Saturday, March 31, 2007

NHL reups with NBC

While the numbers aren't astronomical, they are showing a bit of promise for NBC, enough for them to sign up for another year of the game of the week.

Last week was a bit of a watershed mark for the NHL, as in head to head competition they slightly beat out the NBA featuring Phoenix and Sacramento.

And while its a long ways to go before the big numbers roll in, NBC is banking on the star power of the young guns of the NHL to help build up a faitfhul Sunday audience.

Susan Bickelhaupt of The Boston Globe looked further into the small upswing in the NHL's fortunes on mainstream TV.

NBC approach to NHL flexible
By Susan Bickelhaupt,
Globe Staff
March 30, 2007

Despite the less than stellar ratings the NHL has produced for NBC, the network renewed its agreement for next season, with an option in 2008-09. And maybe because of those ratings, NBC will add a feature -- flex scheduling.

Taking a cue, and the name, from a wrinkle it introduced for its NFL telecasts last season, NBC can opt to feature a Game of the Week for a national audience, supplemented by two regional broadcasts.

NBC, in the second year of its revenue-sharing agreement with the NHL, airs nine regular-season games.

"When the NHL puts its schedule out, there will be a minimum of three games per NBC weekend identified as potential national games," said Ken Schanzer, president of NBC Sports. "Thirteen days before the telecast date, we'll make a selection of one of those games to be the Game of the Week."

It will air on Sunday afternoons. The other games will be eligible for the regional carriage and probably air at night, he said.

"This gives us an opportunity, on a weekly basis, to pick the best available game and bring it to a national audience," Schanzer said. "And this is a good time to do it, because the league has some emerging stars, and this will give us an opportunity to focus on those stars as they demonstrate how much of a contribution they're making to their clubs.

"The leading name is Sidney Crosby, a player who's captivated the public's imagination, who came into the league with an enormous reputation, and has succeeded in living up to it. That's demonstrated both in terms of the kind of audience that we get when he's on, that Versus gets, and the kind of excitement you see in a community when the Penguins come to town."

Schanzer believes the new feature could boost ratings.

"Well, we hope it will," he said. "That's its genesis."

When NBC's Stanley Cup telecast went head to head with the NBA on ABC last May 6, ABC had a 4.3 rating, NBC an 0.9. But on Wikipedia, NBC said the ratings were about what it expected.

And NBC has rebounded.

Last Sunday's NBA game on ABC between the Phoenix Suns and the Sacramento Kings earned a 1.0 rating and 2 share, an all-time low. The previous low was March 31, 2004 (Dallas-New Jersey, 1.1).

In comparison, the NHL on NBC (Bruins vs. Penguins) earned a 1.0/3 and edged the NBA in viewers (1.31 million to 1.26 million).

ABC reportedly is paying the NBA $400 million per year, while the NHL is paying nothing because of revenue-sharing.

Schanzer said high-profile games will add to NBC's array of big events.

"We went into the season wanting to renew [the contract]," he said. "First of all, we love the sport. Second, we think it fits with our roster of events -- the Olympics, the NFL, Notre Dame football, Wimbledon, the Kentucky Derby, the US Open, the Stanley Cup. They're all big events, major events in their sport, so this will be one of the things that will allow us to extend the NHL."

Versus, the cable home of the NHL, will air the majority of playoff action starting April 11. It will carry the first two games of the Cup finals, NBC the rest. In the first round, Versus will cover 15-20 games, depending on the length of each. The same will be true for the next round, beginning April 25. All games will be in high definition and, when feasible, Versus will simulcast games from Canadian networks.

Sundin still two short of Sittler record

They're waiting for the celebration in Toronto, as Captain Mats Sundin circles Darryl Sittler's record for goals of 387, but remains stymied on each attempt.

The problem is, that Sundin isn't all that focused on personal stats, his game is that of the team player, the play maker and the guy looking to help his team mates get better. In the midst of a dog fight for a playoff spot, the last thing the tall Swede wants to have is a concentrated media campaign over his closing in on the Sittler achievement.

The Leafs have five games remaining to try and secure a playoff spot, Sundin no doubt will be quite happy if they do that with or without a chance to shake Darryl's hand at centre ice. As much as Sittler would like the opportunity soon.

Somehow though you kind of hope that Sundin strings together a hat trick to make his mark in a most dramatic fashion, he's been a quiet leader and one of the few bright lights year after year in a Toronto uniform, if anyone deserves a chance to bask in the appreciation of the Air Canada Centre faithful its Sundin.

Paul Hunter of the Toronto Star examined the quest for 387...

Sittler's restless over Sundin funk -
Sports -

Sittler's restless over Sundin funk
`Hopefully he'll score a few,' says former Leaf great of current captain's bid for 389th goal
March 31, 2007
Paul HunterSports Reporter

If Mats Sundin breaks Darryl Sittler's record for career goals as a Maple Leaf tonight, no one would be happier than Darryl Sittler. And if not tonight against Pittsburgh, then soon.
"We've got five games left and they're all important; hopefully he'll score a few," said Sittler, the former captain who has a vested rooting interest as a community representative for the team.
"Mats has been playing really well. He's creating scoring chances. He's just in a little funk getting them to go in."

That, perhaps better than any, is a perfect description of the Sundin conundrum.

Ever since he rocketed to within two goals of Sittler's chart-topping 389 goals way back on Feb.24, it's as if a force field has gone up around the opposition net. Most nights, he's the best Leaf on the ice, if not the best player on the ice, but Sundin has just one goal in the last 15 games – his 388th for Toronto – and none in the last seven.

His teammates say they haven't noticed. His coach says he isn't worried. And his team is winning just enough (7-6-2 in those 15 games) to stay teasingly close to a playoff spot.

But how much better off would they be if Sundin had kept up the half-goal-a-game pace he'd established before this drought? Likely in Atlanta, for example, if one of those tantalizingly close wrap-arounds had slipped in to the Thrashers' net, it would have been the Leafs who came home with the extra point.

"I look at it a little more from a team concept," said coach Paul Maurice yesterday, noting that Sundin's winger Nik Antropov has been on a relative tear recently. He has seven goals in the last 13 games. Sundin does have 12 assists in the last 15 games.

"Nikky is on fire partly because Mats is there," said the coach.

Still Maurice was concerned enough after Toronto's 3-2 overtime loss at Atlanta to seek out Sundin, just to take a measure of how the captain was feeling about himself.

"Mats is very intense so you just watch him to make sure he's not beating himself up too much," said Maurice. "I talked to him after the game and his assessment was exactly what mine was. He felt really good. He said, `I felt good in the game. I generated some things.' So as long as he's feeling positive, it's not a confidence issue. He's feeling good about his opportunity to generate offence."

And the Leafs believe the oft-repeated hockey wisdom that if the chances are there, the puck will eventually go in. In the meantime, Toronto has been getting scoring from unexpected sources during Sundin's slump. Even defenceman Hal Gill chipped in with a key goal against Atlanta.
"That's not secondary scoring; that's tertiary scoring," joked Maurice.

Sundin did not take to the ice during yesterday's optional practice – though 16 players did, a rather remarkable turnout given that Maurice tried to convince several players not to attend. But the captain's teammates spoke on his behalf, most noting they didn't even realize Sundin was in a prolonged slump since he seems to be at the top of his game.

