Tuesday 31 May 2011

1400 Is The New 1

I can answer the question on The Rock's shirt to the left: fifteen years. While The Rock's patented line of "The Rock has come back..." can be used here, I don't think it is appropriate given some of the commentary I'm reading on Atlanta Thrashers blogs. These people are experiencing the exact same thing that Winnipeggers experienced back in 1996, and I can only sympathize with them over their loss. However, it is official as of approximately 11:15am this morning in that the NHL has indeed come back to Winnipeg! Because of this announcement, this entry is all about what may happen on this blog.

First, this is the 1400th entry on this blog since I started writing way back in 2007. I never thought it would get this far, and I was quite certain that it wouldn't become a daily adventure. Things change, though, and I began writing daily because great readers like you have continued to stop by and check out my madness. It's just a little unbelievable to me that on entry #1400, I'll have local NHL news to report on once again. So 1400 is the new #1 for me - I begin today as a blogger who will definitely have closer ties to an NHL team.

Secondly, I'm really sad that a lot of Atlanta Thrashers bloggers seem to be closing up shop. Matthew Gunning of Bird Watchers Anonymous was a solid writer on all things Thrashers, and I'd like him to continue to follow the game he loves. The writer(s) over on The Blueland Chronicle has some great pieces, and that work should continue. There are many reasons why all Thrashers bloggers should continue to write.

As a blogger who didn't have the NHL for fifteen years, I began to look at other things surrounding the game of hockey: the history, the other leagues, the lesser-known stories. There are lots of things to search out while not having NHL hockey in your land that can still keep you involved in hockey. As a Winnipegger, I know that we had an IHL and AHL team in the Manitoba Moose to help with the long winters, so I encourage the bloggers in and near Atlanta to support teams like the Gwinnett Gladiators of the ECHL. Sure, it's not the NHL, but it's still professional hockey! Get onboard with a local minor-pro team and find out how much fun those leagues can be!

The second reason I want to point out the hard work the Thrash-bloggers were doing is because I want to open up this site to them. If they want to write, but no longer have the passion for it everyday, I will gladly offer them a refuge to post their thoughts. I may be a Winnipegger, but I understand your pain and anger. If any Thrashers blogger wants to contact me regarding writing, please send me an email. I'm all ears.

With the 1400th post, HBIC starts down a new path. I'm going to see if I can stay close with the team as I was with the Manitoba Moose. I have to say that the people from True North Sports and Entertainment treated me very well while I covered the Moose, and I cannot thank them enough for that. The only way that I can possibly make it up is to continue to support their efforts.

I do want to stress that HBIC will not become an exclusive Winnipeg NHL team blog. I like the other stuff surrounding the game too much, so I'll explore options as I move forward as to how to progress. As of right now, nothing will change on this blog, so you can continue to visit to listen to me or anyone else who wants to write rant and rave about whatever topic they like. If you want to write anything, please send me an email with your article, and I'll post it. Again, this blog is "of the people, by the people, for the people".

Welcome back, NHL. Here we go, Winnipeg. HBIC is glad to be onboard!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

Monday 30 May 2011

Rumours Say Tomorrow

While it may be a holiday in the USA with Memorial Day upon them, apparently the lawyers for the Atlanta Spirit are not getting the day off. The lawyers for True North Sports and Entertainment reportedly signed off on a deal to move the Atlanta Thrashers north, and all that the deal needs is the rubber stamp from the Atlanta lawyers to set this relocation procedure in motion. That means we're looking at an announcement most likely this week, but it sounds as though the wheels are turning for a midday announcement tomorrow. Of course, this means it's party time in the Manitoba capital, so let's look at some of the great NHL history of which Manitoba has been a part.

Dale Hawerchuk scores 50 goals - the first Jet to reach that mark.

Teemu Selanne ties Mike Bossy's rookie goal-scoring record.

Teemu Selanne breaks Mike Bossy's record later in the same game.

Don Cherry loves the Whiteout in Winnipeg!

Look, there are a hundred clips that I could pull that speaks about the love for the Jets that the people of Winnipeg have. But the fact of the matter is this: the NHL will return to Winnipeg this week, and possibly as early as Tuesday. Where will you be when Winnipeg gets an NHL team?

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

Sunday 29 May 2011

Round Three Winners

Round Three of the HBIC Playoff Pool has come to a close, and all the point totals have been updated. For everyone that is still in the pool, head on over to the Official Scoring Page to get the Stanley Cup Final spreadsheet! The spreadsheet is due no later than Wednesday at 11:59pm, so get your entries in ASAP for your chance to win some prizes! Let's take a look at who did very well in Round Three to improve their positioning on the HBIC Playoff Pool leaderboard. And there were a few very good rounds turned in by entrants!

