Thursday, April 28, 2005

Nolan's back and ready to get to work!

One of the strangest chapters in coaching history finally found a successful ending for Ted Nolan on Wednesday. The former Buffalo Sabre head coach, who seemingly had been slipped the black ace for over eight years is finally back behind a bench.

Nolan will join the Moncton Wildcats organization as coach and Director of Hockey Operations for the Quebec Junior League squad as they prepare to host the Memorial cup in 2006. Nolan who was named coach of the year for 1997 while working in Buffalo, found himself out of professional hockey one year later. And while he was frequently named as a possible coaching candidate with every opening, he never seemed to make the final step back into the NHL ranks.

His move to Moncton should give that franchise a shot in the arm as they compete for next years Memorial Cup (the home team gets an automatic bye into Canada's Junior Championship) as well Nolan will no doubt provide a positive influence on the young players in the Wildcat organization.

Since his departure from the NHL Nolan has been working with Aboriginal youth across Canada, setting up programs for excellence which have by all accounts been well received.

He returns to the Junior ranks a forum which he found quite a bit of success in his formative years of coaching, taking the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds to the national title in 1993.

Nolan's deal is for one year, which effectively makes him a hired gun, expected to come in and take the Wildcats on to the next step and Memorial Cup championship. A definite challenge is ahead for him, but success with such a short period of time to work with should go a long way to re-opening some of those NHL eyes that seemed to stay shut the last eight years.

It's about time he got another chance to coach, his departure has always been a puzzling bit of business from the NHL We hope he finds much success with his latest challenge. One thing is certain the Wildcats have suddenly increased their odds of holding a Memorial Cup in one year's time!

Surprise! Problems with the WHA (again)

Ah yes the on again, off again status of the WHA is off again (supposedly only a temporary glitch). The much heralded WHA Bobby Hull Invitational tourney originally scheduled to take place in early June has been pushed back a few weeks due to "organizational difficulties".

Seems that Phil Esposito who was the "organizer" of the tourney has either quit or been fired depending on which press release you are to believe. Esposito claims he left the WHA when the paycheques became rather infrequent, a claim countered by WHA owner Ricky Smith.

Smith said that there were some organizational problems to take care of but the tourney will go ahead albeit a little later than expected.

The WHA's phoenix like resurrection has suffered its fair share of false starts and near deaths over the last year or so, originally the loop was to be up and running so as to take advantage of the NHL lock out, but that never panned out when money problems and venue difficulties began to accumulate.

The league was sold to Smith who vowed to have things stabilized and looking good in time for a preview tourney in the spring, the one now delayed and stepping gingerly across that thin ice.

If the tournament does actually take off in June Toronto fans can forget about a trip to the Ricoh Centre, originally planned as one of the three city venues it has been dumped. Instead negotiations continue with the Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, plans to play some of the games at GM Place in Vancouver apparently are in flux now as well. In a quote that won't win Smith any friends outside of the Golden Horseshoe the WHA president said "but we might end up running the whole thing out of one rink, such as Copps, because this was to be at first an Ontario show."

Ah yes, that will warm the hearts of hockey fans from Newfoundland to British Columbia, a league dedicated to an Ontario show! Hope he's not hoping for a tv deal anytime soon.

With Espo taking his leave from what appears to be a rather laughable venture, one wonders how long the Bobby Hull name will be attached to the Bobby Hull invitational, the Golden Jet may not with to attach his reputation to something that appears to be in such disarray.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Bertuzzi reinstatement hearing scheduled for Tuesday

After nearly fourteen months there may finally be some closure coming to the Todd Bertuzzi/Scott Moore file. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman will take a day off from working on a collective agreement to administer some unfinished justice from last year. Fortunately we may see a quicker resolution to the Bertuzzi issue than we've seen for the collective agreement.

The entire process is being kept under wraps by the league office, which is trying to have all the principles in place at its New York offices Tuesday. One of the key factors of the hearing will be the physical status of Moore and his career prospects.

According to the Globe and Mail, both are poor. Moore is apparently not in very good health following the attack of last year, has problems exercising for any great period of time and has begun proceedings in civil court with the expectation that his career is over.

It's anticipated that Moore will be giving a statement to the commissioner a victims impact statement if you will, it's unknown at this time if he will face Bertuzzi in the hearing room though many say that is doubtful.

Bettman had previously suspended Bertuzzi indefinitely, effectively precluding him from playing for Team Canada in last fall's World Cup of Hockey and in this Springs World Championship. His suspended status also means he has not been able to join the rest of the NHLPA pilgrimage to Europe to earn a paycheck during the NHL lockout.

