Thursday, March 29, 2012

TVOS and Fan-tastic Sports: The Dawson City Nuggets and Ottawa Senators - 107 Years of Hockey History

Every Wednesday, I share my thoughts from inside the NHL Alumni Association and from around today’s NHL at Peter Ing and Bryce Salvador’s Fan-tastic Sports XHockey blog. This week’s article - the Dawson City Nuggets and the Ottawa Senators - 107 years of hockey history!

“Lost amidst our traveling turmoil is the simple, overwhelming love of hockey. Caught up in the day-to-day schedule, interviews, and personal problems, we forget the essence of this whole adventure, that a group of guys could so love a game, be so enamoured of its history that they would drop everything in their lives for a month just to re-enact one game.”

 - Don Reddick in The Trail Less Traveled


What if the Stanley Cup Went North and Never Came Back?

If you look closely at the Stanley Cup, you will see the name of a team that you may not be familiar with - the Dawson City Nuggets. While the Nuggets never won the Cup, losing their challenge against the famed Ottawa Silver Seven, they are forever etched on hockey’s Holy Grail and have a special place in hockey history. Their story and rivalry with Ottawa’s hockey teams has continued for over 100 years. The games are for fun now when the modern-day Nuggets and the Ottawa Senators Alumni compete, but it remains one of hockey’s most remarkable stories.

The year was 1904, the NHL was yet to be created and Lord Stanley’s Cup was still a challenge cup (before 1912, hockey teams from different leagues could challenge the reigning champions at any time). Joe Boyle, a legend in Canada’s North, set out to bring hockey’s greatest prize to the Yukon. His hope was that after defeating the Silver Seven, no team would be foolhardy enough (or willing) to travel to Northern Canada and challenge his Dawson City Nuggets; the Stanley Cup would remain in the Yukon forever.

Travelling by dog sled, bicycle and on foot, the Nuggets left Canada’s North in December of 1904 on their epic journey to Ottawa. Once they reached the coast, the Nuggets travelled south by steamship to Vancouver and then across the country by train, arriving in Ottawa after 24 days of travel over some of the country’s most rugged and unforgiving terrain. Waiting for them in Ottawa was the Silver Seven - a team that would hold on to the Stanley Cup through ten challenges, led by future Hall of Famer Frank McGee.

You could say that the Nuggets held their own in the first game of the three-game series, losing 9-2 on January 13th, 1905. However, McGee’s 14 goals in game two (which is still a Stanley Cup record) powered the Silver Seven to a 23-2 victory (January 16th, 1905). Dawson was outscored 32-4 and the Stanley Cup remained with the Silver Seven. It did not travel north when the Nuggets returned home, but Boyle suggested the Silver Seven attempt the trip north, promising that the result would be different if the two teams faced off in the Yukon.

The rivalry would remain dormant until 1997, when a group of modern-day Dawson City Nuggets embarked on the same remarkable journey for a March 23rd date with the Ottawa Senators Alumni in the nation’s capital. While they added snowmobiles to their transportation options in the first part of their journey, the trip to Ottawa was just as challenging 92 years later - the year may have changed but the terrain had not! When they reached the coast, the modern-day Nuggets boarded a ship for the voyage south and then caught a train in Vancouver for the trip to Ottawa. Award-winning author (and rookie snowmobiler) Don Reddick chronicled the remarkable re-enactment and the history of the Ottawa - Dawson rivalry in his book, The Trail Less Traveled - a must-read for any hockey fan, as it beautifully captures the spirit of the historic 1904/1905 and 1997 trips.

“When I went up to Dawson to start the trip, I flew from White Horse to Dawson in a small plane,” Don recalled in one of our first conversations a few years ago. “We flew directly over the terrain that we were going to come back over. I looked down for an hour at nothing but ice encrusted rivers and mountains. I just remember thinking, my god, what have I gotten into here?”

Don and the Nuggets arrived in Ottawa for their 1997 rematch, along with 50 ounces of gold that would be donated to charity by the winning team. While the Senators Alumni went on to an 18-0 victory, the Nuggets won the hearts of fans throughout Canada and the hockey world. For the Yukon men taking part in the re-enactment, the journey was not necessarily about the game itself or the final score; it was about breathing new life into one of the game’s greatest stories.

Last year, when the Senators Alumni travelled to White Horse and Dawson to continue the Nuggets/Senators tradition as part of the Hockey Day in Canada celebrations, Don was once again in attendance to witness the historic games. The trip to Canada’s North would fulfill a promise made over a century ago.