There were three people who scored ten points in the Vancouver-San Jose series, and those three people were Sammy B., Ryan J., and Dan F. All three men grabbed ten points through some good predicting, and it seems as though entrants can make a big jump up the leaderboard simply by selecting the right team winning in the right number of games. Well done, gentlemen, and hopefully your Stanley Cup Final predictions go as well as the Conference Finals predictions did!

Only one player grabbed the best total from the Boston-Tampa Bay series, and that entrant was Matthew S. Matthew recorded twelve points in the series on the strength of calling the right team winning in Games Two, Four, Five, Six, and Seven. He also correctly predicted that Simon Gagne would score the game-winning goal in Game Four for an additional two points. And because he called the series in seven games with Boston winning, he tacked on an additional five points. All in all, Matthew had the best prediction for the Eastern Conference Final. Well done, Matthew!

Matthew will also get some recognition for having the best Conference Finals point total as he added 16 points to his total. While he didn't score as well as some did in the Vancouver-San Jose series, his excellent predictions in the Eastern Conference Final gave him the largest increase in points in this round. Well done again, Matthew!

Again, head over to the scoring page to get your Stanley Cup Final picks in! I know I said that I'd have the prize list up a while back, but I'm still waiting on a few prizes to trickle in from suppliers. Once I have them all, you'll get to see what's available and how many prizes are eligible to be won. As it stands, I believe there will be at least five smaller prizes and one grand prize, but that number could change as suppliers contact me. I'll have the list up this week, though.

Good luck to everyone in the Stanley Cup Final, and I'm calling a six-game series in favour of the Vancouver Canucks for Canada's first Stanley Cup since 1993!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

Saturday 28 May 2011

1990 Versus 1994

How about that incredible Game Seven last night between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Boston Bruins? The only problem with a game like that is that there must be a winner and a loser, and that means only Boston will play another day. With the 1-0 victory on Nathan Horton's goal, the Bruins advanced to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1990 where they will meet the Vancouver Canucks who last appeared in the Stanley Cup Final in 1994! This looks like it will be a good series, and we might just get to see a couple of goaltender duels if both Tim Thomas and Roberto Luongo can play to their full potentials!

Mikael Samuelsson, who is injured and won't play in the Stanley Cup Final, and Mark Recchi are the only two men who are walking around with Stanley Cup rings on these teams, and Recchi is the only player in this series who has a ring from before 1994! There have been a number of players who have appeared in the Stanley Cup Final on both teams, however, but there is one factor that might go into telling who the Stanley Cup victors may be.

That factor? The Winter Olympic Games. I kid you not. Check this out:

  • 1932 - Lake Placid, New York. 1933 saw the New York Rangers capture the Stanley Cup over the Toronto Maple Leafs with a 3-1 series victory.
  • 1980 - Lake Placid, New York. 1981 saw the New York Islanders capture the Stanley Cup in five games over the Minnesota North Stars.
  • 1988 - Calgary, Alberta. 1989 saw the Calgary Flames capture the Stanley Cup in six games over the Montreal Canadiens.
  • 2010 - Vancouver, British Columbia. History hasn't been written yet, but the 2011 Vancouver Canucks are playing for the Stanley Cup.
If you want to take it one step further, Canadian teams are 2-0 in the Stanley Cup Finals one year after hosting an Olympic Games. Montreal won the 1977 Stanley Cup after the city of Montreal hosted the 1976 Summer Olympiad.

Personally, the best team is in the Stanley Cup Finals from what we saw in the regular season. The Vancouver Canucks captured the President's Trophy as the top regular-season team, and are the first President's Trophy-winning team to appear in the Stanley Cup Finals since the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings (Mikael Samuelsson played on this team). Before that, the 2001-02 Red Wings, the 2000-01 Colorado Avalanche, and the 1998-99 Dallas Stars were the President's Trophy winners to capture the Stanley Cup, so the new millenium has been good to the President Trophy-winning team.

However, the 1989 Calgary Flames also won the President's Trophy and went on to win the Stanley Cup. Again, that was one year after hosting an Olympiad, so history seems to be on Vancouver's side when looking at factors that should have no bearing on the outcome of this series. Just to add a little more fuel on this fire is the performance of the 1977 Montreal Canadiens who, like the Flames, were the best team through the regular season before capturing the Stanley Cup.

Boston's most recent run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1990 saw them struggle before finally falling to a juggernaut. The Bruins needed all seven games to dispatch the Hartford Whalers in the opening round before eliminating the Montreal Canadiens in five games. The Wales Conference Final saw Boston crush the Washington Capitals in a four-game sweep before the magic ran out against a determined Edmonton Oilers team. The Oilers won the Stanley Cup in five games over the Bruins.

