Hockey Headlines

Monday, 31 October 2011

Happy Halloween!

I told my Dad that I'd give the Boston Bruins some love this week since I apparently don't show the reigning Stanley Cup champions enough respect according to him. This is about the best I can do with them playing as poorly as they have thus far. That probably won't win me any points with Dad, but Chelsea McLean's jack-o-lantern is pretty impressive.

I'll be handing out candy tonight to all the ghouls and goblins that arrive on my doorstep, so it'll be a quiet night on the hockey front at HBIC HQ. Be safe if you're out trick-or-treating, and make sure you're visible to those that may be driving tonight. Safety is important, especially on All Hallow's Eve.

Enjoy the candy and treats!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Revisiting The EDGE

It seems like eons ago when the new Reebok EDGE jerseys came out. We heard a lot of boasting and chest-puffing from Reebok about how their new EDGE designs were going to revolutionize the sport by making players faster and a whole lot of other mumbo-jumbo. Of course, a lot of people raised their eyebrows towards Reebok's claims - me included - but I wanted to revisit this from a more trusted source than I. I checked around, and I found a great article on the Reebok rhetoric penned by Brandon Keim on Wired.com.

The article's title - Good Science Can’t Save a Bad Idea: The NHL's New "Uniform System" - explains a lot about why Reebok's claims were somewhat truthful, but highly misleading in their basis. Being that we're a day away from Halloween, I thought this article might explain why Reebok was forced to abandon this terrible costume conundrum.

"Bettman negotiated a deal with Reebok to produce the league’s uniforms. These were, he said, in sore need of improvement. Not because the league needed a boost in merchandise revenues — of course not! — but because the current uniforms were inadequate to the modern game’s demands. 'It was done for performance and safety,' he said. That the players themselves had never complained about them didn’t matter."
As far as I can tell, the players only complained about the heat in the Ultrafil 6100 uniforms because they didn't breathe. When CCM started using the air-knit fabric, complaints died off quickly as the players were playing in much lighter and much cooler jerseys that wouldn't trap the heat inside. As for the improvements that were needed, I have no clue what that means. Personally, I like the looks of the vast majority of old NHL sweaters.

Of course, we got this bold claim on the Reebok website:
"'In addition to Reebok’s extensive in-house research, research and development teams at MIT and Central Michigan University performed unprecedent independent tests further validating the improved performance of the rbk edge uniform system,' the company proclaimed.
Combine that with the "science" that they put forth in which they proclaimed,
"The jerseys used 'the most innovative fabrics ever made.' Compared to the old jerseys, they weighed 14% less when dry; possessed, as shown in wind tunnel tests, 9% less drag; absorbed 76% less moisture; lasted twice as long; and were 4 to 10 degrees cooler."
All of that sounds pretty impressive, right? All of these percentages were done by experts in a laboratory setting where factors and variables were controlled... I assume. And we all knows what happens when one assumes, right?

Here comes Wired's Brandon Keim with the debunking.
"USA Today’s reporting read like a Reebok press release and featured a company executive claiming that players would "go from driving a Ford to a Ferrari," while ESPN quoted Gary Bettman calling the advances 'an evolution of our uniform, taking into account where we are in the 21st century.'"
In fact, as Mr. Keim points out, only EJ Hradek of ESPN wasn't drinking the Kool-Aid on the day that the NHL changed its look. "Maybe there were others, but I haven’t found them," writes Mr. Keim. But it was true that Reebok fed as much rhetoric as it could to the press while using the NHL as its conduit. It was hard to find any hard numbers as to what these percentages mean anywhere on this day. After all, 14% less dry means that if a sweater holds 1 litre of water, it's still holding 0.86 litres of water - not such a dramatic claim after all since you're still all wet.

Let's check out the research that Wired did to debunk these "innovations".
"14% less meant a jersey that once weighed 670 grams now tipped the scales at all of 575 grams — a whopping savings of just over three ounces. The lowered wind resistance of 9% was another number that sounded impressive until you actually thought about it: never did the company explain just how significant the wind resistance was in the first place.

"Imagine, for example, sprinting in a t-shirt, and again in a t-shirt that’s one size smaller. The latter ought to have at least 9% less drag — but are you actually 9% faster? Of course not.

"You probably don’t even notice the slightest difference. Nevertheless, Reebok’s pseudo-scientific promotional videos showed a mock race between two skaters, one in the old jersey and one in the new, with the latter finishing while the other still had 9% of the circuit to go.

"As for the reduced absorption, the company didn’t give any figures for how much additional sweat weight the average hockey jersey actually gained during a game. Nor, apparently, did they ask where water that was once absorbed by jerseys would go. But more on that later.

"Reebok did at least produce a specific figure to illustrate their uniform’s doubled durability: a jersey that once wore out in 20 games would last for forty. How they decided on that number is hard to know, since the jerseys weren’t actually tested by players in games, but only in a handful of practices."
Clearly, Reebok was pushing to get this new "innovative fabric" into the NHL as quickly as they could in order to push the EDGE fabrics on other sports. That's a great idea, except that the science going into the fabric was nothing more than smoke-and-mirrors.
"Actual game testing was reserved for this season, when it was already too late to call the jerseys back. And that’s when players pointed out something that Reebok might be forgiven for failing to anticipate, but can’t be excused for not learning through real-life testing: just because jerseys don’t absorb sweat doesn't mean the sweat disappears. Instead of being absorbed by jerseys and socks and evaporating, the sweat gathered underneath them."
And it wasn't just Wired that found out that Reebok's "science" was more myth than reality. The players spoke out about how they disliked the new uniforms which had to have the guillotine hanging over someone's head at Reebok.
"By the end of pre-season training, players around the league vocally denounced the uniforms. Sweat, they said, now soaked their equipment, literally pouring into their gloves and skates, filling them like buckets and making it hard to play with the skill that Bettman and Reebok promised to 'enhance.' Unsurprisingly, players said the unbreathable uniforms were uncomfortably not. So much for 4 to 10 degrees cooler.

"It also turned out that much of the savings in weight and drag came from making the uniforms more form-fitting than before, which in turn required the jerseys to be much more elastic. That makes it possible for players to pull jerseys over each other’s heads during fights — a very dangerous situation. But that’s only when the fighters can actually get a grasp on the slippery fabric. When they can’t, fights continue longer than before, rather than ending in a wrestling match — again, a dangerous situation. Even if one feels that fighting doesn’t belong in the game, it's there now, and isn't about to go away. For these players, the jersey puts them at increased risk of injury."
It wasn't until Sidney Crosby began grumbling that the NHL and Reebok decided to rethink this new jersey concept. And wouldn't you know it, the NHL and Reebok came out with a new EDGE - the EDGE 2.0 - that really was a new name for air-knit fabric with some very minor tweaks. All in all, the EDGE jersey was a complete and total failure, and all the science boasted by Reebok couldn't save a poor design.

It just goes to show you that no matter how much spin one can put on a topic, the results speak volumes about the topic. The one that immediately caught my attention when the NHL unveiled these fabulous new jerseys was the price. And it caught Mr. Keim's attention as well: "Reebok’s assorted scientific comparisons also left out the most important number of all: the new jerseys sell for twice as much as the old ones."

If I can use a line that Mr. Bettman brought out, it doesn't matter if these jerseys make it seem that one goes "from driving a Ford to a Ferrari". No one wants your myth-laced lemonade if you're just selling lemons, and Mr. Keim made that abundantly clear in his well-written article.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Oregon? Ohio? Ottawa? Oh, Oakland!

Finding official prototypes for NHL jerseys is rather hard to do since most marketing and design firms will hold on to these prototypes and guard them with US Secret Service-like secrecy. There are a vast number of reasons why this makes good sense, but the image above shows that there was much less worry about design theft in the 1960s when it came to hockey sweaters.

That, readers, is Charles O. Finley holding a mock-up of what he thought the Oakland Seals uniforms should look like after he had purchased the Oakland Seals team. However, his purchase of the franchise in 1970 saw him rename the hockey club as the California Golden Seals, and along with the name change came some very famous uniform changes. In the same vein as the Oakland Athletics - another sports franchise he owned - Finley changed the Seals' colours to green and gold, and then forced the players to wear white skates rather than the traditional black just like he had done with the Athletics. Notice the colour of the skates in the mock-up? Yes, it was definitely a planned move from the start.

The Seals looked like they were on the rise after going 21-39-18 in 1971-72 - an increase from 20-53-5 the year before - but Finley wasn't interested in "overpaying" for talent, and allowed his five best players to skate over to the WHA for a bigger payday. As a result, the 1972-73 season saw attendance numbers plummet, the team's record fell to an abysmal 16-46-16, and Finley's pocketbook suffered. In February of 1974, with the Seals on pace for a horrible 13-55-10 season, Finley sold the team to the NHL at a profit, and escaped his NHL venture realtively unscathed.