While Bettman will take the briefings in on Tuesday it's not expected that his final judgment will be announced the same day. Many expect him to deliberate over the issue for a couple of more days before announcing his decision. All that's left to be learned is whether Bertuzzi has been punished enough or if there is a bit more time to be served for his vicious attack on Moore.

In all reality Moore will not play in the NHL again, by Friday we should know when Bertuzzi will return.

Horse flies left on the trail back to Horse Lake

The Allan Cup was awarded on the weekend, but not without controversy and bitterness surrounding the Senior Men's championship of Canada held this year in Lloydminster.

Thunder Bay claims the bragging rights to Senior hockey for the year based on the Bombers 4-3 victory over Le sentinelles de Montgamy, but the on ice victory was overshadowed by some off ice controversy much of it from the mouth of Theo Fleury.

Fleury who was one of the recruits to the Horse Lake first nations team this year unloaded a lot of baggage at the organizers of the tourney, fans at the rink and the media as his Thunder squad found themselves on the outside looking in for the final game.

Fleury belittled the tournament, suggesting the only thing the people were there to see was him and his fellow players from Horse Lake. He trashed the tournament in the colorful way that only Fleury can, pointing fingers everywhere but back at him. He once again addressed the issue of his suspension from the NHL, attacking the league for its substance abuse program.

It's a replay of some of the past moments in Fleury's downward spiral from his days of NHL stardom. His attack on the Senior Championships however seemed a tad self serving, for there is some question as to his qualification for inclusion on a Senior roster. The tournament is designed for Amateur athletes and Fleury, Gino Odjick and other members of the Horse Lake roster somehow fell between the cracks no longer pros, but hardly amateurs.

The fact that his team was eliminated no doubt spurred his vitriolic outbreak, and as has been pointed out certainly detracts from his supposed position of role model for the youth of Horse Lake. And while some of his comments may have a sliver of resonance to them, for the most part they came across as the words and deeds of a petulant man steeped in far too much bitterness.

Senior Hockey has many questions to explore in the off season, The eventual winner Thunder Bay claimed the championship, all while playing only four games all year prior to the tournament. Stocked with former pros and University players it seems like a team put together much like the Horse Lake squad purely to win a tournament. There seems to be a world of difference between the Junior championship path and the Senior one. The Juniors earn their way to the Memorial Cup via a grueling number of elimination series, basically using the same players they have had all year. The Senior championship path seems by appearance to be a little easier to navigate with murky rules along the way.

The controversial wrap up to the Senior Hockey season leaves both tournament organizers and Hockey Canada with many issues to solve regarding the state of the Senior game. Apparently though Fleury has many more personal demons to exorcise as well.

Robert Gordon Orr to the rescue

Finally someone with the intestinal fortitude to tell it like it is. Over the weekend Bobby Orr put pen to paper (more likely keyboard to byte but no one has come up with a catchy little way of describing the puter revolution yet) and fired off a treatise to the Sunday Lawrence Eagle-Tribune. ( click on sports to view the letter, after April 25th click on their archive and select sports to view the letter)

In his letter he put both Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow in their place, suggesting that if they can't get a deal done then they should step aside (or as he put it "get out of the way") and let people of good faith sit down and hammer out an arrangement to get the game back on the ice. Orr observed that neither side seemed to interested in cobbling together a fair deal.

It was a passionate plea for some action before the gave slips further into the irrelevance that it has thus far. Orr rightly points out that this protracted grandstanding by both parties is putting the game of hockey in serious peril. This game is not ingrained in the American psyche as football is, baseball still has it's romantic past which occasionally rises above its steroid and greed fueled present and basketball has a core of fans that keep it going as the fairweather fans drift in and away from the game.

Any of those three sports would most likely survive a year long shutdown, in fact the NFL did and became stronger afterwards though it took a bit of union busting to accomplish that. Baseball has had numerous stoppages over the years and only now is beginning to sort out its attendance and television woes. Basketball had a bit of a dip with the Jordan retirement but seems to have re-invented itself as a team oriented game, where the five men on the court make the difference not necessarily one man. All are finding success in their markets and are financially sound. But hockey is not part of the culture in the States and if this mess continues much longer there may be a cost to be paid in Canada as well.

Spring is here and a hockeyless spring is introducing the hockey fan to other pursuits, the golf course beckons the cabins and campgrounds are almost open for the season. Sitting around the home or in a bar to watch hockey used to be the thing to do in Canada, with a year off from the obligation one wonders how many will return next year.

