Tuesday, 31 May 2011

And then there were seven....Welcome back Winnipeg

May 31st, 2011 will go down as a day I never thought I would see, the day the National Hockey League returned to Winnipeg. Looking back to the final game the Jets played in Winnipeg after being eliminated by the Detroit Red Wings in their opening round series of the 1996 Stanley Cup Playoffs, I can honestly say I never thought the NHL, especially with Gary Bettman in charge, would be calling Winnipeg home to a franchise once again.

Anyone who has watched the scenarios play out in markets like Atlanta, Florida and of course Phoenix can tell you that the league’s attempt to make the game fly down south was met with limited success. All three markets had varying levels of success, with Florida creating the biggest buzz when they made it to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final only to fall to  the Colorado Avalanche, who were also in the midst of making a name for themselves after relocating from Quebec City a year earlier. While the NHL was able to create a buzz and find success in some of the cities it brought the game to, there have been just as many, if not more that are on shaky legs. For every Colorado, San Jose and Minnesota you have a handful of clubs that just have not been able to maintain a balance that will last long term.

The question that jumps out after today’s announcement is who is next? Will it be Florida, or Phoenix, or perhaps Columbus, who has had solid fan support during their tenure in the National Hockey League but limited success on the ice with their lone post season appearance coming in 2009. It is tough enough to build a Stanley Cup contender, but if you ask me it is tougher to build a solid franchise in the many U.S. markets the league has set up shop or have looked to as possible destinations.

Like myself, the National Hockey League did not expect a return to Winnipeg when the last box was packed and sent for Phoenix when the Jets left 15 years ago. To many Canadians it is a great day for hockey and rightfully so, but for the NHL and those who supported the game in Atlanta and in other markets south of the boarder it is anything but exciting. Gary Bettman had his work cut out for him when he took the job as commissioner of the National Hockey League and he continues to face similar adventures to this day. Hopefully the lessons learned will make for a stronger league, with stronger ownership and a level of support in all markets the league is presently in with a push by those lurking in the bushes to be on their best behaviour if they chance to get into the game comes about.

Friday, 27 May 2011

May 27th 1993

It is hard to believe it has been eighteen years to the day that the Toronto Maple Leafs travelled to Los Angeles to play the Kings in game six of the Campbell Conference Final. I can remember that evening like it was yesterday; I was in the midst of completing grade 10 at Sir Oliver Mowat Collegiate, looking for a hockey team to play for in the fall and just being the odd ball teenager that I was. The one constant during that spring was watching the Maple Leafs make a playoff run that I had yet to witness in my nearly sixteen years of life at the time.

The run was lead by the late Pat Burns behind the bench, along with key contributions coming from numerous players like Wendel Clark, Felix Potvin right through to Nikolai Borchevsky, but none more so than Doug Gilmour. It was a team that had bonded as the year progressed into the playoffs with the club upsetting the Detroit Red Wings in seven games of the opening round and then knocking off the St.Louis Blues in a hard fought seven game series. The series vs the Kings was similar to the first two with both teams going back and forth and stealing key victories on the road; things looked to be on the up when Glenn Anderson scored in overtime of game five putting the Maple Leafs in a position they had not been in since 1967 as they were one win away from advancing to the Stanley Cup Final.

Game six was one that will not be forgotten by many fans who followed the series since it essentially summed up how the series itself had gone. Back and forth, numerous penalties and plenty of goals going both ways. With the Maple Leafs trailing late, Burns pulled Felix Potvin and had Wendel Clark join the play as the extra attacker. It was a move the worked to a ‘t’ as Doug Gilmour spotted Clark skating towards the high slot and feathered a pass onto Clark’s Sher-Wood stick like he had countless of times since joining the Maple Leafs in January of 1992. Clark wasted little time and fired a snap shot over Kelly Hrudey’s shoulder for his third goal of the night. The goal sent the Maple Leafs bench and fans watching the game into a frenzy. With momentum was on the Maple Leafs side as  it looked as though the impossible was going to be happen and club would complete the comeback in overtime thus setting the stage for an epic Stanley Cup Final vs. the Montreal Canadiens who had recently disposed of the upstart New York Islanders earlier in the week.  

As the game was winding down Glenn Anderson took one of the most selfish penalties when he drilled Rob Blake from behind into the boards, this gave the Kings a power play heading into overtime and a chance to set up their game plan during the intermission. As the overtime started the Maple Leafs sent out the likes of the late Peter Zezel and Gilmour to get the penalty killed and give the hockey club the chance to put enough pressure and pucks in front of kelly Hrudey. It was a task that was more than attainable given the wide open action taking place in the series. It was not long into the overtime that the Kings were looking to set up a play with Wayne Gretzky controlling the puck on the half wall, as his line mates moved around the ice to provide outlets for #99. It was during this time that Gretzky lost control and found himself in a battle for the loose puck with Gilmour. In the midst of both players making an effort to gain control of the puck and the play, Gretzky’s stick came up and clipped Gilmour under the chin, opening a wound in the process. As the rules were during this time in the National Hockey League, any major penalty for high sticking wasn’t just a five minute penalty it also resulted in a game misconduct.  Most in the Fabulous Forum that night knew the rule, especially Gretzkty himself and the look on his face said it all. Sensing an early trip to the showers, Gretzky milled sheepishly around the ice as the officials consulted on the play and how to call it. It was rare to see #99 stray from any interaction with the officials given his well known habit for voicing his opinion with them on a regular basis. Kerry Fraser was the lead official that night and the onus was him to make the call. For reasons that we will probably never really know, Fraser decided the play was a mistake and Gretzky was off the hook of an infraction being called. Sensing that he had gotten away with one, Gretzky wasted little time in making up for his gaffe and pounced on a  loose puck in front of the Maple Leafs net and scored the game winner sending the series back to Toronto for game seven.