Of course, Mel Swig took over and moved the team to Cleveland a couple of years later, but the damage had been done as the Seals/Barons never recovered. In an interesting note, Finley almost sold the team to a group in Indianapolis in 1973, but the NHL rejected the sale of the team. The smitten Indianapolis group decided to get into pro hockey by joining the WHA for the 1974 season, and the Indianapolis Racers were born. It's amazing how things worked themselves out in hockey back then.

I wanted to bring to light the incredible picture above of an NHL owner holding a prototype of a jersey for the US Presswire to capture. It's rare when you catch NHL teams putting their ideas out to the public in this day and age about what they may wear with all the counterfeit jersey manufacturers lurking in the background. Back in the late-1960s, though, it probably didn't even cross anybody's mind.

Charlie Finley was different in terms of how he ran his sports franchises, and the "O" jersey was definitely something different than what NHL fans were used to seeing from the Seals.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

Friday, 28 October 2011

The Vultures Circled

I have spent some considerable time looking at the various stories found in the Sports Illustrated Vault about the WHA, but there are some rather good stories about the inner workings of the NHL and the problems they faced in the 1970s. One such problem was the Cleveland Barons. The entire organization was on life support the moment it landed in Cleveland, and the franchise never did recover due to poor management, poor location, and the unwillingness of NHL owners to help one another out. Honestly, it's remarkable that the Cleveland Barons lasted as long as they did considering all the craziness that went on behind-the-scenes. Fortunately, we have a record of what was happening thanks to some great writing.

Today, I bring forth an article written by Peter Gammons on the Barons that was published on March 7, 1977 in Sports Illustrated. Mr. Gammons' work is absolutely solid in this two-page piece, and he frames the problems with the Barons very well. I want to just touch upon the highlights.

"The Barons had received their Feb. 1 paychecks two weeks late, and they were still owed their Feb. 15 checks. On one road trip, a bus driver refused to transport the Barons from their hotel to the arena until he was paid in cash, and a Pittsburgh hotel refused to house the team until Coach Jack Evans agreed to put the entire bill on his American Express card. Back home, the Barons' credit rating was no better; one day a company reclaimed a videotape machine from Evans' office while the coach was at lunch. 'Someday it'll all seem funny,' said Forward Gary Sabourin. 'But now I just want to be a long way from Cleveland and the Barons.'
There was no doubt that the Barons were in dire straits financially as the 1976-77 season rolled to a close. Hotel magnate Mel Swig had poured $2.4 million into the team, and saw nothing but red ink for his trouble. Swig, being a business man, knew when to cut ties on a failing business venture, and it appeared that he was allowing the Barons to ease their way into darkness.

It appeared that the NHL would see its first franchise fold mid-season in the modern era as "the Barons had told Swig they all would retire immediately unless he produced their late paychecks and showed financial proof that the club would be able to complete the schedule. For his part, Swig said he had already lost enough money on the Barons, while the other NHL owners, who had lost more than $11 million trying to keep the Barons afloat when they were located in Oakland, insisted they would not bail out the franchise again."

So how did this mess start? For that answer, you need to head west.
"Three years ago the league bought back the Oakland team from Charles O. Finley for some $7 million, then sold it to Swig a year later for $3.5 million. Before purchasing the Seals, Swig had received assurances from the city of San Francisco that it planned to construct a 17,000-seat arena in the Yerba Buena redevelopment complex there, and it was his plan to move the Seals across the Bay from Oakland to San Francisco. But the Yerba Buena deal collapsed, so last summer Swig transferred his team from Oakland to Cleveland, recently vacated by the WHA's Crusaders, who tried to move to Florida but landed in Minnesota instead—and promptly went bankrupt.

"The Barons arrived in Cleveland just six weeks before the start of the season, but for some reason Swig declined to budget funds for promotion. Complicating matters, suburban Richfield—the site of the Coliseum—is somewhere between Akron and Nome, and inaccessible by public transportation. The Barons drew poorly from the start, averaging only 5,300 spectators per game. With his seasonal losses approaching $2.4 million, Swig searched for local investors, and for a time he thought that George Gund III, who owns about 30% of the franchise, would purchase another piece. But when it came time for Gund to put up his money, he was fishing in Chile."
Wow. Consider the factors that came into play when the Seals moved to Cleveland to become the Barons: a failed arena deal, the move of a franchise into a WHA facility where the WHA team couldn't thrive, a lack of promotional budgeting, and no investors to help with the mounting bills. If that's not the definition of a "calamity of errors", I'm not sure what is.
"As a result, the office staff was not paid for two months, and when an office boy was sent out to get paper cups for the coffee machine, the paper company refused to give him the cups. Swig suggested that the players take a 27% pay cut, but they balked. Then Swig was unable to meet the Feb. 1 payroll. The NHL finally stepped in and paid the players on Feb. 15, but there was no guarantee of future checks. 'Considering what they've been through, the players have been remarkable,' said Acting General Manager Harry Howell. 'In fact, they've had better than a .500 record since the day they missed their first paycheck.'"
If you were working for the Barons, imagine telling your bank that you can't make your mortgage payment because the NHL team you work for hasn't paid you in eight weeks! Worse yet, try being a player of said NHL team and being asked to take a 27% paycut to help the franchise out after you had signed a valid contract with the organization! I don't blame the NHL for cutting its losses by not offering any additional paydays, but why are the players and staff forced to suffer?

As the players looked forward as to where they would play next once the franchise dissolved, an unlikely hero stepped forward: the NHLPA.
"With the zero hour approaching, Eagleson had proposed a novel survival plan. The Players' Association, Eagleson said, would take out a $600,000 loan to help finance Cleveland's operations if Swig and the other NHL owners contributed a similar amount.

"Eagleson's proposal was overwhelmingly approved. Swig contributed $350,000 of his money, the 17 other NHL owners tossed in $20,000 apiece—and the Barons had the $1.3 million they needed to pay expenses this year. 'What we've done,' said NHL President Clarence Campbell, 'is give Cleveland one last chance to prove it wants this team. But there is no guarantee there will be a Cleveland hockey team next season.'
As the franchise circled the drain, the cash allowed them to play out the season before the inevitable happened. The players, however, were less than thrilled with this turn of developments.

"A lot of guys are a little upset about still being in Cleveland," Dennis Maruk said. "You figure, what the hell, we're not going to be here next year. Why not let us go someplace else now and let us establish ourselves. Everybody knows we have to play, but nobody wants to get hurt or spoil things for a deal for next year. There are a lot of mixed feelings about things."

The NHLPA, however, was looking out for the good of all its members. "The first purpose of a union is not to keep salaries high for a few players but to maintain as many jobs as possible," says Philadelphia's Bobby Clarke, the president of the NHLPA. "Beyond that, the sport is as much our business as it is the owners'."

Clarke also tacked on an interesting twist to his comments when he said, "We don't want to be like baseball." Yet Donald Fehr is now the NHLPA Executive Director. How the times have changed!

Concerns were raised about what to do when the Barons finally rolled over for good as the NHL and NHLPA were beginning to see the writing on the wall regarding the Barons franchise.
"While some teams—most notably the Rangers—wanted an auction of the Barons personnel, Clarke insisted that such a lottery 'would be all wrong. What about the fans of a team that can't afford to buy players? Even free agency would be wrong, because teams like the Rangers and Flyers would sign the best players. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. If the players are to be dispersed, there should be a straight dispersal draft.' But wouldn't Clarke prefer to see the Flyers buy the players who might help them win the Stanley Cup? 'The game and its integrity are more important than what one person wants,' he says. 'All our salaries must come down. It's crazy. Do you realize there are guys in the minor leagues making $150,000 a year? That's got to change.'"
This is an article that should have been taken into the bargaining room in 2005 when the NHL locked its doors and shutdown the season. Bobby Clarke stated, "All our salaries must come down. It's crazy" in 1977. Twenty-eight years later, the NHL still hasn't fixed the problem. It has a band-aid on it known as the salary cap, but there are still teams that hemmorrhage money annually. The "integrity of the game" in 1977 was simply about making things fair; in 2012, the discussions really should be about fairness again, and not who will be richer at the end.

In any case, the Barons played one more season in Cleveland after that problem-filled 1976-77 season. Mel Swig sold his ownership stake to his brother, Gordon, and to Gordon Gund III, and the two men tried to salvage the Barons in the 1977-78 season. Attendance increased as the Gunds drove up interest, and the Barons appeared to be on the verge of a playoff berth for the first time since moving to Cleveland. However, a fifteen-game losing streak in February put an end to the hopes of seeing the Barons in the playoffs.

