Disappearing Hockey Heroes

Soon either Pittsburgh with Sidney Crosby, Geno Malkin, Phil Kessel and company or Nashville led by P.K. Subban et al will find their way to a Stanley Cup.

When they win they know they will skate around the ice and hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup drowning in accolades and praise.  Many thinking back to junior hockey or the hard work in the minors that took them to the peak of greatness.  For some, this is the hardest trophy in sports to win-beyond maybe the World Cup.

After the celebration in the locker room with champagne and showers of beer, they’ll relax for a while knowing they’ve brought that trophy home with them for one day.  They can show it off to their hometown for 24 hours or take it to a party or anywhere they want-as long as they don’t lose or destroy it.

But the other perk of winning the prize is eternal recognition in the form of a square on the side of the Cup.  Each year another team gets put on the ring that goes around it forever displaying those that worked so hard to bring home the championship.

You may not know that Lord Stanley’s Cup is almost 125 years old.  It was first given out in 1893 in the form of the bowl you see on top of the trophy now.  As the years progressed and the NHL was formed they needed more room and added the bottom or the base that it currently sits on.  In pictures the rings with the engraved names can be seen along that base.  

125 years is a long time to keep a running record of who has won and at some point time catches up.  After this year, the ring from 1953 to 1965 will have to come off to make room for the next batch of champions.  Included in those years are Gordie Howe, Rocket Richard and a host of other Hall of Fame players.  Imagine the talents during those years that many of us never got to see.

I think about the famous picture of 11-year-old Wayne Gretzky meeting the late Gordie Howe when “Mr Hockey” visited the young player’s hometown.  Who would have guessed that those two would change so much about the game?  Eventually we will have to take “The Great One”‘s name off the Cup to make room too.

I can’t imagine what the future will be like in hockey, there’s the Matthews, Marner, and McDavid future.  But who else is out there that we don’t know about?  Will there ever be another iconic photo like those two legends of the game?

The last time I went to the Hockey Hall of Fame, my daughter and I went into the Esso Great Hall where the Cup is displayed.  She wandered right off to the shiny trophy on its magical perch.  I immediately made my way to the vault where the rings are held.  Not the winner’s rings but the rings that had been taken off the Cup to make room for more Champions.  I wondered about those men that had been engraved there and what they went through.  The struggles and the pain to win this elusive Cup.  It’s been said that once you win you are winner forever because your name is engraved on the side.  But tell that to those men who will find themselves tucked away in a vault on 30 Yonge Street in Toronto.  One day Wayne Gretzky will find himself there too.

Advertisements

Teamwork – What A Concept !?!

Hockey is a beautiful and delightful game when it is played like it is meant to be played. When a team passes a puck around the ice as a unit.

It’s no different in any other sport.  A running back doesn’t gain yardage in football without the offensive line in front of him.  Do you think that Marcus Allen would have won the Heisman Trophy without a great line in front of him at the University of Southern California?

A basketball team needs to be able to spread the floor to find the open man.  Phil Jackson’s triangle offense wasn’t complicated – it was about passing from one guy to the other to get someone a clear look at the basket.  Most of the time the guy with the clear look at the basket was one of the greatest players of all time, Michael Jordan.  When you give him that much time he’s able to bury a shot.

In baseball it takes a shortstop and a second baseman to efficiently turn a double play.  If the shortstop tries to take the ball on their own, it’s going to be difficult to get the out at first.  Watch Ozzie Smith flip the ball to second and see the St Louis Cardinals turn two.  As great a shortstop as Smith was, he didn’t try to do it all on his own.

Those two-on-one plays in hockey where the offense makes a great pass to score the goal – it’s all because of teamwork.  Working with those around you makes your play better.  Those that figure that out are the ones that go far.  Wayne Gretzky knew how to make those around him better which in turn made him better.  Mark Messier made those on the New York Rangers team better on the way to the Stanley Cup.

Current Stanley Cup holder Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins were filled with guys that played for each other.  Penguins coach Mike Sullivan preached teamwork until he was blue in the face and filled the bench with guys that most pundits would say might not belong in the National Hockey League.  These were men that might be labeled “character guys” but in reality are “team players.”  Watching that team compete for EACH OTHER in the playoffs it was clear that they knew what it took to win.  It’s not always about the skill on the ice.  It’s not always about the size of the contracts on the team.  It’s about the heart, the desire and the guys that want to pass and play for each other.

There have been many guys drafted or signed that have had loads of talent but lacked the ability to comprehend what the rest of the skaters on the ice were there for.  Alexandre Daigle and Patrik Stefan come to mind as number one draft picks but sure there are others.