The loss was one that the Maple Leafs tried to shake off and regroup heading into game seven two days later at Maple Leaf Gardens. The non call hit the Maple Leafs hard and gave Gretzky and the Kings a boost that would carry them to victory as they eliminated the Maple Leafs in the final game. It was a play that altered the outlook of the series like no other and left many fans following to wonder as to what could have been, not just for the Maple Leafs but for the league in general as a classic match-up with the Montreal Canadiens would have been something the league would have thrived off with the amount of exposure it would have created. Hockey is a game that many analyze and follow, while there were many factors that hindered the Maple Leafs falling short vs. the Kings in 1993, most will agree letting Gretzky off the hook sealed the fate for the boys in Blue on that spring evening on May 27, 1993.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

CBC – Canucks Broadcast Corporation

First off, congratulations to the Vancouver Canucks on winning the Western Conference Final over the San Jose Sharks in a hard fought and well contested five game series. Each game was entertaining and closely matched throughout, though in the end Vancouver’s depth and timely goal scoring was the difference in the series. As entertaining as the product was on the ice, unfortunately the same cannot be said for the broadcast put forth by the CBC, or as I now call them the “Canucks Broadcast Corporation”. The play by play team of Jim Hughson, Craig Simpson and Glenn Healy were not shy in hiding their fondness for the lone Canadian team remaining in the playoffs; this angle is one that should be muted and the game should presented in a less bias manner.

Hughson has never been shy in expressing his fondness for the Canucks over the years and thus has affected the way he calls the games he is working. It is unprofessional and takes away from the game being watched by the fans, unless the broadcast team is strictly covering that specific club regionally, I find it hard to understand how a network airing the games nationally has let it’s on air talent carrying such a tone throughout? In the past this same debate has been mentioned when Bob Cole and Harry Neale covered Toronto Maple Leafs, while similar discussions were brought to light during the Dick Irvine days covering the Montreal Canadiens.

I have heard from others, fans of the Canucks or neutral fans, that have also noticed the language used on a nightly basis throughout the playoffs by the aforementioned trio during the Canucks games. Understandably, the CBC wants to cater to its audience across the country that are eager to see a Canadian team win a Stanley Cup for the first time in 18 years, but in doing so, there should be more transparency in how the games are called and analyzed as not all of the viewers are cheering for the Canucks.

It is a sad day when this topic has to be discussed not only once but now twice.  The game should be the main attraction with zero bias, something that has become a growing issue as the playoffs have progressed.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Last boarding call for Atlanta to Winnipeg

As I mentioned the other day, I am not going to leave any move of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg until I see Gary Bettman step up onto the milk crate and announce to the throngs of people in attendance at the press conference that the deal is signed and sealed.

Yesterday word broke of a deal being finalized to the delight of many following the story, and while it has not yet been signed off the agreement between the parties involved "appears" to be very close. Hopefully this is the case and the press conference is announced with new of the Thrashers coming to Winnipeg finally becoming reality.

This will be a day I can say I never thought would happen given the way the former club left for Phoenix back in 1996. I will avoid much of the discussion until the deal is finalized and made public.

Hang tight and fasten your seatbelt', it appears as though this flight is about to take off from Atlanta will land in Winnipeg soon enough.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Waiting on the tarmac

As another week is well underway another familiar and becoming increasingly boring story continues to make headlines as talk picks up regarding the possible return of the National Hockey League to Winnipeg. Let first start by saying that adding another club to a Canadian city will be a boon for success if and/or when the NHL decides to make it official, but at the same time I am nauseas from the repeated story that goes absolutely nowhere time and time again. I have no idea how many times I have had to listen to Darren Dreger, Bob McKenzie, Nick Kypreos and Doug McLean, amongst many others, discuss this story with really nothing coming from each segment other than time being filled on another light day in the world of sports and the splattering of die hard hockey fans across the country hoping that one day the story will be for real.

Many shake their heads when Gary Bettman and Bill Daly speak about trying to keep a franchise in the city it presently resides over bringing them to Winnipeg, Quebec or even in a surrounding city in Southern Ontario. It is easy to wonder why the NHL is slow in returning or bringing hockey into these specific markets, but after seeing the league stand by and help Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa survive during the unstable moments each of those franchises faced, you have to give Bettman some credibility in doing what is right. When the stars align and the best option for relocating a club appears to be in the Great White North, I am sure the NHL will be sure it is the best move across the board.  

With rumours floating around that the possibility of the league having an announcement regarding the state of the Atlanta Thrashers coming as early as the end of the week or perhaps as late as the end of the Stanley Cup Finals, I would presume the latter will end up being timeline for any announcement. The League would not want to take away from the coverage surrounding the four remaining clubs vying for the Stanley Cup and in keeping any announcement until mid June will keep the league in the media headlines that much longer. It will be attention the league will certainly welcome as they know very well that adding another franchise in a Canadian market will benefit the league and will kick start interests in all markets across the country.  

Until the day comes when the National Hockey League announces a press conference in which Commissioner Bettman stands at a podium and makes the return to Winnipeg official, you won’t find me sitting with batted breath listening to a panel of insiders talk about not really anything more than rumours and hearsay.

Monday, 16 May 2011

2011 Western Conference Final

As game one of the Western Conference Final came to a close last night it appears to be clear that this series will come down to whomever comes to play the full sixty minutes. With momentum swinging both ways throughout the first two periods, combined with solid goaltending at both end of the ice, it was fitting that the third period would provide the most entertainment as the Canucks built off Kevin Bieksa’s tying goal to see Henrik Sedin tally the winner about a minute and twenty seconds later.

If I was Sharks coach Todd McLellan I would break the results down this way; focus on the positives that came from the game, work on maintaining a balanced attack over the sixty minutes and avoid getting drawn into playing Vancouver’s game. The Sharks got off to a decent start, were able to score the game’s first goal and take the lead again on the power play midway through the game, both positives that I am sure the coach will use. Areas that would need to be addressed are staying out of the penalty box, better support in the defensive zone and again focus on playing a complete game. It was a few lulls during the first two periods which almost cost the Sharks if not for Antti Niemi bailing his club out on numerous flurries the Canucks brought his way, something that seemed to give the Canucks confidence as the game progressed and forced San Jose back on their heels.

