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.

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Sidney Crosby Shares My Expectations

Expectation.  It’s such a highly contagious and deadly word.  When you think about what you expect every time you watch your favorite athlete play, what do you think about?  Do you think they’ll pitch a 30 save shutout?  Or a hat-trick to win the game?  Maybe get a Gordie Howe hat trick (a goal, assist and a fight)?   Is it a lot like reality?  Do we always see a player do what we expect them to do?

A lot has been made of Sidney Crosby and his fight to overcome the goal drought that has plagued him during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  As the face of the Pittsburgh Penguins and one of the stars of the National Hockey League, Crosby has his fans and his detractors.  Before scoring the Game Two overtime winner against Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference final on May 16, 2016, Crosby had gone eight games without a goal.  The smile had gone from the superstar’s face and nay-sayers were out in force.  “I told you so!”  They all had circled their wagons and beat their drums dancing to the beat of anti-Crosby songs.

In the face of all the adversity, the Penguins’ skilled captain was not to be outdone.  Crosby scored the Game Two winner and then followed that up by scoring in Game Three as well. He also made a nice behind the back pass and you could see that the captain’s smile was back. Whatever expectations he may be putting on himself, I can imagine he’s felt double the pressure from fans, media and teammates.  It would explain why he may have seemed to be down on himself at times or played inward.  Hockey is such a difficult game as it is, but once you start to press and play tight it only becomes that more difficult.  Now that he has lifted that goal drought off his back, he is reaching the expectation that everyone expected.

Expectation is a bit like confidence.  If you have one the other comes along, but sometimes one will show up without the other.  When I step on the ice I expect that I’m going to do okay, but I’m not always confident in my abilities.  I have had times when I have had both. Those times have been very rare if at all.  The expectation is always there, gnawing at me.  It’s like this giant checklist that I can’t fill with enough checks.  I keep going out on the ice and checking off boxes and boxes but the page just keeps growing and growing.  It’s like Santa’s list at Christmas.  There’s just no end in sight.

The question becomes, “Do I expect myself to ever be satisfied?”  Does any hockey player ever become satisfied with their play?  I think if you do become satisfied with your play you get complacent.  You have to keep working or else you are not learning.  You are not gaining skills.  I think it’s a challenge as an adult to find that balance between beating yourself up over the things you can’t do because you aren’t a kid anymore and the things you can do because you have the ability to learn them.  It’s one of those struggles that we face with reality as we age.  We look in the mirror and realize that time is catching up with us.  Ten years ago we could do this.  Fifteen years ago we could do that.  Twenty years ago we could do all of that.  We aren’t that age anymore.

Looking around at other skaters from the pros to local ice I can see examples.  Matt Cullen, a year older than me, is doing things I can’t do but he learned the game as a kid.  Then there are young people at the rink that can do things that I can’t do because they started before me and are more talented than me.  It’s tough for me to accept that because I’m not as talented as I hoped I could be.  Or because I “expected” I could skate again after all these years.  Muscle memory is a lot like regular memory, it goes away with time.  We’re all human and we all have faults.  Anyone who tells you differently is either trying to get you to buy a bridge in Brooklyn or sell you a spaceship.

It’s been a long road to where I’ve gotten.  Some have told me that they’ve seen a massive improvement in where I’ve come.  I can feel a difference for sure.  I’m not afraid to step on the ice anymore.  I expect that I’m not going to fall when I first step on the ice.  I have confidence in that first step on the ice.  I have confidence in the ability to open the bench door.  I have confidence in the ability to do Russian circles.  I expect myself to be able to complete a cone drill, unless it’s backwards.  I expect myself to be able to skate laps.  I expect myself to be able to make passes.  I expect myself not to believe that I’m something that I’m not.  I’m never satisfied, highly expectant of myself and lacking confidence in many areas but I’m pretty confident I’m working on what I am.  Until I figure it out, I’m sure that you’ll find me somewhere in between the boards working on myself and my game.