"I think he playing awesome. If the pucks aren't going in as much, you don't really notice just because his effort is always there and his leadership is always there," said John Pohl.
Pohl said one of Sundin's traits that impresses him the most is that he truly is a selfless player who pays little heed to his own statistics.

"A lot of people say it about people but it's not really true. But it is really, really true about Mats and that is, he doesn't care about any individual records. What does he have to prove? When he says, `I don't care who scores,' he truly means it. I believe it 100 per cent," said Pohl.

"All he cares about is winning."

Want to see an NHL game cheap? Your best bet is Atlanta.

The Globe and Mail’s David Shoalts has sat down with pen, paper and calculator to take a look at the attendance stats of the Atlanta Thrashers, a team that has improved a fair amount on the ice and slowly made some progress at the box office.

But as Shoalts’ points out using a number of charts, the Thrashers still give away a fair amount of tickets per game 2,827 in the first twenty five games of the year to be exact, a papering of the house take that is a quite a bit ahead of last years totals.

Just behind the Thrashers in the check us out for free department are the Florida Panthers who cycled 2,806 test drivers through the gates per game in the first 25, down a fair amount from last years 4,155.

Shoalts examines the leagues announced attendance numbers, with the closely guarded official paid attendance, which judging by Atlanta and Florida seem to have some wild discrepancies.

And while Atlanta may be your destination for free tickets, the place to stay away from apparently is Edmonton, which only has 207 free tickets available per game for promotion purposes, a situation that may change next year judging by the results of this one for the Oil.

Troubling signs abound for Thrashers
Globe and Mail Update

ATLANTA — There is a lot more at stake than a playoff spot for the Atlanta Thrashers as the National Hockey League regular season winds down.

One year ago, the Thrashers almost made the playoffs for the first time since they joined the league in 1999. Even though they ran up 90 points for the first time, they wound up tied with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and both teams missed the Eastern Conference playoffs by two points.
This year, the Thrashers look like a much better bet. But their 89 points before Thursday night's game against the Leafs was only three out of seventh place in the conference.

If the Thrashers finish out of the playoffs or get blitzed in the first round, then the jobs of general manager Don Waddell and head coach Bob Hartley could be in danger. Even worse, the future of the franchise, which has yet to take Atlanta by storm, could be at stake.

"This is a critical year for our franchise," Waddell said this week. "Our attendance is heading in the right direction, but if we fall short, it could affect us for years to come."

Both Waddell and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman say they are not worried about the future of the franchise in Atlanta. But there are troubling signs aside from attendance, which is improving this season but still among the worst in the NHL.

The Globe and Mail obtained the NHL's private statistics on net gate receipts, ticket giveaways and paid attendance from the start of the season to Jan. 31. They show the Thrashers were among the league's worst in every category.

For example, the Thrashers led the NHL's 30 clubs in the dubious honour of most ticket giveaways each game. The league's numbers show the Thrashers gave away an average of 2,827 tickets a game in their first 25 home games. This appears to be part of a promotional effort this season, as it is a whopping jump of about 840 per cent from last season, when the team's average was 336 a game.

The Thrashers could argue they are much better in this department over the past two seasons than the Florida Panthers. The Panthers are just behind the Thrashers with an average of 2,806 freebies a game. That is down from last season's eye-popping 4,155, which was the most in the league.

"Our comp tickets are high and need to come down, no doubt," Waddell said. "But our gate receipts are up this year. That's the important thing." He also argues that the tickets for seats in the luxury suites, which are rented annually, are included in the giveaways because the league has no other category for them.

The league's numbers through 25 games do not support Waddell's contention on gate receipts. League documentation shows that the Thrashers' net gate receipts, after taxes, were an average of $487,890 (all currency U.S.) a game for 25 home games to Jan. 31. That was 26th in the NHL and 0.02 per cent less than last season. The Leafs led the league with $1.514-million a game.
However, the Thrashers say their attendance has improved and is up about 6 per cent overall from last season, although it's not clear whether that figure refers to announced attendance, which the league uses as its official figure for publication, or paid attendance, a figure the league closely guards.

"We're in a different [type of] market," Waddell said. "People weren't [angry] last year when we missed the playoffs, they were disappointed. They felt bad we didn't get there and that's why they rallied around us this year.

"So this is a pivotal year for our franchise. People hung in with us all year. We have to see it through."

Not only are the Thrashers near the bottom in attendance — a fact that Waddell says is eased because the club owns the arena — the club's ownership has gone to court to resolve a dispute related to control of the company that owns the hockey team and the Hawks of the National Basketball Association. Bettman tried to broker a settlement this season and failed, meaning the court action will likely continue.

The ownership dispute may ensure Waddell will not be fired if the playoffs are a disaster, although he says he cannot worry about his job.

"If ownership decides to make a decision, I don't own the team, I work for the team," he said. "I want be here a long time, but unfortunately, I can't control that."

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Don’t touch that clicker, Ron, Don and the rest of the crew remain as the CBC’s hockey vicars!

The news that Hockey Night in Canada won’t change its long time home has been welcomed by more than a few Canadians, happy with the familiar home of Saturday night hockey.

Stephen Brunt of the Globe and Mail provides perhaps the best testimony to the Mother Corporations Saturday night block of programming and the importance that it still holds over Canadians despite the many entertainment options now available to them.
His article not only looks at the continuation of hockey on the CBC, but how the national network plans to stay relevant in the sports world while its private competitors continue to gobble up sports properties.

Brunt: Hurrah for CBC Hockey Night deal
From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

Admit it. It would have felt strange, at least at the start, to watch Hockey Night in Canada at a new address with a new set of tenants, displaced faces and voices.

There is comfort in the familiar, especially when you reach a certain age and everything seems in flux. For some, perhaps, that alone isn't enough to trump frustrations with Bob Cole or Don Cherry, suspicions that it often seems too much like Hockey Night in Toronto, questions about why the public broadcaster is in the business of bidding against private enterprise for the right to televise professional sports in the first place.

But from here, it seems just fine that hockey will remain a Saturday night fixture on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for at least the next six years.

No, Hockey Night isn't what it once was, or what some, feeling the need to mythologize about the game and Canada and national identity, pretend it still is.

Families are not necessarily gathered around their televisions on Saturday night for the great ritual of common belief. There are thousands of options now that didn't exist in the days when folks were more than happy to wait for a game that was joined in progress. Now, you can watch any game, in any sport, at any time, from anywhere, plus everything else.

And it's an act of Boomer myopia to assume that everyone's nostalgia for Ward Cornell is the same as their own.

That said, there's nothing wrong with maintaining a few signposts in a confusing landscape. Beyond that, if anyone wants to turn this into a public policy discussion, they'd best be prepared to go far beyond hockey, beyond sports, beyond rights fees and star announcers' salaries, and discuss what the CBC is, what it ought to be in an increasingly fragmented broadcast universe in which national, cultural borders are going to be ever harder to maintain.

It's not enough to say that they (we) have no business paying through the nose for hockey without talking about how, or if, the public broadcaster ought to be supported, and how Canadian programming for Canadians ought to be defined.

To single out Hockey Night is to do what (irony of ironies) many a CBC bureaucrat has done over the years — suggest a split between high and low culture in which sports, by definition, occupies the bottom rung.