Credit to the Vancouver Canucks for not losing focus after a broken play resulted in the opening goal of the series by Joe Thornton and then rendering a power play goal to Patrick Marleau in the second shortly after Max Lapierre tied things up. When the Canucks are rolling and getting the contributions needed from all of their lines, they are a tough team to play against although can find themselves in a bind when sidetrack by an opponent who has the ability to do so. If Alain Vigneault is going to keep the Canucks on track he will have to continue to preach that his club not stray from the team objective of achieving their goal. Players like Raffi Torres, Max Lapierre, as well Ryan Kesler and Kevin Bieksa are known for having a short circuit at the wrong times. If they can focus on the task at hand and save any shenanigans for the future it will help the Canucks greatly.

This series should be a battle, as it was last night, to the final buzzer. The key will be the performances from both clubs top end players, anything less will put either of these clubs behind the eight ball. In game one San Jose was able to get production from Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, while Vancouver picked up a huge goal from Henrik Sedin, received another solid performance from  Kesler and Bieksa as well.   In the end it will be the club who maintains the focus, stays out of trouble and maintain a consistent presence in the offensive zone while limiting their opponent at the same time.

Three Points for the Sharks to focus on....

1)      Get in Luongo’s kitchen as much as possible
2)      Get under the skin of anyone in a Canucks uniform – but be disciplined
3)      Cut Vancouver’s ice in half – force them to play on their side of centre

Three Points for the Canucks to focus on...
1)      Neutralize San Jose top lines
2)      Win the battles on the walls and down low
3)      Stick to the game plan

There are a ton of other factors both clubs will harp on as the series progresses but it will be interesting to see which come to the forefront and which take a backseat, that can be said for the players in this series too. It is time for the Thornton’s, Marleau’s, Sedin’s and Luongo’s to show they can finish what they started. This has the possibilities of being a great series, time will tell if that will be the case.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Derek Boogaard 1982-2011

Yesterday the NHL lost a player and more so a character that will be talked about for years to come.  Derek Boogaard will be remember for his size, strength and for being one of the toughest men to ever play in the greatest league in the world.

Over the years the role of the enforcer has slowly deteriorated from your tough guy needing talent beyond his fists, now almost to the point where a pest is looked upon as the one to turn to when trouble starts. Derek Boogaard was one of a dying breed amongst players in the National Hockey League who command the skill set in which he did, and while many say this is a good thing just ask Wayne Gretzky and Steve Yzerman how different their careers may have been not having Dave Semenko, Marty McSorely, Joey Kocur and Bob Probert on their hockey clubs. Imagine how much more of Mario Lemieux would have been able to see if the Penguins kept Marty McSorely around or didn't wait nearly a decade to re-fill the role after Lemieux had encountered numerous injuries related to the treatment he received on a nightly basis. 

Derek Boogaard was a player that struck fear into the eyes of ever opponent while giving his teammates the space to play the game they wanted to every night out. He will be missed for the player he was but more importantly the person everyone knew.

RIP Derek Boogaard

Friday, 13 May 2011

2011 Eastern Conference Final

After seeing the San Jose Sharks avoid what could have been a disaster and eliminate the Detroit Red Wings last night we will finally get to see the Conference Finals begin this weekend. With both series being as well matched as any fan could hope for I will look at the teams and how the series should shape up. As the series schedule begins with the East starting this off tomorrow that is where I too start with my look into both series’.

Boston Bruins vs Tampa Bay Lightning

After a long break both the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Boston Bruins will be chomping at the bit come Saturday’s first game. With the exception of Patrice Bergeron and Pavel Kubina being out with post concussion symptoms, both line-up’s are as close to being healthy as they could hope for. It will be interesting to see how this series unfolds as both clubs match up fairly well on paper and while being quite different they do have some similar elements to their structure.

The Bruins

For Boston to be successful they will need to continue having a balanced attack with contributions coming from all sources, that was crucial in their successful wins in their opening rounds. If there was ever a time for Tomas Kaberle to step up this is it; he has not looked comfortable since coming over from Toronto and one can only hope the extended break between series will have given him some much needed time to absorb more of what Claude Julien is looking for from Kaberle as well as helping the veteran rearguard get settled in to his new surroundings. Look for Tim Thomas to be a factor in net for the Bruins as he will be called upon to provide the Bruins with the support needed to hold off a hot and balanced Tampa Bay offense. If Thomas can hold the fort, along with Zedeno Chara being the monster that he is every night and the emergence of Nathan Horton as a top flight talent the Bruins could be in good shape.

It will be interesting to monitor the status of Patrice Bergeron throughout the series. He had been a standout with his smart two way play vs. Montreal and then Philadelphia prior to running into Claude Giroux. Bergeron is one of the better shut down players in the game and wins battles on the boards on a consistent basis. If he is able to go and contribute it will give the Bruins a much needed boost to their line-up.

The Lightning

It has been an exciting time to be in Tampa Bay let alone to be a Lightning fan. On the coat tails of a tremendous season the Bolts have been one of the better stories of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. With key contributions coming from Martin St.Louis, Steve Stamkos Dwayne Rolson along with Vincent Lecavalier playing some of his best hockey in years, Tampa Bay has been playing its best hockey since they won the Stanley Cup in 2004. The job done by Guy Boucher and his staff is nothing short of Jack Adams’ award territory and the players have bought in with a well balanced line-up proving their worth as role players such as Dominic Moore, Nate Thompson and Adam Hall have shut down some of the league’s best, none more so than Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.

This will be another test and challenge for Tampa Bay as they take on the Boston Bruins with Boucher looking to his defence to make sure Dwayne Roloson is protected and able to make the saves needed against their confident and hungry opponent. Victor Hedman looks as though he has turned the corner and has started to show the makings of becoming one of the best defensemen in the game. With strong play from the young Swede along with his countryman Mattias Ohlund and Eric Brewer, the Lightning will be able to ice big bodies needed to contain a balanced attack that Boston will be bringing every night.