The series between Boston and Edmonton is probably best remembered for having the longest game in Stanley Cup Final history. Game One between Boston and Edmonton went three overtime periods before Petr Klima found room between Andy Moog's legs to end the game at 15:13 of triple-overtime.
Of course, there was also a 26-minute delay in action when the power in Boston Gardens went out. This game broke the record set by Montreal and Chicago way back in 1931, and was a mere 30 seconds longer than the Dallas-Buffalo overtime game that saw Brett Hull's foot appear to be in the crease.

Personally, I am pulling for a Canadian squad to win a Stanley Cup, so here's hoping that Vancouver can be the first team to do so since the 1993 Montreal Canadiens. With both Vancouver and Boston having young, exciting players, I feel that this series could be a very good display of hockey. Game on starting on Wednesday!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

Friday 27 May 2011

Eric Lindros Steps Forward

It's hard to believe that the man to the left with a touch of gray in his hair is only 38 today. Had health problems not sidelined Eric Lindros, he may still be contributing to an NHL team's run to a Stanley Cup. If there is one image of Eric Lindros that almost everyone remembers, it is the image of him lying on the ice in a crumpled heap of humanity after Scott Stevens caught Lindros cutting through open ice at the blueline. While Lindros's playing days didn't end there, a new report in Maclean's Magazine has Eric Lindros talking about how his series of concussions ended his career shortly after taking that hit. Honestly, this report is eye-opening, and it truly puts Eric Lindros in a new light for me as I have an immense amount of respect for him for speaking out about the aftermath of concussions.

I'll preface this article with this thought: I didn't like Eric Lindros. He was a force of a human being on skates at 6'4" tall and 255 lbs. He was supposed to be the "Next One" to follow in the footsteps of players like Gretzky, Lemieux, Howe, Hull, and Richard - a man that could not be contained who seemingly scored at will. I loved how he played the game, but hated that he played for the Flyers and snubbed the Quebec Nordiques after being drafted. Because of his choice not to play for the Nordiques, I never respected him as a person, so I wanted to see what this report in Maclean's Magazine had to say from his perspective.

The focus of the article, written by Cathy Gulli, is all about how concussions have sidelined players, but how the aftermath of those concussions has derailed the lives of former players who suffer from concussions. I think that concussions are often dismissed in sports as a sign of machismo and toughness in the heat of the moment, and I was certainly not aware of the issues that come after the concussion has been suffered and how far those issues extend in terms of affecting other people around the concussion victim. Eric Lindros and several other professional players opened up to Miss Gulli about the circumstances surrounding their individual battles, and the stories they tell of what they went through is absolutely shocking.

For Lindros, his metamorphosis into a different player was almost immediate.

"I was extremely sarcastic. I was real short. I didn't have patience for people," says Lindros, 38. That rudeness mutated once he stepped on the ice into fear that the next concussion was just one hit away. "That’s why I played wing my last few years," he explains of changing positions late in his career. "I hated cutting through the middle. I was avoiding parting the Red Sea." Off the ice, Lindros developed a paralyzing sense of dread at the very thought of public speaking or of being in a crowd — once routine activities for the sports superstar. "I hated, absolutely hated, that. I'd avoid those scenarios. I didn't like airports. I didn't like galas. It would stress me out."
For a man as admired in hockey circles as Lindros was, public appearances are a way of life. Kids idolize him. Fans love him. In airports, people would seek autographs from the superstar. But all of a sudden, those scenarios fill him with anxiety. That's probably a pretty good sign that something isn't right.

For former New York Ranger and Stanley Cup champion Jeff Beukeboom, concussions were ruining his life at home where he just wanted to spend time with his family.
"I couldn’t go out and play or do things with the kids physically," says Beukeboom, 46, who had several previous concussions. Instead, he related to his toddler another way: "Me and him were on the same sleep schedule."
For an elite athlete, that's not normal by any means. Beukeboom was in the best health of his life during his days as an Edmonton Oiler and a New York Ranger, and now he can't do physical activity whatsoever. That's hard to hear from someone who was a champion in his sport.