The team would merge in the off-season with another struggling team in the Minnesota North Stars, and the North Stars would move into Cleveland's spot in the Adams Division. Ironically, the Gunds were granted an expansion team in San Jose in 1991 - the same market the Seals left - and the merger was undone to allow San Jose to draft unprotected players from the North Stars. The Gunds later sold the Sharks, but the Sharks retraced their roots when they setup an AHL franchise in Cleveland as the Barons! Talk about not letting go of something.

In any case, Cleveland Barons uniforms are one of the most sought-after items in hockey memorabilia circles. The short lifespan of the NHL Barons makes finding them a real challenge, and bids always end up in the four-figure range at least. But do you know what you're actually looking at when you see a Barons jersey?

The one thing that made the Barons' jerseys extremely popular was the Ohio-shaped outline on the sleeve numbers. To this day, no other NHL team has had an outline on the sleeve numbers which is surprising, considering some of the garish designs and horrific jersey details we've seen over the years. In a rather astounding move, the Barons wore this design for only their first season in Cleveland during the 1976-77 season! They also wore their names on their white jerseys, but went nameless on their red jerseys for that first season.

In their next and final season in 1977-78, the sleeve numbers broke free from Ohio, moving up the arm to the shoulder yoke. Both the red and white jerseys featured names this season, complying with the NHL mandate that all uniforms had to feature names on the back. The numbering on the back of the jersey also got considerably smaller than the previous year. Why? No one seems to know.

While the NHL has never considered moving back to Cleveland as far as I've heard, the AHL's Lake Erie Monsters now play out of Cleveland. The NHL does have a team in Ohio as the Columbus Blue Jackets call the state home, but the Barons still have the legacy as being the first Ohio-based NHL team. Even if that legacy is covered in tarnish.

With their short yet colorful history, though, you just have to grin and "Baron" it.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Defence Rests

I had a prior commitment on this fine Thursday evening, and what I found out is that I should probably stop making prior commitments when a Jets game is on TV. I spent the night at a comedy club being entertained by comedian Bryan Callen, and I highly recommend his show. It was funny and he had he crowd in stitches at several points. I found myself distracted, though, as my Blackberry continued to buzz throughout the night. I thought I might be missing some sort of important text conversation or maybe I was being spammed by Nigerian princes in some sort of revenge plot. It turned out that I was really wrong.

The score was 3-1 after the first period when I flipped my phone over so that it was face down on the table. I was happy that the Jets were playing well, but there were still forty minutes to play and the Jets have coughed up leads like this before.

And then my phone buzzed. And it buzzed almost immediately again. I refrained from looking at it as Bryan Callen was breaking into his show. A few jokes in, and it buzzed a third time. I couldn't help it - I had to look. Shockingly, I found the Jets were leading 5-2 over the Flyers! Things were looking up, and Mr. Callen was hitting his stride after having picked on a few audience members.

After a few minutes, my phone started buzzing again. And then again. And yet again. I refused to look at it mainly because I was laughing my butt off at Mr. Callen's comedy, but it began to eat away at me. I held out as long as I could, but I finally flipped the phone over: 6-4 lead for the Jets after two periods! Sure, the lead had dwindled slightly, but the Jets still held the lead!

The conversation on-stage turned to killer kung fu ostriches - "ost-ratch-ehs" - and my phone began to seizure. While the talk of the ost-ratch-ehs had the crowd at the comedy club in an uproar, I can only imagine what was happening at the Well Fargo Center. I flipped my phone over, and the score now sat at 8-7! What in the...? What happened in that last five minutes?

The Jets scoring eight goals? The Flyers scoring seven goals? Bobrovsky and Bryzgalov playing horri... wait, that's normal for Flyers goaltending. Just ask Roman Cechmanek... if you can locate him.

As Mr. Callen had the crowd roaring with laughter, it began again: the Blackberry shakes. How many more goals were being scored? Did both teams just pull their goalies and say, "To heck with it"? I flipped the phone over again - Andrew Ladd from Wheeler and Little at 18:54 of the third period. Jets lead 9-8! WHAT?!?

The phone didn't buzz again that night, so I knew the insanity had ended, but Mr. Callen made the grade in his own right. I can see why he continues to get jobs in Hollywood on a variety of TV shows and movies: the man is funny, can do accents, and really works a room well. I highly recommend you check him out at your local comedy club or on Showtime. He said some really great things about Canada in the Winnipeg Free Press, and I have to say that his show was absolutely fantastic. Highly recommended if you get a chance to see him on-stage.

I got home, and I had to see the highlights. Ladies and gentlemen, here are all the goals from Thursday night with what appears to be every save made that night. 17 goals, plus one disallowed goal, will eat up five minutes of your life. Don't say I didn't warn you.

This game literally felt like a game from the high-scoring 1980s. 15 different players scored goals tonight, and Andrew Ladd capped off the game with the winner with just 66 seconds to play.

I'm not saying that this game would have been different had Chris Pronger been playing for the Flyers on this night, but I'm pretty sure nine goals wouldn't have been pumped past the Russian netminders. For the Jets, this game will certainly rank up there for the next few years in terms of offensive output, but the eight goals won't have head coach Claude Noel sleeping any better.

I'll be the first to say it: a win is a win is a win. 9-8 or 2-1, it's a win, and the Jets can use a few of them. Well done, Jets. Let's just tighten up the defence a little, ok? Right on!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Rome Wasn't Built In A Day

The expression that is the titular introduction to this article doesn't really tell you a lot about what this article is about in any sense. But the expression - when building or rebuilding an NHL team - certainly can be used when looking at the early NHL standings thus far. There are a lot of factors that go into why teams are successful in the NHL, but there seems to be one trend that is constant since the lockout. That trend, readers, is that the average age of a Stanley Cup-winning teams seem to be falling in recent years that what we saw in the 1990s. That trend seems to show up in the early NHL standings as well when teams are working out the kinks and getting their systems straight.

Washington, who is red-hot right now, have had a solid youth core for the last few years. Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and Michal Neuvirth are the nucleus of that core this season, but it also includes players like Brooks Laich, Karl Alzner, and John Carlson for the most part in terms of who head coach Bruce Boudreau leans on in games. Not one of those players is over the age of 30, and the average age of those eight players is 24.6 years.

The Capitals added some veteran talent this season in Tomas Vokoun, Joel Ward, and Roman Hamrlik to go along with the oldest player on their roster in Mike Knuble. However, the average of the Capitals remains below the 30-years line at 28.25 years. If Washington is the favorite right now to capture the Stanley Cup, that's not a bad number to average out at considering that some "favorites" are much older, but it also puts Washington in as the 23rd-oldest team in the NHL. How does that compare to recent Stanley Cup Champions?

The Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, and Boston Bruins were the last three Stanley Cup winners. According to NHL Numbers, Pittsburgh's average in their winning season was 27.435 or tenth-oldest. Chicago had an average age of 26.962, making them the youngest team in the NHL. Boston, who admittedly had some grizzled veteran players, came in with an average age of 27.626 years or the 17th-oldest team.

Catch those average ages? 27.435, 26.962, and 27.626 - all approximately 27 years of age. Washington is on the wrong side of that 27-years mark. Does that mean that Washington's chances of winning a Stanley Cup are diminishing?

My answer is yes... and no. Look, there's no guarantee that any team will win anything. The Capitals, however, have a roster with vast talent that really looks to be the best on paper. They are slightly older than the 27-year mark, so they're still in their prime as a team when it comes to age. And if Detroit can win in 2008 with an average age of 30.992 - the oldest team in the NHL that year - there's nothing to suggest that Washington won't win this year. Statistics only are meaningful if they can prove something, and when stats are asked to predict chance with a wide variety of outside factors at play, the numbers mean little.

If we take the average age of the average ages of the three most recent Stanley Cup champions, we get a result of 27.341 as the baseline to determine which team fits the age criterion of a Stanley Cup champion in today's NHL. Combine that figure with teams that look like playoff teams, and this season's most likely NHL Stanley Cup champion based on age alone would be the Montreal Canadiens.

Wait, I said playoff teams, right? That would toss Montreal and Ottawa out of the mix. The Los Angeles Kings would be the next closest team to the baseline at 27.116 years, and there's no reason not to believe that the Kings can't climb to the top of the mountain. They have great young stars in Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Mike Richards, Drew Doughty, and Jonathan Quick. They are a young, fast, exciting team. Los Angeles would be a great choice for anyone, and the team's average age would suggest they have a great shot at glory this year.

But the Chicago Blackhawks are right there too. Chicago's average age is 27.581 years, and they too have stars all over their roster. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa, Brent Seabrook, and Corey Crawford have proven their worth this season, and - with the exception of Crawford - all of them have won a Stanley Cup already in their young careers. If we're looking at a Los Angeles Kings-Chicago Blackhawks Western Conference Final, that could be one of the best match-ups in recent history.