The fact is, the anti-sports element in the Corp. has seen its golden opportunity pass. Last year, the Canadian Football League sold its broadcast and new-media rights lock, stock and barrel to TSN, meaning that another long-standing tradition — the Grey Cup on CBC — will come to an end after this November's game in Toronto.

Already the CBC has been outbid for Olympic rights after the 2008 Games in Beijing, removing a motherhood, flag-waving event from what had long seemed its natural home.

Many figured those two losses were the death knell for CBC Sports, especially when Brian Williams departed for CTV/TSN, and soon afterward, Nancy Lee left the post of head of network sports for a job with the Vancouver Olympic Committee.

Instead, the CBC is back in the game with a flourish, holding on to the Saturday night flagship for another six years (plus the weeks of prime-time programming provided by the Stanley Cup playoffs), soon to be back in the business of broadcasting Toronto Blue Jays baseball (a slate sure to increase next summer with the loss of the CFL), making a major commitment to soccer (both on the international level and, it is rumoured, the fledgling Toronto FC), and hiring a new head of network sports, Scott Moore.

For some, that means the immediate future will bring more opportunities to complain about rampant Maple Leafs homerism that began with Foster Hewitt, about Cole getting the odd name wrong, about Cherry (he'll be 79 when the deal is up, and don't bet against him still being there) offending just about everyone, the same-old same-old.

For the rest of us, it's something to hang on to, knowing that one of these days we're going to miss them when they're gone.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Six More Years!

That familiar theme will continue to play over the airwaves of Canada's National Network.

The Globe and Mail is reporting today, that the CBC and the NHL have agreed to a new contract which will see the most popular show the CBC has remain on the air for six more years.

For Hockey fans all is right in the Great White North for a little bit longer!

Now if we could just convince the CBC that there are other teams playing on Saturday nights, besides those constantly on display teams from Toronto and Calgary!

CBC to keep 'Hockey Night in Canada'
Globe and Mail Update

The CBC and National Hockey League will announce a new television agreement today that will keep Hockey Night In Canada on the air well past the 2007-08 season.

The Globe and Mail has learned that the new rights is worth about $100-million a year, an increase from the $65-million that the CBC is now paying the NHL.

The rights deal is believed to be six years in length. It will begin when the current agreement expires after the 2007-08 season.

The CBC will continue to air the regular season Saturday night games and most of the playoff series involving Canadian teams.

Although the league's national cable agreement with TSN has yet to be announced, sources say the sports channel will increase its content and will also receive a share of the playoff coverage involving Canadian teams.

Later this week, the league is expected to announce a two-year rights extension with NBC, starting next season. In that deal, the NBC will be given a flexible schedule similar to the network's National Football League schedule. The "flex schedule" allows a network, two weeks in advance, to choose among several games for a particular time slot.

The Doctor is in

It would appear that the Calgary Flames have finally shaken the road trip reverses, having taken a road victory out of Chicago Sunday.

The win, a timely one on the road comes about as the Calgary media begin to obsess over their woeful road record. The Calgary Sun consulted a Calgary sports psychologist to try and help Calgarians understand why they’re team truly believes that there’s no place but home to win a game.

With the best record while in the friendly confines of the Pengrowth Saddledome, the Flames have over the last couple of months become quite fearful of life on the road, regularly losing games that they normally should win and giving teams that had no hope of a playoff spot a few weeks ago sudden life down the stretch.

The Sun asked Derek Robinson, to take a look at the factors contributing to the Flame outs on the road and offer up some hope for Calgarians worried that their heroes may just back their way out of the playoff race.

What's up, doc?
Sports psychologist weighs in on flames' road woes
March 25, 2007

There are rare occasions in professional sports when you don't want to be forever remembered.
Never has an NHL team finished with the league's best record at home paired with the most dismal showing on the road.

The Calgary Flames, the only team with 30 wins as host this year, are trying to avoid that distinction -- which would surely live on as trivia fodder for an eternity -- by climbing out of the road basement starting today in Chicago against the Blackhawks (1 p.m., Sportsnet, FAN 960).
Difficulties on the road are not uncommon for athletes.

Sport psychologist Derek Robinson has worked with teams and individuals at Calgary's Canadian Sport Centre and says the mental aspect of succeeding away from home is linked to the physical aspects of performance.

"I work with a lot of teams that travel and compete in Europe and here in North America," said Robinson. "They really have to understand what it is that they want in each specific situation.
"Some athletes at home will feel more comfortable and they'll be performing and playing to win. But then they'll go on the road and there will be distractions, there'll be different sorts of pressures.

"It may change from wanting to win to wanting or playing not to lose. It affects the total behaviour of the athletes -- how they think, how they act, how they feel -- and even their physiology."

That may explain some of the difficulties on the Flames' previous road trips, which can form a sort of mental block difficult to overcome.

"Everything's easier with success. Everything's more clear, there's no doubts there's no questions," said Robinson. "Without that success it's harder because you're not as sure about what to do and what works for you and how to do it. That requires getting back and keeping it simple so that you're doing things that you know and completely believe in and are willing to commit to -- I know you hear that in hockey a lot, keep it simple, back to basics."

Clarity and commitment to the way the game has to be played is something the Flames have recently rediscovered and they hope to carry their success in wins over Nashville and Detroit on the current four-game swing.

"With confidence, it's easy to want to win (and making it happen)," said Robinson.

"When you don't have that confidence or you haven't had the success, you've sometimes got to scale it back to some process goals or performance goals of doing little things right. Smaller steps until the wins start coming."

That's what the Flames did in last week's victories. Returning to the defensively committed game plan worked in playoff-style performances over the Predators and Wings but another test begins today when they again venture outside their home comfort zone where their daily routine changes to include travel and a different environment for down time.

Calgary Stampeders defensive tackle Randy Chevrier plays a completely different sport but understands the obstacles of travel.

"It's a disruption of your daily routine," said Chevrier.

"At home you've got a routine of practice and stuff. It changes things up. In hockey, sometimes you have back-to-back games. That can't be easy to go through. You just had one game, you've got to get up for the next one and there's travel in between. I can imagine that could be a disruption on your daily activities."

Routines are such an important aspect of a pro athlete's preparation that Chevrier has developed two types of preparation. One for home games and one for the road.

"On the road I sleep a lot before a game," said Chevrier. "A lot the night before. I don't like to stay on my feet."

Chevrier believes the Flames have what it takes in their locker-room to overcome their road woes and start racking up victories away from the 'Dome.

"Usually at the professional level, it's rare that you'll see this mental block where they can't get over the fact they're not winning on the road and it just becomes this monster that they can't tame," he explained.

"I don't know if the Flames are there. I tend to think that they've got the talent to win, they've just got to get out there and do a few things right."

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Saturday night’s alright (for second thoughts) for Fighting

The great debate over the place of fighting in the NHL entered the media mix master known as Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday Night.

In a pre game interview Saturday night with Ron McLean on the pre game show of Hockey Night in Canada, Colin Campbell provided some reflections on a sudden surge in fighting in the NHL and the possibility that the league will look into eliminating that particular part of the game.

The Fighting issue dominated a fair amount of the discussion both in the pre game and intermission shows, it was the featured topic on the Satellite hot stove and was provided with a special bit of attention provided by Don Cherry who not surprisingly gave indications that he was not in favour of a change in the rules and penalties regarding the ages old practices.