Former Washington Capital Kevin Kaminski saw dramatic changes in his personality as he looks back on his life after concussions. The 42 year-old's character took a dramatic change following his retirement from the game in 1999.
"I isolated myself from my family," he says, by shutting himself "in a dark room" to cope with the headaches and fatigue, as well as light and noise sensitivity. However much they offered support, patience and care to him, Kaminski couldn't reciprocate. His moods swung from detached to enraged. Even Kaminski's neuropsychologist had trouble getting him to work through the emotions. "He wanted to talk about how I felt, but I was just blah," says Kaminski. So they’d resort to memory exercises, which agitated Kaminski because he couldn’t repeat back a list of four or five words. After grocery shopping, he couldn’t find his parked car. "My mind," he says, "was just a mess."

In time, and using antidepressants, Kaminski's symptoms faded. But the injury had scarred him and his marriage. Last October, he and his wife finally divorced. "She said I wasn’t the same person anymore," he explains. "And I don’t think I am. I don’t think I am." Kaminski, who is now head coach of the Louisiana IceGators in the Southern Professional Hockey League, believes he knows what shattered his family. "I think a big part of it was the concussions," he says.
Kaminski's story was the one that hit home for me. I've never suffered a concussion that has been diagnosed while playing sports, but I have taken my fair share of shots to the cranium. And while I feel that my personality hasn't changed a lot in any way, it scares me to hear that a serious concussion or series of concussions could ultimately ruin one's life through no fault of one's self.
For one player, who prefers to remain unnamed, it became life-threatening at times. He received a career-ending concussion while playing in the minor pros. "It's crazy the feelings that go through your head. I get emotional just thinking about," he says. "I had a lot of suicidal thoughts. I'd be driving to the doctor's office and thinking to myself, 'What if I just swerved my car into oncoming traffic?'" he says. He felt weak and embarrassed for having such thoughts — he only told his girlfriend and, later, his neuropsychologist about what he was going through. Those sessions helped him. "I needed to get a lot of feelings out and deal with them," he says, to gain perspective. But he wants to resume therapy to further heal. "It’s like you get trapped in your own brain."
These comments stuck out to me because of the recent number of suicides and deaths surrounding athletes who play contact sports. While I'm no doctor, there might be something evident in the brains of concussion victims that force their thought processes to go off the tracks. Take the case of former pro wrestler Chris Benoit: the man was described as a loving father and husband who was a hard-working professional wrestler, yet his life and the lives of his family ended in the most tragic of ways. Former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson committed suicide, and it was found that he suffered from multiple concussions over his career. The Star just reported that former North Star Bill Masterton most likely died on the ice from an untreated concussion. The Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy is now encouraging athletes to donate their brains for science and research into concussions and the effects they have on the brain. More and more athletes, having seen their idols and peers fall to concussions, are getting onboard with the science.
Depression and anxiety "is definitely very common for those players," says [Dr. Ruben] Echemendia. Left untreated, "that spirals," he explains, "and it can get really bad." All the more so, adds [Dr. Michael] Czarnota, among those players whose concussions are career-ending. "Their identity since they were six or four has been hockey. And if you tell somebody you can't do this anymore? I don’t know how many regular people have Plan Bs. I don't know how many athletes have Plan Bs."

That’s the irony: their single-mindedness to make it to the NHL is what got these players so far in their careers; it's also what contributed to their anxiety and depression. Grant Iverson, a neuropsychology professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia who specializes in concussion, says that studies show the more highly athletes derive their sense of self from a sport, the greater the psychological stress they experience once injured. That worsens, he continues, the longer the physical symptoms last. Further complicating matters, Iverson adds, is the fact that concussive symptoms are so similar to those of depression and anxiety — fatigue, sadness, irritability, nervousness, confusion, trouble concentrating. It gets tricky to discern what's concussion and what's mental illness.
Perhaps that's the scariest sentence of all: "It gets tricky to discern what’s concussion and what’s mental illness". Perhaps concussions in hockey should be treated with more respect than just a 15-minute break in a ready room after taking a big hit. Perhaps more teams should follow the lead of the Pittsburgh Penguins when they told Sidney Crosby not to return for this season or the playoffs. Perhaps the game of hockey itself should look at saving the players instead of pushing the violence. "Playing through the pain" is just a phrase used to show courage and sacrifice. To me, courage is telling the coach that you're done for the night after taking a big hit.
Many players admit that before they were concussed, they didn’t appreciate the pain of others either. "I knocked a guy out once in the playoffs, and somebody told me that he had a career-ender, and I didn't feel any remorse at all," says the anonymous player. [Former player Max] Taylor didn't have compassion for one of his best friends. "He had problems, and he was explaining them to me, and telling me how he felt, and I was like, 'Come on, man, you should be able to play through that.'"