Near not fans of the wild Western Conference, I have your backs and will provide my analysis of the upcoming series between the Vancouver Canucks and the San Jose Sharks shortly.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Ryan Walter Coaching Clinic coming to Barrie

June 18th Ryan Walter will be conducting a coaching clinic in Barrie, Ontario. It will provide coaches of all levels to interact with the coach of the Canadian National Women's team. Walter was also an established NHL'er and was a member of the 1986 Stanley Cup Champion Montreal Canadiens. If you are able to check it out you won't be dissappointed.

Check out the clinic details below.....

Be a better Coach, a better leader. Share an interactive day with 70 other minor hockey coaches.

The best 1 day coaches clinic in Ontario is on June 18th in Barrie.

Ryan Walter is a former player, Stanley Cup winner, author, Coach (Vancouver Canucks and now the Woman’s National Team .)

OMHA gives 20 points toward their Continuing education program. See more info on Continuing education at    http://www.omha.net/  

Join Ryan at the Holly Recreational Complex in Barrie from 9-5 on  Saturday,June 18th.

Cost is 65.00 with a light lunch and breaks covered.

The first 70 coaches that apply will be accepted. This is the 5th year for the coach’s clinic.

Who can Attend? Anyone who has an active role in Minor Hockey would benefit from this day.Coaches, managers, executive members would benefit from an inspiring day with  one of Canada’s best  Coaches. Ryan’s   topic  for one of the sessions is  Specialty Teams = Great Teams. He brings great video and insight and you will improve your coaching game for sure.

A drill book containing over 75 of the best drills used in minor hockey will be given to the participants.

To sign up go to   http://www.hockeyquestenterprises.com/  and be ready for a “ best day “ experience.

Coaches Clinic with Ryan Walter
Saturday, June 18th from 9 -5 in Barrie at Holly Rec. Complex
Payment on line with pay pal at   http://www.hockeyquestenterprises.com/  
Drill book and Lunch included.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Two minutes for Body Checking

Recently the Ontario Hockey Federation announced that it was banning body checking from all house league and select hockey starting in the 2011-12 season. This is a move that will have plenty of insiders and outsiders taking a stance on whichever side of the fence they believe in.

When I first read of this I wondered about youth football, particularly in the United States where football is held as high any religion or political view amongst a large section of their population. What would the backlash be if Pop Warner Football announced that starting in the fall all youth leagues would know be played with either two hand touch or under the same rules used in Flag Football? Contact is an element of the game that most would call sacred and altering it would ruffle more than a few sets of feathers.

If you ask me, taking body checking completely out of youth hockey is not the right move or message to send. Body checking is a skill that should be taught and used properly no differently than a player learning to take a slap shot at the same age. If the player is taught how and when to use body checking properly during a game he/she will be a better player for it, at the same time players should be taught how to protect and look after themselves when they are playing the game.  This scenario can also be used as mentioned when teaching a youngster how to shoot and how to protect themselves when defending a shot. There is a skill and a technique that is needed to be taught and ingrained in the players head in order for these fascist of the game to be played as properly as one can expect in minor hockey.

There has always been alternative leagues available to those players and families whom would prefer to play without body checking, one that comes to mind was the Cedar Hill Minor Hockey Association. The quality of hockey was comparable to the other house leagues in the area and select programs were as competitive as any in all age groups represented. That being said, there would come a time when some players or select teams from Cedar Hill would find themselves having to participate in games with body checking.  In most cases these players were aware and instructed how to handle themselves in these situations. It was an eliminate of the game which would be there and the players would be prepared to face.

Injuries are going to happen, unfortunately it is a part of all sports, no matter what you participate in and we all have our fare share of stories to tell. There is only so far the rules and guidelines can be stretched to protect athletes on all levels, it is those experiences that will help one understand the nature of the game that wish to play and how they will play it moving forward, if they decide they want to. 

Monday, 9 May 2011

Junior Hockey in the GTA....If you build it - they will come

As the Canadian Hockey League prepares for the start of the 2011 Mastercard Memorial Cup in Mississauga on May 20th the tournament and even more so the attention, or lack thereof it is receiving in the Greater Toronto Area has been making more headlines than the teams trying to take part in the event.

An event like the Memorial Cup signifies the best of the best in major junior hockey competing for one of the most prestigious and difficult awards a team can win. It is an even that can bring a city, region and in some cases a province together. Some of the finest tournaments have been held in all regions of the country, being a springboard to success off the ice as much as it is on. Some of the better run tournaments I recall off the top of my head were Kamloops in 1995, London in 2005 and the following year when Moncton put on a tremendous event amongst the many others we could bring to light. This is an event that should help the growth of the game at the junior level, provide the young men competing with the chance to participate in front of a National audience all the while helping the host city make a name for itself.

Unfortunately, the city of Mississauga and the host club Mississauga St.Michael’s Majors continue to face similar issues that have plagued major junior hockey in the Great Toronto Area for years. With ticket sales being smooth to put it mildly, the Majors have fought to build a fan base even as they ice one of the strongest clubs in the country. Being around most arenas used by the Greater Toronto Hockey League over for the past three years (Hershey Centre included), I recall seeing a limited presence of the Ontario Hockey League around the arenas, let alone any forms of promoting the league or ways to get families out to support the local product.  With parents and players paying 6$ a pop for an entry into a GTHL game twice a week, if not more when a family has more than one child playing in the league, it would make sense for the leagues to put their heads together and give those involved some incentive to attend a junior game on their nights off.

Junior hockey in Canada is what bonds and grows small towns, from Peterborough to Prince George, it is the lifeline of those communities. Why Brampton and Mississauga can’t communicate with their local minor hockey organizations as well as the Greater Toronto Hockey League baffles me. Young hockey players look up to the future stars, they want to experience what it is like not only to watch these young men play but also partake in the experience of being in a loud and exciting arena. Unfortunately it is hard to remember a time when going to a junior game in the GTA resembled what you will see when you are at a game in Peterborough, Sudbury, or Ottawa to name a few. Everyone in those towns know what the home night for their clubs and the support has been there since day one. Another excellent example is what the Hunter Brothers have done in London with the Knights. There was a time in the mid 1990’s when the franchise was a laughing stock, but with smart off-ice moves combining with astute personnel decision made to developing a strong on-ice product has lead to the organization being one of the most successful in the country. Not to mention having crowds at or near capacity on most nights.