Yet, with a sudden bump in media attention spurred on by the numerous recent incidents of bouts of fisticuffs, ugly incidents and potentially dangerous injuries, the NHL is finding itself in the glare of a spotlight it might wish had not arrived.

A glimpse through some of the following articles will give you some indication as to where the issue of fighting is stacking up with the media. They also give you an idea as to what the NHL will be watching for as far as public reaction, and what affect that reaction may have to any plans that the league comes up with.

Philadelphia Inquirer--Recent injuries give rise to fight queries
Winnipeg Sun--Debates on big issue raging across NHL
Globe and Mail--Who really wants to see UFC on ice?
Edmonton Journal--Is it time for the NHL to finally KO fighting?
Boston Globe--Solution is short and sweet
Toronto Star--No shortage of views on fight debate
Sporting News--Don't forget past mistakes or make new ones
Globe and Mail--Fight On?
Toronto Star--Finally a step forward
CBC Sports--Taking fighting out of hockey would be wrong
Montreal Gazette--Players don't support fighting ban
TSN--Fighting debate renewed in NHL circles
New York Daily News--Fighting belongs in the ring
New York Post--Now, this is hockey
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette--Penguins don't fall into anti fighting camp
National Post--Senators coach rethinks fighting
Edmonton Sun--Someone could get hurt

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Third period collapse could be swan song for Leafs

For all intents and purposes, Friday night the Toronto Maple Leafs should have been looking at making up some ground in the race for the final Eastern Division playoff spot.

Instead, after what can only be described as a spectacular collapse, the Leafs find themselves falling further out of the race. That could be their fate, after a 4-1 Toronto lead early in the third period became at 5-4 loss by the end of the final twenty minutes of play.

In an amazing display of offence, the Buffalo Sabres suddenly turned on the scoring machine that many had become used to this year and set the Leafs back on their heels.

The Sabres came after the Leafs in wave after wave of scoring attacks, the Leafs suddenly too slow to catch the fast breaks. You could sense a wave of panic descending on the Leaf end of the rink as the Sabres just blew past forwards and defencemen on the way to a suddenly helpless Andrew Raycroft who could only do so much before surrendering the flurry of goals that may very well have turned the seasons from hockey to golf for Toronto.

It’s what they term a heartbreaking loss, one that got away from them and won’t be recovered. The two teams play the second half of their home and home series on Saturday night in Toronto, it will be interesting to see if the Leafs have sufficiently recovered from the shell shock of Friday night to launch another attempt on the final playoff spot.

In any playoff drive there is that pivotal game that seems to decide a teams’ fate, Toronto which seemed to have a sure two points ready for the taking left Buffalo with none. More importantly they may have left their chance for a playoff spot there on the HSBC ice, crushed into the boards and trampled over at centre ice from wave after wave of Sabres.

Hockey’s celluloid highlight reel features few entries

While the debate over fighting in the NHL reaches a new level of tone, it’s of interest to note that in a survey of motion pictures about sports on the moviefone website, hockey only made the grade with two attractions, one of which was a rather violent little thing.

The feel good saga of the American Olympic team of 1980 Miracle which appeared at number 21 of the top 25 and the brawling, bust a chop or two Slap Shot, which was touted as the 11th most important sport movie ever made.

Football, Baseball and Boxing seemed to the be dominant flicks as far as sports fans go, with a bit of hoops and pool thrown in for good measure.

Not sure what that might mean, other than possibly that the movie fan that likes the shoot em up westerns and crime thrillers, might just be the guy or gal in the seat next to you at a hockey game!

For Gary Bettman and Colin Campbell the spurt in fighting this season has suddenly become a major issue, and one they plan on addressing. Many are making their thoughts known that the day of the fighter in the NHL is surely coming to an end. Especially after the recent high profile incidents of the last month.

Though as nasty as thosae incidents have been so far, here’s proof that things could be worse, though it seems that judging by the votes that just might be ok with the public.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Hockey Night in Wight

It’s the most unlikely of places to find a hockey game, a rather isolated island in a country more fascinated in soccer than hockey. But as Grant Woolsey explains in his Toronto Star article, hockey is catching on over on the Isle of Wight.

Woolsey stopped in at the rink of the Wightlink Raiders, a Premier League hockey team in England which calls Ryde their home. It’s an interesting look at the game and how it’s impacted on the town, who cheer on their unusual heroes with much glee.

Playing in a rather petite rink, which features perhaps the smallest ice surface ever used for a hockey game, the Raiders are a struggling team this year, recording only three wins in their 43 league games this season.

The plight of Wight was also examined on Bob McCown’s Prime Time Sports on Tuesday as Steve Price, one of the team owners, shared some of the more interesting moments of hockey on the Isle.

You can look for the podcast of the broadcast on the Fan590 site, the segment was featured in the tail end of the final hour of the Tuesday, March 20th show.

132,000 people call the Isle of Wight home, a regular group of them faithful followers of the Raiders, who 700 strong attend every game of the local heroes. At times, the hockey following has a larger contingent than soccer, which is rather startling considering the lack of background to the game on the ice.

Woolsey takes us to a place where the hockey may not be particularly stellar at times, but it seems the passion is just as rabid as in any small town in North America where the local team defines the local identity.

Hockey unlike anywhere else
Small town, tiny arena and a terrible team are no deterrent to the rabid fans of the Wightlink Raiders
March 20, 2007
Garth Woolsey

Toronto Star

The rink is tiny and the team's win total minuscule, but the game – hockey – is big on the Isle of Wight, of all places.

Make that a most peculiar brand of hockey.

They love their Wightlink Raiders in Ryde, the main city on the island in the English Channel, despite their franchise in the 12-team English Premier League having won only three of 43 league games this season. Plus, they play in a 1,200-seat arena with one of the smallest ice surfaces in pro hockey, or anywhere for that matter.

With only six wins last season and the current one mercifully ended with a pair of ugly losses on the weekend (9-1 and 16-3), this is a team steeped in defeat. There's something wrong on Wight, right?

Forward and co-coach Dave Williams loves playing in one of our national sport's more extreme outposts. But he is also keenly aware of just how far he is from his hometown, the Toronto suburb of Thornhill, both in distance and standards of play.

Hockey as played by the Wightlink Raiders is different, to say the least. They play in a rink so tiny that virtually every shot is a scoring chance. Opponents often pepper the Raiders goalie with 80 shots a game and double-digit scores are commonplace. Mostly, overwhelmingly, the home team is on the losing side of the ledger – 12-2, 12-1, 11-0, 10-1, 13-3 ... oof, 15-0.
They are awful and Williams and his teammates know it.

So do their fans. Yet they continue to flock to the little, rather decrepit arena, in Ryde, the only one on the island of some 132,000 inhabitants, half of them 45 or older, few born with hockey in their blood. There are teams in the league with much better records that have much worse support. Not that the crowds are standing room only in Ryde (as in the Beatles' "She's Got A Ticket to ..."), but nearly 700 show up on average for the Wightlink games and those who do are avid, if not exactly sophisticated.

Hockey outdraws soccer and that's no mean feat.

The team is named after a sponsor, Wightlink Ferries, one of the services that links the island to the mainland. The franchise, born in the early `90s, had great success early on, winning four championships. But the competition has improved while the small-market Raiders' own funding, in a league without a salary cap, has left them less competitive.

