Friday, March 26, 2010

Remembering "Nos Amours" - the Montreal Expos


This article was first published in the March 26th edition of Main Street Week and is reprinted here with permission from the editors. Drop by www.mainstreetweeknews.com to have a look at a great community newspaper or sign up and have Main Street Week delivered right to your inbox every Friday.

Regular readers of Main Street and my website, The Voice of Sport, are well aware of my feeling towards Major League Baseball and the dismantling and eventual departure of our beloved Montreal Expos. For those just joining us here at Main Street Week for the first time, let’s just say I am still bitter about the move to Washington and the consistently disgraceful play on the field by the team now called the Nationals. Thanks to the Can-Am baseball league and my friend, mentor and current member of the Toronto Blue Jays, Dirk Hayhurst, my love for the game has returned. As another MLB season gets underway, I thought it would be a great time to look back at “Nos Amours” - the Montreal Expos.

On the afternoon of April 8, 1969, the Montreal Expos took to the field for the first time in New York, playing the Mets at Shea Stadium. Manager Gene Mauch’s opening day line-up included Bob Bailey at 1st base, Gary Sutherland at 2nd, Maury Wills at shortstop, Coco Laboy at 3rd and Mack Jones, Don Hahn and the immortal Rusty Staub in the outfield. John Bateman was the catcher on opening day with right-handed pitcher Mudcat Grant on the mound. The Expos outlasted the Mets in a high-scoring affair, winning the game by an 11-10 score, with relief pitcher Don Shaw picking up the franchise’s first win.

Opening Day at Montreal’s Jarry Park was another historic moment for the franchise, winning the game 8-7 over the St. Louis Cardinals in front of 29,184 fans on April 14, 1969. Left fielder Mack Jones provided the highlights in the victory, hitting a three-run homerun and a two-run triple to power the offence and provide the city of Montreal with the distinction of being the first team to record a victory outside of the United States. On April 17, 1967, Bill Stoneman pitched the first no-hitter in Expos history in a 7-0 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies. On October 2, 1972, he did it again, defeating the New York Mets 7-0 at Jarry Park; the first no-hitter ever recorded outside of the United States. Expected to be the Expos home for only three years, it was not until 1977 that the Expos moved from Jarry Park into the Olympic Stadium, much to the consternation of the MLB.

During the 35 years that the Expos called Montreal home, there were many highs and lows in the franchise’s history. The loss to the LA Dodgers in the NLCS in 1981, forever etched on the hearts of fans as “Blue Monday” and of course, the devastating players strike in 1994, which was the beginning of the end for the organization. Many stars played on the beautiful natural grass at Jarry Park and the unfortunate artificial turf at the Olympic Stadium; names like Staub, Stoneman, Jones, Dawson, Carter, Raines, Walker, Martinez, Alou and Guerrero, to name just a few, wore the uniform with pride and represented Quebec and Canada with distinction and humility. The Expos are gone but they are certainly not forgotten.

A quick reminder, MLB pitcher, author and Main Street supporter, Dirk Hayhurst, is set to celebrate the release of his first book, The Bullpen Gospels, on March 30th. Drop by your local bookstore and pick up a copy or visit Dirk’s website at www.dirkhayhurst.com to order one online. A tremendous person with a big heart, Hayhurst has overcome adversity to pursue his big-league dreams. Have a great sports day everyone.

Photo by slgckgc on Flickr.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Burke Promised Change in Toronto and he has Delivered...


Wait until next season - four words no sports fan ever wants to hear. For the fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs, it is understandable that they are sick of hearing these words, but the team is proving that they will be a competitive squad when they hit the ice next year. After a well-documented, poor start to the season, that saw the Leafs drop their first eight games, they have emerged as one of the NHL’s hottest teams as the NHL season wraps up.

Brian Burke promised a change of culture in the locker room and he has certainly delivered. With most of last season’s roster playing for other teams in the league, the youngsters Burke has acquired via free agency and the trade route finally have the ice-time to display their skills and develop some chemistry. Most notable among the new additions are hard-hitting defenceman Dion Phaneuf and NCAA standout, Tyler Bozak.

When the Leafs GM called a press conference on a quiet Sunday morning to announce a trade in late January, no one expected the news that Phaneuf, once considered a franchise player in Calgary, was on his way to Toronto. In a blockbuster trade, rarely seen in today’s salary cap era, Burke brought in a player that instantly made his defence one of the best in the Eastern Conference. When Mike Komisarek returns next season from shoulder surgery, the Leafs will have Phaneuf, Beauchemin, Komisarek, Schenn, Gunnarsson and possibly Tomas Kaberle on the blue line. A formidable group of D-men, especially with The Monster - Jonas Gustavsson and JS Giguere sharing the duties in goal and bringing much needed stability to the goaltending position.

Phaneuf has made an immediate impact on Luke Schenn since his arrival. Mired in the “sophomore slump”, Schenn’s play of late has been similar to his outstanding rookie year. In 69 games this season, Schenn has four goals, 12 assists and is finally on the plus side at plus two. Gunnarsson, a native of Orebro Sweden and a seventh round pick in 2007 (194th overall), has appeared out of nowhere as a legitimate NHL defenceman, scoring two goals and nine assists in 33 games while being a plus 11 on what was once a last place team. The sign of a “great” player is the fact that he makes others around him better and that is the case with Phaneuf’s arrival; he has made those around him better. Next season, do not be surprised to see a “C” on Phaneuf’s sweater.