Over in the Eastern Conference, it appears that the Boston Bruins could be poised for a repeat if they can get out of this Stanley Cup hangover. Boston has an average age of 27.707 - nearly similar to last season's age - and they aren't far off the baseline this season. Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, Tuukka Rask, David Krejci, Milan Lucic, and Tyler Seguin proved extremely valuable to the Bruins last year, and, combined with stars like Zdeno Chara and Tim Thomas, this is a team that could prove deadly in the playoffs again.

The Eastern Conference team that is closest to baseline average age, though, is the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers did add veterans Jaromir Jagr and Ilya Bryzglaov to their roster, but the youth of Sergei Bobrovsky, Claude Giroux, James van Riemsdyk, Sean Couturier, and Matt Read have bumped down the average age on this team a lot. Mixing in savvy players like Chris Pronger and Daniel Briere may have the Flyers ready for a shot at greatness. Can you imagine a third series between Boston and Philly for the right to advance to the Stanley Cup Final?

As for some of the standout teams early on this season, here is a quick rundown of their average ages, and my thoughts on why these teams might see the wheels fall off the bus:

  • Edmonton Oilers - 26.766 (7th). I can't see Nikolai Khabibulin playing lights-out like he has for the entire season. If he does, however, he's a shoo-in for the Vezina Trophy. The kids are coming along, but they might need one more season to become a team with a shot at a serious playoff run.
  • Colorado Avalanche - 26.071 (2nd). I like Sergei Varlamov's confidence early on this season, and JS Giguere is a great second option, but this is a very young team. If things start to go bad, do they have the veteran leadership to grind out a win? Thus far, Colorado looks very good, but, like Edmonton, might still be a season away.
  • Dallas Stars - 29.059 (28th). In the extremely physical Western Conference, this average age may catch up to them. While Brendan Morrow is, in my opinion, one of the best captains in the league, can Kari Lehtonen continue his hot start through to the All-Star Game and carry this team to the playoffs? Remember, it's Kari Lehtonen.
  • Toronto Maple Leafs - 26.220 (3rd). There's no question that Toronto has played well thus far, but can they keep it up? James Reimer's injury will force Gustavsson into the spotlight - an area he hasn't been successful in thus far. Injuries to any of the Leafs' blueliners may expose this team as well. And Kessel needs to remain their best player. If he disappears, so does a lot of the Leafs' offence.
  • Buffalo Sabres - 26.931 (10th). Realistically, this is the season for Buffalo if there ever was one. The problem is that they really are looking one-dimensional right now. If it weren't for Ryan Miller, where would this team be? Ville Leino, Derek Roy, and Tyler Ennis could be the factors that either push Buffalo to new heights or have them flame out early again. Those three players have to start scoring at a regular pace.
If age has anything to do with teams surviving the rigors of a 100-game season including the playoffs, you would think that the best mix for a player would be NHL experience plus the ability to heal fast from bumps, bruises, and wounds. As a team, it would appear that the right mix of veterans and younger players equaling out to approximately 27 years of age is the number that teams should be striving for when building the next Stanley Cup champion.

Except, of course, the Detroit Red Wings. They seem to win no matter what their team's average age is.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Winless No More

To say that Scott Arniel has no pride in his work would be an outright lie. The man is fiercely proud of his work, his troops, and his record as a coach, so the winless start to the season that the Blue Jackets were putting together had to have him frustrated to no end. Considering that the Blue Jackets were playing the Detroit Red Wings tonight, Arniel could be forgiven if his team fell further into the hole they had dug at 0-7-1. However, on a night when James Wisniewski returned to action from his preseason suspension, the cards fell for the Blue Jackets in a different way than they had earlier this season, and the last winless team in the NHL no longer has a goose egg in the wins column.

Columbus not only took it to a seemingly-asleep Detroit Red Wings squad, but scored their first win without prized acquisition Jeff Carter. Many, including this writer, expected Detroit to come out with a fire in their bellies after getting hammered by Washington in their previous game by a 7-1 score. Instead, the same meek Red Wings team played another stinker against the NHL's worst team to this point.

"It's almost that we lose one game and it's almost like we're 1-5 instead of 5-1," Henrik Zetterberg told Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press. "We're a little tight with our sticks. We don't make plays; we're not executing. It's almost that we have no confidence at all.

"We've just got to play our game and move the puck. We should be able to bypass them and play in their end. I think we were prepared, I just think we didn't execute. Coming in here, we had a pretty good record, but somehow we don't play like that. We play like we almost have Columbus' record."

Regular Detroit backstopper Jimmy Howard was in Detroit with his newborn son and wife, so the veteran Ty Conklin got his second straight start after the shellacking that Washington laid on him. This game didn't start any better for Conklin as he allowed an RJ Umberger goal just 21 seconds in.

"We knew they were going to be desperate and play well, especially in front of their home fans," Nicklas Lidstrom told St. James. "We knew they'd go after us a little bit more in our zone and they did that, too. They scored on the first shift. They set the tone early in the game."

With fans in Columbus calling for the heads of GM Scott Howson and head coach Scott Arniel to roll, the win comes as some relief to both men. The hopes of salvaging this early low point in the season starts here and now after this win.

"I don't think anyone in that dressing room has been through the three weeks of hell we just went through," Scott Arniel said to the Associated Press. "The psychological, the emotional, everything that came with it. It was a lot of baggage."

While Rick Nash struggled on the night, the Blue Jackets saw Ryan Johansen and John Moore score their first NHL goals of their respective careers, and Derek MacKenzie hit the open net to ice the 4-1 victory. The Blue Jackets played with desperation - something Detroit was clearly lacking in this one - and they were rewarded for their hard work.

It doesn't get any easier for Columbus as they look to build on this win. They close out October with road games in Buffalo and Chicago before welcoming the Anaheim Ducks to Columbus. While this has been a trying October for Columbus fans thus far, it could be a one-win October if Columbus doesn't muster some offence against three solid clubs.

As for Detroit, things will change for the better. There's no doubt that they have the talent on paper to compete with the NHL's best, and this hiccup will be corrected as they move forward. From what I watched, though, the effort and determination - two Red Wings traits - simply weren't there on this night. If they were looking past the Blue Jackets, this game will serve as a solid reminder to live in the present because anyone can beat anyone else.

If the Red Wings are going to just skate through the motions, though, they have no one to blame for their loss themselves. "There's no excuse for what happened tonight," Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock said.

Everyone in the NHL now has a win. I didn't think it would take this long, but who would have expected the mighty Red Wings to take the night off against Columbus? Maybe now, Arniel can work on restoring his confidence in a somewhat-shaken club with the 900-pound gorilla off their collective backs.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

Monday, 24 October 2011

More Great Emails

I consider myself pretty lucky when it comes to the great emails that I receive. You, readers, make this blogging thing a lot more fun than just posting a diatribe about some hockey issue. Again, I feel lucky because I get a lot of excellent and thoughtful emails with great questions and information. I received one last week that I wanted to post with an answer this week, but I got a second email in regards to the same information. It's not that rare for me to receive emails about the same thing, but most of those emails come from some Nigerian prince looking to share his fortune or from some dying person who has a vast fortune that I need to distribute. Thankfully, we'll skip past the spam and focus on these two emails today.

We'll start with the older email. I received this email from Gisele. In her email, Gisele writes,

"Just curious. I always knew Bobby Hull's slap shot was the fastest and Gordie Howe's was the fastest wrist shot. But what if these two greats were playing now with the new sticks the players now use. How fast do you think their shots would be?"
Great question, Gisele, and thanks for writing! Gisele must have read an article I wrote in December 2009 regarding the speeds of shots fired by NHL legends. Bobby Hull was judged to shoot at 118.3 mph while Gordie Howe's wrist shot was clocked at 114.2 mph!

While I don't fully believe in those numbers, there is no doubt that these two men had cannons for shots. Hull routinely gave goaltenders nightmares when it came to the velocity he could pump out on his slapshot, and Howe's forearms made him look more like Popeye than a hockey player. His wrist shot was as close to being sniper fire as a hockey player can get.

In regards to Gisele's question, I'm going to speculate a few things because we can't necessarily test the players in question at this point. So here goes nothing:

  • I think Hull's slapshot would routinely be one of the best in the NHL with the new sticks seen in the NHL. Would his shot be faster than Chara's record-setting blast? There's a good chance that it would come close, but saying that it would be faster would be categorically wrong on my part. I'm not going on record in saying that Hull's shot would be better, but it would certainly rank as one of the best in the NHL.