There will always be others.  The slick skating forwards who can skate around the offensive zone with the puck not looking to pass.  The ones who think it is funny to zing a shot past someone’s head and not bother to say anything it.  Teams are like a family and if a family is full of malcontents, the family becomes dysfunctional and will turn on itself.  It will gang up on itself and want to fight itself.

Players can be told to pass and be told that they need to look out for others – but if they don’t have the ability to care it can be a pointless venture.  It’s amazing that some can step on the ice not looking to pass or not be courteous- but then again teamwork isn’t something that can be taught. Teamwork has to come from within.  Maybe one day they’ll understand – but it will be too late and by then it will have all passed them by.

Two Great Passes and Some Burgers

About a week ago, on the day before the Penguins clinched their fourth Stanley Cup, I played one of the best games of my young hockey life.

Okay, it was my best.

To be fair, it was just open hockey and no one was watching or even paying attention.  No one but me.  The guy who has been judging himself  all along hoping that he’d be able to somewhat keep his head above water.  I doggy paddled throughout the session, but I wasn’t worthless out on the ice.

Recalling what might be one of my best passes ever, I think about one of my two best plays from open hockey that day.  A swift tape to tape cross ice pass hitting a streaking teammate.  I think I was so proud of the fact I actually completed the play I stopped skating and stared at it.  I know that’s bad but I’m not used to being productive on the ice.  Hell, I’m now able to somewhat skate for a while without getting tired.  Although half the kids are 20 years younger than me.  I feel like one of those old dudes from Scooby Doo, “I would’ve gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for you meddling kids!”  

Then there’s the other moment that I’m proud of.  While it really makes no sense and I have no idea how I made it, I wish I had instant replay .  I was along the boards and I, of course, fumbled the entry but somehow recovered.  I think everyone knew I wasn’t going to do anything with the puck but my teammate was perched on the crease. She was all alone and I knew it.  I sensed a defender coming and I had no time to turn and make a good pass.  So I just backhanded a pass toward the net.  I whipped myself around, instantly cursing myself for making a stupid decision only to see her top shelf it on the crossbar.  Lucky.  Pure luck.  I guess sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.

Other than those two things I was pretty normal.  Normal for me means I get beat a lot, get run around the ice and try hard.  It’s fun don’t get me wrong.  

I’ve been watching Showtime’s series about the Stanley Cup Finals and I see frustration happens to everyone, even to the guys in the National Hockey League.  You just have to fight through it and play your game.  I suppose if nothing else I can always build on the fact that i impressed myself.  Plus it takes time, speaking of which, it’s about time the hockey gods granted Phil Kessel his Cup.  Cheers, if I ever run into you, the burgers are on me.

The Summer of Stanley Has Begun

Now that the Penguins summer of Stanley has begun, so too has the trade/free agent/draft craziness that is the NHL off-season.  Every year something happens during this time of year that makes you scratch your head in awe.  Someone signs for a ridiculous amount of money or a GM throws out a draft pick for a guy that he has no shot in signing.  Although there are also trades that are made that immediately change the course of a team.

On June 26, 2015, the Los Angeles Kings thought they were getting over the hump in hurry by trading their first round pick, goalie Martin Jones (remember him?) and defenceman Colin Miller to the Boston Bruins for Milan Lucic.  The 13th overall pick was used by the Bruins to draft 6ft 2in, 185lb defenceman Jakub Zboril from the Czech Republic.  The Bruins then traded Jones four days later to the San Jose Sharks for a first-round pick in the 2016 draft and prospect Sean Kuraly.  Jones would be a vital piece for the Sharks making it to the Stanley Cup Finals, beating the Kings and Milan Lucic on their way.

Not to be outdone, the Toronto Maple Leafs are throwing one of their first round picks out to get a young but talented goaltender.  In exchange for the Leafs 2016 first round pick and 2017 second round pick they are getting 26-year-old Frederik Andersen from the Anaheim Ducks.  From the Maple Leafs site:

In 125 career regular season games with Anaheim, Andersen has posted a 77-26-12 record with a 2.33 GAA and .918 SV%. He also holds a 17-9-2 career post-season record with a 2.34 GAA and .916 SV%. In 2014-15 season, Andersen became the fastest goaltender to reach the 26-win mark (26-5-0) in NHL history and tied the league record for the fastest to 50 career wins (50-13-5), originally set by Montreal’s Bill Durnan (50-9-9) in 1944. During the 2013-14 season, Andersen was named to the NHL All-Rookie Team after posting a 20-5-0 record with a 2.29 GAA and .923 SV% in 28 appearances. That season he led all rookie goaltenders in wins, goals-against average and save percentage — the best numbers in those categories by any rookie netminder since 2010-11.