Of course, every discussion this season about the Leafs involves the two first-round draft picks sent to the Boston Bruins for Phil Kessel. While it is a bold move, one that could prove to be costly, the points that Kessel is racking up may ease the burden for Leafs fans. I recently finished reading Brian McFarlane’s book, 100 Years of Hockey, which covers every decade of hockey from the humble beginnings until the end of the 1989 season. In the book, he makes predictions about the junior players expected to emerge as all-stars in the 1990’s. All the players mentioned accomplished nothing or very little in the NHL, except for Eric Lindros. Of course, Philadelphia may have had second thoughts about their “star” when the Colorado Avalanche won the 1996 Stanley Cup with several of Philadelphia’s draft picks and players. While the price paid for Kessel was steep, as Burke said at the time, he knew what he was getting in Kessel. A draft pick, even a top-five pick, does not always become a legitimate NHL star.

Now that Kessel has been joined on the top line by Tyler Bozak, he is on pace to match or exceed his goal total from Boston last season and the pair of forwards could be a formidable duo for years to come. Last season in Boston, Kessel had 36 goals and 24 assists in 70 games. This season, through 60 games, he has 28 goals and 23 assists. Bozak, since his arrival in the NHL, has accumulated 7 goals and 14 assists in 27 games. After an early case of nerves and learning on the job as he made his way through the difficult NHL schedule, the former University of Denver star has been a perfect fit on the top line with Kessel. Signed as an undrafted free agent, as Burke often states, finding a player like Bozak is like finding a wallet on the street. Joined by Nikolai Kulemin to round out the trio, and the Leafs are proving they are on the rise in the Eastern Conference and perhaps even to the top of the NHL.

As much as I hate to say it and Leafs fans hate to hear it, the words “wait until next year” finally have some meaning in Toronto. It is not an empty promise from a GM hoping to sell next year’s season ticket packages, it is a legitimate promise; one that Toronto fans can take to heart. When April 2011 rolls around, the Air Canada Centre will not be a darkened cavern, closed for the season; it will be the focal point of the hockey world and another feather in the cap of Brian Burke.

Photo of two former Flames - Dion Phaneuf and Wayne Primeau, by Dinur on Flickr.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Dominic Moore a Key to Montreal's Playoff Puzzle


This article was first published in the March 19th edition of Main Street Week - page 8, and is reprinted here with permission from the editors. Drop by www.mainstreetweeknews.com to have a look at a great community newspaper or sign up and have Main Street Week delivered right to your inbox every Friday. Photo of Moore during his time in Pittsburgh by Pointnshoot on Flickr.

This week, let's look back at the National Hockey League's trade deadline, which came and went on March 3rd with very little fanfare. Sure, there was plenty of television and radio coverage and a fair number of trades but few big names changed addresses. In the hunt for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference but dealing with injuries to some key players, the Montreal Canadiens were one of the teams that made no major moves at all.

Coming off the Olympic roster freeze, many fans and media analysts expected a flurry of deals, as the league's General Managers had over two weeks to analyze their teams and speak with their fellow GM's about roster moves. With so few teams out of the playoff picture, the result was a limited number of sellers on deadline day. Perhaps it was paralysis from analysis; the General Managers had too much time to consider their moves.

When Bob Gainey stepped down as the top man in Montreal on February 8th and handed control of the team to long-time assistant, Pierre Gauthier, Montreal fans were left to speculate how their team’s new boss would change his roster. Although he did make a minor trade at the deadline, sending Matt D’Agostini to St. Louis in exchange for Aaron Palushaj, Gauthier made one key acquisition before the Vancouver Games that will go a long way in helping the Canadiens earn a spot in the playoffs.

On February 11th, Gauthier and Florida Panthers GM Randy Sexton announced that Dominic Moore was on his way to Montreal in exchange for a second round draft pick in 2011. Moore, a native of Thornhill Ontario, is a hard working center that is a tremendous asset on the penalty kill and he can be very effective in the face-off circle as well.

A third round pick (95th overall) of the New York Rangers in the 2000 draft, Montreal is the seventh NHL team for Moore after stops in New York, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Toronto, Buffalo and Florida. In 362 NHL games, he has accumulated 45 goals and 124 points, with his best numbers coming during the 2007-08 season, split between Toronto and Buffalo. During that year, Moore played in 81 games and picked up 45 points. Before turning pro, he was a member of the Harvard University hockey team for four seasons in the NCAA. During the 1999-2000 season at Harvard, Moore took to the ice with his brothers Steve and Mark, the only time in their careers they had the opportunity to play together.