  • Howe, with the flex on the sticks seen today, probably could have had lasers for wrist shots. The man's arms alone gave him a unique advantage over players in his era. By adding the stick technology to Howe's already-impressive shot would only add to his arsenal. Would his wrist shot be faster than Chara's slapshot? No, not by a longshot. But it would be one of the more impressive wrist shots in the NHL.
Thanks for asking that question, Gisele, and keep the questions coming if you have any others! Emails like yours are fun to answer, especially when trying to determine the science behind the answer!

Adding to this email, I received a second email regarding shooting speeds. This email, though, came from a man who knows the science behind a rocket of a shot. Ron Johnson emailed me, and he has some pretty impressive credentials behind his name. Mr. Johnson wrote,
"It was nice reading your article on the hardest shot. I have a hockey shooting blog called Elite Hockey Shooters and work with a gentleman named Mike Valley the GT coach for the Dallas Stars; his site Elite Goalies.

"I have taught shooting mechanics for the past 30+ years and exclusively for the past 7 years approximately 35 hours per week instructing professional and amateur players currently working with Kyle Okposo, Joe Pavelski, Adum Burish, Bryce Salvador, Tom Gilbert, Aaron Voros, etc.... I am also the technical director and co founder of NEXT Testing specializing in hockey science analysis.

"While shooting mechanics are a lost art today due to the time spent on skating, I have witnessed several Junior A players with wrist shots over 85 mph with professional players shooting 95 MPH standing still with feet planted. It is unfortunate that all players in the NHL are not tested for both. I have yet today to witness a junior of professional player with perfect mechanics which when I played seemed to be far more correct.

"I was told that Gordie Howe's wrist shot was clocked at 95+ MPH so I was indeed surprised to read the number that you posted. It would certainly be amazing to find out what Bobby Hull (I was told it was clocked at 113 MPH) would have shot with today's stick at 15% recoil to release.

"I did enjoy your blog... well done and best of luck."
Once again, thank you, Mr. Johnson, for your email, for reading, and for sending me some confirmation on my thoughts to Gisele! I am truly honoured to have you write to me, so thank you for this!

I'll be the first to admit that shooting mechanics should be taught to all players, and those teachings should start young. The "muscle memory" that is required to develop the unconscious ability to shoot in a mechanically-sound way has to be instilled at an early age so that the lessons taught are forming good habits and not just correcting bad habits. The work you're doing with the NHL players and the junior players, Mr. Johnson, should be commended, and I'll do that here.

I really enjoyed the Hall of Fame section that showcases some of the deadliest snipers in the NHL of all-time. While there are a few sections that are off-limits unless you have a valid sign-in, it looks as though Mr. Johnson has himself a very nice site with a lot of information. Well done, Mr. Johnson, on this excellent work, and Mr. Valley's site for goaltenders is equally impressive.

Emails like these that provoke thought and require some extrapolation of results are why I love the science and history in this sport. Moreso, I really enjoy taking the time to do the research on these topics, and I encourage all readers to send questions if and when you have them. I want to thank Gisele and Mr. Ron Johnson for sending in these emails, and I hope to hear from both readers in the future!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

Sunday, 23 October 2011

TBC: Double Overtime

I spoke a little bit about the newest book being posted on the Teebz's Book Club list back on October 1 as Simon & Schuster Canada began to get its publicity campaign rolling for their new hockey publication. There were contests and offers of having your pictures appear in the next possible publication, but the only guarantee in having a "next publication" would be to have a solid publication on this effort. Teebz's Book Club is proud to present Double Overtime, written by Stephen Cole and published by Simon & Schuster Canada, and I have to say that the chances of having a follow-up to this book is good considering how good this book is. Without a doubt, you'll enjoy this book if you're a hockey fan. The information contained within its covers is outstanding.

Stephen Cole started his career in books with McClelland & Stewart as a copywriter in the mid-1980s. He found a treasure trove of old hockey books that he proceeded to read through, compiling all sort of information and stories about various NHL teams. Stephen's wife, Jacquie, and his two sons, Harry and Lewis, offered up their support as Stephen began the process of writing this book. The life-long Leafs fan still lives in Toronto.

At first, Double Overtime seemed like an encyclopedia of facts and stories about each team. It was less reading and more just absorbing everything presented on the pages. However, once I got used to the fact that this book is a rapid-fire succession of all sorts of information, it became easier to read and much more enjoyable.

The book is organized in team order alphabetically. The Anaheim Ducks start, and the Winnipeg Jets/Atlanta Thrashers franchise closes out the book, showing that there was at least one update made before the publication run began. The pictures found in the book were all gathered through the Flikr web service meaning that the majority of images featured in the book were taken by fans. How cool is that?

One of the coolest features in Double Overtime is the cost of a night out per team. For example, the cost of a ticket to a Flames game, parking near the Saddledome, a hot dog, and a beer will run you a bill of $86.17 - eighth-highest total price out of the thirty NHL teams. There's a total for every team like this, and it really puts things into perspective when you see who charges the most, who charges the least, and how much the difference between the two prices are.

There are a ton of stories I had never heard before reading Double Overtime. For example, in the Colorado Avalanche chapter, there's a great story about Patrick Roy and a possible reason why he was a Conn Smythe Trophy winner twice for the Avalanche.

Avs goalie Patrick Roy, winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy (playoff MVP) in both of Colorado's Cup triumphs, had boxes of VHS tapes sent to him on the road. Not film of the next team he was facing, but copies of his favorite TV show, the granny-friendly mystery series, Murder, She Wrote.
That, readers, is almost unfathomable. I always knew that Patrick Roy was a different kind of goaltender, but Murder, She Wrote? Seriously?

Overall, Double Overtime has lots of great photos and a ton of interesting facts and anecdotes. There is even coverage of most teams, but the more historic teams - the Original Six teams - do get a few more pages of information. Personally, I'm ok with that as I like hockey history. There is a great look at the late Derek Boogaard, and Stephen Cole does a really nice job in writing an excellent piece on Boogaard. Because of all of this, I fully recommend Double Overtime to all hockey fans, and I'm happy to award it the Teebz's Book Club Seal of Approval.

While I can't say that this is a book I'll read daily, Double Overtime will be a book I'll definitely pull out again while looking up a hockey fact.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

Saturday, 22 October 2011

A November Preview

While it seems early to start talking about November, I wanted to bring to light something that I think could help you prepare for December. Yeah, I know... it's not even November, and I'm talking about December. But I'm sure this will help you as a I commit to something in November that could make your Christmas shopping a little easier for your hockey-loving son or daughter. After all, time has seeming flew this year, and I know I've been guilty of falling behind a few times on this blog. Today, I have about a million things I want to accomplish, so that means there's little time for in-depth, pithy blogs on hockey. The good news is that I'm going to do my best to help you find some great stuff for your little hockey superstar.

"I Love To Read" month comes up in February around these parts, but thanks to a great package I received from Scholastic Canada, there will be lots of books for kids and adolescents posted in the month of November. That means that you can hit your local bookstore to find these books for your kids and teens if they are looking for something hockey-related to read. If you can't find them locally, I'd be more than happy to help with your Christmas shopping.

The best part of this endeavour is that I'm proud to see kids reading. Even if it isn't a hockey-themed story, reading is important and should always be encouraged. While TV and video games play a role in one's life, reading is something that should always be encouraged as an excellent form of entertainment for kids and adults alike.

I'll be honest: I've read the entire Lemony Snickets' A Series of Unfortunate Events series. It was excellent, and I'm an adult! It wasn't hockey-related in any way, and I thoroughly enjoyed the series. I also spent some time this year reading the literary version of The Bourne Identity, and I can tell you that the Matt Damon movie is entirely different from the Robert Ludlum story. Would I have known that if I had only seen the movie? Absolutely not. But the book was excellent, and my imagination ran wild as Bourne's adventure unfolded. Reading, though, is the key as I found myself enveloped in these stories!

November is HBIC Reading Month for kids, and I'm proud to feature a number of Scholastic Canada books in this month. I'll feature at least one per week and another on the weekend, so make sure you tune in often to check out the great books for young readers!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

Friday, 21 October 2011

The City Has Heritage

With the Jets rolling through the nation's capital this week, there was a lot of Jets buzz in Ottawa. Perhaps one of the biggest pieces of news came out of the NHL Offices this week that the Jets have put the buzz in the league's ear about possibly hosting the next Heritage Classic in 2014. Yes, Canadian hockey fans, you read that correctly - the next outdoor game in Canada will be played in 2014, three years from now. Forget the fact that the Canadiens have been in both Heritage Classic games while the two Alberta-based teams made up the opposition. Apparently the Jets want in for the next one, and "an NHL source" thinks there could be a good chance Winterpeg gets a shot at hosting the 2014 game.

According to the Winnipeg Free Press' Gary Lawless, his article from today;s paper shows the Jets are very interested in moving ahead of other Canadian teams such as Toronto, Vancouver, and Ottawa when it comes to hosting the outdoor game.