I Know What Sidney Crosby’s Problem Is

My struggle with confidence and my inner hockey demons are well documented, so it was quite surprising for me to see Sidney Crosby play on Monday night in the Eastern Conference Final.  The Pittsburgh Penguins captain and center has struggled to score in his last eight games, going goalless and providing only three assists.  After being named a finalist for the Hart Trophy, it seems the Pens’ captain has come up dry recently on the scoresheet.

Watching Crosby play I see a guy who is trying to break out of the frustration but can’t seem to find the way out.  NBCSN’s analyst duo of former player Jeremy Roenick and former coach Mike Milbury spent a good portion of the second intermission discussing Crosby’s problems.  I believe if you took them to Madison Square Garden and gave them seats in the 200 Level they’d join in on the “Cindy” chants when Crosby stepped on the ice.  No really, I’m serious.   Some Rangers fans do it and I think both of them would too.  

Their “expert” analysis was to say that Crosby was pouting, he should be shooting more and he’s not skating hard enough.  It’s possible that he’s not shooting enough because he’s looking to pass because goals aren’t coming.  As for the other thoughts , I’m not sure if I’d go there.  I think Crosby is an emotional player who lets the game, or how his game is going, get to him.  He still tries so hard to find the answers to his goal scoring issues that it bothers him.  The weight of it all.  

I get that emotional weight.  That struggle to find your game.  I know what it’s like to play and have fun then turn around at some point and struggle with that emotion.  It’s what makes Wayne Gretzky so amazing to me.  He was able to score so much over his career and put up so many points without a struggle or so it always seemed.  

None of us quit.  I know Crosby’s problem because it mirrors mine.  That struggle to carry that weight we put on ourselves.  How do we carry it?  How can we expect to carry it?  I’m trying to learn the hardest sport in the world at my age and pushing myself to do it at a high level.  Crosby is pushing himself to carry his team at a high level to the Cup.  He’s carrying a heavier weight but we’re both carrying a stick shaped weight.  Guess that’s why it’s so hard to score?  The stick is too heavy.  

Of course, as I finish this he flexed his muscles and scored the OT winner.  There’s the return of the Crosby smile.  Guess it’s time for me to find my way.

Why Can’t Hockey Be America’s Game?

Every time I go to Toronto I find myself drawn to the Hockey Hall of Fame and its marvelous displays of greatness.  Not that I make it to the Great White North all that much but it seems like since I’ve gotten older I’ve made it more than when I was younger.  I’ve been to the HHoF at least three times and to Toronto at least five but every single visit to the museum I’m always struck by the wonder of it all.

I know that Canada invented the game (although some may argue that it’s roots are in the Middle Ages – the game as we know now is Canadian in origin) and is celebrated as a religion country-wide.  In fact before it was replaced in 2013, the Canadian five dollar note featured children playing winter sports, including hockey, and wearing a number 9 sweater to honor  Montreal Canadiens great Maurice “The Rocket” Richard.  Included with the picture was a quotation from Canadian novelist Roch Carrier’s short story “The Hockey Sweater”:

The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons.  We lived in three places-the school, the church and the skating rink-but our real life was on the skating rink.

Yeah I get you Roch, the rink is where I’d be too if I lived in Canada.  Cold, brutal winters where you are forced inside, you might as well find something to do right?  Time for some hockey and after your legs are burnt out from skating turn on the television and watch some Hockey Night in Canada?  I mean come on, we don’t have anything like that here in America.  Sure we have Monday Night Football, but Hockey Night in Canada, there’s no chance.  The tradition and the history, plus Canadians have Don Cherry and his outfits.  No contest.

But here’s the thing.  Most places in America don’t have access to a rink.  In the South you are lucky to find a rink.  It’s getting better but when I was growing up I could only tell you where one was.  Even living in New York, where you think there’d be a bunch – it’s cold!, I have to drive an hour and a half on a good day to find a rink to play hockey.  True, I’ve read Derek Boogaard’s biography where it talks about his father driving him all over.  If my daughter is going to play she’s going to have to go at least three hours in multiple directions to play.  All over the Eastern Seaboard.  I can’t imagine doing that as a kid to play a sport.