Williams, 26, says the rink, measuring 165-by-65 feet is unique (compared to 200-by-85 for the NHL standard and 200-by-98.5 for the Olympics). "It's honestly something you've probably never, ever seen before. You can step out from behind your own net, take a shot and have a legitimate scoring chance. The game is so fast you can shoot from practically anywhere and have a chance to score.

"The building itself is in bad condition, it's falling apart and they're trying to get a new rink. But the fans just love it. It's a unique situation because the stands are right on top of you, the fans are looking down and you're looking up and it's packed nearly every home game."

There are stories from the early days of hockey in Britain of a rink surface in Blackpool shaped like a gigantic D, another in Glasgow 220 feet long and one in Durham that required players to skate around roof-support pillars. But most rinks used for hockey throughout the U.K. and Europe now have large, Olympic-sized surfaces.

Williams, who attended St. Michael's College School in Toronto and went on to play on scholarship for Lake Forest College near Chicago, landed a job in the Premier league with Hull last season. He started the current season with the Amarillo (Texas) Gorillas in the Central Hockey League, but was placed on waivers after four games and jumped at the chance to play on the Isle of Wight, one of the maximum of four imports on the team. He has modest stats, helps coach and is making about $400 a week. Life is good.

"The town is really old," he said. "I live with a great family, 30 seconds from the beach. It's totally separate, the lifestyle and culture. It's not as up-to-date as the mainland."

The Premier league is one down from the 10-team Elite league, which allows each team a maximum of 10 imports, many of them accomplished Eastern Europeans (ex-NHLer Theo Fleury made headlines last season when he had a whirl with the Belfast Giants). That league might be the equivalent of the Central or ECHL in North America, while the one Wightlink plays in, Williams said, is similar in calibre to Junior A or the low pros. The key to success, he added, is the quality of each team's British players, many of whom have jobs on the side.

Wightlink has been through ownership upheaval that has left it financially strapped and less competitive. But there are new owners and fresh money in the mix for next season.

"We're not great but we try hard," he said. "Yeah, it gets frustrating. As a competitive athlete you want to win every time you get on the ice. But here they think if you keep the score under 10, you've done a great job. I don't think I'd ever lost by 10 in my entire life before I got here. ... If you score a couple of goals, keep the other guys under 10 and beat somebody up, they just love you."

Dan Sweeney, Montreal raised and now settled in Oakville and out of hockey, was one of the Isle of Wight hockey pioneers, spending nine years there throughout the 1990s as both player and GM. His dream was to build a new, larger multi-purpose arena and establish links to a Canadian hockey school. But the plan stumbled on money and local government support.

"I talk to people," Sweeney said, "and they ask, `Did you play pro in North America?' No. `Did you play semi-pro in Europe.' No. I tell them I played quarter-pro on the Isle of Wight."
Better than nothing.

More casualties in the NHLPA feud

Another high profile member of the NHLPA has decided to exit the stage, as the state of the association continues to operate under a fair amount of suspicion.

The latest to wash his hands of things was Mike Gartner, who resigned his position with the union on Tuesday. Gartner told player reps that he had been holding misgivings about the way that union business was being conducted as far back as the fall of 2005.

The union is operating under a dark cloud of suspicion these days as lawyer for the association try to determine if they can relieve Ted Saskin of his duties for cause, without having to provide a large settlement.

The most recent controversy was the revelation that Saskin had read private e mails of dissident NHLPA members, a situation that resulted in his being placed on administrative leave while the next move is contemplated.

The loss of Gartner indicates that things are very much in flux at the NHLPA and that it's far from being a settled matter at the moment.

In another strange twist of events, a scheduled meeting between the IIHF and the NHL and NHLPA over the thorny issue of transfer agreements was postponed.

The issue is a complicated mess at the moment, with Russia refusing to sign any form of agreement and the rest of the European federations coming up for renewal at the end of the current season.

Even the reason for the postponment seems to be confusing, with the IIHF saying that the NHLPA could not send a representative to participate at this time due to their internal strife, a charge the NHLPA denied.

However, one thing seems certain until the NHLPA gets its own house in order there's going to be little accomplished in the form of negotiations either in house with the NHL or on the wider world stage.

Kevin Lowe's worst nightmare

While his hockey team continues to struggle on the ice and throws up little in the way of resistance and skates threateningly towards an infamous team record of consecutive losses, there may be an ever more worrisome bit of PR for Oilers GM Kevin Lowe to deal with in the future.

Stan Fischler was on the Fan 590 in Toronto on Wednesday, appearing on the Chuck Swirsky program Fischler threw out the suggestion that once the season comes to an end, former Edmonton Oiler and current New York Islander Ryan Smyth, might be entertaining an offer from the Calgary Flames. A declaration that no doubt had the ears burning all the way to Edmonton.

How Smyth's expected salary demands would fit into the Flames salary cap requirements doesn't compute and Fischler offered no number crunching to feed the story.

In fact Fischler gave little in the way of background on his suggestion other than just to throw out the name Smyth and wait to see the face of Lowe. But he is a rather connected journalist and as they say, where there's smoke, there may be some fire.

So for now we can just float it out as a rumour, but if the New York based writer is right, this summer may be a very very long and uncomfortable one for the Oilers GM and the entire organization.

Climbing Canucks making moves on first

A week ago Vancouver fans were content to be first in the Northwest, but after two consecutive wins against the top teams of the Western Conference, suddenly first overall in the conference isn’t out of the question.

The Canucks continued on their winning ways Wednesday night, with a convincing win against the Conference leading Nashville Predators. The 2-0 victory, gave the Canucks a bit of breathing room against the Minnesota Wild who are nipping at their heels in the Northwest Division, Vancouver leads the Wild by three points in the standings.

The trail the First place Predators by four points and if they dare to seek higher goals they trail the league leading Buffalo Sabres by six points.

The rise of the Canucks can be traced to a cohesive group of players that have bought into Alain Vigneault’s system, a team that plays a solid five man on the ice game, each player with a task and taking care of it.

The Canuck’s of a few years ago with Bertuzzi and Jovanovski and the rest of the high profile crew of the Brian Burke era were expected to win the Stanley Cup, interestingly enough it’s this collection of relative unknowns, role players and budding stars that may deliver Vancouver its long cherished Stanley.

Backed by the rock solid Roberto Luongo, every game seems winnable for the Canucks, never out of reach and should they give the MVP destined goaltender a lead and it’s all but over for the competition.

Luongo was awarded the Mark Messier leadership award for his solid example in the Vancouver nets and his presence in the dressing room and the community. While Messier’s name may not carry as much cache in Vancouver as in other cities, (his days in Vancouver not always fondly remembered) the award in his name does signify the important role that Luongo has played in Vancouver’s charge since Christmas.

They are perhaps the hottest team in the league, coming together at just the right time and showing little to no weakness along the way.

Quietly they’ve climbed the standings, an unassuming team that just seems to win night after night and rewards their coach with a solid effort in almost every game.

As the season winds down and the playoff pretenders and contenders settle their spots, the Canucks may be that one team that nobody wants to meet if they can avoid it.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Oilers at 11 and counting

The Edmonton Oilers who haven't won a game since Ryan Smyth was traded away, added number eleven to their list of misadventure on Monday night.

