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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From the Legion of Doom to Auston Matthews

In the “new NHL” speed, skills and stickhandling have been put on display on a nightly basis.  Players like Auston Matthews, Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and Phil Kessel put their talents on center stage for audiences to view when their teams take center ice.

The attitude of the league is different now too.  Quick skaters with the ability to put the puck in the net are desired.  Teams used to want power forwards like Keith Tkachuk, who could bang his body around the boards and seperate defenseman from the puck while being able to bury a one-timer.

Eric Lindros was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame this year on the back of his 372 goals, 493 assists and 1398 penalty minutes.  Lindros was described as a “once in a lifetime” player who was able to impose his 6 foot 4 inch, 240 pound frame on other skaters and move up and down the ice with the pace of a first line winger.  His ability to dominate a game was what made him the first pick of the 1991 draft that the Quebec Nordiques would trade to the Philadelphia Flyers for a boatload of players, picks and cash. Although to be fair, none of what would be traded would come to equal what the Flyers got in return for the eventual Hall of Famer.

Lindros would use his strength and brawn to control the ice in front of and behind the net. Whether it was with intimidation or by flat out pushing opposition players, Lindros scored using his strong frame.  The game was different during his reign as a Flyer.  His line of John LeClair and Mikael Renberg were dubbed the “Legion of Doom” because they ruled the ice when the trio skated together.

It’s ironic that the one player who could be called a “power forward” is also a Flyer, Wayne Simmonds.  Simmonds however is 6 foot 2 and weighs a meager 183 pounds, imagine how much the game has changed since the time of Lindros?

Now players are tall, lean, fast, muscular skaters who are able to escape a check rather than deliver one. Gone are the days of the open ice checks of Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer who paired together on the blueline for the New Jersey Devils destroying anyone who skated over the neutral zone with their head down.

Concussions have become the buzzword in the NHL.  In the 2015-2016 season, Calgary Flames defenseman, Dennis Wideman, was hit by Miikka Salomaki, a Nashville Predator right wing.  The hit rattled him and I’m convinced as he bounced off the board, he had no idea where he was after the Predator skated away.  It appeared that the front of his helmet hit the glass at the right, or wrong depending on the definition, angle to cause a concussion.  As Wideman got up, he skated toward the Flames bench while a Predator and linesman Don Henderson came his way.  With his mind rattled, he did not take his time on the ice, he immediately began skating which I believe caused him to jumble the two skaters and think that the linesman was an opposing skater.  As he tried to get to the Flames bench he pushed Henderson down on the ice with both hands, causing head trauma to the linesman.  Wideman was ultimately suspended 10 games after his original 20 game suspension was turned over in the appeals process.

Blows to the head leading to concussions have become such a hot topic in all areas of sport, not just the NHL.  However, the NHL has become very wary of what it can do, especially after the Wideman incident.  I don’t believe the NHL did enough for Wideman in this situation though.

The NHL has long wanted to move past it’s rough and tumble image of “I went to a boxing match and a hockey game broke out” to more of a skills competition.  There are many fans who believe that hard hits and fights should be a part of hockey just like the big hits in football.  When Auston Matthews takes the ice for the Toronto Maple Leafs someone on the bench has to be there to protect the star center.  At least in the days of Wayne Gretzky, he had a guy like Marty McSorley who would take on anyone to make sure that no one would drop Gretzky with a blindside hit.

On November 5, 2016 Matthews’ teammate Nazem Kadri took out Vancouver Canuck Daniel Sedin with a blindside hit.  Sedin hit the ice with so much force his helmet popped off and his head rocked back and forth shaking his brain matter.  Sedin’s teammate Jannik Hansen flew over to Kadri and begin pummeling the Leafs center with whatever he could muster.  In a game of checking, these kinds of hits are going to happen – Kadri’s hit was deemed legal by both the refs and the league for what it is worth.

As long as these players skate fast on thin blades and give everything they have to win a trophy that’s as elusive as the Stanley Cup, there will be passion displayed on the ice.  This emotion will come out as pushing and shoving, yelling, celebrating or fighting.  Anytime you get grown men together and put them in an enclosed area, testosterone will take over.  However, in a situation like this with so much to gain and large sticks in their hands, these men are going to use whatever they can to gain an advantage.

In a way it might seem savage to celebrate fighting and the big hits that players dish out on each other.  After all we are trying to look out for the safety of one another by giving them helmets, padding and all that gear.  At the same point, we are humans who seem to thrive on violence whether it is in the news or in the movies or in our entertainment. Wars are constantly being fought across the globe no matter what day it is or what time it is, it seems humans are always in conflict.

As we evolve the question we have to ask ourselves is should our sports evolve as well?  Do we still want to see athletes pound each other? Boxing still exists and Mixed Martial Arts are beginning to break into mainstream television coverage.  When children are dying in places like Gaza and Africa sometimes we don’t realize how much violence exists in our world.  It may not be happening in front of us, but it is happening.  We turn away from Sarah McLachlan’s animal commericals because they are too emotional, we can’t imagine someone beating or mistreating an animal.  Yet, children are starving just across the border from one of the world’s richest countries on Earth.  In fact, children are starving here in the United States.

No, hockey isn’t everything, it’s an escape from dealing with something or everything for a short period of time.  For some people it’s a way of life, a way of making a living or a way to exist.  For most however, it’s just an outlet or something to believe in when life gives us a reason to be distracted from the the awfulness on the horizon.  It isn’t fair, no, to spend three hours engrossed in men with pads, jersey and skates beating each up while the world burns.  But it’s what we have for those three hours to reflect upon our own personal goals and what we can do – maybe even what we can’t do.  If nothing else, we realize that humanity is cheap when so much is on the line and we have to decide for ourselves what it is that we believe in.  Do we wish to be the aggressor, the victor, the one full of pride or the one who submits?

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.

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.