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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Theo Fleury Is Burned Once Again By The Hockey Hall of Fame

I’ve written a lot about learning to play ice hockey at an advanced age and how I’ve struggled with my physical conditioning and my mind’s ability to comprehend what I can’t do.  When I go to training sessions, I’ve had the full backing of the instructors, who are there for me on the ice and I trust them to give me the right advice off the ice.  If I need a piece of equipment or if I’m struggling with keeping my head up after training I know they’ll point me in the right direction.  That is what a coach and a mentor is supposed to do.

Imagine a young player who is trying to learn the game and he puts his faith and trust in his coach.  He starts to get good at the sport and his coach tells him that he’s going to be there for him but the coach takes advantage of his trust and abuses him.  You don’t have to imagine that, it’s happened.  Among the many that it’s happened to is Theoren Fleury, a former NHL player who would go on to score 1,088 points in 1,084 games but would drink and party his way through multiple seasons until he finally was able to find himself.

At 5 foot 6 inches, not many gave Fleury hope of fulfilling a career in professional hockey along with the fact that he came from aboriginal family.  Born on June 29, 1968, to Wally and Donna Fleury in Oxbow, Saskatchewan, Fleury struggled with a challenging home life. He took out his frustrations wherever he could, sometimes on others in school, but his passion was in hockey once he finally picked up the stick.  He almost lost his career at 13 when an errant skate cut deep into his arm forcing him to miss almost a year of development.  After this the community of Oxbow, Saskatchewan decided to send their native son to hockey school where Fleury would meet Graham James, the man that would ultimately coach him and plead guilty to charges of sexual assault.

Fleury, however,  would thrive in junior hockey and in 1987, at the age of 19, he was drafted in the 6th round by the Calgary Flames.  At the start of the 1988 season he was sent down to the Flames’ minor league affiliate in Salt Lake City where he recorded 74 points in 40 games.  Looking for a spark, the Flames brought him up and spark he did – registering 34 points in 36 games and then 11 points in games on the way to winning his first and only Stanley Cup.  That had to be a hell of a rookie year – winning the Cup and thinking that there had to be more championships on the way.

What was on the way for Fleury was points, penalty minutes and what he wrote about in his autobiography – alcohol, women and drug abuse.  Fleury got through 16 years in the NHL by doing what he knew best, being a pest and not letting his lack of size get in the way.

Fleury wrote Playing With Fire: The Theo Fleury Story in 2009, six years after he left the NHL. Fleury’s courage to pour out the demons that have haunted him since the incidents with James that left him searching for an outlet only to find drugs and alcohol.  His failed drug tests and the suspensions that went along with it.  His sinking depression and the dark holes that he fell into.  Through all that Fleury was able to find something inside himself and maybe if nothing else he was able to find himself.

Now that his playing career is done Fleury helps others who have gone through abuse and those who are looking for someone who understand the struggle.  As someone who grew up watching Fleury I know how great a hockey player he was, and for that he deserves to be in the HHOF.  His life can teach younger players a lesson about speaking out against abuse by coaches, mentors and even family members.  He can show us that even though you are small or come from a place where there is nothing you can be someone.  He can show us what drugs and alcohol can do and the dark places that they can take you.  In many ways Fleury can be a role model, an idol, an example, someone not to follow but most importantly he is a human.  For Fleury not to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame is a question that needs to be asked.  Is it because he was a fighter?  Is it because he was aboriginal?  Is it because he was sexually abused?  Is it because he talked about his problems in his book?

We should respect and cherish all the things that he has given to the game and let the younger generation learn and understand what this man went through, for he is part of our past and they need to learn to make a better future.

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.

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.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs Make Heroes

The Stanley Cup Playoffs always seem to create a hero out of someone. It becomes that special time of year where someone steps up from the third or fourth line because the first or the second line gets shut down thanks to the opposition’s coaching choices.  Unless you follow everything the team does, you may not even have heard of the guy.
It’s during this “crunch time” if you want to call it that, that diamonds are made. Sometimes these diamonds may never have their number called again. Sometimes these diamonds go on to be legends. Think back to all the Conn Smythe winners in the past, can you name them? Think back to the Stanley Cup Champions in recent years, can you name them?
Even if you can’t, what is amazing about the Conn Smythe award is that unlike most trophies it is based upon the play of an individual throughout the entire playoffs. If you lead your team to the Finals and put up a goose egg there – more than likely you are going to have a hard time winning the trophy. If you play magnificently throughout the playoffs you are probably going to be in line to be the Conn Smythe award winner. It doesn’t always go to the winning team either, five times since the trophy was introduced in 1964 it has gone to the losing team most recently to Jean-Sebastien Giguere of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim who played tremendously in net. He finished with a 15-6 record, a .945 Save % and 1.62 Goals Against Average.
What makes the Conn Smythe award so amazing though is the list of names that have won the trophy. Guys from our decade and guys from decades before us that we can only imagine seeing play in their prime. Hall of Fame players and guys who scored in places like the Maple Leaf Gardens. Guys who made key saves in the Montreal Forum. Guys who were a part of the Oilers Dynasty of the 80’s. Guys who played a part in making the Islanders the talk of the Nassau Coliseum. Guys who were a part of the Broad Street Bullies. Guys would initiate a line brawl and bring the goalies into it. Guys who would see your head down and hit you in the middle of the ice without thinking twice. Drop ’em? Hell yes, this is the rock ’em sock ’em NHL – Don Cherry style. The days of Northern NHL teams winning the Cup with some of the greatest goaltenders you may ever see backstopping them.
Of course as time has past we have seen the new generation, the new buildings with the expansions and the new equipment. The game has been influenced by an international group of players that witnessed the “Miracle on Ice.” No longer is it won by teams in the northern half of North America but Southern states are hoisting the Cup now along with those on the sunny West Coast. Playoff dates in May and June test the ability of maintenance workers to keep the ice frozen in the summer heat. The next generation of player is faster, stronger and better conditioned than those we remember. They wear lighter pads, scientifically engineered skates and use high-tech sticks. There is no more fighting. This is the new NHL. No more Montreal Forum or Maple Leaf Gardens. These are giant arenas built for bringing in the crowd and getting them to spend, spend and spend some more.
I’ve often wondered whether I grew up in the golden age of hockey with Lemieux, Gretzky, Roy, Brodeur and all. I want to say yes, there will never ever be guys like this. I know there will never be guys that stopped shots like that and there will probably never be another guy that scored like Gretz. But at the same time, what about those that grew up during Gordie Howe’s reign? They probably said the same. Can you imagine the talent that has come along since? Patrick Roy won three Conn Smythe awards, does that mean no one else ever will? Wayne Gretzky holds or shares 61 records, does that mean that no one will ever pass any of them? Mario Lemieux won the Conn Smythe award in consecutive years and is the last person to do it, will anybody else do it? Martin Brodeur holds 25 records, will anyone break them?
I can’t help but wonder while watching these Stanley Cup Finals – who will be that Conn Smythe guy? I wonder if there will be a guy that will break a record? Is there someone on the ice that will make it to the Hockey Hall of Fame? Sure there are some names that pop to mind – Thornton, Pavelski and Crosby. But we don’t know where these careers will end. We don’t know how it’s all going to play out. Hockey takes such a wild ride sometimes. It’s such a tough sport to play day in and day out. It takes such a toll on your mind and your body. I can’t imagine what these guys go through just to make it through these playoff marathons. Whoever wins the Cup and wins the Conn Smythe no doubt they’ll deserve but I’ve got my eye on a couple of guys and I’m not going to jinx them by saying their names – just know, they’ll be someone’s hero.

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.