The illness depleted Oilers, featuring ten players out of the lineup due to various illnesses, gave it a game effort and from all reports played their best game in recent times, but still came up short on the scoreboard as the Canucks doubled them 2-1.

The loss leaves the Oilers three short of tying their winless streak record of fourteen, a record that they no doubt would prefer not to claim if they can help it.

For the Canucks it was a valuable two points, giving Vancouver a three point spread over the idle Minnesota Wild in the battle for first place in the North West division.

Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo collected his 42nd victory of the season, tying him with Martin Brodeur for the lead in victories in the NHL.

The Oilers have nine games remaining in this most disappointing of seasons, expect them to play determined hockey before the next four games have gone by, all it takes is one win in the next four games to take a bit of the sting out of what has been a season when everything has gone very wrong.

Tootoo's boo boo, costs him five

Jordin Tootoo's one punch knockout of Dallas Star Stephane Robidas has gained him a five game suspension. That after NHL Supreme Court Justice Colin Campbell reviewed the actions that led to the punch that laid Robidas out on the ice unconscious.

The incident in the Predators/Stars game of March 17th started when Tootoo laid a hit on Dallas Star Mike Modano, Robidas then skated towards Tootoo at which point the Predator reared back with a gloved hand punch that knocked Robidas out on his feet, falling to the ice in a heap unconscious.

Campbell issued a statement that in part explained his reasoning behind the five game suspension:

"While a player is entitled to defend himself, Mr. Tootoo's forceful blow to Robidas' head was an overly aggressive and inappropriate response. The fact that Mr. Tootoo's actions resulted in an injury to his opponent also was a factor in this decision."

Robidas injury will result in him missing at least a week of action while he recovers from the punch.

For their part the Predators said that they disagreed with the justice meted out by Campbell, but did not plan on any appeal.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Calgary, that’s Colorado gaining in your rear view mirror

The fantastic flame outs on the road are starting to catch up to the Calgary Flames, who at one time held a pretty impressive lead over the trailers for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

But after far too many road losses and a current losing streak of five of their last six games, the Flames are in danger of fading from view completely.

It was only a few short weeks ago that Calgary had thoughts of claiming title to the Northwest Division and a third place finish in the playoff rankings. Now with both Vancouver and Minnesota putting distance between themselves and the Flames, the idea of just hanging on to what they have has become scripture.

Those same two weeks ago, many were saying that the Avalanche were done for the year, players free to make their early summer golf plans and Avs fans clear to follow the box scores of early Rockies baseball.

Now all bets are off, with the season running down the final weeks. Suddenly the Flames look quite catchable; it’s a situation that is purely of their own making and one they are hoping to answer quickly.

The Flames and Avs both have ten games remaining; the bad news for Calgary is that six of those games are on the road, a place that seems to have crawled into their minds like an epic Stephen King novel, unleashing any number of demons.

Two key dates for nervous Flames fans, April 3rd when Colorado plays the Flames in Calgary and April 8th when the Flames return the favour in Denver.

They are four points that could be key, the exact same margin that rests between the two teams today. Calgary is no doubt hoping that they end up as meaningless games, a warm up skate for the playoffs to come.

But for a team that doesn’t seem to want to do things the easy way, they had not best be banking on that being the situation. The team that looked so confident at the start of the season is stumbling to the finish line, at risk of missing out on the playoffs completely.

The key is to start winning and winning on the road, without that Albertans will be looking for a new horse to cheer for come April 9th.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

North Bay wins the 2007 title of Kraft Hockeyville

The folks at the CBC and Kraft are rather smart, with the list of possible sites down to five in their Kraft Hockeyville contest, they called in Gary Bettman to name the winning town in this years competition.

Leaving Bettman to be the bearer of bad news to four communities, forever to be remembered as the guy that didn’t call their name. You don’t see Don Cherry or Ron McLean running the risk of the hate mail to come, best to leave it to the guy that is already on so many naughty lists as it is across Canada. Now we're not sure who is advising Mr. Bettman, but next year he might wish to delegate the responsibility. Being the grim reaper of hockey dreams doesn't do much for your overall image.

North Bay claimed the title, beating out a strong final four that included the likes of Smithers, BC, Cornwall, Ontario, Noelville, Ontario and Warner, Alberta.

In addition to the coveted Kraft Hockeyville 2007 title and the trophy, North Bay, Ontario wins the once-in-a-lifetime prize of hosting a NHL pre-season game between the New York Islanders and the Atlanta Thrashers on September 17, 2007. North Bay will also receive $50,000 to be used for upgrades to the publicly-owned arena that the winning community endorses.

The Hockeyville project is a popular competition across the country, as town and city alike foster some great community spirit and develop creative ways to showcase their community as perhaps Canada’s most passionate hockey community.

This year the folks in North Bay were voted to be the town with the most passion for the sport, welcoming the Commissioner’s announcement made on Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday night. Here's the Video submitted by North Bay as part of their competition application.

For those that came up just a little short, the last thing they’ll remember is the sound of Mr. Bettman awarding a city other than their own with the much sought after title. Gary mght be a valued visitor to North Bay, but perhaps he would be wise not to make any other small town Canada travel plans in the near future.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Rappin' Nas and the Nucklehead squad

A creative little contribution to the ultimate Canuck competition, a little bit of animation to a disco beat.

Think Chicago Bears super bowl shuffle for puckheads.

The competition has provided a few solid contributions, which can be found on the Canucks website.

But so far, you have to give Trapper's delight the nod as the favourite.

Clearly some Nuck fans have a bit of time on their hands..

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Every point counts in the Northwest

Vancouver dodged an embarrassing bullet Thursday night, grabbing back a win when it seemed they were more than likely to have thrown one away.

For most of the Blues/Canucks game, the play was all Vancouver, the early shot totals heavily in Vancouver’s favour, the flow of the play their domain and by the third period a healthy 2-0 lead seemed to signify that they had things under control.

On occasion Roberto Luongo was called upon to make a timely save, but for the most part it appeared that the Canucks were on their way to victory and to keep their spot atop the Northwest Division.

Then came word of another Minnesota victory, two points that put the Wild in first in the Northwest, all be it for only thirty minutes or so as thing would eventually turn out, but not for a lack of trying by St. Louis to help out Jacques Lemaire’s squad as best they could.

For whatever reason, the Canucks chose to coast through the third and allowed a gritty St. Louis team to claw their way back through the period, sending the game into overtime.

Thursday’s game was quite reminiscent of Tuesday’s game against Minnesota, when the Canucks not only allowed the Wild to build up their momentum, but eventually win the game, a costly missed opportunity for the Canucks.

As the overtime period got underway, Vancouver started play on the power play after Eric Brewer went after Matt Cooke towards the end of the third period. Cooke had bumped into St. Louis goaltender Curtis Sanford behind the net, for which Brewer was quick to temper to express his indignation at the affront. The only problem for Brewer was that there was no penalty call on Cooke on the play, and by driving Cooke into the glass and then coming up swinging, it would be Brewer who would be serving the time.

Vancouver’s Daniel Sedin continued his winning ways in OT by picking up the winning goal less than two minutes into the extra frame. Securing a 3-2 victory for Vancouver and allowing them to remain one point ahead of Minnesota and still in position to hold home ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs next month.

