Archive for June, 2011
Monday, June 20th, 2011
I’ve always found it so much easier to evaluate the moves of an NHL General Manager than a Head Coach. Let’s face it, the equasions are simpler. Did a GM bring a player in who performed at his expectations? Did he earn his salary? Did the player underachieve or overachieve, and of course, how did his draft picks turn out?
Coaching’s a little more of a mystery to those multitudes of us who have never been behind an NHL bench. So many myths exist — like being down 4-0 in the first 10 minutes of a game is a coach “not having his team prepared to play”, or a too many men on the ice penalty is “coaching”, or that the Jack Adams Award seems to exclusively include nominees and winners whose teams improve the most notably points-wise from where they were last season. Could the players have improved and gelled? Could the GM have FINALLY brought in better players? Nah, it’s coaching – plain and simple.
The Maple Leafs have been dreadful on special teams in the three years of Ron Wilson being their head coach, that can’t be debated. I’m more pro-Ron Wilson than con-Ron Wilson. I’ve always thought he’d gotten the most from his teams, and was real impressed by the first two teams of his I covered in playoff series: his 1997 Anaheim Mighty Ducks and his Stanley Cup finalist squad, the Washington Capitals. Both teams were swept by the Red Wings in the respective series, but the ’97 Ducks were ahead of their time, took the Red Wings to overtime in three of the four games (including a double OT and triple OT) after winning in a clutch Game 7 against Phoenix), and the ’98 Caps rode some key veterans, some young stars in the making, and a phenomenal run by Olaf Kolzig to win the twelve games necessary to get through the Eastern Conference and give the Red Wings lots of trouble in a four-game sweep. Game 2 Washington SHOULD have won long before it got to overtime (three different leads), and Game 3 at home could have been theirs had Sergei Fedorov not scored a brilliant game-winner when he was back at the peak of his powers.
As for Wilson’s San Jose years, I never thought he had the goaltender to go far enough and I think I’ve been somewhat vindicated with the lack of desperation for any NHL club to go grab Evgeni Nabakov after letting him have the car keys for nearly a decade of playoff starts in San Jose. This Sharks team this season, for example, was much better and deeper than any team Wilson had, no question. Give Ron Wilson players like Dany Heatley (bad playoff, I know…), Logan Couture, and let Joe Pavelski, Devin Setoguchi, and Ryan Clowe mature, and Wilson would have taken them exactly where Todd McLellan has and maybe even further. ‘
But all praise aside for the 7th-winningest head coach in NHL history, and his most impressive achievements – the 1996 World Cup of Hockey victory and last year’s Olympic silver medal – I’m as confused as anyone why it hasn’t gone well at all in Toronto. The roster not being good enough is the most obvious reason why it hasn’t, but it doesn’t explain the last two years of special teams disasters for the Maple Leafs. Could even “average” (like, say, 17th?) special teams ratings have been the difference between making the playoffs and not the last two seasons? Well, doubtful for 2009/10 but I can’t tell you with certainty, it wouldn’t have helped last year to be better on special teams out of the gate, after the season started with four wins of course.
But either way, this couldn’t have been an easy pill to swallow for Ron Wilson. Tim Hunter’s been a right-hand man of his for nearly 15 years off and on behind NHL benches, and there’s simply no way Wilson called for this change. This is Brian Burke knowing Scott Gordon was available and also knowing Greg Cronin may be able to help Wilson and Rob Zettler on a number of different levels. It’s a hard move to knock.
Having said that, some things clearly don’t make sense. Ron Wilson has mere months left on his 4-year Maple Leafs contract he signed in the summer of 2008. There’s simply no chance a former NHL head coach like Scott Gordon signed for any less than two years to move his family to Toronto, and I would bet Cronin didn’t either. So how can two assistant coaches new to the organization have longer tenure than a coach with Ron Wilson’s resume and accomplishments? That part doesn’t make any sense, unless Wilson is bitter about Hunter’s departure and is on an extremely short leash, or it’s the opposite and the extension Burke denies he’ll give Wilson is all but a given should the Leafs get off to a non-disastrous start. Bottom line: he’s either fired or extended by November 30th. I can’t a scenario where neither is the case.
