Sunday, 7 May 2017

Gentlemanly Conduct

I don't usually get up early in the morning to watch international hockey unless there's a rather compelling game to be seen. However, my cat seems to enjoy early mornings in terms of making as much noise as she can, and this prompted me being awake at a rather blasphemous hour on this day of Sabbath. The good news is that I was able to catch the Finland-France game at the IIHF World Championship in Paris, and it was a rather big day for the French. Not only is today their Presidential Election Day, the French decided that beating one of the six superpowers in hockey would really be good for country. Honestly, I was very impressed by the French team today.

Look, no one is saying that France is going to contend for a medal. They got timely goals, some monster goaltending, and a couple of breaks to really help them in their 5-1 victory today over Finland, but they are far from routinely beating Canada, Russia, Sweden, the Czech Republic, USA, or even Finland with any sort of regularity. Today's game was about a French team that was aggressive, who capitalized on mistakes made by Finland, and who got some outstanding individual efforts. They carried the play for the majority of the game, and they got the result that one would expect when they are the more aggressive team on the ice when it comes to winning puck battles.

I know he has a defined role with the Dallas Stars, but Antoine Roussel is the player that seems to walk large for the French team. While there are certainly more established players such as Cristobal Huet and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare that French fans may cheer for, Roussel seems to be the guy who sparks his team to push the bar higher. His two goals today were key in the victory, and his physical play let no Finnish player forget about his physical presence. While I'm nowhere close to being a coach of Ken Hitchcock's stature in the NHL, the new Stars bench boss might want to look at expanding Roussel's role with the team once he lands back on North American soil. He is showing an ability to skate and score that most fans in the NHL probably have never seen.

Speaking of Bellemare, there's a reason why this guy is a leader on his French team and with the Philadelphia Flyers. Bellemare had a goal and an assist in the win today, and he kept the Frenchmen on an even keel as they built their lead. When things looked like they were about to come unraveled, it was Bellemare's line that sent over the boards to calm things down for the French. His work on the ice today was only overshadowed by one player, but even Bellemare made that right.

The player I am referring to above is Florian Hardy. Hardy is a relatively unknown player to North American fans, but he's building a solid resume in Europe and on the international scene. Hardy has played the last two seasons in Austria where he's been a member of a particularly weak club called Dornbirn EC, but he's never posted a save percentage below .920 in those two seasons. Prior to that, he played a season with Munich in the DEL where he went 13-9-0, and spent two seasons with Angers in the French league where he was a combined 32-11-3. Late in the first period with France leading 1-0 in today's game, he might have made the save of the tournament off Oskar Osala!

Oskar Osala's stunned mid-celebration says it all with that paddle save by Hardy. And to Hardy's credit, he even swung his arm down to his side while lying on his face to freeze the puck to prevent Finland from finding the puck and scoring on the rebound. Hardy made 42 saves against Finland, so he certainly put in one helluvan effort on this day to help his team secure its first victory over Finland in nine tries going back to 1993!

So it's pretty easy to guess who won the Player of the Game Award, right? Well, this is the IIHF, so nothing is ever as easy as it looks. After all, Roussel had a pair of goals, Bellemare had a couple of points, and Florian Hardy was standing on his head. Who got the accolade?
You saw what may have been an IIHF World Championship first as Bellemare declines the Player of the Game Award and awards it to Florian Hardy instead. There are lots of reasons to toss kudos at Bellemare for this victory, but this moment after the game where he recognized the injustice done by the IIHF Committee when it came to Hardy's performance in today's game is what makes Bellemare a great teammate to these young French players. Bellemare didn't even want to skate over, instead motioning Hardy to go up, before going and setting the record straight. That's a classy move by a veteran player, and it's a moment that can be a teachable moment for a lot of players both young and old.

France did everything right today. They won a game they weren't supposed to win, they played an excellent team game, they got incredible efforts from all players and coached, the fans were loud and boisterous, and they even fixed a mistake made by the IIHF. It was nearly a perfect day, capped off by an election result that should make France stronger for the foreseeable future. It probably isn't said enough, but "Vive la France!"

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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