“After the 1905 games,” Don explained. “Joe Boyle, the leader of the Dawson team, challenged the Ottawas to come up to Dawson for a rematch. He promised to make a cup out of solid gold for the event. The players were quoted in Ottawa papers talking about the better team they would put up. So the invitation, after the great, legendary trip and loss, was extended in 1905 and it was 106 years before an Ottawa team responded and traveled up. So this was history to me, real hockey history.”

If you ever have the opportunity to spend some time with the Stanley Cup - perhaps you are at an event like the NHL All-Star game or visiting the Hockey Hall of Fame, take a moment and look closely at the engravings for 1905. You will see a very special moment in hockey history, Ottawa vs. Dawson. As a fan of hockey history, it is interesting to think about Joe Boyle’s plan in 1904... What if the underdog Dawson City Nuggets had done the impossible and defeated the Ottawa Silver Seven? What would have happened if the Stanley Cup had gone north and never come back?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

TVOS and Fan-tastic Sports: Two Former Habs And A 1st-Time All-Star Helping Stars Shine In Dallas

Every Wednesday, I share my thoughts from inside the NHL Alumni Association and from around today’s NHL at Peter Ing and Bryce Salvador’s Fan-tastic Sports XHockey blog. This week’s article - as the Dallas Stars look to lock up the Pacific Division, three players that took three very different paths to Dallas are helping to lead the way.

Two Former Habs and a 1st-Time All-Star Helping Stars Shine in Dallas
Jamie Benn and Jordan Eberle in Ottawa
During the 2012 NHL All-Star Game
(Photo - Andrew Rodger TVOS)
To say that the race towards a Western Conference playoff position is too close to call is an understatement! With less than ten games remaining in the season, the Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche, Phoenix Coyotes, Los Angeles Kings, Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks are all within 3 points of one another. Three of these teams will be on the outside looking in when the Stanley Cup playoffs begin and chances are they will miss the post-season by only a point or two.

To make things more interesting, four of these teams are in the same division. So, while two teams may finish in 7th and 8th place, earning a difficult first round match-up with St. Louis and Vancouver, the Pacific Division winner will be the third seed and start the playoffs with home-ice advantage in the first round. The team currently holding down the division lead (for today anyway) is the Dallas Stars and it is two former Montreal Canadiens and a first-time All-Star helping to lead the way in Big D. With a 40-28-5 record, the Stars are on a roll with a 7-2-1 record in their last ten games. They are winning when it matters most and making a strong push for the division title.

Loui Eriksson is having an outstanding season, leading the team with 68 points, but it is former Habs Mike Ribeiro (16 goals and 41 assists) and Michael Ryder (32 goals and 25 assists), along with 3rd year forward Jamie Benn (22 goals and 35 assists) that have caught my eye this year. The success of Ribeiro and Ryder has quietly gone under the radar for most hockey analysts, while Benn caught the attention of hockey fans around the league with his first invite to the NHL All-Star festivities this year in Ottawa.

For Montreal native Ribeiro, his success in the QMJHL as a junior player led to tremendous pressures to succeed in his hometown as a member of the Montreal Canadiens (he scored 67 goals and had 167 points with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in the QMJHL during the 1998-99 season). While he hit the 20-goal mark in the 2003-04 season, the media spotlight may have limited his opportunities to grow as a player. Once he arrived in Dallas after being traded in September of 2006, he became a solid contributor to their offence. In 453 regular season games as a Dallas Star, Ribeiro has been impressive, accumulating 401 points.

Ryder arrived in Montreal as a rookie scoring sensation - lighting the lamp 25 times in his first season (2003-04). The Bonavista, Newfoundland native followed that up with back-to-back 30 goal seasons with the Canadiens. Unfortunately, for the eighth round selection (216th overall) in the 1998 draft, his magic around the net disappeared in his fourth year, when he only scored 14 goals. He was not re-signed by the Habs and left as a free agent to become a member of the Boston Bruins in July of 2008. In 235 games as a Bruin, Ryder scored 63 goals and became a Stanley Cup champion in 2011. A free agent once again, he signed with the Dallas Stars and is powering their offence; reaching the 30-goal plateau for the third time in his career.

This brings us to first-time All-Star Jamie Benn. The 6’2 winger from Victoria, BC has become a solid overall player in his third year with the Stars. He has scored 22 goals in each season and set a new career high this year in assists (35 and counting) and total points. What may be most impressive about his season to date is that he has improved his play at both ends of the ice. After being a -5 in the plus/minus category last year, after last night’s game he is a +16 this season. He made his debut at the All-Star game after missing seven games due to an emergency appendectomy - and he won the Accuracy Shooting contest at the skills competition!