This also ends the notion, in my mind, that Dallas Eakins would hop up from the Toronto Marlies should the Leafs, umm, “require” an interim head coach. That man would now be Scott Gordon. They wouldn’t promote Eakins AHEAD of Gordon, no chance.
All that considered, Ron Wilson may finally have a roster come October that I and others would deem one of the best twenty in the NHL. I’d argue for three straight seasons he hasn’t and though he hasn’t impressed terribly with the results, having a “Bottom Ten” roster talent-wise has bought him some time, and it’s shielded him from criticism (ok, not all, but heavy, HEAVY criticism). That may not be the case this fall in a critical two months for the coaching staff, Brian Burke, and many Maple Leafs players. After all, new owners might be watching the team by then.
Thursday, June 16th, 2011
It’s a gut-punch, no question about it. A lost, lonely helpless feeling. Those who say “it’s better to have loved and lost, than not having loved at all” clearly hadn’t experienced many Game 7s….AT HOME….with a chance to give something not to yourselves, but an entire city and province which has never experienced it before. There’s a first time for everything: talking, walking, kissing, sex, driving, marrying, procreating (and yes, I get some of you out there really do all these things in some strange orders, and often three of those things simultaneously).
There’s no mathematical logic to suggest that losing a Game 7 on home ice of a Stanley Cup Final (which has now happened two straight Game 7s, and obviously two of the last three seasons: Pittsburgh over Detroit/2009), is somehow a far easier pill to swallow than for the fourteen teams who miss the playoffs, or even the eight eliminated before May even begins. Or the teams who miss the playoffs over and over again, like say 3-4 years in a row. Or the Toronto Maple Leafs.
But it isn’t easier to swallow. As a guy who’s always cheered for the Canucks against any and all opponents in the Stanley Cup playoffs since the late 1970s, (I will admit I’d be very tested were there to be a Canucks/Leafs Final, I DO live here there and want so much for the city and long-suffering Leafs fans to feel that rush…) this one is devastating. It’s a kick to the balls and beyond.
For so many reasons, because at times, it looked like they had the series won, because they won close games, because they closed down and closed out opponents like Nashville and San Jose with dominance. Because I can still see the puck gloved down by Alexandre Burrows off the turnover by Chris Campoli, and it rolling, rolling, and rolling some more before he slaps it top shelf past Corey Crawford — then calmly gets to the hospital to see his wife and beautiful newborn first child. All in 48 hours of work.
So this sucks, and I get that others are revelling in the Canucks’ misery today, and let’s face it, for a neutral observer, there are equal things to dislike as to like about Vancouver’s team. I was never conflicted, but I understood where it came from, not that Boston played with any greater honour or class at times.
Three different times Boston coach Claude Julien (amazing job, BTW) would intimate his team “wasn’t like that” and “wouldn’t go there”, they proved beyond the shadow of a doubt with the taunting, the flopping, and the Nathan Horton melodrama that they were, and yes, that they would. I don’t admire the Bruins any more or any less, but the Canucks have themselves to blame in this equasion also. You don’t let your goalie get annihiliated in two straight games without standing up for him in one way or another. You don’t let the potential Hart Trophy winning teammate get dummied around by a Bruin like Brad Marchand. Marchand did what he did because the opportunity was there. Thus, it was incumbent upon ONE or TWO of the Canucks to make sure the opportunity wasn’t.
And then there’s the riot. Ah yes, 17 years removed from a scene on a Monday evening in June 1994 which caused 1.1 million dollars in damage, left many injured, many arrested, and one ”gentleman” paralyzed because of a rubber bullet being fired, if not at him, then in his general direction, it happened again.
We’re still letting the stench envelop us. We’re still getting emailed and tweeting (and being tweeted) links that should sicken the average human being. Video of MANY thousands of Canucks fans, if not actively participating, if not actively encouraging, if not actively observing, and if not actively doing absolutely nothing to prevent the wanton assault of other humans, the reckless destruction of people’s property, businesses, and humiliation of their persons, is everywhere.