The Maple Leafs are sitting pretty in many different areas after freeing up cap space to make a run at Steven Stamkos and in position to draft coveted “can’t miss” center in Auston Matthews.  Their young kids from the American Hockey League affiliate Toronto Marlies played well for them when called up to the big club at the end of the year and no doubt some of them do feature in the short term plans.

Some General Managers who have multiple draft picks are like the kid who just got their allowance.  Buffalo Sabres’ GM Tim Murray had four third round picks in this year’s NHL draft so he decided one was burning a hole in this pocket.  He reached out to Nashville Predators’ GM David Poile for the availability of un-signed college prospect Jimmy Vessey. Poile, like the store owner who knew the kid just got an allowance, took one of Murray’s third round picks for Vessey.  Poile was never going to be able to sign him and it has not been clear what Vessey’s true intentions are, other than to wait out Nashville.  On August 15, Vessey becomes an unrestricted free agent, so I am guessing Murray figured he’d plop down a pick on a chance to win the Vessey lottery.  Good luck.

We’ll see how the Leafs and the Sabres look with these two moves next year, although neither one was as close to making it to the Cup Final as San Jose was last year.  Both are in true rebuilding mode and can use as much help as they can get, but maybe both will hit home runs in free agency and the lottery.  You never know at this time of year, that’s why hockey never really takes an off-season and someone always has their eye on the Cup.

Gordie Passed The Torch To The Penguins

On the same day that Mr. Hockey passed away, the Pittsburgh Penguins lifted the Stanley Cup as hockey’s newest champion.  In many ways it feels that the torch  was passed from one generation to the next.  

The National Hockey League has gone from the days of the “Gordie Howe hat-trick” to pushing the role of enforcer completely out of hockey.  Kids that grow up watching hockey don’t know about the Broad Street Bullies unless they are Flyers fans.  They never witnessed the complete on-ice brawl the Bruins and Capitals participated in back in the 90’s.  Hell they don’t know about the days when goalies wore nothing on their faces and stopped pucks.  The guys who scored goals could drop the gloves when someone was going at them. Now if you even think about dropping your gloves they throw you in the box.  

It’s been some time coming but it truly feels like this year’s Penguins team encapsulated what the NHL wants from their organizations.  Skate hard and fast.  Walk away from confrontations.  Be quick to the puck and don’t do anything stupid that gives the refs a reason to put you in the box.  Be exciting and put on a show.  You don’t have to score tons of goals as long as you can retain the puck and play defense.  In fact, they beat a San Jose team they was built on the Gordie Howe way of scoring goals and beating ’em up.

Yes my friends, Mr. Hockey is gone.  Hockey has changed forever and who knows what will become of it.  All I know is that we are witnessing a rebirth of the game we love.  We are going to have to adjust our expectations and remember that we won’t ever see another Gordie Howe.  He was the Greatest Great One.  Fare thee well.  Long live hockey.

Phil Kessel Is My Hero and Conn Smythe Winner

I tried to be partial when it came to the Stanley Cup Finals and the San Jose Sharks.  During the run to the Finals, the Sharks had a little black cat run onto the ice, Jo Pawvelski as she would come to been named.  Many of you may not know the depth of my love of black cats, however my favorite soccer team is the Sunderland AFC Black Cats, also my first cat as an adult was a black cat named Madeline that I still miss to this day.  I’m very much a black cat person.

Taking that into consideration, I’ve tried not to be partial to the Pittsburgh Penguins.  I grew up watching the great “Super” Mario Lemieux and his sidekick Jaromir Jagr beat teams up in the historic Igloo in Pittsburgh.  I always liked the guys who weren’t in the spotlight, guys like Martin Straka or Mike Needham.  Guys you probably wouldn’t find on the scoresheet night in or night out, but they were the guys who skated and did the little things.  These were guys who won draws or were able to get up and down the rink faster than the others.

Looking at the 2016 Penguins and their run through the Stanley Cup Playoffs I can’t help but be amazed as I watch guys who I’ve seen play at Wilkes-Barre Scranton.  These “Baby Pens” are growing up and contributing with the big club and these “young kids” are pulling their weight.  I’ve talked about them before, but I have been pulling for these guys because it’s like seeing your hometown club try to win a championship.  Plus they’ve made the Northeast Pennsylvania area extremely proud to be a hockey area.