Gary writes,

A league source has confirmed to the Free Press that the Winnipeg Jets have expressed interest in hosting the next Heritage Classic, which is expected to be played in 2014.

The NHL is expected to study and consider the viability of hosting the outdoor game in Winnipeg.

"Winnipeg will have the benefit of having a suitable outdoor facility," said an NHL source, referring to the new football stadium being built on the University of Manitoba campus and expected to be ready for next summer's CFL season.

The NHL has developed the Winter Classic into a yearly franchise in the U.S. in an attempt to sell the game, but uses the Canadian version known as the Heritage Classic much more sparingly.

The Jets had no comment on the potential of hosting an outdoor game.
As excited as I am about this event, there are a few things that need to be considered when looking at Winnipeg as a possible venue for the Heritage Classic.

First, if Winnipeg does succeed in getting this game, the only opponent that would be fitting would be the Toronto Maple Leafs. It's almost tragic that one of the founding franchises in the NHL has yet to participate in any sort of outdoor game, especially when you consider that Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Montreal have already played in two. Well, except Philly, but that will happen on January 2, 2012.

Having Toronto come to Winnipeg to play in the Heritage Classic guarantees two things: a huge fanbase that will descend upon Winnipeg that support the Maple Leafs, and the rabid Winnipeg fanbase that supports the Jets. Selling the place out shouldn't be a problem unless Winnipeg's weather decides to show up in full force.

The average high and low temperatures in Winnipeg in February - the month in which the 2011 Heritage Classic was played - are -20C and -9C (-4F and 16F). I can tell you that it feels a whole heckuva lot colder than that in February. The average high and low temperatures in Winnipeg in November - the month in which the 2003 Heritage Classic was played - are -18C and -9C (0F and 16F). November is actually ideal because it's normally just getting cold enough to start laying down ice, but Manitoba is occasionally known for it's longer summers. If I'm the NHL, I'm looking at the deep-freeze in February for this game.

With the temperatures being a lot colder in February, the ice should turn out much better and much faster for the players. Of course, the flip side of the coin is that the players will have to find ways to stay warm because the winds are usually the factor that everyone forgets about when visiting Winnipeg in the winter.

With the game being in Winnipeg, there's probably a better than good chance that the Jets introduce an alternate jersey in one of the old styles that the old Jets used to wear. These would sell like ice in the desert, so you know that the alternate uniform tie-in has the Jets salivating at the thought of another merchandise windfall of cash.

The city of Winnipeg itself is home to some impressive hockey history. The Winnipeg Falcons were the first gold medalists in men's hockey for Canada at the 1920 Antwerp Olympic Games. Former Jets and current Hall of Famers Dale Hawerchuk, Bobby Hull, and Serge Savard all played for Jets. NHL legends Bill Mosienko, Terry Sawchuk, Andy Bathgate, Kenny Reardon, Ted Irvine, Ed and Mud Bruneteau, and Herb Gardiner were all born in Winnipeg. Sports broadcasters Brian Williams, Don Wittman, and Scott Oake spent many nights in Winnipeg, covering all sports including hockey. These examples alone show that Winnipeg has a deep and rich hockey history.

I like the idea that the Jets want to bring the Winter Classic to Winnipeg, but they can't shut out the Toronto Maple Leafs in this process if they want this game to fly. Toronto deserves to be in one of these big games, and the weather in Winnipeg would almost guarantee that the game would be successful on the ice.

Off the ice? Here's a quick instructional video on how to dress for Winnipeg in February.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Test Yourself

I occasionally wander by the Sporcle site just to test my hockey intellect, and I find that I know a lot. I don't ace every quiz, but I usually score in the 90% range for the majority of quizzes they feature on the game of hockey. Some of the quizzes, though, are ridiculously difficult, and I found myself struggling on a couple of them today. I'm not embarrassed to admit that I struggled because I passed the 70% barrier on both, but there were a few head scratches today.

Without futher explanation, here are the quizzes I thought might be entirely relevant for everyone to try today. I've broken them down into three categories: rookie, veteran, and superstar. Rookie will be the easier quizzes, veteran get a little harder, and superstar speaks for itself if you can ace these ones. Have it it, and feel free to post your scores if you like. I've posted mine.

ROOKIE

Jersey numbers retired by two teams - six NHL players have had their numbers retired by two different teams. Name all six NHL legends. I went six-for-six.

VETERAN

European Stanley Cup winners - you get a pile of time on this one, and you'll need it. It's not too difficult if you can wrap your head around the rosters of each team, but there are a few tricky ones on there with players from the 1980s. I scored 82 of 98 players.

Dynamic Duos - name the top two scorers for each of the teams listed. I scored 144/186, and I totally missed a few names that should have been on my board. Kudos to anyone who can name the two New York Americans players. That's a tough one.

Most recent MVPs - name the men who are the respective teams' most recent MVP. I scored 19/21, and missed the Senators and the Tigers. Huge kudos to those who get the Maroons' MVP and the Tigers' MVP. Those are tough!

SUPERSTAR

Ice hockey penalties - if you aspire to be a referee, see if you can name all 38. I actually named 34 in the time alotted. And then I was unhappy with myself for missing the four that I did.

NHL countries - name the country represented by the NHL player listed. This one is tough due to the vast number of players listed, but there is a mistake on it. "Tanzania" is the correct answer for one of the players, but the author of the quiz listed the answer as "Tanzia". The other 40 countries are up to you. I scored 40/41 with an asterisk.

Buffalo Sabres by jersey number - think you know the Sabres? I know I don't after taking this quiz. I scored 53 out of 72, and there were a lot of players I should have known but had forgotten about. Good luck on this one if you only know a handful of Sabres.

1999 NHL Entry Draft first-round picks - do you know your history? Do you remember who went first overall? I scored 15 out of 28. Where are half of these guys today?

Give yourself a pat on the back if you complete all eight quizzes. It's a big effort on some of those, so as long as you put in the work, you get an "A" for effort from HBIC. If you like, post your scores in the comments. Please do not post answers! If there are any additional errors, please email me, and I'll address that.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

It Sounds Like A Nice Place

When you consider a town that has the name of Cherry Hill, there are a lot of pleasant images that come to mind because of the name. Lots of tree-lined streets, big porches for lazy summer evenings, and a laid-back, care-free attitude from its citizens are what spring to mind for me. The reality is that Cherry Park, New Jersey is a bustling city that lies just west of Philadelphia, and is the home to a few major companies. The city is 71,000 citizens strong, and the city motto is "You couldn't pick a better place". That motto may be true for most people except if you played in the WHA. Cherry Hill Arena was, for lack of a better term, a nightmare.

The Cherry Hill Arena was initially known as the Haddonfield Ice House Arena, and it played host to an EHL team known as the Jersey Devils. The Philadelphia Ramblers of the EHL relocated to Delaware Township - Cherry Hill's former name - in 1964, and the team took up residence at the newly-named Cherry Hill Arena. The Jersey Devils didn't have a lot of stars playing for them, but Bobby Taylor, Dick Sarrazin, and Rosaire Paiement all suited up for them before moving on to play in the NHL. All three men would play for the Philadelphia Flyers at some point in their careers.

The team played for nine seasons in the EHL in Cherry Hill as the Jersey Devils before the EHL ceased operations. With the Cherry Hill Arena empty, the township looked for another tenant to fill their arena. What they got in 1974 was a lot more than they may have bargained for, but the visiting players would argue that they were worse off after playing in Cherry Hill Arena.

The New York Golden Blades, owned by New York real estate mogul Ralph Brent, was hemorrhaging money as the team was playing in front of crowds as sparse as 500 in Madison Square Garden. Realizing that his venture into pro sports was not going to turn out well, Brent turned control of the team over to the WHA Head Offices. The WHA decided to get out of their incredibly ridiculous lease at Madison Square Garden in order to stop a lot of the bleeding. After going 6-12-2, the Golden Blades needed a new place to play. One man had a vision.

Jack Maxwell convinced the WHA to move the team into the vacant Cherry Hill Arena. With the WHA desperate to find a venue for their team, they placed an advertisement in local newspapers. Maxwell answered the ad, and the wheels were set in motion. The WHA was excited to have a team close to Philadelphia again after the Blazers had moved to Vancouver, and there was optimism in Cherry Hill that the WHA might be the professional team they longed for as a tenant in their arena. Maxwell, however, dreamed of building a state-of-the-art facility that would house a professional hockey team for many years to come. He saw this as the city's opportunity to audition for that role.

WHA officials "didn't care where it was," Maxwell told Philly.com's Scott Brown. "They wanted anybody to take over and not disrupt the rest of the league's schedule. That's why we got it."