While a win is good and no doubt welcome, Alain Vigneault needs to find a way to have his team put away those teams they should not be having any problems defeating. By allowing St. Louis back into the game, the Canucks showed a breakdown in the game plan and in discipline.

Mistakes that they won’t be able to fix quite as easily once the playoffs get under way.

Monday, March 12, 2007

No migration pattern for Penguins

Kansas City, your back on hold. Houston you have no lift off and what ever it is that happens in Vegas won't be hockey in Vegas.

Reports out of Pittsburgh Monday night have it that the Penguins have reached an agreement with city, county and state officials on financing a new arena for the rising star Pens.

The long drawn out affair had literally been taken to the final hours, as the Pens began their magical mystery tour last week, looking for a new home for their team.

If the published reports are correct, that search is now off and the Pens will be in a new home in time for the 2009-10 season. Leaving once and for all the fourty six year old Mellon Arena once known as the igloo.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was reporting that the Pens will sign a 30 year lease for the new arena, long enough for Sid and the rest of the Pen kids to age together in the city of three rivers.

Details and official confirmation are expected to be announced prior to the Penguins /Sabres game on Tuesday night. It's good news for the Penguins who can now concentrate on their playoff aspirations, but even better news for their fans. A long ignored group that have been dragged through the emotional wringer held hostage to the fates bureaucrats and private owners.

For them, this is the best possible outcome of all. Loyal supporters of their team, those fans have followed and support this exciting Pens team through the last few years, it's good that they'll receive the chance to enjoy what they promise for tomorrow.

On the shelf and maybe out the door!

The saga of Ted Saskin’s rocky stewardship of the NHL Players Association took another dramatic turn on Sunday night. The 30 team representatives held a much anticipated conference call regarding some disturbing incidents involving the leadership and its members over the last few months

The ninety minute call between the team reps and the union’s executive board resulted in a decision to place Saskin and senior executive Ken Kim on a leave of absence.

The controversial leadership issue reached a boiling point this past week over disclosures of league executives reading players e mail, allegedly to monitor those critical of the leadership of the union.

While Saskin and Kim are on leave of absences, the union is planning to contact legal counsel to examine their options. They would like a better understanding as to whether they can fire Saskin, without having to pay out the remainder of the 8 million dollar contract that he operates under.

It will be up to the lawyers to look through every clause and peer into each paragraph in quest of a successful exit out of an ugly situation. While they do what ever it is that lawyers do, there will be two people nominated to watch over the office until things are finally put to rest.

NHLPA associate counsel Stu Grimson and counsel Ian Penny will be tasked with running the operation on the day to day basis. We assume they will give a wide berth to the email program.

Of course Grimson is a familiar name for hockey fans, having been a player of the more physical nature during his playing days. Perhaps if he’d been tasked with patrolling the office with as much gusto as he did the ice, then things wouldn’t have reached the sad point that they are at today.

There are a good number of articles on the net about the issue. Some of the best are provided below.

Globe and Mail- Alan MakiSaskin placed on paid leave
Globe and Mail-David Shoalts-NHLPA probe must go beyond Saskin era
Detroit Free Press-Helen St. James-Saskin situation creates more questions
The National Post-Michael Traikos-Saskin's troubles fracturing one-time 'model union'
Slam Sports-David W. Unkle-Shake up at Player's Association
Toronto Star-Rick Westhead-Firing Saskin could be costly

Sheriff Campbell lays down the law!

“Justice is the one thing you should always find
You got to saddle up your boys
You got to draw a hard line
When the gun smoke settles well sing a victory tune
Well all meet back at the local saloon
Well raise up our glasses against evil forces
Singing whiskey for my men, beer for my horses”

Colin Campbell perhaps hummed a few lines from the Toby Keith song as he broke out the beer for the horses on Sunday, after he announced his decision in the Chris Simon stick swinging incident.

The nasty bit of un-sportsmanship, which was topic number one last week in both NHL and non NHL circles now sees Simon’s play finished for this year and maybe a bit of next season.
Simon received the sixth suspension of his career on Sunday and goes into the history books as the recipients of one of the toughest suspensions in NHL history. Colin Campbell, Chief Magistrate of Law and Order in the NHL announced that the league has banned Simon from the remaining 14 games the Islanders play in the regular season and the entire playoffs should they qualify.

As well, his suspension must last no shorter than 25 games, which means if the Islanders make an early exit this year, Simon will serve the remainder of the suspension at the start of the 2007-08 season.

Simon’s salary is estimated at 1 million a season, which means he will forfeit some $80,213.90, which will be turned over to the player’s emergency assistance fund.

It was an expected outcome considering the ugliness of the incident and the need to be proactive in the face of a rising tide of violent incidents in the NHL as the season winds down.

The player on the other end of the Simon stick, Ryan Hollwegg, who fortunately wasn’t injured in the attack is satisfied with the punishment, and just wants to move on with his season.

Simon himself is reported to be disgusted with himself over his actions, suggesting that he was suffering a concussion himself at the time of the attack and perhaps wasn’t thinking straight when he swung his stick. Offering an apology to Hollweg, he said that his behavior was not indicative of the kind of hockey player he believes himself to be.

It’s a sentiment that he may believe, but one that may not hold much water with local justice officials in Nassau County. Prosecutors are reviewing video of the incident to determine if criminal charges should be laid.

Simon’s next appearance may move from the hockey court to the legal courts, where more than money and time on the ice may be at risk.

As Toby and Willie might say:

"Grand pappy told my pappy, back in my day son
a man had to answer for the wicked that he done"

Friday, March 09, 2007

All that’s missing is a secret police and a mystery island for the dissidents

The latest developments in the NHLPA leadership controversy have taken the backbiting and hostility towards Ted Saskin to new levels.

The embattled leader of the hockey union has never been fully accepted by his flock and lately the dissidents seem to be gaining the upper hand in their bid to declare his election null and void and seek a new vote.

What started out as a small grass fire off in the distance, is becoming more and more a roaring forest fire threatening to unravel the union and shake its very existence.

Of late those against the Saskin election have taken to comparing his reign with that of Alan Eagleson a name that doesn’t get mentioned much in hockey circles anymore lest someone get violent and rehash the old days of union management.

The most recent revelation of the affairs of the union state is beyond baffling and is by far the most serious of the long string of problems that have haunted the Saskin stewardship thus far. The Toronto Star reported a few days ago that the Toronto Police department was investigating claims that NHLPA executives had read and blocked e mail access to dissident members who had been outspoken against the current leadership group.

It’s that report that has put Saskin on the defensive, a situation that has him pointing the finger right back at Bob Goodenow his predecessor, replaced during a nasty little internal war at the NHLPA.

Goodenow speaking through his lawyer, fired right back that Saskin is wrong about his charges and that no such thing took place during his watch.

This latest bit of theatrics comes up just as the union’s thirty team reps prepare for a weekend conference call, a session in which Saskin’s status as director may be up for discussion and vote.

With all the backroom machinations and public posturing, the one question that the union reps need to ask themselves on Sunday is a simple one. Is the union concentrating its attention on the players and their needs or on far too many distractions?

Judging by the state of affairs of late, distraction seems to the way things are heading, a situation that won’t be of much use to the rank and file!