While it takes an entire team to achieve success in the NHL, the skills and abilities of Ribeiro, Ryder and Benn, three players that have taken three very different paths to Dallas, has led to a resurgence in Big D. With first place in the Pacific Division within reach, the Stars would be a tough opponent in the first round of the playoffs if they can hold on to the top spot in their division. It is going to be an exciting few weeks for the players and their fans!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

TVOS and Fan-Tastic Sports: The Wins Keep Coming - Martin Brodeur Reaches 650 Wins

Every Wednesday, I share my thoughts from inside the NHL Alumni Association and from around today’s NHL at Peter Ing and Bryce Salvador’s Fan-tastic Sports XHockey blog. This week’s article - New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur reaches 650 regular season victories.

The Wins Keep Coming - Martin Brodeur Reaches 650 Wins!
New Jersey Devils Goaltender
Martin Brodeur
(Photo - Andrew Rodger TVOS)
With a 4-1 victory on Sunday versus the Philadelphia Flyers, the New Jersey Devils moved into a tie with the Flyers for 5th place in the Eastern Conference standings. While it may be difficult to catch up to the New York Rangers for first in the Atlantic Division, the win helped tighten their grasp on a playoff position this spring. Sunday’s win also marked another milestone in the marvellous career of goaltender Martin Brodeur. Stopping 18 of 19 shots for the win, the future Hall of Famer won his 650th career game.

Selected by New Jersey in the first round (20th overall) in the 1990 NHL Draft, Brodeur has played in 1,180 regular season games - all with the Devils. The 10-time All-Star and 3-time Stanley Cup champion’s career record in the NHL is an astounding 650-367-105-35 (W-L-T-OT). His Stanley Cups have plenty of company in his trophy case too, with four Vezina trophies as the league’s top goaltender, five Jennings trophies for fewest goals against, the 1994 Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year, two Olympic gold medals and numerous NHL records and accolades. You can also add another unique accomplishment to his lengthy list - his goal-scoring prowess. He is one of the two goalies to have scored a goal during the regular season and the playoffs (Ron Hextall is the other).

As the wins continue to pile up for Brodeur, the possibility that another goaltender will someday break his record for most career victories diminishes. The closest to Brodeur in the career wins category amongst active goaltenders is Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo - he is tied for 17th all-time with Gump Worsley with 335 wins (as of Monday). Luongo has had a tremendous career himself, but the longer Brodeur continues to play, the record for all-time regular season wins climbs further out of reach.

Brodeur set the record in March of 2009 when he surpassed Patrick Roy’s mark of 551 wins; he has added 99 more wins since then. As I wrote at the time in an article entitled “A Devil Reaches Sainthood” at my website, The Voice of Sport, a Hollywood scriptwriter could not have created a better story than what Brodeur wrote himself when he tied Roy’s record.

When you consider the number of games he had played, what are the chances that the Montreal native would have the opportunity to equal Patrick Roy’s record in Montreal at the Bell Centre? With the former Montreal and Colorado goalie known as “St. Patrick” in attendance, as well as 21,000 hockey fans, Brodeur backstopped the Devils to a 3-1 victory that evening for his 551st career win. It was one of the few times that I can remember a visiting player leaving the ice in Montreal to a lengthy standing ovation. The long-time Devil would break St. Patrick’s record in his next game, a home game against the Chicago Blackhawks on March 17th - St. Patrick’s Day!

While Brodeur does not carry the entire workload as he did earlier in his career, when he would regularly play in 75, 76, or 77 games each season, he is on pace to equal last year’s total and play in approximately 56 games. Sharing the net minding duties with Johan Hedberg will mean that Brodeur is refreshed and ready for the playoffs, which is not good news for his opponents in the Eastern Conference.

There will always be a debate about who is the greatest of all-time, but with 650 regular season wins and counting, there is no doubt that Martin Brodeur is at or near the top of the list with St. Patrick and the other goaltending legends and pioneers of the game.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

TVOS and Fan-tastic Sports: Can We Tone Down The Trade Deadline Rumours?

Every Wednesday, I share my thoughts from inside the NHL Alumni Association and from around today’s NHL at Peter Ing and Bryce Salvador’s Fan-tastic Sports XHockey blog. This week’s article - is the rumour mill out of control leading up to the NHL trade deadline?