While Moore will never challenge players like Tomas Plekanec or Mike Cammalleri for the team lead in points, he is a valuable asset to acquire for a team like Montreal that has struggled defensively at times this season. As we have already witnessed this year, players like Moore and Glen Metropolit can score timely goals and they could be the difference makers in a hard-fought seven game playoff series. All the Canadiens have to do now is make it into the NHL’s second season, not an easy task in today’s league. Have a great sports day everyone.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Ferrari Back on Top with 1-2 Finish in Bahrain Grand Prix


With the drop of the flag on a beautiful day at the Bahrain Grand Prix in Sakhir Bahrain, another season of Formula 1 racing got underway. After a very disappointing season last year, Ferrari made a very bold statement in the opening race of the season; they are the team to beat in 2010, posting a 1-2 finish when the final lap was completed.

Fernando Alonso, making his first start for Ferrari after two years driving for Renault, added to the legend of the prancing horse, winning his first race with the Italian team; a feat also accomplished by Nigel Mansell in his first appearance with Ferrari in 1989 and three years ago by the man Alonso replaced, Kimi Raikkonen. The Spanish national anthem rang out as Alonso took his place at the top of the podium for his twenty-second career victory and third win at the Bahrain Grand Prix. He overtook Sebastian Vettel on the 34th lap for the race lead and never relinquished the top spot, cruising to victory on the 49-lap circuit.

“A very special day for me as coming back to the top of the podium is always special but I think it is even more special with Ferrari with all the history behind the team and all the expectations a driver has when he drives for Ferrari,” said Alonso in his post-race press conference, available at the Formula 1 website. “There is no better way to start the relationship.”

The new season also marked the return of Felipe Massa to the track after an accident last year that resulted in life-threatening injuries for the Brazilian driver. The 29-year-old Massa was seriously injured in qualifying for the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix when a suspension spring from Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn car struck Massa in the helmet, resulting in a crash. Massa’s health quickly improved after the accident and despite missing the remainder of the season, there was little doubt he would be back behind the wheel of his Ferrari in time for the start of the 2010 schedule. His second place finish at the Bahrain GP confirmed that the young man from Sao Paulo is ready for a run at the Driver’s Championship.

With a disappointing 2009 season in their rear-view mirrors, Ferrari is ready to battle for the Constructors Title with their 2010 car. Last year, there was much discussion when Ferrari made the decision to abandon the race for the Constructors Title and focus on research and development for the 2010 season, but any controversy ended today with the 1-2 finish.

Also making his return to Formula 1 racing today was 7-time Driver’s Champion Michael Schumacher. With almost every record in the sport, most championships, race victories, fastest laps, pole positions and most races won in a single season, the former Benetton and Ferrari driver was at the wheel for Mercedes at the Bahrain GP. After a three-year absence from the sport, Schumacher almost returned last year as a replacement for Massa after his accident in Hungary but a bad back from a motorcycle injury forced the living legend to postpone his return until this season. Schumacher and his Mercedes crossed the line in sixth place.

“After three years away, I'm happy to say that I had fun out there today especially at the beginning with the good start that I had,” Schumacher said in an interview available at the Formula 1 website. “I can live very well with sixth position and it gives both me and the team a good base to make progress.”

The next race on the Formula 1 schedule is the Australian Grand Prix on March 28th and all eyes will be on Ferrari to see if they can repeat their success in Bahrain. The final results from today’s Bahrain Grand Prix: 1st: Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), 2nd: Felipe Massa (Ferrari), 3rd: Lewis Hamilton (McLaren).

Photo by Daniel Hector Stolfi Rosso on Flickr.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Instead of "No Hunting", NHL Declares "Open Season" for Headshots...


The NHL missed a tremendous opportunity for change this week with the announcement that Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cooke will receive no suspension for his vicious hit on Boston's Marc Savard. In what could have become a bold statement of support for the Sports Legacy Institute and their research on the long-term effects of concussions and ushered in a new era of respect amongst its players, the league instead decided to keep the status quo and do nothing, with the promise of changes for next season.

A new rule is on its way to the NHL’s Competition Committee for approval in which “blindside hits to the head on an unsuspecting player” will now result in a two or five minute penalty and the possibility of supplemental discipline from the league. The first dilemma facing this rule is the fact that the referee will need to see the hit in question, which as we all know, does not always happen. The next is the fact that the league, using video replays will have to determine an intent to injure, which they have stated in the Cooke incident could not be done. How will the “intent to injure” be clearer next season when using video replays to decide if a suspension is warranted when it is not clear enough this season?

Once again, the league has failed to set out a clear and concise punishment when they believe a rule has been broken. Instead of legislating a 5, 10, or 15 game suspension, which leaves the offending players knowing exactly what penalties they face, which could act as a deterrent, the NHL has left it to the discretion of Campbell. Will a star player face the same punishment as a fourth line grinder? In a word, no...

When it comes to the issue of headshots and concussions, the NHL is worried that creating a definitive suspension will result in a star player being suspended for a lengthy period due to reckless behaviour, resulting in a loss of revenues for an NHL team. Regardless of the player’s star status, if you do something reckless, you should be punished in the same manner as anyone else. How does the owner of the Boston Bruins feel this morning, while he calculates the millions of dollars in lost playoff revenues? Without Savard, his team will continue to struggle in the goal-scoring department and could quite easily slide out of playoff contention.

Instead of being proactive, the league has revealed an unwillingness to take the necessary steps towards eradicating headshots from their game. If the NFL can implement rules to better educate and protect their players, why is the NHL slow to change? With the new rule, covering blindside hits to the head, the NHL has shown signs of recognizing the long-term effects of concussions but how many times this season have we witnessed blindside hits? Twice? The Richards hit on Booth and the Cooke hit on Savard.