All of which makes Orr's points even more vital for the powers that be in hockey to consider. As a player agent many might find it a bit self serving on his part as of course he has money to be made with hockey back in play. But one thinks that his is more a plea from a hockey guy who fears for the state of the game that gave him a career and one which he always loved. Orr said he hesitated to speak out loud before as he had hopes that things would progress towards a solution, but with both sides scheduling meetings to just trash the other side that doesn't seem to be on the horizon, hence his contribution this weekend.

Good for him to now step up and say what needs to be said. Maybe now some other powers of hockey will add their voices to his chorus to spur this thing onto a solution. Solve this mess or "get out of the way". Once again Orr showed the leadership that made him famous and is sorely lacking these days. Those are wise words from number 4, lets hope they're ones not to be ignored!

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Adventures in Anthem singing

Once again the sordid saga of anthem singing has raised its head. The latest installment of the botched song of national pride happening in Quebec City, when young Caroline Marcil forgot the words to the Star Spangled Banner, well before the rocket's red glare Caroline blanked out, stepped out and then nearly passed out. Heading for an exit she went to get a lyric sheet, returning to the ice only to fall backwards as the red carpet underneath went in a different direction than her.

By now completely flustered and deciding that this show doesn't necessarily have to go on, Marcil fled for the safety of the dressing room as the crowd expressed it's displeasure. For Caroline however the ending to a nightmare would be a feel good story after all, she was flown to New York at the expense of Good Morning America Sunday where she belted out the anthem to an appreciative crowd.

This brings back memories of past anthem debacles, the most glaring one from a Canadian point of view had to be when the CFL launched it's ill fated expansion to the USA. With a smattering of teams in far flung cities whole new audiences would be introduced to the joyful music of Calixa Lavalle's Oh Canada with english lyrical content courtesy of Robert Stanley Weir. Although many might be forgiven if they thought they heard that tune before, in a seasonal nature.

KC Parks a Las Vegas lounge singer was given the task of introducing Nevada to the glory of Canada. Struggling with his pitch and his tone, KC decided to free form it' giving Oh Canada the musical timbre of O Christmas Tree. It was a cause celebre above the 49th parallel for a few weeks and eventually died down, in fact if memory serves correct KC was given a second chance as well, at a CFL game in Canada where he pretty well figure out the scales for the tune. So lets call it a draw in the great anthem adventure.

However, the USA is still ahead in upside down flag parades. Many Canadians still remember the Blue Jays-Braves World Series where the Maple leaf was led onto the field stem up, point down. In the end all is forgiven, for truth be told there's enough bad anthem singing and pre game miscues to go around. So Caroline has nothing to worry about, her moments of horror turned into redemption. But perhaps we're learning why the big stars lip sync their moments of national passion, better to be rehearsed than cursed!

Monday, April 18, 2005

Perhaps you can't (or shouldn't) go home again!

When the NHL lockout began most of the NHL brotherhood headed off to Europe to make some quick cash, take in the sights and keep the legs in motion. The pace of the Euro hockey wasn't as smashmouth as the North American option and for the most part your year would be done by the first week of April, playoffs included!

So many took a double check when Scott Gomez announced that he was going to anchor down in Anchorage for the lockout. Gomez returned home to play for the Anchorage Aces in the ECHL, a rather rough and tumble lower tiered league with franchises flung across North America.

Saturday night that plan came to a quick and brutal end as Gomez was hit from behind by the Bakersfield Condor's Ashlee Langdone. The hit propelled Gomez into the gate at the bench and then on to Bakersfield hospital. The Aces today announced that Gomez was gone for the season having suffered a fractured pubis bone in the incident.

The Anchorage coach Davis Payne was livid after the game, even before learning of the fate of Gomez. Suggesting that Langdone's hit was despicable going after a superstar who had done the ECHL a huge favour by playing the season with the loop.

And that's the point of how this lockout may cost not only the NHLPA but the NHL some players before play returns. By having the players sell themselves off in all directions the NHL loses control over their former assets well being. The recovery period originally for Gomez was reported to be three months which must have sent Lou Lamoriello looking for the Advil, but later reports suggest that Gomez could be back in training in three to four weeks, a much better scenario than that originally expected. The injury will however keep him out of the American entry in this years World Championships later this month.

Injuries are a well known hazard of the game, but for a tier one player to possibly have his career ruined in such a meaningless fashion shows just how high the stakes are in the dispute. The NHL had best find a solution to their labour woes quickly before any more of the former stars of the league suffer similar misfortune.