Playing through the pain, after all, is a requirement to make the pros, just like taking one for the team. "If you’re not scoring goals, you got to chip in somehow — whether that's blocking the shot or fighting. Otherwise they’ll find somebody else to do your job," says the unnamed player, who once played with a broken hand. But, "when you're dealing with pain in your body, you have your wits about you. You can put the pain out of your mind. When it's your brain, you're dealing with a lot of other things; it's not just the pain, it's the emotional stuff."
If the emotional stuff is the baggage that one carries, there needs to be additional research done to help victims of concussions manage their conditions better. As it stands right now, the NHL isn't doing anything but risking players' lives and abilities by giving them a period off after a big hit. If Penguins fans were bothered by Crosby's lack of playing this season, consider that he may play a lot longer than Eric Lindros did after he took a jarring hit. If he does, this one season of rest to get his brain back at 100% will certainly be worth it in the long run for not only the Penguins franchise and the NHL, but for Sidney Crosby's family, the game of hockey in general, and every other player who suffers from a concussion.

For Eric Lindros, I have a brand-new respect for him in helping players battle through their concussion problems, and I think Eric Lindros, the person, is a one helluva better guy today than the player ever was. Well done, Mr. Lindros, and thank you for stepping forward. For the rest of the hockey players who stepped forward in this article as well, thank you as well for bringing a new light to the epidemic of concussions in sports. And to Miss Gulli, thank you for pursuing this story and bringing to light the struggles that some of my former idols are battling.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice, and your heads protected!

Thursday 26 May 2011

Denial No More

I'll be the first to admit that I never wanted or thought that the NHL could or should return to Winnipeg. As much as I love my hometown, I thought that the city was just too small to support an NHL team in what will be the smallest building in the NHL. I was happy with a competitive AHL club that routinely attracted very good free agents, and the Vancouver Canucks had done a superb job in drafting high-end talent that the Moose put on the ice. I, for one, thought that Winnipeg could be a cornerstone franchise for the AHL for many years to come in the same vein that Hershey or Rochester is, and the fifteen years that the Moose spent here were very productive as they build a brand and a winning reputation. However, from all accounts and reports I have seen and heard, it sounds like the NHL will return by next week's time if everything goes as planned.

I'm kind of excited to see some of the NHL stars I haven't seen in person play on the ice of MTS Centre. If the relocated franchise does indeed stay in the Southeast Division for at least one year, we'll get three visits from Alexander Ovechkin and two visits from Sidney Crosby - nothing builds momentum like having arguably the game's two biggest stars roll through your building as you build a brand and an identity despite having the crowd dressed in Capitals and Penguins jerseys.

With the reported relocation of the Thrashers to Winnipeg, it appears that the Moose will make their way east to St. John's, Newfoundland where they will take up residence in Mile One Arena as the new tenants. While all parties are currently denying this to be true (for good reason at this point), it seems inevitable that the Moose will be displaced. In seeing them go, I'm hoping my work with the Moose will allow me an opportunity to work with the relocated NHL franchise, and I cannot thank the Moose enough for allowing me the opportunity to blog for them and work with them.

I guess what I am saying is that I'm mentally prepared for the next step at this point after trying to not get caught up in the hype of the Phoenix Coyotes drama. There was a time where I wouldn't even speak about franchise relocation to Winnipeg because it seemed like a pipe dream at the time. Sure, the Coyotes were struggling financially (and still are), but there were more reasons for them to stay than to leave at the time.

When the relocation fever hit a new high after the Coyotes were eliminated from the playoffs this year, I wrote the Coyotes off again thanks in large part to the NHL seemingly being determined in keeping the Desert Dogs in Arizona. I wanted to hear nothing about relocation because it seemed as though for every step Winnipeg got closer to getting the former Jets back, the Coyotes moved further away through the efforts of the City of Glendale and the NHL.

There had been rumours two years ago that the Thrashers could possibly move to Winnipeg, but I again wrote this off because of the vast number of large companies and wealthy businessmen located in Atlanta. I figured that there was no way that a metropolis such as Atlanta would let its NHL team leave for the second time in its history. I learned, thanks to a few people, that hockey ranks low on the scale of entertainment dollars on which Georgians spend their money. Nothing is going to supplant football as the top sport in Georgia, and I think that hockey in Georgia may always be a fringe sport or a niche sport for individuals.

That's not to say that there weren't fans of the Thrashers in Georgia, though. The Thrashers had their die-hard fans who supported the team and came out to games whenever they could. I feel for these fans because it's like a part of you dying when you lose something you invest yourself in personally for so long. I went through the Jets leaving for Phoenix, and it really hurts. Anger will also take over when people talk about the NHL because something you love was taken from you, and all you can do is helplessly stand by and watch. For lack of a better term, it sucks.