Instead of people sitting on one hand and starching their head with the other, it is time for those who have the authority and the resources to step up and really turn the stereotype around about hockey, especially major junior hockey, in the Greater Toronto Area around. Similar to the discussion about declining numbers in minor hockey across Canada, taking the game and support for granted will and already has had an effect on the enrolment numbers across Canada, none more so than in cities in Scarborough Ontario which has seen numbers slowly decline over the past decade. If more focus is put towards promoting the leagues, the product and making it accessible and affordable for those associated with the game or whom are interested in signing up, you will see increased levels of support across the board.

Bring the product to the people and the people will come to your product, anyone who has worked in business and in the private sector will tell you that. If hockey is to grow and prosper as we move into the 2011th year and beyond, it going to take a lot more of selling by those on all levels, and only then will hockey in Toronto find success and expand with demand in an area that is more than capable of handling the growth and rebirth of the game.

Like the saying goes "Canada is Hockey - Hockey is Canada". If those in Toronto what to talk about it, they better start doing it too.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Joel Ward

Three years ago, almost to the day, I found myself talking to Joel Ward at Art Thompson Arena. We were both playing a one day hockey tournament organized for a friends stag. At the time Joel had just completed his season with the Houston Aeros of the American Hockey League and his contract with the Minnesota Wild was about to expire. Unsure of where he would end up playing hockey in the fall of 2008 he just decided to go with the flow and see what would come about during the summer.

Joel was a player I first met through my friend Rob Watt while playing summer hockey at Canlan Ice Sports during the summer of 1999. Rob's younger brother, Jessie, had played with Joel growing up and both were sold on the fact Joel Ward was a hockey player. Mind you, having a good head on his shoulder, Joel wasn't about to over extend his game during a Thursday night men's league hockey game with a bunch of guys who were playing the game for fun and to see their buddies. Following his career from then on, as well as bumping into him every now again, I quickly understood just what the Watt's were preaching about Ward.

Not only could Joel Ward play the game and play it the way only a select few are capable of, but he was a level headed guy who always made you feel appreciated and welcomed each time you crossed his path. A trait not lost on me and many others.

As Joel graduated from the Owen Sound Attack, then the University of Prince Edward Island and eventually landing job within the Minnesota Wild organization, you just knew Joel Ward was going to make a name for himself as professional hockey player one way or another. Working his way up the ladder and proving he had the size, strength and abilities needed to play with the best, Ward made his NHL debut with the Minnesota Wild during the 2006-07 season.

Upon completing his time with the Wild and the Aeros, Ward landed on his feet with an opportunity to attend the Nashville Predators training camp in September of 2008. With a bevy of talented prospects, veterans and other potential players seeking employment within the Predators organization, it didn't take head coach Barry Trotts very long to ask who the big right handed winger was taking part in the camp. Knowing the Predators were in need of added size and depth to their stable of prospects playing in the system, Trotts not only took a shining to Ward he made sure David Poile signed him to a contract.

Over the past three years Joel Ward has not only established himself in Nashville but throughout all hockey circles as a full time National Hockey League player. As the Predators continue their season with a valiant playoff run, it has become increasingly obvious that the hockey world has been taking notice to the rise of the veteran forward. Being an unrestricted free agent on July first will not only open even more doors for Joel Ward, it will reward him for the years of hard work and dedication his has put in to the game he has played and loved since first putting on a pair of skates.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Max Domi drafted by Kingston

In a move that comes as little surprise to anyone following the minor hockey and junior hockey circuits, Max Domi was selected 8th overall by the Kingston Frontenacs in the 2011Ontario Hockey League Priority Selection Draft.

It was not long ago that the Domi family announced that Max was going to take the NCAA route and thus skipping the Ontario Hockey League in his journey to advance his career to the highest level.

Some bought into the notion that the Domi's were set on joining the University of Michigan after spending time toiling in the USHL, but the move made by Domi and his family is nothing new to those who are able to express their preferences of places to play, such is the case with the talented minor midget forward from the Don Mills Flyers.

Rumours persisted that Domi would either land in Kingston to hone his skills under the guidance of his father's former teammate, Doug Gilmour or perhaps go west to London and join the Hunter's junior hockey factory. In the end Gilmour was able to land a Domi and likely one of the most talented players available in today's draft.

Why the playoffs rock...

Every time I hear or read of someone saying how hockey shouldn't be played in June, I shake my head and say "shame on you". Of course the nothing beats a day out on the pond, followed up by watching a double header on CBC in December or January but if you ask anyone if they enjoy going to the rink in shorts and flip flops, you will usually get a thumbs up.

For me hockey in May and June means a few things, first and most of all it's crunch time in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Anytime you get down to the final 8, then 4, and especially 2, you are going to see some intense hockey. Players are going to be bruised, battered and sporting some facial hair that would make Big Foot scared, but they will be on a mission every night to win and continue their pursuit for the Cup.

Right now the NHL is full of stories that are worth watching....

Will the Vancouver Canucks continue their pursuit to be the next Canadian team not only to play in the Stanley Cup Finals but to win it. When it looked like ghost of playoff flops from the past would reappear on the West Coast, the Canucks stuck together and kept things together. Getting past Chicago was a win that they needed for numerous reasons and seems to have helped them get over that hump. If the Sedin twins ever get going like they can, this will be a tough hockey club to slow down.

Will the Detroit Red Wings stave off elimination again in game 5 and extend the season and the careers of Mike Modano, Chris Osgood, Kris Draper and perhaps even Nik Lidstrom (though he is the least likely to call it a career just yet).

Is this the year for Jumbo Joe Thornton and the San Jose Sharks? With a Cup winner in Niemi holding down the fort and contributions coming from a variety of players, the Sharks are going to be a tough team to beat in the West. Todd McLellan has been able to use the experience he gained in Detroit as an assistant to Mike Babcock and steer this club in the right direction; along with some smart moves by General Manager Doug Wilson, the Sharks are poised to make 2011 their best post season appearance yet.