Required reading for Gary and the Gang of 30

As the NHL and NHLPA head back to what passes for a bargaining table these days, a cautionary note for the management side. Ken Fidlin of the Sun newspaper chain in Canada puts the boots to the idea of replacement players filling in the Unis of your favorite team next season.

As Fidlin points out and in two sentences he effectively ends the argument for replacement players quickly " Most American markets are already lukewarm to the game played by the most talented players in the world. What are they going to think of a bunch of guys skating on their ankles?". And with that the replacement idea should die a quick and merciless death.

Already in a bit of trouble with the likes of the Maple Leafs and Wayne Gretzky expressing no taste for the concept, the NHL would quickly find that the lifeblood of their game the television networks would most likely be asking for serious cash rebates should the pride of the most important professional league on ice be replaced by the pride of the beer leagues.

In fact the NHL must be waiting with a sense of fearful anticipation as ESPN ponders its options, the deadline for a new contract having come and gone on April 15th with nary an indication of what is next. Today the NFL announced that ESPN had just signed a huge contract to broadcast Monday Night football in 2006. With ESPN paying a record 1.1 billion for the NFL rights, Gary and his pals had best be hoping that the folks in the Sportscentre head offices have put aside a small stipend for hockey if and when it returns. And they better be bringing the hockey cards of Vinny Lecavalier, Dany Heatley and other young guns with them, imagine the cackles of derision if the NHL approaches ESPN with the concept of replacement player hockey.

So with that big stick now whittled down to it's toothpick size, perhaps both sides can now sit down in a calm, rational and good spirited manner to negotiate a deal and get everyone talking about drafts, training camps and ticket sales.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

A split in the solidarity of ownership?

The Globe and Mail today has an interesting story on Gary Bettman's trip to Toronto, Gary it seems will be checking in with the folks at Maple Leaf Sport and Entertainment on Friday to try and smooth the way for a sharing of the wealth.

While the Commissioner makes his case for the Leafs to move on the revenue sharing issue, in effect helping to bolster the weaker teams with some of that legendary Maple Leaf money.

When he's not bending ears and twisting arms, Bettman will be given a bit of information of his own that could have a far reaching effect on where we are come September. It appears that the Maple Leaf management will be stressing in no uncertain terms that they don't particularly feel like running the show with replacement players next season.

And with that comes the crack in the wall of solidarity. For it seems that the league has a bit of a problem with their one supposed ace in the hole, hockey at any cost with any player in September.

While there are still some relative hard heads on the replacement player issue, mainly led by Boston, Carolina, Florida and Nashville and apparently now including Dallas and San Jose, there are those that are loathe to use replacements and would do so under severe duress.

Wayne Gretzky is one who would run his team with replacements reluctantly, though which team that may be remains a mystery. The current Coyote president is rumored to be taking the coaching reigns over in Phoenix or heading to New York to run the entire zoo known as the Rangers. Regardless one assumes he won't do anything, unless he's using those players that he is most familiar with and those who still carry a union card.

If even there is a grain of truth in the Globe story it's good news for the long forgotten hockey fan, with meetings coming up shortly between the players and owners the ugly stick of the replacement player option may finally be moved away from the table, giving both sides a bit of room to finally get a deal done and get back to putting their game back together. Perhaps even both sides can then remember the folks that have the longest memories of all, the fans who may not be too keen to reward either side with their loyalty, come that long awaited settlement day

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Oh what should have been!

Tonight, April 13 would have been the start of the march to the Stanley Cup Finals in four cities the rinks would be alive with anticipation, the beer vendors in full throat, the trinket marketing gurus counting the bountiful cash as the locals purchased the loopy foam fingers, fat head hats and such that go with the terrain of playoff hockey.

The networks would begin the money season, where 30 second spots turn into gold nuggets for struggling public network and profligate cable outlets alike. And hockey fans from St. John's to Tofino, Inuvik to Miami-Dade and all the points in between, would finally have had something worth watching, many in the East staying up late into the morning to follow the games from the far flung outposts .

But, and this is no bulletin, there is no playoff action to recount tonight, no surprises as an underdog sneaks out the first win of what would become a long drawn out thriller. There will be no breathless following of the office hockey pool, a rite of passage for every red blooded Canadian hockey fan at playoff time!

Instead we're left with poetic odes to a season lost and simulated playoff games played out for our amusement. And worst of all we learn that the battle for Stanley will be played out this year in the courts, a sad, pathetic fate for such a storied piece of Canadian and hockey history.