Because of this, I want to extend this blog space to some of you in Georgia who love the Thrashers. If you want to continue to write about the Thrashers, please contact me so that you can be a featured blogger here on HBIC. I encourage any Atlanta Thrashers blogger to give me a shout because I don't think that Winnipeggers should be overjoyed when you're losing a team in the same manner that we did. It was painful to watch Phoenix celebrate their new-found NHL team, and I'm not going to stomp all over you in your time of despair. So I encourage you, Atlanta Thrashers fans and bloggers, to contact me for an opportunity to cheer on OUR team some more as well as having a place to vent and rant over the loss of your hometown team.

That being said, I expect an announcement either towards the end of next week or after the Stanley Cup Final ends. Either way, though, it looks like the NHL will be playing out Winnipeg for 41 games next season.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

Wednesday 25 May 2011

Catching Up With Sleds

I'm a month late with this news, but I finally caught the game on a replay on TV last night. I feel that I should actually watch a game before commenting on it since there are many factors that go into a game that may not get shown on the scoresheet. The World Sledge Hockey Championship took place in London, Ontario at the end of April, and the tournament featured three of the powerhouse teams and one rising star. Norway, Canada, and the USA were there, and they were joined by Japan in playing this tournament, so it's better late than never that I report on the results seen in this tournament.

The tournament opened on April 18 in seeing Norway meeting Japan, and no one expected the game's outcome. Norway and Japan went goal-for-goal in this game, and the Norwegians eventually outlasted the Japanese in a 7-6 game! I'm not sure anyone was expecting that kind of goal output by these two teams, but the game was fast-paced and extremely entertaining from reports!

Canada and the USA had the late game, and this rivalry renewed almost immediately. Canada's Greg Westlake scored both goals in the middle frame to break the deadlock, and Canada skated to a 3-1 victory over their arch-rivals. There were 24 minutes in penalties handed out in this game as the hitting and scrums after whistles were very evident. But the victory over the USA was a big showing for Canada after the USA had won the last three major tournaments.

April 19 had the USA and Japan renewing acquaintances, and it didn't take long for the defending Olympic champions to establish their dominance. The USA scored eight straight goals before Japan got on the board with just 17 seconds to play for an 8-1 victory. Adam Page and Daniel McCoy had a pair of goals each in the victory as the Americans evened their record at 1-1 while Japan fell to 0-2.

The evening game had Norway and Canada in action, and this one was over early. Adam Dixon, Greg Westlake, and Anthony Gale scored opening period goals, and Canada was off and running on their way to a 14-0 victory over the Norwegians. The eight goals scored in the third period were paced Bradley Bowden's hat trick. Canada's largest margin of victory in this tournament moved them to a 2-0 record while Norway dropped to 1-1 in the tournament.

The USA and Norway got things underway on April 20 as these two teams hit the ice. Tim Jones had a goal and an assist in the first period, and the USA jumped out to a 4-0 lead through two periods before the Norwegians scored a pair of goals in the third period. Adam Page finished the game with a goal and an assist as well, and the Americans downed Norway by a 4-2 score. The win improved the American record to 2-1 while Norway fell to 1-2 in the tournament.

With the Americans winning in the early game, the seedings for the playoffs were set, but the Japanese still had pride to play for when they met the Canadians in the evening game. Greg Westlake had a pair of goals to open the contest, and the Canadians put ten more past Japanese netminder Shinobu Fukushima before the final horn sounded. Canada's dominant 12-0 victory moved them to the top of the standings with a 3-0 record while Japan fell to 0-3. This set the stage for the semi-finals of the World Sledge Hockey Championship as the USA would battle Norway in one semi-final game while Canada and Japan would face-off once more with a berth in the gold medal game at stake.

Norway and the USA had the afternoon draw on April 22, and this game was action-packed! Taylor Lipsett put the Americans up 1-0 in the first period with his goal. The Norwegians saw Eskil Hagen's goals bookend a goal from Helge Bjørnstad to give Norway a 3-1 lead midway through the second period, but the Americans fought back. Nikko Landeros scored a pair of goals to close out the period to even the score at 3-3 with one frame to play.

Helge Bjørnstad put Norway up 4-3 just over seven minutes into the third period, and it looked like Norway might close the door on the USA. However, Nikko Landeros scored for the Americans with just 1:22 remaining to complete his hat trick and tie the game at 4-4! Both teams appeared to be a little more careful in their own zone, but the Norwegians caught a break when Audun Bakke's shot found its way past Steve Cash for a 5-4 Norway lead with just 29 seconds remaining! At the final horn, that 5-4 advantage held up, and Norway advanced to the gold medal game.