November 23, 1973 saw the newly-named New Jersey Knights defeat the Quebec Nordiques 3-1 in front of what some have called a "near-capacity crowd" of 4062 people - the arena actually sat approximately 5500 fans. But that's where the excitement ended if you were a visiting player. The problems that Cherry Hill Arena had were plentiful.

"No doubt, the conditions I played in in Cherry Hill were the worst I ever played in, by far," André Lacroix said to Philly.com's Scott Brown. "You almost had to jump over the red line because there was such a dip there. It was basically dangerous to be out there."

In Ed Willes' Rebel League, players expanded more on the incredibly dangerous conditions on the ice.

"There was a hill at center ice," reports Lacroix. "You could actually get a lot of momentum off it. It was like coming off a turn on a ski hill."

[Paul] Shmyr, for his part, says you could stand at one end of the rink, shoot the puck along the ice, watch it disappear into a depression, then take flight as it reappeared.

"The goalies used to say if you slap it along the ice at the red line, it will be just under the bar when it got to the net," says [Harry] Neale.

"There was a crown in the middle," says [John] Garrett. "A pass that was going along the ice would jump five feet in the air all of a sudden. You had to really keep your head up when you were going through the neutral zone."
Scott Brown dug up more about the rink.
[Gordie] Howe, the Hall of Famer who spent 26 years in the NHL and six in the WHA, remembers the thin ice sometimes breaking up behind a player as he skated away. Howe said the ice was pockmarked, giving it a wavy quality that left goaltenders understandably jumpy.

"For goaltenders, anything shot on net was potentially dangerous," said Howe, who played in the Cherry Hill Arena as a member of the Houston Aeros. "It wasn't much of a rink, to be honest with you."
The rink itself was slanted, causing the visitors to literally skate uphill for two periods. Plexiglass was not installed; chain link was used to separate the fans from the rink instead. The dressing rooms were tiny, and the visitors' dressing room had no showers. The home team Knights couldn't all dress at the same time due to the lack of space. Visiting teams were forced to dress at the Holiday Inn a few miles down the road, and then bus it to the arena where they would don their skates. Once the game was over, they would take their skates off, and bus it back to the Holiday Inn where they would change out of their gear and shower.

"You would see Bobby Hull or Gordie Howe coming in a school bus carrying their equipment just like school kids," Lacroix said, laughing. "It was embarrassing."

Clearly, the move to New Jersey was a mistake in both the financial sense as well as the physical dangers presented to the players at Cherry Hill Arena. As the number of fans dwindled once again in New Jersey, the Knights were rumoured to be moving to Baltimore. However, they would ultimately move southwest after the 1973-74 season ended to San Diego where they became the Mariners. The nightmare in New Jersey wouldn't be tried again by the WHA.

The Cherry Hill Arena went through another name change in 1975 as it was rechristened as the Cherry Hill Centrum. The arena has long been demolished, and a shopping center sits on its former location. A few businesses tried to capitalize on the Knights moving to town, but the writing was on the wall for this franchise the moment that the WHA took over its day-to-day operations.

While the city's motto is "You couldn't pick a better place", the WHA players who had to go into Cherry Hill, New Jersey would certainly disagree with that statement. The teams may have been better off just playing on a local pond.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

He Was Called "Brinks"

The Canadian media knew about the lanky, thin kid that the Oilers acquired from the Indianapolis Racers, and it was clear that he was special. The young man in the image to the left is the greatest scorer in NHL history, and it's amazing to think that he started his professional ice hockey career as a 17 year-old. How Wayne Gretzky was signed to a contract by the WHA's Indianapolis Racers and eventually dealt to the Edmonton Oilers is a bit of a crazy story. And he almost ended up as a Winnipeg Jet! But the greatest player in NHL history to be denied the Calder Trophy has a pretty good tale about how he became the face of the Edmonton franchise.

Jerry Kirshenbaum's article in the December 11, 1978 edition of Sports Illustrated brings to light the story of Gretzky getting settled in with his new city and team after the deal that sent him from Indianapolis. Again, it's a story that really has its own history, and I want to point out a few facts presented by Mr. Kirshenbaum in this article.

Seeing Gretzky as somebody who might fill a lot of their empty seats, the foundering Indianapolis Racers signed him to a four-year, $1 million contract, sent him on a whirlwind round of promotional appearances and even organized a Great Gretzky Fan Club. Then last month, just eight games into the season, the financially shaky Racers peddled him to Edmonton, a stronger franchise that, unlike Indianapolis, entertains realistic expectations of getting into the National Hockey League. Peter Pocklington, the Oiler president, said, "We feel that if we're going to be in the NHL, we need a superstar. And Wayne is going to be one."
Was Peter Pocklington clairvoyant? More than likely he was not as the Oilers probably just took a look at his Junior A stats from Sault Ste. Marie, and wanted him as an Oiler almost immediately.

What isn't told, though, is that Racers owner Nelson Skalbania had two teams vying for Gretzky's services: Edmonton and Winnipeg. Skalbania had signed Gretzky to a personal services contract worth a reported $1.75 million, but the Racers were hemorrhaging money. To get stop the bleeding, Skalbania offered up the star to the Jets and Oilers. If the legend is true, after Winnipeg owner Michael Gobuty turned down a high-stakes game of backgammon with Skalbania where Gretzky's rights were on the table, Peter Pocklington offered up big cash to Skalbania in the form of $700,000 for Gretzky's rights. Along with Ed Mio and Peter Driscoll, Gretzky was traded to Edmonton for the cash, and the rest, as they say, is history.

It does, however, seem more plausible that Gretzky's agent recommended he choose Edmonton because of the oil boom happening in that province considering what the Racers were going through. But this is the WHA, and the backgammon story doesn't seem so far-fetched when you consider everything that went on in the WHA.

When Gretzky joined Edmonton, the team had a 1-4 record. The Oilers are now 12-8 and contending for first place. Glen Sather, the former NHL player who coaches the club, gives Gretzky due credit. " Wayne has innate hockey sense like all the great players," says Sather, who played for Boston in 1966 when Orr was a rookie with the Bruins. "Coming out of his end, he always seems in position to take the pass. And when he gets the puck he knows where everybody is, the way a center is supposed to. I hate to put this on him, but a player like Gretzky comes along only once every 10 years. He's not up there with Orr, Hull and Howe yet, but he's not far away, either."
The bar was set very high for Gretzky by Glen Sather in those comments, but Sather clearly saw the potential. Of course, a lot of high-scoring junior players show ample potential, but Gretzky had nine goals and eleven assists in his first twenty professional games as a seventeen year-old! If anyone had the foresight to know that Gretzky would rewrite the record books a few short years later, Sather's words could be considered almost prophetic.

His teammates, who nicknamed him Brinks because of his big contract, took a liking to him, as did the members of the Great Gretzky Fan Club. However, after an encouraging turnout of 11,728 for the Racers' opening game—a 6-3 loss to Winnipeg in which Gretzky went scoreless—attendance dropped to the 5,000-to-7,000 level.
I found it funny that the Gretzky's teammates in Indianapolis called him "Brinks" because of his massive contract, yet Skalbania claimed the sale of Gretzky, Mio, and Driscoll was necessary to keep the Racers afloat. If only Gretzky's teammates had known what was brewing behind the scenes, the nickname given to Gretzky could have been all the foreshadowing the Racers franchise needed in terms of their existence.

Might it be that Skalbania had actually planned to unload Gretzky for a fast profit all along? Suspecting as much, some irate season ticket holders in Indianapolis reacted to the sale by filing a class-action suit, and the Indianapolis Star taunted the club's absentee owner with the headline HEY NELSON, GO BACK TO SKALBANIA. Meanwhile, the last-place Racers are 4-15-2 and apparently trying to hang on until such time as the NHL might absorb choice WHA franchises like the Oilers, at which point less choice franchises such as their own would be indemnified for consenting to pack it in.
There was, indeed, a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of the season-ticket holders of the Indianapolis Racers, but not over the trade of Gretzky. Instead, Skalbania was hit with a class-action lawsuit because the team folded on December 15, 1978 after just 25 games. Without getting into the legalese of that linked article, it appears that Skalbania escaped the charges made against him that he owed the season-ticket holders roughly $20 million in "damages". In any case, the last-place Racers wouldn't make it through to the end of the season, folding four days after Mr. Kirshenbaum's article was published.

Gretzky was scoring goals on professional goaltenders before he had graduated high school. There aren't many players who can claim that today. But there probably aren't too many players who can say that they signed their first professional contract at age 17, and then was traded just a few games into the season for cash before playing against the team that traded him a few days before that franchise folded! Gretzky's start to his professional career is pretty unique, just as his talent set him apart from everyone else.