No, North American sleep patterns are safe this year, somehow I don't see Canadian and hockey loving Americans staying up late into the night wondering how the petition to the courts will play out in the coming morning. No one will be checking the boxscores to see if the plaintiff has pulled ahead, or if the defendants have held off the power play.

In fact as Spring marches on without hockey, many won't even notice. A tale of warning for those that have brought the game to the place it's at today. The latest word has it that the two sides at war shall return to the discussion table next Tuesday, may they take a moment to contemplate what should have been and this year never will.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

On the Memorial trail April 9

Weekend play on the Memorial Cup eliminations continued to bring some surprises and some expected results. Check the latest developments here!

Gretzky to take his show to Broadway?

Now here's a rumor to get everyone excited without any actual hockey to watch! Out of the Sun newspaper chain, comes word that the Great One will take his leave of the desert soon and relocate to that city that never sleeps.

It seems the Wayne Gretzky is to become the head ringmaster at that wonderful circus known as the New York Rangers. Apparently Glen Sather is planning to retire from the game and Wayne is the heir apparent, or so this report from Steve Simmons states.

All sorts of thoughts run through ones mind with this possibility, Wayne with an unlimited cheque book unleashed on a free agent market from the Gods. Whatever happens with the currently stalled collective agreement talks, once it's all finished up there will be player movement not seen in our times. One wonders how seriously the Rangers will want to put in place a salary cap let alone follow one with Wayne looking to increase the Rangers profile.

Then one wonders what will happen to the Coyotes, a troubled franchise from the days they abandoned Winnipeg this may be the final blow to a franchise that has yet to claim it's stake in the desert.

For the folks in Winnipeg with a fancy new rink and a loyal hockey mad fanbase the Dogs that fled for the desert may soon return home. The possibility of Gretzky ending his association with a team that just isn't catching on must catch the eye of Manitoba's hockey fanatics.

It will be interesting to see if Mr. Simmons rumors turn out to be fact, Gretzky to the Great White Way now there's a show that will get some play in the New York media, that you can count on!

Long on Optimism, Short on results

Well they're still talking, which one suspects is better than spitting at each other on the sidewalk. But what they're talking about is anyone's guess.

The NHL meetings took place over the last few days and the GM's and league officials invited the union to sit in on a few meetings (one suspects they didn't make the short workshop about replacement players) to hash out things like potential equipment changes and rule revisions. Everyone has apparently agreed that goaltenders are evil and need to be dealt with, but as far as negotiating anything resembling a collective agreement, well it's more meetings planned kids!

In fact, Gary and Bob had a one on one session on Thursday night and vowed to keep those cel minutes percolating over the weekend in order to set up more "constructive" meetings in the near future.

It was interesting to note that Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan were invited to the meetings this time, to provide a "fresh" view on the situation. Though one wonders if two players who are close to the NHL retirement home should be involved too heavily, should not the younger players who will have to live with the eventual settlement and with the upcoming rule changes not have more of a say in their own future? Just wondering there folks!

The league then went back to it's business of acting as though they still run a business. The league office gave the GM's an update on official matters. They plan to soon announce a revised format for the upcoming draft (apparently a lottery is the way to go, and hey judging by the perilous state of NHL franchises these days winning a lottery may not be a bad strategy) which having been bounced from Ottawa will become a telephone roll call. Stock tip of the week Hockeyfans buy stock in MCI, Bell and your local telco provider!

As a matter of fact if things don't go well, long distance calling may become the most profitable of NHL sidelines, if the league does end up going the replacement player route phones will be ringing from Anchorage to Auckland, Maine to Moscow and Tofino to St. John's. Kevin Lowe put it best in the Globe and Mail this weekend, when asked about potential replacements signing on next season, "No, we're always out there looking for players," Edmonton Oilers GM Kevin Lowe said. "Everybody knows the pool of players available in the world. Until we get direction or confirmation from the league one way or another, we been advised to stand pat."

Stand Pat indeed but keep some quarters handy by the payphones!

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Ooh another meeting!

Ok, so I try to find interest in these infrequent meetings between Bettman's lackeys and Goodenow's flunkies but really nothing ever seems to happen, so I tend to have my eyes glaze over when I read they're about to meet again or have just concluded another meeting.

Regardless of the day, the length of the meeting or location of the conclave the result is the same, No Hockey played, No Hockey planned. So forgive me if I show less than overwhelming glee at these little chit chats.

Al Strachan has pretty well nailed the whole thing on the head with his column for the Sun papers today, in fact every time I see Bob and Gary now I'm going to hear that famous theme running through my head!