Can We Tone Down the Trade Deadline Rumours?

(Photo - TVOS)
There was no shortage of hype heading into the NHL’s annual trade deadline, but it came and went with few trades actually taking place. In the salary cap era, it is difficult to make a blockbuster move and with so many teams still in the hunt for a playoff position, many were not prepared to give up on their season just yet. While fans and perhaps a few GM’s ponder the moves that did not happen, the teams that did add a player or two feel that they are one step closer to Stanley Cup contention. As exciting as the day is though, is it time to tone down the trade deadline rumours?

Don’t get me wrong, the trade deadline is a good thing - it keeps the competitive balance in place. A team cannot acquire a star player days before the playoffs begin; teams must decide whether they are “buyers” or “sellers” before the final push to the playoffs begin. My issue with the deadline lies in the coverage and the lead up to the big day.

What used to be an afternoon of trade coverage has become an all-day televised event, with coverage starting at 8am and continuing right through until that night’s games begin. This year though, it seemed that the trade talk took on a new trend - the “trade tracker” segments began six weeks before the deadline on the major sports television networks, in print and on the radio. During intermissions, pre-game shows and in daily columns, hockey analysts would introduce us to a player, explain why he should be moved (usually because he was a pending unrestricted free agent), and provide a list of teams that needed to trade for him.

For six weeks, night after night, the same names were on the lists without any thought for the players involved or their families. Now that the Internet provides “experts” and “insiders” the ability to throw names around for weeks leading up to the deadline, the rumour mill is spiralling out of control. If you toss enough trade possibilities up in the air, chances are one might happen, but that does not make you an expert.

(Photo - TVOS)
Fans often associate players with their salaries and while their professional life is tied to the team that they are under contract with, let’s not forget that we are talking about real people with real families. The names being tossed around leading up to the trade deadline are not commodities and contracts; that should be acknowledged and respected.

A few years ago, listening to a former player discuss the realities of trades in the NHL on television, I heard a story that opened my eyes to the reality of these situations. During the conversation, he spoke about finding out late in the evening that he had been traded. His children were already asleep in bed and his new team needed him in the lineup right away. Travel plans were made for him and before his kids woke up in the morning, he was heading for the airport. He kissed his sleeping children goodbye and did not see his family again for six weeks. That is the reality of professional sports and we do not see this side of the game making headlines or appearing as the top story on a television broadcast.

As I wrote earlier, don’t get me wrong - trades are an exciting part of the game and necessary too. They are good for the teams involved and fans love to see them happen. What I ask you to consider in the days leading up to the deadline is to keep in mind that your favourite player is a real person. The first line star, the backup goaltender and the fourth line depth guy on your team are real people. While it is easy to think of them as a “piece to the puzzle” or a contract that needs to be moved to clear future cap space, keep in mind these guys are husbands and fathers too. Perhaps it is time to tone down the speculation and shut down the rumour mill.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

St. Louis Blues Goaltending Coach Corey Hirsch Shares His Thoughts On The Newest Senators Goaltender - Ben Bishop

Ben Bishop in action - making his debut
for the Binghamton Senators
Photo - Bob Howard
Power Play Post Show
One of the surprise teams in the Eastern Conference this season, the Ottawa Senators and their fans expected things to be relatively quiet in the days leading up to the NHL’s annual trade deadline on February 27th. Things can change quickly in the world of professional sports though, as an injury to goaltender Craig Anderson forced the organization to examine their depth at the position.

With Alex Auld, Robin Lehner and Mike McKenna the only goaltenders available to the NHL club while Anderson recovers, Senators GM Bryan Murray looked to acquire a net minder in case of further injuries, while keeping to his plan of not sacrificing short-term gain for future pain. Sending a second round draft pick in the 2013 NHL Draft to the St. Louis Blues, Murray added Ben Bishop to the Sens roster and solidified the position for the final 20 games of the season. A potential unrestricted free agent in the summer, Bishop and the Senators agreed on a one-year, one-way contract extension when he arrived in the nation’s capital.

Knowing that Bishop could play a significant role with the team as they make their push for the playoffs during the remainder of the current season and into next season with his new contract, I reached out to NHL Alumni member Corey Hirsch. As the goaltending coach for the St. Louis Blues and a former NHL goaltender himself, Corey knows the new Senators net minder well and generously took some time from a busy schedule with the Blues to shed some light on Bishop for Senators fans.

What can Senators fans expect to see from their new goaltender when he gets the opportunity to play in Ottawa?