It's just another one of those crazy WHA stories that needs to be told!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

Monday, 17 October 2011

Great Reader Email

The man you see to the left? Not an NHL player, but he certainly is an up-and-comer. That's Brian Cici, and he emailed me today with an awesome video that he and friend Shaun Finn created. There are thousands upon thousands of videos out there on the internet of hockey-related material, but this one struck me as being entirely different because it really is about the spirit and passion of a hockey fan. Brian and Shaun have a tradition that they filmed and laid a soundtrack over that shows how deeply the love of the game burns in Canada, and especially in a Vancouver and a small piece of heaven known as Green Lake, BC. If you want to know why Canadians love the game of hockey, this video is a great reason why the coldest team game on Earth warms our hearts.

Here's Brian's email to me.

"I read up on your blog on occasion as I'm an avid hockey fan from Vancouver.

"I put this short film together with a friend of mine about a group of friends who build an outdoor hockey rink up north for a week every year. I thought you'd like to take a look at it.

"Thanks for your hard work on the blog. Always full of good juicy info."
Thanks for reading, Brian. I really appreciate you stopping by when you can and reading my mindless banter on the sport we love. Thank you for those kind words.

The video that Brian is referring to is embedded below, and I have to say that I was glued to my monitor. Maybe it's because this is how I remember my days of hockey as a kid, or maybe it just harkens back to days of a simpler time. Either way, this video is a great reminder of why it doesn't matter if you're an NHL superstar or a shinny player in the backyard, hockey is all about a frozen patch of ice. Just as a note, if the video is very choppy, turn the HD video off by clicking on the HD symbol in the lower-right corner.

Honestly, I get chills just from watching that because it really is a magical thing to see a lake turn into a hockey rink. From his Vimeo webpage, here's a quick description of what's happening in the video:
Every January a group of friends go from the city to 8 hours north, to Green Lake, BC, Canada. Their mission, to build a full size hockey rink from the frozen lake and make hockey happen.

It takes several trips up north to prep the ice for this week. A snowplow scrapes the surface, and when it's cold enough, the ice is flooded to smooth the surface. Even though the ice is softer and more susceptible to damage, the backdrop of a wide open space and crisp air is undeniably one of the best feelings in the world. I can't wait for next January.

Created by Brian Ceci and Shaun Finn
Brian, you and Shaun have created a masterpiece in this video. This is what old-time hockey was all about: boys out playing on a cleared surface of ice in Anywhere, Canada, living the dream that they're one move away from being the next NHL star.

If the technical aspects of the video are important to you, the musical pieces are Malmo by The Album Leaf and Wheat Kings by The Tragically Hip. The movie itself was filmed on a Canon 5D Mark II with a 70-200mm 2.8f II and 24-70mm 2.8f.

If you were watching closely, there were three different Vancouver Canucks jerseys seen - evidence that these Vancouver boys are big fans of their hometown team, and, in particular, the old Canucks skate logo. There's also a red and a white Team Canada jersey seen in the video. These guys are Canadian hockey fans through and through.

What makes this video great, though, is that a little hard work goes a long, long way. The guys don't need dressing rooms or an arena full of fans to go and have a little fun, play the game they love, and - for a brief moment in time - skate like they're the best player in the world. There's an innocence that comes to life in this video, and Brian and Shaun captured the spirit of the game and child-like playfulness of these men so well.

Well done, Brian and Shaun, and I cannot wait for your next video! Especially if it's all about Janaury's next rink adventure! Thanks for sharing this with me, and keep up the amazing work!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

Sunday, 16 October 2011

The Last Days Of The WHA

While most people were moving into the roaring '80s, there was one organization that was closing its doors after seven years of craziness. The WHA's last game saw the Winnipeg Jets beat the Edmonton Oilers to win the 1979 Avco Cup. Shortly after that, the Oilers, Jets, Nordiques, and Whalers were admitted into the NHL for play in the 1979-80 season. It seems almost unfathomable that a league like the WHA hung around for as long as it did when you consider that there were 32 WHA franchises in total, yet they never had more than 14 franchises operating in one season. Needless to say, the last days of the WHA were both good and bad depending on which side of the coin you were on.

Sports Illustrated's Reyn Davis took a long look at the WHA in his May 28, 1979 article that was a look back on all the crazy things that happened over the league's seven years of existence. Let's review some of the things in his article that piqued my interest.

Here is that long list of defunct WHA franchises. Make note of some of the major metropolitan cities that the WHA called home:

"the New York Raiders, the New York Golden Blades, the New Jersey Knights, the San Diego Mariners, the Houston Aeros, the Philadelphia Blazers, the Vancouver Blazers, the Alberta Oilers, the Calgary Cowboys, the Minnesota Fighting Saints, the Chicago Cougars, the Denver Spurs, the Ottawa Civics, the Ottawa Nationals, the Toronto Toros, the Los Angeles Sharks, the Michigan Stags, the Baltimore Blades, the Cleveland Crusaders, the Minnesota New Fighting Saints, the Phoenix Roadrunners, the Cincinnati Stingers, the Birmingham Bulls, the Indianapolis Racers — plus the Calgary Broncos and the Miami Screaming Eagles, who never got on the ice, and San Francisco and Dayton, which were not around long enough even to get nicknames."
The last part is a bit of a lie because the Dayton squad was supposed to be called the Arrows as a bit of a tribute to the Wright Brothers. As you may know, the Wright Brothers are credited as the first men to successfully fly an airplane, and hailed from Dayton. Once the Dayton franchise was struggling, it was sold and moved to Houston where they have a pretty solid aeronautics program at the Johnson Space Center. And the Arrows became the Aeros.

But it wasn't just the Arrows-to-Aeros that kept fans confused.
"One team had four names—New York Raiders, New York Golden Blades, New Jersey Knights and San Diego Mariners. Norm Ferguson was the captain and player representative of all four clubs. 'I remember the day I signed with the Raiders,' Ferguson says. 'It was April Fools' Day of 1972.'"
You literally bought programs at games to just find out the team's name, not the players who played for the visitors! Even worse, some programs became instant collector's items thanks to the instability of the franchises.
"One team, the Ottawa Civics, lasted only one game. Another club, the New York Golden Blades, lasted exactly one pay period, or 14 days. When the Golden Blades couldn't meet their second payroll in 1973, the franchise was placed in receivership by the league and whisked off to Cherry Hill, N.J., just a step ahead of the bailiff."
It was well-known that the WHA just barely kept its head above water financially, and the vast number of different teams over seven years is a clear indication that bankruptcy and losses ran rampant through the WHA's owners. In fact, "the owners of those 32 teams lost an estimated $50 million, while the 803 players who performed in the WHA earned some $120 million, of which about $12 million passed to the lawyers, accountants, fathers, wives and friends who negotiated their contracts." Ouch.

And then there were the personalities.
"The one player who made the easiest money in the WHA was Derek Sanderson. Lured from the Boston Bruins by a $2.7 million contract with the Philadelphia Blazers, Sanderson played just six games for Philly before he became persona non grata because of his frequent disappearances. The Blazers settled Sanderson's contract with an outright payment of $1 million, and Derek Rolls-Royced back to Boston."
Andre Lacroix was one of the most prolific scorers in the WHA, but it still didn't prevent him from being affected by the creative accounting done by some of the teams.
"'When I joined the Golden Blades,' Lacroix says, 'the league owed me $20,000. For some reason the check was sent to the team instead of me, and before I could get it from them, the owners of the Golden Blades spent the money on a team song.'

"And how did Lacroix enjoy the song?

"'I never had a chance to hear it,' he says. 'We were gone before it came out.'"
The New Jersey Knights, the team that the Blades morphed into after that one payday, played in a travesty of an arena.
"Of the 33 buildings used by WHA teams, perhaps the worst facility was the Cherry Hill Arena, where the New Jersey Knights played the 29 home games of their brief existence. There were no showers in the visiting team's dressing room, so the opposition had to dress at the Holiday Inn two miles up the road."
Players would arrive in full uniform with their skates hanging around their necks or thrown over their shoulders. If the Cherry Hill Arena was the worst "bush league" arena, the Amphitheatre in Chicago was only slightly better.
"The referee and the linesmen had to walk through a stadium bar when making their way to the ice or their dressing room."
Yes, those old WHA days were certainly colourful if nothing else. Players like Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Anders Hedberg, Kent Nilsson, Mark Howe, Marc Tardif, Wayne Gretzky, and Pat Stapleton made the league fun with their creativity and displays of offence, and there was certainly enough violence to go around.

I still don't know why the NHL doesn't acknowledge the WHA for all it did. The introduction of overtime, for example, was a huge innovation, and it began in the WHA. Maybe in the course of time, the NHL will come to its senses and realize that a little competition was good for the overall product, even if the competitor was over-the-top crazy. Perhaps one day the NHL will give the WHA the credit it deserves.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!