In a rather lively debate last night with Ed, a regular reader at TVOS, we discussed the issues of headshots in general. Ed brought up the Chris Neil hit on Toronto's John Mitchell. I must confess, at the time of our conversation, I had only seen the replay during the game on Saturday evening, not afterwards and I mistakenly believed Neil had caught Mitchell with more of his body. However, after our conversation, I found the replay and discovered that Ed was indeed correct. Neil caught Mitchell full-force in the head with his shoulder. Unfortunately, under current rules, and the new one to be implemented next season, Neil's hit would never be penalized. Like most hockey fans, I do not wish to see good, clean hockey hits taken from the game, but Neil's hit, at the very least is a charging penalty. While he did not leave his feet and Mitchell saw him coming, the leading edge of the hit was Neil's shoulder - aimed directly at the head. These scenarios are being played out regularly in all levels of hockey and must be addressed. It comes back to the issue of respect - just because a player has lined up an opponent for a body check, must it be delivered at full speed? Surely, a hit can be as effective at a reduced speed.

Colin Campbell stated that a “precedent” was set when the league did not suspend Mike Richards for his hit on Panthers forward David Booth. However, Richards and Cooke are not in the same category when it comes to NHL suspensions. Cooke is a repeat offender, as Campbell himself points out and yet the league still does not attempt to discipline the Penguins forward. Besides Cooke’s hits on Savard, Artem Anisimov and Scott Walker, all resulting in concussions, he also went knee-on-knee with Ottawa’s Shean Donovan this season and almost ended Donovan’s career. Here is what Campbell had to say in response to his non-decision (available at TSN, NHL.com and numerous other media outlets):

“No one likes when a player like Marc Savard goes down the way he did,” said Campbell. “No one likes when a player like David Booth goes down the way he did. But we have to be consistent. I know Matt Cooke is a repeat offender. He’s been suspended twice in the last year. I can’t suspend Matt Cooke for being a repeat offender. I have to find a reason. Right now, our rules say that shoulders to head are legal. Matt Cooke did not jump, and did not do anything that we found illegal in his actions, even though, again, you don’t like what happened.”

If doing nothing is remaining consistent, congratulations - you are extremely consistent! It should also be noted that Sean Avery’s comments last year about an ex-girlfriend resulted in a six game suspension for Avery. Clearly harsh words and a bad sense of humour must be taken out of the game; blindside hits can wait until next year and blatant hits to the head are completely acceptable.

Therefore, with no rule in place for the remainder of this season, one could say it is now open season on any NHL player. Losing in the first round to the Penguins, why not send a fourth line player on the ice to take out Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Losing to the Capitals, simply take out Alex Ovechkin or Alexander Semin. Sound ridiculous - well, under the current NHL rules, as long as the player is covert enough and does not display intent to injure, nothing can be done. Let me repeat that - Nothing Can Be Done!! Unlike other major sports leagues that react instantly to these issues, the NHL has opened up a Pandora’s Box of possibilities by clearly stating they can do nothing until next season.

The focus this week has been Matt Cooke but lets be clear here, this problem is far more involved then just one player’s actions. The lack of respect shown by one union brother to another is shameful and it continues to occur. I have no personal grudge against Cooke, far from it - during my ten years in Vancouver he was one of my favourites; bringing a tough as nails approach to hockey and always willing to step in and defend his teammates. Having said that, the fact that there are no repercussions for his hit on Savard disgusts me and I must question which direction this league is going.

While I will continue to watch hockey from a writer’s perspective, I fear my days as a fan of the NHL are numbered. The directions coming from the commissioner’s office are troubling and disjointed to say the least. Whether is was Commissioner Bettman’s fumbling of the NHL television contract, the saga of the Phoenix Coyotes and now the inability to protect the players from themselves, leading to debilitating brain injuries, this league is sinking quickly. With a house of cards, built on debt and poor leadership, the NHL is heading for troubled waters.

It is a dark day for NHL hockey and the well-being of its players...

Photo by Michael Simmons on Flickr.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

University Education an Important Step for Former Ottawa 67's Captain Will Colbert


This article is in the March 2010 edition of Main Street and is reprinted here with the permission of the editors. Drop by www.mainstreetweeknews.com to have a look at a great community newspaper.

When writing my columns for Main Street, I always attempt to find interesting athletes with ties to the Laurentian area. Having said that, I also feel quite strongly that an inspirational story knows no borders or boundaries. Such is the case this month, with the story of Will Colbert, a hockey player from Arnprior Ontario.

Colbert was a member and captain of the Ottawa 67’s in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) during his junior career. An all-star in the OHL, he also won the 67’s award as their Scholastic Player of the Year in 2004 for combining academic achievement and on-ice excellence. Selected in the seventh round by the Ottawa Senators in the 2003 entry draft, Colbert made the decision to continue his education at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia instead of entering the NHL’s minor leagues. With the support of his parents, he could complete his education while continuing to play hockey.