But there’s something else and it touches me closely.  I knew Phil Kessel because he was a Toronto Maple Leaf and I knew there was animosity from the fans his situation there.  People have made fun of his weight and the fact that sometimes he looks like he is out of shape when he gets back to the bench.  Kessel is a cancer survivor after being diagnosed with testicular cancer in December 2006.  He’s been cancer free for over 9 years and he’s battled something that no one should have to go through, whether it’s testicular, breast, brain or any other type of cancer.  As a member of the Event Leadership Team for an American Cancer Society Relay for Life, I can’t help but support Phil Kessel.  Seeing his performance this Playoff season has made me want him to win the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy.  I can’t help it.  He was 19 when he had cancer AND beat it.  He went to the Maple Leafs and they made him out to be fat, lazy and a coach killer.  He’s none of those.  He’s a team player who has found a home in Pittsburgh with a team that respects and values him.  Why no one has appreciated the fact that he beat cancer and continues to play at such a high level is beyond me.  It’s no easy thing to beat cancer and I’ve seen survivors and caregivers who back that up.

I’m holding out for Kessel to win the Cup and the Conn Smythe so that he can get some vindication for all the years that he’s taken crap from people about conditioning, diet and whatever else people could find to throw at him.  Kessel deserves a tremendous amount of credit for finding a way to beat cancer and stay cancer free because that is no easy feat.  I hope he accomplishes his dream.  Maybe I’ll get a Kessel jersey so every time I pull it on and step on the ice I can push myself just a little harder knowing what the man must have gone through.  My demons I’m going through learning to play hockey are minuscule compared to what he must have gone through.

Sidney Crosby Is No Longer Playing Like “The Kid”

Sidney Crosby used to be called “Sid the Kid” when he came into the NHL, now it’s time to find him a new moniker.  Whether it’s “Sid the Adult” or “Sid the Grown-up” I’m not sure.  Neither one sound as good nor do they rhyme, but they both fit the transformation that the Pittsburgh Penguins captain has undergone since he entered the league in 2005.

He’s changed his game on the ice with his scoring touch, his ability to see teammates and read the game.  Unlike some players, as he has aged his mentality has too.  Never has this been more evident than in Game Two of the 2016 Stanley Cup Finals against the San Jose Sharks.

As we all know, Crosby has a history of concussions (2) and Joe Thornton obviously is aware of this and was trying to get after him.  Late in the second period of Game Two with the Sharks already down 1-0, Thornton was pinned against the boards by Crosby and passed the puck out.  After the puck leaves, Crosby kept Thornton next to the glass for a couple of extra seconds just as a “hey how ya doin’?”  Thornton took exception/tried to egg on Crosby.  With a quick left uppercut, off came Crosby’s helmet as the Penguins captain skated away only to be cross-checked in the back.  As soon as the whistle blew a few seconds later, Crosby asked the ref, who was only a few feet away, if he saw the jumbo Sharks player give the Pens center the business.  Crosby, as you can imagine, did not retaliate.

Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan has come into this Penguins team and preached turning the other cheek. When things haven’t gone their way in the past they have acted out.  We saw Kris Letang lose his cool in the Washington Capitals series and take it out on Caps forward Marcus Johansson after Capitals’ head coach Barry Trotz had called on the refs to watch out for the Pens because he felt they were getting away with everything.  As you may recall, that earned Letang a one game suspension and could have flipped the series in the Caps’ favor.  If Letang didn’t learn his lesson there, he could have learned it in Game 4 of the Tampa Bay series when he shot the puck after the whistle and it hit Jonathan Drouin.  Tampa Bay’s Brad Boyle tried to come in and re-arrange Letang’s face before the linesmen and refs stepped in.

However in the Finals it seems that either Sullivan and/or Crosby have changed the mentality of the team.  You can try to get after this team but they aren’t taking the bait.  In fact part of the problem is that San Jose is having a hard time catching this team.  It’s enough for San Jose to keep the puck out of their own zone and keep possession much less control it in the offensive end of the zone.  Watching Crosby keep his cool as Thornton beat on his head showed the determination and grit that this team has had since Sullivan took over.  Yes, they are undersized and they may be young but what they lack in some areas they are making up for in heart, speed and the all out will to win.  Whether you think that Crosby is over-rated or not, it doesn’t matter, he’s playing the best hockey of his career and if he continues he’s going to lead a group of rookies and speedy talented players with a take-no-prisoners coach to hockey’s ultimate prize.  All because he figured out that he can’t play a kid’s game anymore, it’s time to play like an adult.