trades and roster moves are certainly in the Canadiens future.

Photo by Miss Allise on Flickr.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Dirk Hayhurst, MLB Pitcher and Author of The Bullpen Gospels

“I don't want people to read the book and feel like they read about a ball player, I want people to read it and feel like it impacted their lives.” - Dirk Hayhurst

During my time writing at The Voice of Sport, I have had the pleasure of speaking with some wonderful people from the sporting world. My most recent interview with Dirk Hayhurst, a right-handed relief pitcher in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, was perhaps the most insightful, inspiring and enlightening conversation to date.

After attending Kent State University, Hayhurst began his career in the San Diego Padres organization and made his Major League debut in 2008. During his time in the minors, he began writing the Non-Prospect Diaries for Baseball America, a series of articles chronicling his thoughts and insights into the world of baseball. Hayhurst saw the Non-Prospect Diaries as an opportunity to step out from behind the uniform and shine the spotlight on the man beneath, which eventually led to writing his first book, The Bullpen Gospels, set for release on March 30th.

Through his writing, we learn that life in baseball, especially the minor leagues, is not always glamorous. It can be a struggle to persevere and many sacrifices are required while in pursuit of your dreams.

“For every goal or dream that we have, there is a sacrifice involved and I gave up a lot,” said Hayhurst from his off-season home in Hudson Ohio. “Baseball, as glorious and wonderful as we think it is, isn't always that glorious and wonderful. It takes us away from the people that we love, it commands us to give up things that we care about and it pigeon-holes us into a caped crusader on the field, a villain to some and a hero to others.”

“The best parts of me are not the parts that you see on the ball field,” continued Hayhurst. “They are the parts of me that stay at home and love my wife and care about our family and I always wanted to be that way. While I love my job, I do recognize that I had to give up a lot to do it.”

After spending time with the Triple-A Las Vegas 51's last season and finishing the year in Toronto with the Blue Jays, Hayhurst is familiar with many of his teammates at both levels. That sense of continuity and the friendships formed on both teams can help a player's performance during the long baseball season.

“If you have guys that you have played with before and you are returning to work with them, it certainly does help your comfort level. You make friends in this business and to be honest with you, team chemistry is big, it really is. These are the people that you are going to be around like family, so their opinions of you will either validate your feelings of confidence in yourself or it will erode it.”

The Blue Jays are entering the upcoming season in a rebuilding mode; looking to their younger players to establish themselves as every day major league players. For Hayhurst, hard work and preparation are extremely important elements to success in baseball, but sometimes it is knowing what not to do that is the final piece to the puzzle.

“Sometimes you have to slow down and just be yourself. I got a lot of good advice about pitching last year and it helped me quite a bit in the big leagues,” explained Hayhurst. “When things get out of control, you need to slow down, you need to regroup and sometimes instead of trying so hard you need to try a little less. In a tight situation, everybody is trying to do too much. If you just relax and execute, you would be amazed at how this game has a way of evening itself out. I feel like that applies not only in a jam situation but also in spring training or other tough situations in life.”

Hayhurst’s first book has received glowing reviews from many sports analysts, including Bob Costas, Tim McCarver and Keith Olbermann. With all the critical acclaim surrounding the release of The Bullpen Gospels, I asked Hayhurst if this has caught him by surprise.

“Yes, I am surprised. First of all, I didn't think any of these guys would read it,” Hayhurst said with a laugh. “Secondly, I didn't think that people would be okay with me writing a book while I was playing and it not being an exposé book, which it isn't. I am proud of the fact that people are getting that and they are happy to continue saying the book is worth reading; that's important to me.”

Hayhurst has also made use of the Internet and social networking sites like Twitter to reach out to baseball fans. Using the name, The Garfoose (a mystical creature invented by Hayhurst - a half-giraffe, half-moose, fire breathing, wi-fi enabled protector of the magical baseball groves), baseball fans have the opportunity to reach out, be interactive, share their stories or in my case, ask for an interview. When the devastating earthquake struck in Haiti, Hayhurst asked his fans, also known as "Garfooslings", to donate any amount they could to a relief organization. The Garfooslings came through for Hayhurst and the people of Haiti, donating over $1,400 dollars, with Hayhurst personally phoning some of the contributors to thank them for their efforts.