“It was a worry for my Mom and Dad when I left home at 17 to go play with the 67’s, education was their biggest concern,” said Colbert on the telephone from Worcester Massachusetts. “An education was also very important to me; I skipped my last year in Ottawa as an overage player to go to school. I decided I wanted to get my degree so I figured I would leave junior hockey and do it, and then I could get on with playing pro if I still had the opportunity.”

However, a surprise was waiting for Colbert and his family during the summer of 2005. Since he had never signed a contract with the Senators, he automatically went back into the NHL Draft and the San Jose Sharks selected him in the sixth round of the 2005 entry draft one month before his University career was about to begin.

“I had committed to go to school, not knowing I would be drafted again, so I stuck with that commitment,” said Colbert. “San Jose respected that and said that they were going to keep an eye on me there.”

With his junior career in Ottawa behind him, Colbert focused on obtaining his degree in Kinesiology at St. Francis Xavier, while continuing his hockey career. Demonstrating his leadership skills and maturity, he would become the captain of his University team as well. The lessons learnt in the classroom were applied to his hockey career.

“The hockey is a big step up from junior, which a lot of people don't always know. It rivals NCAA hockey (American University hockey), it is underrated, but it was a lot of fun,” said Colbert. “I understand so much more about the body now, things I am dealing with every day, so school was definitely beneficial.”

In his first year of professional hockey, Colbert has split his time between the Kalamazoo Wings in the East Coast Hockey League and the Worcester Sharks in the American Hockey League. The learning curve has increased again for Colbert, as he adjusts to the life of a professional hockey player and an 80 game schedule.

“I don't have school to worry about, I don't have to come home and study,” said Colbert. “So I am not finding the schedule too bad, but it is definitely an adjustment physically playing 80 games as opposed to 28 (in University). You have to move the puck so much quicker here, having to make plays. I am really working on moving the puck quick and smart.”

Colbert is a tremendous example for young hockey players everywhere, with a hockey career in the AHL or perhaps the NHL awaiting him, he made the important decision to complete his education. As he works his way up through the various levels of pro hockey, he already possesses a very valuable asset, a University degree. Have a great sports day everyone.

Photo by Dinur on Flickr.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Double-Digit Suspensions Must Become the "New" Normal!


The NHL's General Managers are meeting in Boca Raton Florida from Monday through Wednesday to discuss headshots and several other important issues facing the league. Whether or not they accomplish anything, well that is another story, but at least the conversation is finally happening. Heading into the meetings, Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli will have fresh video evidence to bring to the table; yet another NHL player has demonstrated a total lack of respect for his fellow players.

Once again, Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins is at the center of the debate after a devastating elbow to the head of Bruins forward Marc Savard. Already in a fight for their playoff lives, the NHL’s lowest scoring team must now make their playoff push without their best player. Currently in eighth place, two points ahead of the New York Rangers and three ahead of the Atlanta Thrashers, the Bruins are in danger of slipping out of the playoff picture completely without Savard. Despite playing in only 41 games this season because of various injuries, Savard is tied for third in scoring on the team with 33 points.

With 5:37 remaining in the Bruins/Penguins game, Cooke delivered a clear elbow to the head of Savard after the Bruins forward had released a shot towards the Pittsburgh net. With no penalty called on the play, the spotlight is shinning clearly on the ineffectiveness of the NHL Rule Book. The general discussion in the NHL stems around shoulder-to-head hits amongst the players and whether a rule can be implemented to properly penalize these plays. However, Cooke’s hit had no shoulder at all; it is an obvious elbow to the face, resulting in a concussion. To put the situation in proper terms, Savard is not out with a concussion - he is out of action with a brain injury.

Once again, the answer from the offending player is offensive, to this writer at least...

“I was just finishing my check,” Cooke told the media after the game.

In the numerous interviews I have conducted with current and former hockey players, as well as Sports Legacy Institute co-founder Chris Nowinski, the questions surrounding these plays in a sport known for its hard hitting and contact is that of respect. All the players I have spoken with believed it was best left to the players to make the changes themselves, demonstrating more respect for each other; failing to do so should lead to the NHL implementing rule changes. It is safe to say, that some players have not received the message and it is time for the league to step in. Leaderless or not, the NHLPA has a duty to protect their members and should gladly work with the Commissioner’s Office to bring about a change in philosophy as to what is acceptable behaviour on the ice.

A rule change involving the type of equipment worn by the players will help eliminate some injuries from the shoulder-to-head hits but several of these plays, especially the Cooke on Savard hit, has nothing to do with the equipment being worn and everything to do with a total lack of respect for another players well-being. While it is not a certainty, what if Savard’s career is over? What if he spends the next five years battling depression, vertigo, intense migraine headaches, lacking the will to live, perhaps even leading to the development of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and an early death? All because Matt Cooke wanted to “finish his check.”

Coming off the high television ratings from the Olympic hockey tournament and a renewed interest in the game in the United States, plays like Cooke’s will only turn any new fans away from the game, negating any progress made during the Olympics. It is often said that American fans are not interested in the violent sport of hockey, with many analysts blaming the fighting in the league as the root of this concern. Perhaps it is the sight of seeing a young man carried off the ice on a stretcher, after losing consciousness from an elbow to the face, which is the true cause for their concern. Some believe the “Instigator” rule is the problem in the league; players cannot police themselves and some players take advantage of that fact and play on the edge between high energy and outright dirty. Even if there was no instigator rule, what does that change? So, someone beats up Matt Cooke after the play and only gets a five-minute penalty; Savard is still on a stretcher, still suffering from a brain injury.