“What’s going to be interesting for them is that they are going to see a big goalie in the net and that’s going to be intimidating for a lot of the teams that they play,” Corey said on the phone from St. Louis. “The shooters are going to be a little intimidated by Ben because he is a big man and you don’t see a lot of net. You are also going to see a fire out of him too and I think Ottawa liked that - we liked that. His puck handling ability is very good too.”

Heading into the season, Bishop was expected to battle former Senator Brian Elliott for the backup role in St. Louis, but ultimately, the organization went with the veteran duo of Elliott and Jaroslav Halak. All things considered, it was a wise move as the pair are near the top of every goaltending category this season. Even though he hoped to break into the NHL lineup on a regular basis, by all accounts Bishop had a great attitude when he arrived in Peoria to play for the Blues AHL affiliate. While he may not have been happy about another season in the minors, he worked hard and excelled with the Rivermen - that says a lot about the kind of person and competitor the Senators acquired.

“The one thing you learn as a player is that things are going to happen that you don’t like,” Corey explained. “That’s part of the game and it doesn’t ever help you to play poorly or have a bad attitude. Regardless of what happens to you - you have to play well because that’s your only way out at the end of the day.”

“With Ben, that’s the approach that he took. He didn’t want to go down to the minors, he didn’t like going down to the minors, but the only way out of the minors is to play your way out. That’s been his attitude and that is what he did. He’s a good success story and long term it’s going to be what helps him become an NHL goalie.”

In our recent NHL Alumni interview, Corey discussed his work at the NHL level with Halak and Elliott, but his duties as the St. Louis goaltending coach includes working with all the goaltenders in the organization, whether they are in Peoria or they are the draft picks still in junior. In our conversation yesterday, he explained that he tries to get to Peoria for at least seven days each month to check in with his goaltenders, but that can be difficult during a busy NHL season. Even when he is not there in person though, he stays in regular contact on the phone to see how the guys are doing and the American Hockey League games are online, which provides Corey with another opportunity to watch for trends and offer insights and advice.

A third round selection (85th overall) in the 2005 NHL Draft, Bishop’s numbers in the AHL have been impressive this season. He has a 25-14-4 win/loss record, 2.23 goals against average and a .930 save percentage in 38 games with Peoria and 1 with the Binghamton Senators. He made his Binghamton debut on Tuesday evening against the St. John's IceCaps - a 41 save performance in a 5-1 victory for the Senators. With Robin Lehner’s impressive play of late in Ottawa as he fills in for the injured Anderson, it is still unclear when or if Bishop will take to the ice in the nation’s capital this season, but hockey observers believe that he is one of the young goalies ready to make the jump to the NHL and Corey agrees with that assessment.

“For sure! He can play at that level,” Corey said. “There’s no question that he can play anywhere in the NHL. It just happened that the guys up here in St. Louis played so well, that he just didn’t get the opportunity this year. He just needs an opportunity; he just needs a chance and he will easily prove that he can play in the NHL.”

Ben Bishop
Photo - Bob Howard
Power Play Post Show
When I asked about some of Bishop’s strengths as a goaltender, it is difficult to avoid the fact that the newest Ottawa Senator is 6’7 - that is certainly an asset. As Corey explained though, his height is not his only strength.

“His size is a strength,” he acknowledged. “That’s the biggest thing that sticks out - he’s a big man! The other thing that I am impressed with is his mental strength; how he deals with things and how he handles situations. He has a very strong mind and things don’t bother him too much. He can shrug things off pretty quickly. You also have to be athletic to be successful at this position and for a big man, he is very athletic.”

As previously mentioned, when we will see Ben Bishop in the NHL with the Ottawa Senators remains to be seen, but we know thanks to Corey’s insights, that when he does arrive, Ben has the abilities and attributes needed to be successful. While Sens fans did not expect a new goaltender to be added at the trade deadline, Anderson’s injury forced the organization to make a move. They now have some much-needed depth at the position should further injuries occur and they have set up a healthy competition for training camp next season, as Bishop and Lehner compete for a place on the NHL roster.

You can follow Corey on Twitter: @CoreyHirsch

*On a personal note, thanks Corey for taking the time to chat - the NHL Alumni truly is “Hockey’s Greatest Family”!

And thank you to Bob Howard from the Power Play Post Show for answering the call on Twitter and sending along the pictures of Ben Bishop in his debut with the Binghamton Senators.

Make sure to visit the Power Play Post Show website and follow Bob on Twitter: @PPPSHOW