“I feel like social networking sites are a great way to engage fans directly. Once I got into it, I realized it was a great platform for all sorts of things. When you are in sports, you lose a lot of your anonymity because it is such a pervasive thing; there is always a microphone, a camera, or a reporter. It is like any really useful tool, you can use it in the wrong way or you can use it the right way. I have really tried hard to use it the right way.”

A unique and refreshing voice in the world of baseball, perhaps it is best to let Hayhurst wrap up this article in his own words.

“I always wanted to be Dirk Hayhurst and be different. If that means I have a large, yellow, purple, fire breathing Garfoose in the bullpen with me, then that’s what it means. I want to be who I am; I don’t want to be who people tell me I am.”

For more information on The Bullpen Gospels and the mystical Garfoose, visit Hayhurst’s website, Have a great sports day everyone.

A shorter version of this article first appeared in the February edition of Main Street. To take a look at a great community newspaper, drop by

Photo: Dirk Hayhurst during his time with the San Diego Padres... taken by SD Dirk on Flickr.

Monday, February 8, 2010

My Weekend as a Garfoose...

This weekend, I had a special project - becoming a Garfoose...

The Garfoose is a creation from the mind of Toronto Blue Jays relief pitcher Dirk Hayhurst. A magical creature that is half-Giraffe/half-Moose, with fire breathing abilities, a mesmerizing gaze and wi-fi enabled antennae. In the folklore of the Garfoose, it lives in the mystical baseball groves, protecting the baseball trees where Major League Baseball gets their supply of baseballs each season.

Very active on Twitter with his fans, Hayhurst goes by the name TheGarfoose and sometimes shares stories of the Garfoose that lives in his garage (along with Roy Halladay’s evil twin Ray). Pictures of the Garfoose and his history can be found at Dirk’s website, and in honour of his 1,000th Twitter follower, Hayhurst began a contest, allowing his friends and fans the opportunity to become “Garfoose” too.

My mission on the weekend was to bring the Garfoose within me, out for all to see. Perhaps the silliest thing I have ever done, it was also by far the most illuminating experience I have ever had. As strange as it sounds, my household began to take on a different feel, as if someone other then my wife and I had moved in for the weekend. I now know from personal experience, when Dirk speaks of the Garfoose in his garage, he is serious - there is something fantastical about the creature known as Garfoose. Once you “become” Garfoose, it can be difficult to tell whether he is the person in the costume or a separate being all his own. You find yourself talking about the Garfoose in the first person - he is you and you are him... It can be quite confusing - and exhilarating.

After spending Saturday posing in bizarre Garfoose photographs and tweeting the pictures, I began to experience some strange activity in my household, and my mind. Not taking the Garfoose out to the streets to share the experience with my fellow citizens in Toronto would be an injustice to all things Garfoose!

Therefore, off I went on Sunday, into the streets of downtown Toronto. As my Garfoose came into being, I realized that he was slightly different from Dirk’s, mine would be a “Business Garfoose”. A Garfoose that has strayed from the mystical baseball groves and taken a job here in Toronto in the business district.

George Carlin once spoke about being famous. If you do something so outrageous or memorable just once in your life, years from now people will say, “Remember when...” and you will be famous forever. Well, for some folks on the streets of Toronto, February 7th will be the day they talk about for years, the day that “Business Garfoose” went shopping.

Walking through a park on my way to meet a few friends that would be my unofficial photographers, I discovered the park was filled with pigeons. It struck me that a Garfoose would run through the flock, sharing in their animal oneness.

As I did so, I had the thought, “Wow, these people are seeing a Garfoose in the park!”

It then struck me that these people had no idea what a Garfoose was... but instead of feeling embarrassment or feeling self-conscious, I thought, “What lucky folks, they are seeing a Garfoose in real life for the first time!”

So after my encounter in the park, it was off to the stores. After doing some window shopping, I entered a few stores, sharing the Garfoosian experience with people. Reaction was tremendous! While some folks ignored the Business Garfoose (it is Toronto after all - strange things happen every day), others were delighted to encounter a creature once thought to be imaginary. Several were willing to pose for photographs until they discovered they would be posted online. Having said that, Bravo to Tom, for being brave enough to get so close to the Business Garfoose and posing for our picture together. He is a very brave man indeed...