At the current meetings, the conversation will revolve around the issue of blindside hits and creating a new rule for that situation. However, Cooke’s hit and others like it do not require a new rule, it requires immediate action. All plays are reviewable by the Commissioner’s Office and supplemental discipline can be handed out if deemed necessary by the league. The current routine of two-game suspensions and $2,000 fines does nothing to impact players making millions of dollars a year.

Perhaps it is time for the NHL to implement a rule similar to the NFL’s “Conduct Detrimental to the League” rule, where a player in Cooke’s situation is suspended, not only because of the headshot but also because there is no room in the game for players with a total lack of respect for their opponents. It is time for the league to implement a minimum 10-game suspension for a first-time offender, followed by a 15 or 20 game suspension if a player acts in an irresponsible nature again within a 16-month period. The time for letting the players sort things out and find some respect for one another has passed, it is time for the league to take action; double-digit suspensions must become the new “normal” in the NHL. My only question is this: is anyone in the league brave enough to bring about these changes? If the past is any indication, we already have that answer - no, they are not...

Photo by Dan4th on Flickr.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The New York Islanders Will Rise Again...



During the late 1960's and early 1970's the NHL enjoyed a time of great expansion; going from the Original Six teams to twelve in 1967. The Los Angeles Kings, California Golden Seals, Minnesota North Stars, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers and the St. Louis Blues all joined the league. For the 1970-71 season, the Vancouver Canucks and the Buffalo Sabres joined in the hunt for the Stanley Cup and two more teams brought the league to sixteen teams in time for the 1971-72 season as the Atlanta Flames and New York Islanders came into being.

Bill Harris was the first ever selection by the Islanders in the 1972 amateur draft, playing in 500 games on Long Island before a trade sent him to Los Angeles in March of 1980. The 1973 draft started a collection of players that would bring the Islanders into the realm of the great dynasties by the 1980’s. Denis Potvin was selected first overall in the 1973 draft, followed by Clark Gilles (1974), Mike Bossy (1977), Steve Tambellini (1978), Duane Sutter (1979), Brent Sutter (1980) and Pat Lafontaine (1982). With strong draft picks and tremendous coaching from Al Arbour, the Islanders became a dominant force in the NHL, winning four consecutive Stanley Cups between 1980 and 1983. Seven members of the Islanders dynasty have joined other hockey legends, enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

With the emergence of the Edmonton Oilers and a young man named Wayne Gretzky, the Islanders hold on the Cup was finally broken in a hard fought Final in 1984. New York is still waiting for the chance to challenge for the sporting world’s greatest trophy once again, a task made more difficult now that the league is comprised of 30 teams. Despite New York’s poor showing in recent years, they could emerge again as a legitimate contender with the arrival of another young goal scorer, reminiscent of Mike Bossy, a young man from Mississauga Ontario, John Tavares.

In the late eighties, nineties and early part of this decade, the Islanders continued to flounder. A new generation of great players joined the team in the early 90’s, Pierre Turgeon, Ray Ferraro and Glenn Healy to name a few, and if not for a Dale Hunter hit from behind on Turgeon while he celebrated a goal during a hard-fought playoff series, the Islanders may have competed for the Cup again. A twenty-one game suspension went to Hunter for the blatantly dirty hit, but without Turgeon, the Isles were over-matched against a team of overtime destiny and heroics from Montreal, led by a young man named Patrick Roy.

The Islanders have become a joke in the league in the eyes of some analysts, with bizarre moves from the ownership and management in the past decades. Inconceivable trades and roster moves, as well as an unsatisfactory arena, have left fans of the once proud franchise reeling, wondering what will happen next to keep the team in the bottom of the league. When former Islander back-up goaltender Garth Snow retired unexpectedly to become the teams General Manager, fans, experts and analysts cried, “Now what?”

However, Snow has become a very competent GM in the league, earning the respect of his peers and his players. Perhaps it is the fact he recently played in the league and is aware of the challenges of life in the NHL that has bridged the gap between management and the players. When he signed goaltender Rick Dipietro to a 15-year contract, which eased the burden on the team’s salary cap, spreading the amount of Dipietro’s contract across several years, the experts decreed, “Here we go again.” However, have we not seen this trend emerge as a legitimate money saver? Once the “experts” stopped chuckling at the silliness on Long Island, they realized that Henrik Zetterberg in Detroit is now in possession of a twelve-year deal, as are Marian Hossa in Chicago and Roberto Luongo in Vancouver. Maybe Snow was on to something after all...

Which brings us to the modern day Islanders squad, a group of youngsters currently fighting for their playoff lives after an unexpected quick start to the season. Led by John Tavares, the building blocks are beginning to find their places in the organization and a solid foundation is forming. The next step facing Garth Snow is how to build upon the talent already on the team and bring the franchise back to respectability, all the while, the spectre of moving hovers over the franchise as owner Charles Wang and Nassau County debate the merits of Wang’s Lighthouse Project - a debate that has gone on for over eight years.