But what’s funny about hockey, is that for as much as it costs-and trust me it costs, at some point you start to find this itch.  You can’t get enough ice time.  You can’t get even time on your skates.  You want to feel that stick in your hands every chance you get.  Even getting back into it at my age, I’m proud to say that I skated for an hour without falling-finally!  I’m getting better but I’m still pretty terrible.  Watch me skate backwards if you need a laugh.

However I’m bothered though, for all that hockey means to Canada there will probably not be one Canadian NHL team in the Stanley Cup playoffs.  Yes the teams are loaded with Canadian players, but I want to see Toronto or Calgary or Ottawa or Edmonton or Winnipeg or Vancouver go deep in the playoffs.  It just doesn’t seem right not to see a Canadian team.  I don’t like it at all.  I realize some of it has to do with the direction of the club, some has to do with the value of the dollar and some has to do with the quality of the team but no matter I don’t like it.  I’ll trade a potential Florida team or two for a Canadian team any day.

I know these teams are all because of the Gretzky effect – the same Gretzky who perfected the so-called Gretzky buttonhook.  A move that Pittsburgh Penguins forward Tom Kuhnhackl perfected in a game on March 20, 2016 when he assisted on Bryan Rust’s goal.  The Pens took out the league leading Washington Capitals 6-2 that night behind Kuhnhackl and his spin moving self.  I’m not sure Gretzky could have made a better pass, this was text book.  Maybe Chris Becker taught him that at the Revolution Ice Rink in Pittston at skills night while he was playing for the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Pens?  It’s a possibility.  You never know where he may have picked that one up.  Then he sold him some Ribcore skates?  Just kidding Chris.

Because of Gretzky’s influence on the league we’ve seen more and more Americans jump into hockey.  I was probably exposed to more hockey because of him and I have to thank him for that.  It is one of those sports that gets in your blood.  No matter what other sport you think you love, until you actually get on the ice and strap on the pads, skates and grab a stick, you don’t know what you are missing.  I can understand why it’s Canada’s sport and you know what?  I don’t think we’ll ever be good enough at it to best them.  We’ll never have the access or the commitment to hockey.  Our focus is on baseball, basketball and most importantly football.  There’s no way we’ll take up hockey as our number one sport.  I think Canada should take hockey, mold it and each year make it better and better.  Each visit to Toronto make the HHoF a place that I never want to leave at the end of the day, a place where those that gave everything they had to the game have a chance to pay tribute to their teammates and those they respected.  Hockey deserves a place where it can be worshipped and I think that place will be and should always be Canada…O Canada.

Are We Really Happy To Make The Playoffs?

Sirius Xm’s NHL Network Radio was on in my car the day after the Rangers defeated the Pens 2-1 to move 2-1 in the series and Mike Ross was talking on Hockey This Morning from Ottawa.  I had never heard the show (bad me! No donut) but I caught a bit where Ross was talking about the San Jose Sharks and how they talk about a winning culture but they are one of the few teams who have never made the Stanley Cup Finals.  It’s an interesting thought.  In fact there are only 6 teams, SJ, Arizona, Nashville, Minnesota, Winnipeg and Columbus.  One could argue it’s because they are mostly expansion teams (Minnesota and Columbus entered in 2000, Winnipeg 1999, Nashville 1998) but San Jose and Arizona (the original Winnipeg Jets) have been in the league for over 20 years.  I don’t always believe it comes down to when the team was founded; Florida made the Cup Finals in 1995-1996, two years after joining the league.

Maybe it comes down to the mentality of not only the coaching staff but the players as well?  Ross said something about that as well, some teams are happy to make the playoffs.  We’ve gotten to the point where that is everything and winning the Cup is “gravy.”  I think this applies to other sports as well.

I get the sense that sports franchises look at fans and think that they just want to pull them along to get whatever they can out of them.  “Hey we’ll squeeze just enough out of this team to make the playoffs even though we know we won’t be able to get anywhere near a championship but we’ll make tv revenue and ticket sales and merchandise.”  Meanwhile they’ll string fans along thinking that the team MIGHT just have a chance to do something.  They’ll make just enough waves to think of next year they could sign someone to get over a hump and maybe get to a second round or even a third but there’s no development.  It’s just whatever to sustain that business model.