Waking up today, I discovered that the Garfoose is still with me, lurking somewhere in the backyard, waiting for the next time he decides to venture into the streets. One thing that you can be certain of, the Business Garfoose will make more appearances in Toronto and other parts of Canada in the future. He seems to like me and has decided to take up residence with my wife and I.

While you are visiting Dirk’s website to learn about all things Garfoose, it would be a great opportunity to pre-order his upcoming book, The Bullpen Gospels, set for release on March 30th.

What else is there to say, other then the usual - Have a great sports day everyone (and find your inner-Garfoose, it is worth it!).

Friday, February 5, 2010

Coaches the Key to Victory for Men's Hockey Team

This article was first published in the February 5th edition of Main Street Week - page 5, 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.

Coaches the Key to Victory for Men's Hockey Team

With the countdown to the Vancouver Olympics in the home stretch, the eyes of the hockey world are focusing on the Canadian men's hockey team. The players taking the ice for Team Canada are all excellent athletes and will certainly do their best to represent our country. Having said that, keep in mind that all the countries are sending their best and the Canadian team will face strong opposition from Sweden, Russia, the United States, Finland and the Czech Republic.

In the medal rounds of the tournament, one loss is all that it takes to send a team home empty-handed. Anything can happen in these situations, ask the players that competed in Nagano Japan. The 1998 Olympic Games were the first to include NHL players and all Canadians remember the semi-final game against the Czech Republic. Heading into a shootout after overtime could not decide a winner, Team Canada was shutout by Czech goaltending legend Dominik Hasek and came home with a fourth place finish. Should we even begin to discuss the 2006 Games? Canada finished seventh behind hockey powerhouse Switzerland.

One factor where Canada may have the definitive edge over their opposition is behind the bench. Four of the best coaches in the NHL and our country are taking on the challenge of winning gold on Canadian soil. Led by Detroit Red Wings Head Coach, Mike Babcock, the coaching staff also includes Ken Hitchcock (Columbus Blue Jackets), Lindy Ruff (Buffalo Sabres) and Jacques Lemaire (New Jersey Devils).

Babcock, a native of Saskatoon Saskatchewan, has coached in the NHL since the 2002-2003 season with the Anaheim Ducks and the Detroit Red Wings. In his first year with Anaheim, he guided his team to a surprising Western Conference Championship and into the Stanley Cup Finals. They lost in seven games to Pat Burns and the New Jersey Devils but Babcock would return to the Finals again, this time as coach of the Red Wings. He finally got to raise the Cup in 2008 and came within one game of doing it again in 2009 but Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins had other plans. Luckily, for Babcock, when the teams hit the ice at the Olympics, Crosby will be one of his key offensive threats.

For Ken Hitchcock, a native of Edmonton Alberta, this will be his third Olympic Games. A defensive specialist and master tactician, Hitchcock brings experience, a gold medal from 2002 and a Stanley Cup ring he won with the Dallas Stars in 1999. Joining him as an associate coach is LaSalle Quebec native and former Montreal Canadiens forward Jacques Lemaire. A veteran of 853 games in the NHL, Lemaire has written the book on defensive hockey with the New Jersey Devils and the Minnesota Wild. A Stanley Cup winner eight times as a player, he added two more while an assistant GM in Montreal and once more as Head Coach in New Jersey (1995). He is a two-time Jack Adams Trophy winner as Coach of the Year in the NHL (1995, 2003).

Last but certainly not the least, is Warburg Alberta native Lindy Ruff. Currently the longest serving Head Coach with one team in the NHL, Ruff has worked the bench in Buffalo since the 1998-1999 season. A veteran of 691 NHL games as a player with the Sabres and the New York Rangers, Ruff is also a Jack Adams Trophy winner (2006). His only trip to the Stanley Cup Finals was a loss, to Hitchcock’s Stars in 1999.