For more on the Lighthouse Project - visit the TVOS Archives:

www.thevoiceofsport.com/2009/03/lights-out-on-islanders.html

Today’s Islanders face not only a tough battle to regain the support of their fans; they are also in one of the toughest divisions in the NHL. The Pittsburgh Penguins are comfortable at the top along with the New Jersey Devils, and the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers will not simply step aside in the Atlantic Division for the up and coming Islanders. Many tough battles lie ahead for Tavares and his teammates.

Leading the way this season is Kyle Okposo, a tough as nails forward from St. Paul Minnesota. In his second full season on Long Island, Okposo has already surpassed his previous point total (39 point last season), and looks to be a legitimate NHL player and team leader. While he is having a terrible season in the plus/minus category, that is more of a reflection on the overall team as opposed to Okposo himself. Joining him at the top of the team is previously unknown left-winger Matt Moulson. A ninth round selection of the Penguins in the 2003 entry draft, Moulson has found a home in New York with his off-season training partner Tavares. Everything Moulson accomplishes this season is a career high. Before the current season, he had played in 29 NHL games and accumulated 10 points. This year he has played in 64 games and his 22 goals leads the team in that category and his 38 points places him second on the team in scoring, two behind Okposo.

Which brings us to the possible Rookie of the Year - John Tavares. A goal scoring machine in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), many wondered if his skill would translate into NHL stardom. At this point, Tavares has been as advertised, a legitimate franchise player on a team in desperate need of stars. While these are just three young men making a difference for the Islanders, several young prospects are set to join the franchise in the coming years. One in particular that the Islanders’ fans can look forward to seeing in New York, perhaps as soon as next season, is OHL defenseman Calvin de Haan. The 12th pick overall in the 2009 draft, de Haan is currently a member of the Oshawa Generals in the OHL. In his two seasons with the Generals, he has played in 102 games and accumulated 87 points from the blue line. He is only 18-years-old but he could be ready to make the jump into the NHL.

While no team wants to finish at or near the bottom of the league, the prospect of drafting a franchise player with a lottery pick is proving to be a key to turning around a team in today’s salary cap world. With only 60 points, the Islanders are near the bottom again this year, currently sitting in 27th place in the league. They are in a battle with Florida (60 points) and Carolina (59 points) in the East for a lottery pick. Toronto and Edmonton appear to have a lock on the 29th and 30th spots in the NHL, giving them the best shot at the first and second picks in the draft - but keep in mind that the Boston Bruins are the owners of Toronto’s number one pick.

Wait until next year is a phrase the Islanders fans are growing weary of hearing but allow me to say it anyway - wait until next year... Tavares, Okposo, Moulson and the other youngsters on the team will grow together as a group. With the addition of more prospects and a timely free agent signing or two, this franchise is on the verge of returning to the playoffs and making some waves in the NHL. It is a blueprint that has worked in Pittsburgh, Washington, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Colorado; there is no reason to believe that it will not work for New York. The stability Garth Snow has brought to the team, coupled with a new arena deal and the Islanders could be the team to watch in the coming seasons.

Photo by ShutterSpeak on Flickr.

Friday, March 5, 2010

One Sure Sign of Spring - Baseball's Back...


This article was first published in the March 5th edition of Main Street Week - page 5, and is reprinted here with permission from the editors. Drop by www.mainstreetweeknews.com to have a look at a great community newspaper or sign up and have Main Street Week delivered right to your inbox every Friday.

The groundhogs warned us in early February that six more weeks of winter was on the way, although I must say, with so many television lights and cameras on them, how can they not see their shadow? Looking out my window at the piles of snow that have accumulated throughout the winter it is hard to believe that spring is right around the corner. There is one positive sign that the warmer spring weather is near; full workouts have begun in Florida and Arizona as the thirty teams in Major League Baseball prepare for the 2010 season.

The pitchers and catchers were the first to report to camp on February 17th and the full compliment of players arrived a week later. With all-stars and regulars assured of a roster spot, rookies looking for a trip to the big leagues and previously unknown players invited to camp hoping to earn a contract, this is an exciting time for baseball fans. It is the time of year when every team thinks they have a chance to compete for the World Series, that is until the regular season gets started on April 4th and the challenges of the 162 game schedule begins.

Growing up in Lachute Quebec, Spring Training always held a special place for me. As the winter winds howled outside on a Sunday afternoon, the magic of radio could transport me to a sunny, warm afternoon in Palm Springs Florida. With Dave Van Horne calling the games, Expos hopefuls came to bat or took to the mound, working their way to opening day at the Olympic Stadium. As the snow drifted across the fields on our farm, the AM radio crackled and popped and my mind could drift away to another world; a world filled with green grass and sunshine.

With no team in Montreal, I have officially and perhaps begrudgingly, become a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays. I never thought it could happen, but as the only MLB team left in Canada and with Alex Anthopoulos at the helm as the team’s new General Manager, a 32-year-old from Montreal, it is time to move on from the Expos. The challenge for Anthopoulos this year is to remain competitive, while at the same time, working many young prospects into the Jays line-up; not an easy task for any General Manager.