The evening semi-final game saw Japan and Canada square off once more, and, like their first game, this game wasn't ever in doubt. Canada got a hat trick from Bradley Bowden and Billy Bridges had a pair of goals in the first period to help lead Canada to the 11-1 victory. Canada's dominance over their competitors was again seen in this game, and Canada surrendered only its second goal of the tournament through the four games they played. Canada advances to the final to play Norway while Japan and the USA will battle for bronze.

The bronze medal game got the early billing on Saturday, April 23, and the action was furious in the opening period in that one team took a big lead. The USA scored two goals in the opening 2:35, but Japan responded with a goal of their own. After Japan's goal, it was all USA as they scored the next seven goals. Nikko Landeros scored the game-winner, and really looked like the USA MVP throughout this tournament. The USA captured the bronze medal with a 9-1 victory over Japan.

There was hope that the evening game between Norway and Canada would be a little closer than what was seen on Tuesday when Canada blew out the Norwegians by a 14-0 score. Canada opened the scoring when Derek Whitson fired the puck past Roger Johansen to put Canada up 1-0. Adam Dixon made it 2-0 with just over three minutes to play in the first period, and there was certainly an advantage for Canada as they played nearly the entire period on the Norway zone.

A pair of goals by Greg Westlake in the middle frame deepened the hole that Norway found themselves in as Canada had a 4-0 lead through two periods. Norway came out skating hard in the third period, but Canada continued to apply pressure and added four more goals in the final stanza to make it an 8-0 victory. With the win, Canada earned its first World Sledge Hockey Championship since 2008!

Canada's Greg Westlake led the tournament in goals with nine, and he and teammate Bradley Bowden shared the tournament scoring lead with 18 points apiece. Canada has never finished lower than second-place in this tournament, and has captured gold in three of the four times this event has been held.

Congratulations go out to all four teams for an excellent and entertaining tournament! I cannot stress this enough: if you get a chance to see these men play the game of sledge hockey, you must take advantage of it. These men are some of the most athletic and gifted athletes I have ever seen, and their abilities make me realize that the human spirit can never been stopped. Well done to all the competitors, and congratulations to Canada for winning the gold medal!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

Tuesday 24 May 2011

WHA DVD: Remembering The WHA

In the last DVD of the WHA series, we get a glimpse into the rest of the WHA outside of the Indianapolis Racers, the Winnipeg Jets, and the Houston Aeros. The WHA was responsible for many things that hockey players may take for granted today - higher salaries, drafting younger players, and the job creation for more international players were three of the major changes that the WHA forced the the NHL to adopt as part of their standard operating procedures. But the WHA did one major thing in that it forced the NHL into changing how it dealt with most matters because if a player wanted to play elsewhere, the WHA gave him the opportunity to play against some of the best players the world had to offer.

I'll repeat this once more before going on: this is an excellent two-DVD set about the history of the WHA, and some of their innovations and decisions that were made in the WHA that affected the rest of hockey. Journalist Timothy Gassen does a superb job in interviewing former players and personalities that were a part of the league's lore, and he really brings the stories that made the teams and players as popular as they were to light. Mr. Gassen has lots of video and audio clips in the stories, and there are lots of pictures shown as well. If you're a fan of hockey history, this DVD set is one to have in your collection.

The documentary on the WHA is fascinating. Much like yesterday, if you'd like to keep this information away from your eyes, please scroll to the bottom of this article for information on how to order this two-DVD set. Otherwise, let's get ready for some incredible stories from the WHA.

There were a ton of marquee players that made the jump over to the WHA in its first few years of operation: Hull with the Jets, Howe with the Aeros, goaltender Jacques Plante with the Oilers, Frank Mahovlich of the Toros, Dave Keon of the Racers, Derek Sanderson of the Blazers, Ralph Backstrom of the Cougars, and goaltender Gerry Cheevers of the Crusaders are all prime examples. These players served to provide legitimacy of the league and helped to bring in fans in cities where hockey had never been a household sport. You knew these names because of what they had done in the NHL, so having them in the WHA gave the league instant name recognition for its stars.

The WHA also implemented drafting players at a younger age. The WHA allowed for eighteen year-olds to be drafted in order for these younger men to get into professional hockey before the NHL could draft these players. In essence, the WHA was opening the door for younger star players to play in the WHA before the NHL even had a chance at picking them in the draft. Players like Mark Napier, Mark Howe, John Tonelli, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, and Mike Gartner all got a chance to play in the WHA before they had even been selected by an NHL team.