While the coaches cannot win the games for the players, the systems they implement in the short Olympic tournament could be the difference between a gold medal and going home early. The Canadian team will have limited opportunity to practise before the tournament begins so clear, concise instructions from Babcock and his staff will be essential. Team Canada and Team USA are the only teams with NHL coaches, playing a tournament with NHL players, on a NHL rink; it could be a deciding factor in the outcome. Enjoy the games! Have a great sports day everyone.

Photo by John Bristowe on Flickr

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Are the Blackhawks Looking for an Upgrade at the Goaltending Position?

When I made my pre-season predictions in August for the current NHL season, I believed that the Chicago Blackhawks would take a step back this year. With the emergence of teams like Columbus and St. Louis last season and the loss of number one goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin via free agency during the summer, I thought Chicago would be around the eighth spot in the Western Conference - was I ever wrong on that one... I wondered at the time, could Chicago win with Cristobal Huet as their number one goaltender?

After 56 games, the Blackhawks are second in the Western Conference and 14 points ahead of Nashville in the Central Division. There is little doubt that the Hawks are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders heading into the Olympic break. Their young stars have continued to improve and Huet has provided solid goaltending for most of the season. However, with the trade deadline approaching, rumours continue to circulate that the Blackhawks are looking for help in the goaltending department.

A seventh round pick (214th overall) by the Los Angeles Kings in the 2001 entry draft, Huet came into form during his time in Montreal with the Canadiens. The native of Grenoble France posted some quality numbers with the Canadiens during his three seasons in La Belle Province; winning 58 games in 117 appearances and posting a 2.52 goals against average and a .922 save percentage. He was sent to Washington for a second round draft pick to make room for Carey Price at the trade deadline in 2008.

As good as his numbers were, he would occasionally frustrate fans with his habit of dropping to his knees too early and staying down on the ice when there was time to reposition himself properly for the next shot - a habit he still has on occasion. Despite having Khabibulin under contract last year, Chicago brought in Huet as a free agent during the summer of 2008, signing him to a five-year contract at $5.625 million per year. Huet and Khabibulin split the workload last year; Huet appeared in 41 games, Khabibulin in 42. The “Bulin Wall” had the slight edge statistically and carried the team into the third round of the playoffs, eventually losing to the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference Final.

This year, Huet has appeared in 41 games, one off his career high of 42, which he has done twice (2004 with Los Angeles and 2007 with Montreal). His goals against average is a respectable 2.33 and his save percentage is slightly below his average, currently at .902%. In three of his last five starts, Huet’s save percentage was below .875. The low save percentage could be fuelling the trade rumours among Blackhawk fans. In a seven game series, would Huet’s bad habits be exposed? The last thing Chicago management wants is an early exit from the playoffs after last year’s success.

The play of 26-year-old backup goaltender Antti Niemi is certainly giving the Blackhawks something to think about, but are they ready to hand him the reigns for the playoffs? In 18 appearances, Niemi leads the league with a 1.99 goals against average but he was pulled in his last start against Vancouver on January 23rd; allowing three goals on 12 shots in one period of action. After several decent years with the Lahti Pelicans in the Finnish National Hockey League, Niemi signed as a free agent with Chicago in 2008. He is signed through next season at $780,000 and is a restricted free agent after the 2010-2011 season. How would he handle the pressures of the Stanley Cup playoffs - are the Hawks willing to find out by letting him learn on the job?

As for Huet being traded or replaced at the trade deadline this season, one would think his contract would make him un-tradable. However, until last Sunday, everyone in the hockey world thought J.S. Giguere and Jason Blake’s contracts were impossible to move and yet they are wearing different uniforms now.

The problem facing Chicago if they are looking for a change in net is who is available? There are not too many goaltenders in the league that can play a solid 60 games per season and are on the market. These are the kind of questions that keep me up at night, and with the trade deadline officially one month away, I am sure it is keeping some General Managers up at night too...

Photo by Burns! on Flickr

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Thoughts on Brian Burke's Weekend Trades...

Despite the flurry of trades on Sunday, we now officially have proof for Leaf Nation that Brian Burke is not God - Look at all the work he did on Sunday...

Yes, the trade winds have begun to blow through the National Hockey League, far ahead of the March 3rd trade deadline. What was expected to be a quiet Sunday morning, became a frenzy of Twitter activity as the Toronto Maple Leafs, Calgary Flames and Anaheim Ducks did the unthinkable in the salary cap era; they made trades at mid-season. The New York Rangers have now taken the plunge too, making a Monday night deal with Calgary.