Thursday, March 08, 2007

March a month of madness, as history repeats

We’re not sure what it is about the month of March, but for whatever reason some of the more infamous of events seem to happen in the Month.

There was the Rocket Richard Riot which resulted after a nasty bit of hockey back in March of 1955, when Richard injured Hal Laycoe and struck an official knocking him unconscious, three years ago there was the now well documented Todd Bertuzzi/Steve Moore altercation which saw Bertuzzi jump Moore and pummel him into the ice.

And on Thursday night, three years to the day of the Bertuzzi incident Chris Simon entered his name into the book of infamy, with a stick swinging attack on the New York Rangers Ryan Hollweg.

With six minutes and change left in the third period of the Rangers/Islanders game Hollweg had just shoved Simon’s face into the glass and turned away up ice, Simon then turned at Hollweg and with both hands on his stick chopped the Ranger in the face, leaving him to lay motionless on the ice.

Hollweg would eventually be helped to his feet and by games end was wearing his gash as a badge of honour of sorts after the Ranger victory, but for a few moments there was a certain fear of what has just happened and how could violence once again become the topic of a hockey game.

The act was a blatant attempt to injure and certainly something the league does not need in the game, but perhaps it is indicative of the recent ratcheting up of the play beyond an increase in normal physical behavior. Simon's comments at the end of the game won't be particularly helpful to his cause, expressing regret at taking a penalty that lost the game as opposed to any contrition for his violent act on the ice, although he did say that he shouldn't say anything until he the league called for his attendance at a league meeting.

The ugly and disturbing incident comes on the heels of some controversial hits of late in the NHL that have many wondering if hockey has stepped back more than a few decades in a short number of weeks.

From the Neal/Drury hit which while considered by many to be a legal if nasty hit, touched off line brawl in Buffalo a few weeks ago to the very late Jannsen hit on Tomas Kaberle last week, the tone of nastiness in recent weeks seems to be rising exponentially An increasingly violent string of happenings that led to what appeared to be an attempted beheading at the game on Long Island.

It will make for a showcase trial for Colin Campbell, who has to send a message and send it fast that the violence aspect of the game needs to be reined in. The latest incidents have brought into question the direction of the game of late, while many bemoaned the lack of physical contact at the start of the season, then the apparent running of the league’s stars as the season progressed.

To that end, the nights of the enforcers seemed to be making a comeback, players dedicated in their play to making sure that each teams top talents could work their play without fear of attack or impedance.

But Thursday’s frightening display of violence will call into question all of that and much more. Hockey hasn’t had a very good run of publicity of late in the USA, the TV numbers aren’t very good, the attendance in the stands in many cities is very low and the interest in the sport itself has taken a serious hit in the post lock out years.

Simons' stick swinging actions will make all the highlight reels, will become the fodder for many a talk show and will bring a new light to the NHL.

They say that any publicity is good publicity, but in this case that won’t hold true. The NHL will once again find itself on the defensive over the actions of a player who had pure malice in mind and little respect for the game itself.

The game by all accounts was one of those traditional Range/Islander showcases, up until the stick swinging incident. A game that threatened to re-ignite the hockey fans passion for the sport in the largest market in the league.

Many feel that the league missed the opportunity to reclaim its product three years ago, by not sending a strong enough message that the barbaric nature of these acts would not be tolerated. Those same people and no doubt many others, if they've stayed with the game since then, will be looking for a more determined and forceful result from the league this time.

Campbell’s discipline will have to be above and beyond what has been seen thus far, otherwise the league’s reputation and indeed the dwindling respect for the game will suffer a far more devastating hit.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Luongo closes in on Legend status in Vancouver

Over the years the Vancouver Canucks have been the undoing of many a goaltender’s career, players who have toiled in the nets in Vancouver have found that a year or two on the coast of the Pacific comes with some kind of Kryptonite curse that renders them to the afterthoughts of the NHL. The list is far too long to recite here, but dig deep enough into any ancient scoring report and you'll most likely find a shattered goal tender who once played in Vancouver.

There have been a few that have risen above the curse, Gary Smith, Richard Brodeur, Glen Hanlon, John Garrett and Kirk McLean all seemed to come through their years as Canucks more or less unscathed, Brodeur and McLean getting that rare feeling of post season success and the glory that went with it.

With such a history behind the position one might have wondered how Roberto Luongo would fare in the Orca Bay whale suits, long considered one of the best, Luongo had played in relative obscurity lost in the heat of the sun, waves of the surf and occasional terror (Hi there Mr. Keenan) of life in Florida.

His trade to Vancouver came with the added baggage of being described as the move that has finally delivered to the Canucks a shutdown savior. And with 38 wins now under his belt, Luongo has more than begun to deliver on many of the pre season expectations.

Luongo tied Kirk McLean's record of 1991-92 on Tuesday night, as he notched that 38th win, a share of the record total for Vancouver with still more than five weeks to go in the season, providing lots of room for adding to the stats package.

What’s even more remarkable about Luongo’s achievement is that on many a night, he’s been the only thing between a Canucks win or loss. Luongo when called upon to make the big save has made it, left on his own far more often than should be desired, he has stood the test and more than proven that the accolades that pre-ceded him were very well quite prescient.

It’s been a good number of years since the Canucks have had a goaltender that single handedly saves the day, steals the win or leads the team in determination. The Canucks on a normal night will usually find a way to reduce the margin of victory to one goal, a defensive breakdown or a burst of offence from the opposition will put the heat back on the goaltender and Luongo never fails to rise to that occasion.

Tuesday night, the Canucks did their goaltender a favour; the shot totals from Tampa Bay were low at 17, the margin of victory by the Canucks high with a 5-1 decision.

It was the next best thing to a night off for the Canucks stand out in the nets.

Confidence is always the ingredient that a team needs when they head into the playoffs, and slowly this Canuck team has developed that key requirement. The Canucks enter each game now with a confidence in their own abilities to lock down and win in the third and confidence that the last line of defence will be there to make the difference.

In a tight playoff race and then the playoff derby that follows, it’s going to be the calming presence of Luongo in the nets that could deliver this Vancouver team a long ride in this years playoffs.

A presence that will continue to make him larger than life in Canuck lore and place him among the legends of the game that have pulled on a Canuck sweater over the years.

Are roadblocks at the state borders the next step?

The road to Kansas City apparently will have one or two more potholes in it before owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle can head down the highway with his high octane Pens in tow.

The State of Pennsylvania alarmed over Mario’s declaration of an impasse yesterday, has asked NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to step in and bar the Pens from relocation. Going so far as to say that Governor Ed Rendell will plan a trip to New York to make their point in person.

The state cranks up their political efforts at the same time that Mario and Burkle go on a fact finding mission to Houston, Las Vegas and then on to Los Angeles to chat over lease details with the group that operates the Kansas City arena.

While Pittsburgh has had many chances before to get it’s ice house in order, there is still one thing that they believe works in their favour, in Pittsburgh at least there is a tradition and knowledge of hockey, something that according to this article would most likely would be rather lacking in Kansas City.

Perhaps it’s to this long attachment to the game that Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania tie their hopes, though they should remember that it’s been during Mr. Bettman’s reign that such traditional hockey spots as Nashville, Phoenix, Carolina and Atlanta have all acquired franchises.
BEEP, BEEP, BEEP that’s the sound of a moving van backing up and getting closer!