The debates will rage. We’re just getting going, folks. Were there enough police officers? Did they do enough? When they actually DID do enough, was it in the right places, at the right times? But what I won’t tolerate is the following:
A. This really isn’t indicative of Vancouverites.
B. These really weren’t hockey fans, just subversive, anti-establishment pinkos who happened to be wearing Christian Ehrhoff and Pavel Bure sweaters.
Bullcrap. And thank goodness, the Canucks have thirteen different jersey styles, colour schemes, and logos to choose from (I should know, I’ve owned most at one time or another, except the black/red Orca), or all the “terrorists” might be simply blending together in a sea of unrecognizable and indeterminable green, blue, and white.
No, these were hockey fans. Members of Hamas, Hezbollah, or the Irish Republican Army tend not to have a strong supply of Harold Snepsts retro ”Oh Henry Bar” sweaters on hand to mix in with their weaponry.
It’s embarrassing and humiliating and actually quite disgusting and degrading to consider these are our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters, and not only that but that ANY of those who perpetuated violence in any form last night will go on to have children of their own. Sadly, procreation should have tests about 38.72 times harder than the combined testing for driving, law school, and med school, but sadly, it doesn’t. ALMOST anyone can do it.
These are Vancouver’s hockey fans. It’s not most of them. It’s not even a large percentage of them. But it happens here, and almost nowhere else in North America. The Vancouver Stanley Cup Riot of 2011 already has a Wikipedia page. It already has earned the city the somewhat clever nickname of “Vandalcouver”. Life’s about accountability — no one’s indicting the whole city, province, or hockey fans in general, but this one can be chalked up quite simply as: a large bunch of disgraceful and utterly depraved hockey fans held a riot…and the world showed up to watch. We can make our own judgements from there, and the violent reports and footage continues to flow in.
A shame. A disgrace. The next time ANYONE from Vancouver makes a joke about Cleveland, Buffalo, Los Angeles, Detroit, or English soccer fans — a simple “pot….kettle…black” response should suffice.
Monday, June 13th, 2011
Sports on a grand scale always gives us lots of questions, and often they provide answers as to why results end up how they end up. “This team was too banged up”, “They didn’t execute”, “They couldn’t win on the road”, “They got out-coached”.
I’ve been racking my brain (doesn’t take as long as you might think) trying to remember the last time or even IN my lifetime, I’ve seen a seven-game series in any sports as difficult to explain as the Mavericks/Heat NBA Finals. It’s not the biggest shocker in recent NBA history — not even close in fact, I’d still maintain the Pistons’ 5-game assault on the LA Lakers in 2004 leaps off the page as a major upset, and even the Celtics 2008 title had its share of non-believers that Boston, only two offseasons after acquiring Kevin Garnett could make a push so swiftly, and yet so subtly towards a Championship.
But given the last eleven months in the life of LeBron James, given how confident he was arriving in Miami along with new mate Chris Bosh, to join Dwyane Wade, and set fire to the NBA’s Eastern Conference, this is shocking. Given they hemmed and hawwed their way through the excruciatingly long regular season of 82 games with mild fits of disinterest and apathy throughout, still to emerge winning 58 games, this is shocking.
Given LeBron is healthy physically, despite many arguments that he has played too many minutes in too many important games in the last 5-6 weeks, this is shocking. And most importantly, given he fed the league’s “MVP”, the Chicago Bulls’ Derrick Rose, who’s a real artistic and skilled basketball player, his lunch night in and night out in the Eastern Conference Finals, and if anything, LeBron was gaining steam headed towards the Finals, not running out of it, this is shocking.
This can’t all be mental, and yet it can’t all be physical, but even the most casual NBA fan (there’s a lot of us out there, the game drew almost a 17-share in the United States, baseball’s World Series games are usually a 10 or 11 at the absolute most), would concur they’re perplexed by this. It makes no sense. It maybe never will. LeBron James is the most gifted physical basketball player of our generation. Save your Michael Jordan argument — it’s not even close. Jordan was cut in high school. Jordan was a good-to-almost great NCAA player for Dean Smith at North Carolina. He was a skinny kid when he got into the NBA who had trouble doing anything under the basket, and had a real limited long-range jumper. He loved to slice-and-dice, and slash-and-dash, and guess what? He kept working at his game, he’d get better, he’d get bigger, he’d get smarter, he’d watch film, he’d devise ways to make his teammates better and vice-versa.