Is this the year of Bruins? for the first time since 1992 they will be in the Conference Finals and have a chance to advance to the Cup Finals for the first time since 1990 and perhaps hoist their first Cup since 1972. You sense the anticipation more and more each time the camera pans to Cam Neely.

Can Tampa Bay continue the run they are on? With all cylinders rolling in all areas of their line-up, the Lightning are a fun team to watch play. They have been buying into the game plan and numerous players are stepping up at the right time. With vets like Lecavalier, St.Louis and Roloson laying it on all on the line, and youngsters like Stamkos, Downie and Hedman showing their metal as well, this group is as fun a hockey club to watch right now.

While they appear to be down, especially by the numbers in their series, down count out the Nashville Predators until the final horn goes and they are eliminated. This is a team that never quits and will work you to the bone every night. If Pekke Rinne, Shea Weber and anyone of their top forwards (Fisher, Legwand or the classy Joel Ward) can step up and deliver in game 5, this could end up going the distance. And we all know that anything can and will happen when you play a seventh game.

These playoffs have been exciting, intense and unique all at the same time. While my favourite round is always the first, the hockey only gets better as the tournament slowly works its way down to the final two clubs remaining. I can't wait to see what happens, but I will also being going through withdraw when there are no more games to be played until the fall, I guess I and many others can only hope this all comes down to a game in June, hopefully in the form of a seventh and deciding game.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Boring hockey?? I beg to differ.....

Recently I came across an article mentioning how the Tampa Bay Lightning are playing a style of hockey that resembled that which was played by countless teams in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. As most will remember teams like New Jersey, Buffalo and amongst others, played a system that was known as “The Trap”. It was nothing new as teams years prior had played a defensive first system, although in eras where the game was not broken down, let alone analyzed to the extent it had started to in recent years.

These statements and comments not only had me shaking my head but had me wondering how anyone would observe what is taking place in Tampa Bay right now and compare it to past systems used in the league.  For the casual observer who hears ‘1-3-1” the easy line of thinking would be to tie the systems together. I mean, why not, it avoids having to actually see how the forecheck works and if executed properly, the opportunities it provides.

Such was the case in this past round vs. the Washington Capitals; one of the more offensively talented clubs in the league and home to one of the biggest threats in the game, Alexander Ovechkin. What the Lightning did in this series was nothing out of left field nor would be anything brought back from the ghosts the NHL’s past. They neutralized the Capitals in their grey zone as well as the neutral zone by taking away their time, space and passing lanes. As a result creating turnovers and forcing the play back into the Washington zone. The old saying goes “time creates confusion” and this was the case for the Washington Capitals as the series progressed. With added responsibility placed on the club to maintain composure and discipline in the defensive zone, the breakdowns started to mount and as a result they weren’t able to finish off the games they subsequently lost.

As a result players like Martin St.Louis,  Vincent Lecavalier and Steve Stamkos were able to maintain their presence in the offensive zone, giving players like Steve Downie, Dominic Moore and Sean Bergenheim to play important roles in the Lightning attack as well. You throw in strong performances by  Ryan Malone, Victor Hedman and Dwayne Roloson, and this series quickly became Tampa Bay’s.

For Guy Boucher, the selling of the system did not take long with the results speaking loud and clear around all hockey circles. In 2009-10 the Bolts finished with a record of 34-36-12, scoring 217 times and giving up 260 goals against; a year later the results show a vast improvement as the club went 46-25-11 with 247 goals for and allowed 240 goals against. Mind you, these numbers probably would have been slightly better if not for some early issue with their goaltending which was addressed swiftly when Steve Yzerman acquired Dwayne Roloson from the New York Islanders.

As the playoffs continue to progress into the Conference Finals and eventually the Stanley Cup Finals we will see how teams will handle new schemes brought on by their opponents. It would be easy to place the blame for the Capitals downfall on any collection of their players, in the end they are accountable as is the coaching staff. But the reality in this case is they simply lost to a team that did not stray from their game plan, did not let anything they could not control affect their game on both a team and a individual level. The discipline and work ethic, along with having the skilful depth throughout their line-up helped the Tampa Bay Lightning win this series.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Pickering Hockey Symposium

For any hockey coach, experienced or just getting started, learning more and gathering as much information from those who have been similar adventures along the way is one of the best things you can do while looking to enhance your abilities. One useful event coming up is run by the Pickering Hockey Association as they will be conducting their 6th annual coaches symposium on June 4th at St.Mary’s High School in Pickering.

Guest speakers at include George Burnett (Bellville Bulls coach/GM), Marty Williamson (Niagara Ice Dogs coach/GM), Paul Dennis (Toronto Maple Leafs and University of Toronto) and Stan Butler (Brampton Battalion coach/Director of Hockey Operations) amongst the bevy of other insightful hockey minds.

I attended the symposium last year and found it to be a positive and beneficial event. The speakers cover topics ranging for special teams and a variety of important game related topics (psychology of hockey as well as various effective in game techniques and practice drills).

Even if you are not yet associated with a particular organization and are curious about learning more, this symposium is worth looking into. 

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

McGill alumni making a difference

As the final buzzer went to signify the completion of game three of the Eastern Conference Semi-Final between the Tampa Bay Lightning much of the talk could be sensed around what the Capitals will need to do in order salvage the rest of the series but more importantly their season. At the same time you could feel the buzz through the television coming from the St.Pete Times Forum, a buzz that had not been felt in the area since the Lightning’s Cup run in 2004.  It was not long ago the Lightning were trying to survive on the ice, as well as trying maintain sanity off of it with ownership and personnel issues; clearly the Tampa Bay Lightning of 2010-11 are not the same club they have been over the handful of seasons prior.

With the Oren Koules/Len Barrie  ownership and Barry Melrose tenure a distant memory thanks in part to the ownership group led by Jeffrey Vinik, the hiring of Steve Yzerman and his appointment of Guy Boucher to become the Lightning’s head coach. While the success story can be seen on a nightly basis this spring due in large part to the new organizational structure that was brought into place last summer, the one element of the this cog is assistant coach Martin Raymond.