Entering a rebuilding season, the Jays will play an exciting brand of baseball this year with rising stars like Aaron Hill and Adam Lind, along with some tremendous young arms on their revamped pitching staff. While they will be in for a tough fight with the free-spending New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the American League’s East Division, the Jays could surprise more then one baseball analyst this summer. As the “experts” make their pre-season picks, many are predicting that the Jays will struggle this year, but hard working squads can sometimes emerge from the middle of the standings to surprise a few of the favourites; playing with heart and soul can go a long way and result in some unexpected victories.

Some unfortunate news emerged from the Blue Jays prior to the start of Spring Training as the team announced that relief pitcher, author and Main Street supporter, Dirk Hayhurst, will start the year on the 60-day disabled list after exploratory surgery revealed a frayed labarum in his right shoulder. Expected to compete for a spot in the Blue Jays bullpen, Hayhurst must now wait for his shoulder to heal before he gets another shot at pitching in Toronto’s Rogers Centre. Don't forget, Hayhurst's book - The Bullpen Gospels, is in stores on March 30th. Here’s hoping for a speedy recovery for one of baseball’s nicest guys - Good luck Dirk!

A little closer to home, the Can-Am League’s season begins May 31st, with the 2009 league Champion Quebec Capitales at home to the new team in the league from Pittsfield Massachusetts. The Voice of Sport will bring plenty of Can-Am coverage and interviews to Main Street Week as the season gets underway. Have a great sports day everyone.

Photo by jdtornow on Flickr.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Final Olympic Thoughts from TVOS...


It all came down to one goal in the final game of the Olympic hockey tournament on Sunday. In a winner takes all situation, it is usually an unsung hero netting the winner but in this situation, for Canada, the team and the nation, it was Sidney Crosby's goal at 7:40 of overtime that delivered the gold medal. It appears that all of Canada watched part or all of the 3-2 Canadian victory, so breaking things down on a play-by-play basis seems unnecessary, so let’s close out the TVOS Olympic articles with some final thoughts.

First of all, congratulations to all the players, coaches, trainers and members of Hockey Canada that contributed to the Games and a huge congratulations to Steve Yzerman, Kevin Lowe, Doug Armstrong and Ken Holland. The moment that they were in place as the management team for the Games their hard work began. With every fan and analyst predicting their choices for the team, Yzerman and his crew were second-guessed from the very beginning.

Within thirty seconds of naming the team at the end of December, the voices rose throughout Canada, questioning why certain players were left off the team. Perhaps that is one of the great aspects of being a hockey fan in Canada; we all have strong, valid opinions as fans. However, make no mistake, these men spent hundreds if not thousands of hours travelling and scouting the NHL teams, looking for the perfect chemistry needed to win Gold on Canadian soil. Turns out, they knew what they were doing, so perhaps in the future, the second-guessing will be muted.

As for the tournament itself, we witnessed the growing level of competition between all of the hockey nations. The marketing campaign of “This is our game” has worked too well... Canadians believe that hockey belongs to this nation and when anyone defeats Canada, it is a personal attack on us as a nation. Well, I have a thought here - hockey ceased being “our game” the moment we shared it with the world over 100 years ago. Many countries have begun to excel at the game we love and cherish, in large part thanks to Canadian players and coaches spreading their knowledge throughout the various leagues and countries of the world. Hockey started here and if we are truly proud of our creation, we must enjoy seeing the progress it has made in countries like Switzerland, Slovakia and yes, even in the United States. Team USA showed a remarkable resilience in this tournament and as the youngest team in the Games, they put everyone on notice that they will be a force for years to come.

The players assembled by Yzerman and his management group proved they were perhaps the best “team” ever assembled in Canadian uniforms. Not all of the greatest stars made the team, but the logic behind the selections and the chemistry on the team that continued to grow as the tournament progressed demonstrated that the right choices were made. How many people had Jonathan Toews on Team Canada? Answer honestly - not too many did... Toews ends up being the top forward in the tournament with one goal, seven assists and a plus nine rating. If he is not on this team, we could be talking about a quick exit from the tournament, not a Gold medal.

Forwards like Brenden Morrow, Mike Richards and Rick Nash bought into their roles on the team, sacrificing goals for body checks, proving the depth and toughness Canada possesses. Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf proved to be a winning combination. Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith, Dan Boyle and Shea Weber illustrated Canada’s depth on defence, joining Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer as some of our nation’s elite players. Jarome Iginla, a last minute addition in 2002 and questioned for his inclusion on this 2010 squad, proved he has the heart of a Champion. Many said Roberto Luongo had never won the “big game” and yet there he was, holding a Gold medal after the game. Perhaps now some of this chatter will disappear; after all, last time I checked, Ryan Miller has no Stanley Cup rings on his fingers and yet none of this talk was aimed in his direction. Sidney Crosby may not have had a great tournament, but he certainly had a great moment, a golden moment. The addition of the entire “Shark Attack” line of Thornton, Marleau and Heatley was a brilliant move in my opinion.

With the 2010 Games over, the attention returns to the business at hand - the resumption of the NHL schedule, the trade deadline and the final push for the playoffs. Thanks to everyone that emailed, phoned and tweeted TVOS with your comments. It was a pleasure to share these games with you all.

Photo by tyfn on Flickr.