My only theory is LeBron James has too many “yes men” around him and hasn’t been told to do that. He’s had to be responsible (despite being a young father, and obviously a more involved one that his own dad was, given he abandoned LeBron and his Mom) for little else besides maintaining the good name of LeBron Incorporated.
I theorized last week he should have gone and played college basketball, at least for two years. He’d be better now for it. Easy for me to say, I’m a middle-class kid, two parents, I didn’t grow up needing to scramble to stay above the poverty line, and for that, I’m grateful, same as I am for my family being there for me, my wonderful wife and adorable kids, my job, my friends, my experiences, all of it. I felt like a jerk afterwards — who am I to tell LeBron James at age 17 — “Hey, skip that #1 overall pick thing, and the endorsement deals, and the $10-$12 million you can accumulate in your bank account in six months or so!!!! Go to school, take a Film Studies class, fit in on campus, play for UCLA, or Duke, or Michigan State!!!! You’ll love it!!!”
But would he be a better player now? Absolutely he would. There’s something missing despite his physical gifts. Is he afraid to take responsibility for his own failures? Is he afraid to embrace the successes? We’re all playing “amateur psychologist” right now, and sports, and sportswriting, and the sports talk radio industry is, indeed, all about that — too much so sometimes for my liking, but NONE of us know.
For an athlete we all thought we knew, who he is, what he can do, what makes him tick — we’re now learning we know a lot less about LeBron James than we originally thought. But I know this much (I think, therefore, I know) – he’ll get his title, and more than one, in the next five years in Miami. He’s a better basketball player than Dirk Nowitzki — one two-week stretch can’t possibly change that, and I still am unsure we should be elevating Nowitzki to Top 15 or Top 20 all-time status. He has “the ring” and a Finals MVP and we can’t take any of that away from him.
Does that mean he had a better career than Charles Barkley? Scottie Pippen? Chris Webber (had Webber not suffered his horrific injury)? Dirk gets mentioned in Larry Bird-territory now and it’s tough to definitively dismiss either side. But take this for what it’s worth; we’re judging Nowitzki positively, and we all damn well should, for his run, especially in these NBA Finals, right? If anything, the 2011 NBA Finals will be remembered as the time LeBron disappeared and the Heat lost, far more so than all the amazing performances and teamwork on display from the opposition.
Well, if we’re giving Nowitzki the benefit of the doubt for this year’s playoff run, let’s remember Nowitzki’s Mavs had lost 21 of the previous 33 NBA playoff games dating back to their COLLAPSE against, in retrospect, a superior Miami Heat team in 2006. So if he gets praise for two weeks, he has to absorb some criticism for the last five playoff disappointments. Love the guy as a player, a sure-fire Hall of Famer, but we’re getting a touch carried away.
Make no mistake, LeBron James needs to find himself. But he’s in charge. He makes the calls, if he whistles past the graveyard thinking nothing’s wrong, then nothing with his game or personality or flaws will change. It’s not going to get any less fascinating this offseason — though I would guess another Nike/”What Should I Do” advert isn’t in the works.
Wednesday, June 1st, 2011
An amazing day yesterday with the return of NHL Hockey to Winnipeg. Some say its been too long in waiting, others say the Jets never should have left, and some are (still) questioning why the rush to return to Winnipeg and whether it will actually “work” there.
All that is up for vigorous and healthy debate. What isn’t up for debate is that the city of Atlanta never had a chance to embrace what it means to be an NHL fan, at least in the times when it really matters, and that’s from April and beyond. Eleven NHL seasons and no playoff wins. No payoff for being patient, no payoff for ticket price hikes, no payoff for travelling on road trips to support the Thrashers. No payoff for local media to really get out and expand coverage of a team that was born a loser, remained a loser, and died a loser — at least on the ice, and certainly to a great extent, at the box office.