Roughly seventeen years ago the McGill Redmen were starting their training camp for the 1993-94 and amongst his bevy of players on the ice that September was a junior by the name of Guy Boucher and a freshman from West Hill, Ontario named Kelly Nobes. Over the course of Nobes’ four seasons playing with the Redmen he spent half of that time playing with Boucher as well as a season with a raw freshman by the name of Mathieu Darche, who is presently a member of the Montreal Canadiens. It was during Nobes’ final season, and Darche’s first, that Martin Raymond would assume the role of head coach of the storied schools hockey club.

During Raymond’s tenure the McGill Redmen remained one of the strongest programs in the CIS, building on an already strong and fabled history. Boucher would soon find himself as an assistant coach first with Rouyn Noranda and then with Sidney Crosby in Rimouski. By the 2008-09 season he was not only coaching a powerhouse in Drummondville, he was also a member of the coaching staff for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships in Ottawa. Building a name and a game plan that would lead him to the Montreal Canadiens’ affiliate in Hamilton, Boucher decided to look to his past to play a role in his present situation.

Martin Raymond had completed just completed his fourteenth season at McGill when Boucher came calling to see if he would be interested in joining the coaching staff of the Hamilton Bulldogs. Upon doing so Raymond took a sabbatical from the Redmen to give coaching with Boucher in Hamilton a shot that would be hard to let pass by. The two quickly showed a rapport that was contagious amongst the hockey club and the results were hard not to notice. With the likes of PK Subban and an old friend in Mathieu Darche helping lead the Bulldogs to a successful season and run to the Calder Cup Finals. People within the hockey world were taking notice and the buzz was growing. During this time Jim Webster was running the bench for the McGill Redmen, unsure of how long his tenure would last, that didn’t affect the product on the ice as the Redmen maintained their high level play and results on the ice.

With the 2009-2010 season wrapping up with the Chicago Blackhawks winning their first Stanley Cup since 1961, talk around many hockey circles focused towards the vacant coaching positions around the NHL and Boucher was at the top of most teams lists. With the prospects of continuing his career at the professional level looking more realistic, Raymond informed those at McGill he would not be returning, not long after Jim Webster confirmed he too was not going to commit to continuing as the Redmen’s interm coach. The program wanted to recruit a fresh face, one that could not only relate to the players but to the program. When the dust settled and search was complete Kelly Nobes found himself back where he started his post secondary education and athletic career.

Following his playing days with the Redmen, Nobes gave professional hockey shot and took his services to Spain although found his true calling back home and refocused his hockey aspirations. Upon returning home, Nobes quickly found himself teaching elementary school in Scarborough before decided to return to McGill to complete his education and become as an assistant to Raymond with the hockey club. The experience proved to be valuable as Nobes was able to use his training to lead him to the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario to coach the Paladins men’s hockey team. Anyone who knows the OUA hockey standings knows that RMC is not one of the power houses, but what Nobes identified was two things, the chance to coach at the university level and a group of player who will come to work every night. The results were instant as the players quickly bought into his game plan and noise around the league followed that RMC was not going to be an easy two points any longer.

As word got out of Nobes’ talents, he began to hear from other schools who had taken notice of the job he had done recruiting and establishing a foundation that had not been seen around campus before. In the summer of 2006 Nobes decided to make the move with his family to his father’s alma matter at Laurier University. It was a move Nobes felt would not only benefit his growth as a coach but would provide him the opportunity to build the type of program he was confident he could. The first season alone hammered home both points as the Golden Hawks found themselves in the National Championships, making it to the semi finals. The word was out and the proof was a clear as day, the Golden Hawks were a team to beat. 

From 2006 until 2010, the Golden Hawks were a constant amongst the top clubs in a very competitive OUA men’s hockey loop, with clubs such as McGill, UQTR, Western and Lakehead amongst others always being a threat. As the season came to a close Nobes was approached by the athletic department about his future plans and weather he would consider an opportunity to return to Montreal. With his roots well in place not only in Kitchener/Waterloo, he also still had strong ties within the Montreal area as his wife Michelle was from the area and had family still calling Montreal home. After taking some to time to think the proposition over Nobes decided to accept the opprotunity to run the hockey club he once played for.
It is easy to look back and see how the meetings and friendships established back in the fall of 1993 have lead a handful of those involved with the McGill Redmen during the 2010-11 season. Boucher and Raymond continue to lead the Lightning as they are on the brink of taking the club to the Eastern Conference semi finals, needing another win to close out the series. Mathieu Darche was able to use his strong 2009-2010 season with the Hamilton Bulldogs into a late season call-up with the Montreal Canadiens and then into a full time role with the storied franchise this past season. As these Redmen alum were making headlines across the NHL and Montreal, Kelly Nobes had McGill not only flying high posting a record breaking season for the school but also leading them to the CIS Men’s Hockey Championships, unfortunately losing to the University of New Brunswick in the final. While the end result was just shy of the ultimate team goal, Nobes was able to set club records club records at McGill, just like he did in his previous stints at Laurier and at RMC.

Amazing how a connection that took place 18 years ago can continue to bond and build  friendships towards their dreams all of these years later. That my friend is how the hockey world works and will continue to for years to come. it is just a matter of time before all these former Redmen are working in the same league, the National Hockey League, at the same time.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

My 2011 NHL Award Winners

Every spring the National Hockey League announces it's annual award nominee's. This year has a wide variety of intriguing stories and tight races. I have posted my choices for each award and why I feel each player and coach is deserving of bringing home the hardware they have earned with some outstanding performances during the 2010-2011 season....

Hart – Corey Perry (ANAHEIM)....Without Perry, the Ducks push for a playoff spot would not have been possible. Playing on a line that is as heavily checked as any in the league, Corey Perry took his game to new levels and in doing so had a career year, as well as being the only player in the NHL to score 50 goals.  A player once written off by many scouts and experts, Perry has established himself as a franchise player in Anaheim.