Brian Burke was in need of some positive news, as fans lamented the loss of a potential lottery pick to the Boston Bruins in the Phil Kessel trade. By acquiring a two-time all-star in Dion Phaneuf, the heat is temporarily off Burke and the Leafs management team. Luckily for Burke, he found another GM as desperate as himself, in need of changing the atmosphere in the dressing room. While the Leafs are near the bottom of the standings, a surprise to some observers but not all; the Calgary Flames were to be legitimate Stanley Cup contenders this year and their nine game losing streak was the final straw, forcing Darryl Sutter to make his move.

The Maple Leafs are a work in progress but they certainly look better today then they did on Saturday evening, blowing a 3-0 lead, eventually falling to the Vancouver Canucks 5-3. With the addition of Phaneuf, the Leafs now have a defenceman for the power play with a howitzer slap shot. Taking passes from Kaberle or Beauchemin, the hard shot from the point will force defending teams to pay closer attention to the D-men, leaving a forward unchecked near the slot area.

While there are questions about Phaneuf’s play as of late, and why Sutter was willing to part with the 24 year old, the answer is quite simple. In need of a change and a shake-up in the dressing room, Phaneuf is their most valuable commodity. With the emergence of Mark Giordano and the steady play of Jay Bouwmeester and Robyn Regehr, Phaneuf found himself as the fourth defenceman on the team; at a price tag of $6.5 million per year, he became expendable. For Calgary, it is a more prudent move to bring in a player like Ian White. One of the hardest working and dedicated Leafs, White is a restricted free agent at season’s end and Calgary could lock him up for three or four years at $2.5-$3 million per year. Savings that can be used to re-sign pending free agent Rene Bourque (if that is the direction Sutter is leaning), or re-signing the newly acquired Matt Stajan.

Regarding the Toronto - Anaheim deal, there are several factors at work here, and no, it has nothing to do with Ducks GM Bob Murray doing his old boss a favour. In J.S. Giguere and Jason Blake, both teams were dealing with what could be described as “unmovable” contracts. Giguere is set to make $7 million next season, with a cap hit of $6 million... Blake is set to make $3 million next year with a cap hit of $4 million. Ducks television analyst, Bryan Hayward, mentioned on the Fan 590 in Toronto that Anaheim has an internal cap on their spending. Trading Giguere will actually save the team $4 million dollars, leaving cap space to re-sign Bobby Ryan, a pending restricted free agent that is third in team scoring with 41 points.

In Toronto, there is little doubt that The Monster, Johan Gustavsson, will be the number one goalie in the future. Bringing in Giguere, demonstrates living proof for the Swedish goaltender every day, exactly what goaltending coach Francois Allaire is preaching. I do not have access to the Maple Leaf dressing room, but it is not a secret here in Toronto that recently departed goalie, Vesa Toskala, did not even speak with Allaire, let alone learn anything from him (that explains a lot doesn’t it folks?). Giguere could return to form working with Allaire (Hayward commented that a “fresh start” would do the 2003 Conn Smythe Trophy winner a “world of good“). We could see Giguere carrying the bulk of the workload this season and perhaps next as well. All the while, Allaire and Gustavsson can work on the technical aspects of life in the NHL. When Giguere’s contract is up at the end of next season, The Monster can emerge as the number one.

With strength in goal and a defence that includes Kaberle (keep him, don’t trade him!), Phaneuf, Beauchemin, Komisarek, Schenn and perhaps newly acquired Keith Aulie or Carl Gunnarsson as the 5th and sixth D-men, Burke can concentrate on adding the missing elements at the forward position. Schenn could be the next Phaneuf, traded away to add some scoring help - just a thought. There is no doubt Phil Kessel is a top-six forward, now he just needs someone to keep up with him.

Next season, Toronto and Burke are hoping to win on the strength of their defence and goaltending (which was supposed to be the plan this year). Look for some trap style play next year; while boring, it could result in more victories. The following season, with added offensive threats, the Maple Leafs could very well be back in the contention for a playoff position.

Photo by FrenchKheldar on Flickr