I would wager 18 of the 30 NHL markets would be in HUGE trouble if they won no playoff games in the span of 11 years, and five of the (now) seven Canadian markets would struggle to fill their buildings to 2/3rds capacity as they did during barren stretches in Vancouver, Edmonton, Ottawa, and ah yes, Winnipeg. You know, the ‘Peg? Where 12 thousand people showed up, on a good night, in the Jets final six seasons.
Atlanta wasn’t much different, though it dwarfs Winnipeg in size as a city and of course, in prominence in the North American economy. The Thrashers draft history featured two #1 overall picks, two #2 overalls, a #3, a #4, a #8, and a #10. And when Don Waddell, their General Manager wasn’t torching the franchise through poor drafting, awful trade deadline acquisitions, or flipping Braydon Coburn straight up for 56-year old Alexei Zhitnik, he was going through coaches over a decade-long span like they were cufflinks, except he treated them with slightly less care. Waddell was permitted to put four different coaches behind the bench, including Stanley Cup champion Bob Hartley, who did lead them to a division title and playoff berth against the New York Rangers. The Rangers won their first post-lockout playoff series in a 4-game sweep, so the records say, but in reality, the series was competitive about as long as the Mike Tyson/Michael Spinks fight in the summer of 1988.
I do know this, the Thrashers didn’t die because Atlanta is some kind of “awful sports city”. Not even close, I’ve seen that myth get battered around like there’s no tomorrow, and it’s the lie that grows and grows the more it’s told. People love to use the Atlanta Braves as the crown jewel as to why it’s a crappy sports town because, “hey, they don’t even sell out baseball playoff games”. Well, they’ve sold out MOST baseball playoff games since 1995 (and from my records, sold them all out between 1991-1993). In fact, the Braves have hosted a ludicrous 52 playoff games since the 1995 regular season started, and sold out 43 of them.
I’d argue for a team with the 13th-best attendance in baseball last season, at just under 30k per game (you know, 10-11 more thousand a NIGHT than the Blue Jays), that’s a record to be reasonably pleased with, if not proud of. Hate to say it, but winning gets boring, folks. If you aren’t a season ticket holder of the Braves, what’s your motivation to skip an important day of work and hit up a Wednesday 1pm NLDS Game 1 against the Colorado Rockies or San Diego Padres? You attended six playoff games the year before that, eight the year before that, and five the year before that. I might be able to tell you there’s 5-6 markets that MIGHT sell out 52 postseason games in a row over the span of a decade or so, but even I wouldn’t bet the house on it happening? So save the “they don’t even care about the Braves B.S. for someone who’ll not see it for the statistical inaccurate twisting that it is”.
The Atlanta Hawks? We agree, few care about them – it’s not ever been a great NBA market. If they won three titles in four years, would that change? Maybe so. Maybe not? You know what was a “lousy NFL market” before the end of the 1990s? New England? Couldn’t draw flies in Foxboro in the 1980s and early 1990s until Drew Bledsoe was drafted and eventually Robert Kraft bought the team – now it’s a can’t-fail market. Just telling you, things evolve in the sports business.
But Atlanta also has competition from both University of Georgia and Georgia Tech University. If both the Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets play home games on the same Saturday in late October, and the Falcons (who played to 96.7% capacity last season and hosted a playoff game) played on Sunday, you’d have upwards of 205 thousand Georgians and otherwise attending three sporting events over the span of a 30 hour period. The Toronto Argonauts would have to host TWO playoff games PLUS their nine regular season games to beat that number in terms of actual warm bodies passing thru the Rogers Centre gates.
I’m sure those Panthers at Thrashers Saturday night home games in late October did boffo box office business as a result of all the competition. In the end, sure, people stopped coming – because ownership and the on-ice product gave them a reason to. Come on, it’s the very same reason people START coming. It’s a results-oriented business and after many years of paying more and getting less, Atlanta residents said enough is enough.
Are you really going to tell me if the Quebec Nordiques had moved to Atlanta at the start of the 1995-96 season and featured a team with Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Adam Foote, Owen Nolan, Valery Kamensky, Mike Ricci, and soon enough, Patrick Roy, would have FAILED? Miserably? Without question? Of course not. The Thrashers had a chance to survive, but Atlanta hockey fans never had a chance to keep the Thrashers. Rest in peace and good luck in Winnipeg.