Selke –  Ryan Kesler (VANCOUVER)....In a year that saw the veteran centre took his game to new levels across the board. Kesler began refocusing his on ice demeanour to helping his team beyond his past pest-like persona and the results were hard to look past. Breaking the 40 goal plateau for the first time and cutting down his penalty minutes, rounded out his strong two-way game even more. This growth has been evident throughout the early stages of the 2011 playoffs as well.

Norris – Niklas Lidstrom (DETROIT)....over the past few weeks there has been a plenty of media speculating the accuracy of President Obama’s birth certificate, the same should be said for Lidstrom. In a time when the NHL is fuelled by its youth, the veteran rearguard continues to defy the odds and play like a player nearly half his age. The leader of the Red Wings maintained a high level of play and proved once again just how important he is to his hockey club. While other young defenseman continue to make strides, Lidstrom’s play still has him at the head of the class.

Calder – Jeff Skinner (CAROLINA)....In a race that is a close as any of the awards handed out, it is hard to look past the accomplishments posted by the former Toronto Young Nats forward. Not only was Skinner the youngest player in the league this year, he was also the youngest player to be selected to participate in the NHL’s all-star game. Taking advantage of opportunities from the first game of the season by using his gifted skating abilities and hockey smarts.  Another feather in this young man’s cap came when he was chosen to represent Canada at the 2011 IIHF World Hockey Championships in Slovakia.

Byng – Pavel Datsyuk (DETROIT)....Like his teammate, Niklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk is a model of consistency with his play, as well as how he conducts himself on and off the ice. Few players in the game possess the skills of the gifted Russian pivot, but you will even harder pressed to find a player who plays the game as classy as Datsyuk. While logging crucial minutes on all special teams, 5 on 5 and in various important moments throughout the game, Pavel Datsyuk is able to be provide the Red Wings with elite talent while doing so in fashion that personifies the true reasons the Lady Byng award is handed out each year.

Vezina – Tim Thomas (BOSTON)....Just a year ago, Tim Thomas was sitting at the end of the bench watching his Bruins face off vs the Philadelphia Flyers, perhaps wondering if he would get another chance to be the one leading Boston into battle every night. When the opportunity came about earlier this year for the veteran netminder, he ran with it and has proved that his past success was no fluke. The Bruins have been a club that is always in the mix when talk of Cup contenders are discussed, in order for them to reach those goals they will need Thomas to be the key clog he has been all year. The Flint, MI native has provided his club with the confidence to make the on ice moves they have made and will certainly be focused to return the Bruins to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1990.

Adams – Barry Trotts (NASHVILLE)....There is something to be said about the job Barry Trotts has done coaching one of the best clubs in the National Hockey League nobody talks about. Playing in Nashville doesn’t help the cause when it comes to exposure but when you look at the product the Predators put on the ice every night, you can’t help but be impressed. Only a few years ago it appeared as if the club was on the verge of moving to Hamilton, but with aid of strong local ownership the club stayed in Nashville and has become a model franchise. Since being hired a full season before playing a game, Trotts has given his all in making the Preds a tough to team to play. It is no surprise to many to see the Predators competing with the big boys with the likes of Rinne, Weber and Fisher leading the way, but without Trotts this club wouldn’t be where it is today.

Monday, 2 May 2011

44 years ago tonight

The GO Transit was established while Elvis and Pricilla were newlyweds after tying the knot a day earlier, Muhammed Ali was in the midst of his battle against the US army, Expo 67 was in full swing and the Toronto Maple Leafs were about to capture the 1967 Stanley Cup Championship.  Not only did Jim Pappin lead the club in scoring during the post season, he also won himself a swimming pool as a friend of him placed a bet the club would win the Stanley Cup.

As the story goes, Pappin's friend was able to secure a bet in which the odds would provide him enough of a payout that buying a pool for his friend would not affect his winnings greatly. Pappin fluffed his friends word off at the time, until being awaken the morning after the teams Stanley Cup party by a pool installation company looking to start digging in the backyard of his Pickering, Ontario home.

With an average age of 31, the Maple Leafs had a roster laden with experience and talent that would land numerous members of the club in the Hockey Hall of Fame. It is hard to say how many would have guessed the club would still be waiting for it's next trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. After taking for granted the quality of talent being groomed in their very own background in form of Bobby Orr, or  Brad Park who was playing for the Toronto Marlboros at Maple Leaf Gardens every Sunday afternoon, the Maple Leafs quickly discovered their talent pool was not as deep as it once was. Not only did they fail to recognize the future prospects needed to maintain a level of success the club and the fans had become accustomed to, they also failed to foresee the impact the leagues expansion would have on them as well.

The impact of the mistakes made within the organization grew as the years passed, with off ice follies involving Stafford Smythe and Harold Ballard leading the organization down a path few, including Smythe's own father, Conn Smythe, never imagined happening when he built the Maple Leafs dating back to its infancy. It was safe to the once proud and historic franchise was not what it once was.

Even with a few spurts of success during the 1970's with the likes of Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald and Borje Salming, the Maple Leafs were never able to get back to get past the Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens, clubs who would find the most success during the same time line. With the clubs management miscalculating the affect of the World Hockey Association during these years, much like the early expansion era, the Maple Leafs saw valuable players leave the club during a time when they may have been the difference.

This buzz was not felt again until the earlier 1990's when the club was on the cusp of glory when Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark and Felix Potvin had the Maple Leafs in the Western Conference finals in 1993 and 1994. These years created a buzz fans clamoured for but once again left the cupboards empty and the Maple Leafs were soon on the outside looking in come the spring of 1997 as the playoffs began. The hiring of Pat Quinn, the leadership of Mats Sundin and signing of Curtis Joseph brought the club back to the final four in 1999 and 2002 but both attempts fell shot.

So here we are, 44 years to the day when George Armstrong skated to centre ice with the help of his son Brian and accepted the Stanley Cup from Clarence Campbell. It was a club that was special at the time and is held with even more regard as each year goes by with the Maple Leafs failing to recapture its next championship. While the club is still searching for a trip back to the playoffs for the first time since 2004, let alone a championship,  I wonder how long it be and how Pappin's Stanley Cup swim pool is holding up after all these years? I guess like most things involving the Maple Leafs, we will never know.