It’s a business model isn’t it?  I mean I’ve talked about this before but no one buys a sports franchise to lose money.  No one buys a team to dump money in and not get anything back.  Yeah teams have loyal fanbases that come to games and buy jerseys and watch on tv and collect stuff and tweet stuff but they want winners.  Or do they?  I guess it depends on the market.  For as many years as Toronto has gone without a Cup and a Stanley Cup Finals appearance you would think the entire organization would have been run out-of-town on the rails.  I still can’t believe it’s been 46 years since they’ve been in the Finals.  How does that work?  One of the most storied franchises in the history of the game.  46 years.  Does it just get to the point where people just don’t expect it anymore?

I can remember in the 90’s when the team had Doug Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk and Felix Potvin but ran into a Los Angeles Kings team headed to a date with destiny.  Of course, Gretzky clipped Gilmour with a high stick that Kerry Fraser missed in Game 6, but I’m not bitter or anything?  Can someone please tell Kerry Fraser that was a high stick?  I know I know, it’s The Great One.  That might have been the greatest Leaf team to never make the Finals.

But is it a winning culture or is it winning players?  Players that want to win one Cup or win many?  Players that want to win one championship or many?  I think you have to fill a team with players that have that mentality that they are going to do anything to win a Cup.  Then after they get that Cup they want another and it also has to be the same for the coach as well.  He can’t rest with one either.  He’s going to have to trade a guy even if he’s the face of the franchise if it means improving the team.  I think that’s what the winners realize and some of the midlevel teams miss.  Some of the others teams hang on too long to a guy who the fans love and try to squeeze something out of him, but end up wasting resources and losing out on winning because of it.  It’s a delicate line.  But that’s the difference between a Cup and Cups.  The salary cap has changed the face of the game, it used to be you never left a team, the days of Mario Lemieux and Jagr on the Pens for years is no more or those Canadiens teams that used to rule the NHL team aren’t going to happen anymore.  Free agency and salary caps have changed pro sports.

The guys in the locker room won’t be the same guys you had two years ago most of the time and many won’t be the same you had last year.  Gone from this year’s President’s Trophy winning New York Rangers who made the Stanley Cup Finals are Brian Boyle, Raphael Diaz, Derek Dorsett, David LeNeveu, John Moore, Benoit Pouliot, Brad Richards and Anton Stralman.  It’s amazing when you think about it.  That’s quite a bit of turnover from a team that went to Finals and is expected to push for another Cup.  But when you have a solid core, you can do things like that.  Plus you have great goaltending and a good coaching staff.  You keep it all together and back to the Cup you start heading.  It’s a mix of everything that you need, and maybe one day these six teams will put it together.

A New York State of Mind

It seems that the Rangers are on the upswing again.  Last season it was the game against the Penguins when they blew them out 5-1 in the Garden where it seems that you could see that they had that something.  Looking back on it when they made the Stanley Cup run, I saw that game as the spark, the signal that they were going to make something of the Eastern Conference.  Now I know every team has a bad game and every team has those games where they play out of their minds, but this was a Ranger team that was sinking faster than the Titanic in the middle of the Atlantic.  This was NY’s NBC Rivalry game on national TV.  This was a chance to shine after shaking off the Tortorella curse and shake it off they did.  Oh and did I forget to mention, I was there?  So was Wilkes-Barre Scranton’s own Jayson Megna who was a recent callup.  But it looked like after weeks of shaky play they suddenly decided to put it all together.  This season it looked to me like the Pens game was the game that the Rangers decided to come along as well.  December 8, 4-3 SO win and since then, they’ve been 24-6-2.  It’s like they decide to beat the pundits’ choice for top team and go on a run.  I imagine there’s more to it than that, but it looks like it from the outside.  They are second in the division right now, Lundqvist has been out since taking a puck to the throat but they’ve still managed to squeak out wins with Talbot in net.  It’s very possible this team is primed for another Cup run.   The Cup could be in a New York State of Mind.