The international flavor was also present as Swedes and Finns made their way over to the WHA. The Jets had a very international flavor to their roster, and the Phoenix Roadrunners seemed to attract a large number of Finnish players. While there was a prevalent thought that Canadian hockey was superior, especially after the 1972 Summit Series, it was evident that a lot of American, Swedish, and Finnish players were very talented hockey players. The WHA provided the stage for these players, and a lot of them went on to NHL careers thanks to the WHA providing them with a place to play in North America.

The one thing that the WHA didn't have a lot of were owners with deep pockets. There seemed to be teams popping up and closing down all over the map during the WHA's era of hockey. There were many changes throughout the WHA's lifespan thanks to a number of monetary and management problems.

  • The 1972-73 inaugural season saw twelve teams take to the ice: Alberta, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, Minnesota, New England, New York, Ottawa, Philadelphia, Quebec, and Winnipeg. The Ottawa Nationals closed up shop at the end of the '72-73 season.
  • The Philadelphia Blazers became the Vancouver Blazers by the start of the 1973-74 season while the New York Raiders became the New York Golden Blades who became the New Jersey Knights by the end of the 1973-74 season. The Toronto Toros began play in the 1973-74 season. Only the Alberta Oilers changed names but didn't move - they renamed themselves as the Edmonton Oilers.
  • The Indianapolis Racers, Michigan Stags, Phoenix Roadrunners, and San Diego Mariners all joined the WHA for the 1974-75 season, but the Stags moved midway through the season to Baltimore to become the Blades. The Los Angeles Sharks and New Jersey Knights didn't make it into the 1974-75 season.
  • The Calgary Cowboys, Cincinnati Stingers and Denver Spurs joined the WHA for the 1975-76 season, but the Spurs relocated midway through the season to Ottawa to become the Civics. The Civics did not make it through to the end of the season. The Chicago Cougars didn't make it into the 1975-76 season, and the Minnesota Fighting Saints would eventually close shop at the conclusion of the season.
  • For the start of the 1976-77 season, the Toronto Toros had a new home and name as they became the Birmingham Bulls. The Minnesota Fighting Saints were resurrected, but they only lasted for this one season before closing shop for good. The Cleveland Crusaders couldn't make things work, and folded before the season began.
  • For the first time since the WHA was founded, the league would play with less than twelve teams. Only eight franchises iced clubs: Birmingham, Cincinnati, Edmonton, Houston, Indianapolis, New England, Quebec, and Winnipeg. Calgary, Minnesota, Phoenix, and San Diego could not ice teams for the 1977-78 season.
  • The Houston Aeros would cease operations for the 1978-79 season, leaving the WHA only seven teams. Of those seven teams, only the four northernmost teams made it through the WHA-NHL merger: Edmonton, Winnipeg, Quebec, and New England.
The WHA had many guys who became larger than life as well. Defenceman JC Tremblay of the Nordiques was always regarded as one of the best players of his time. Indianapolis goaltender Gary "Suitcase" Smith had a special knack for playing a period, stripping down and hitting the showers during an intermission, and then suiting back up and going out to play the next period. Minnesota's Bill Goldthorpe was the real-life inspiration for Slapshot's Ogie Oglethorpe. The WHA was larger than life for most of its personalities, and the fans absolutely loved their characters.

When the WHA and the NHL finally began playing exhibition games against one another, there was always some hope that the WHA would show the NHL that they were second-to-none when it comes to their hockey abilities. Indeed, that seemed to happen more often than not as the WHA won the battle between the leagues by a 33-27-7 record! The one team that every WHA team wanted was the Montreal Canadiens, but the Canadiens refused to participate in any exhibition game against the WHA. In what could be considered a preview of the future WHA teams, the Oilers, Jets, Whalers, and Nordiques had the best records of all the WHA teams against the NHL.
  • Edmonton Oilers: 5-4-0. Defeated St. Louis 3-2 in 1977, Detroit 5-4 in 1977, Minnesota 4-2 in 1978, Vancouver 5-3 in 1978, and Colorado 6-4 in 1978. Lost to Vancouver 4-3 in 1974, Pittsburgh 3-1 in 1976, Cleveland 4-2 in 1977, and Minnesota 9-3 in 1978.
  • Winnipeg Jets: 7-5-2. Defeated Pittsburgh 5-3 in 1976, St. Louis 6-2 in 1976, Minnesota 4-3 in 1977, St. Louis 6-2 in 1977, St. Louis 3-0 in 1977, Detroit 1-0 in 1977, and Minnesota 6-5 in 1978. Lost to Minnesota 2-1 in 1977, Colorado 5-3 in 1978, the New York Rangers 4-2 in 1978, and the New York Rangers 7-4 in 1978. Tied St. Louis 2-2 in 1978, and Minnesota 5-5 in 1978.
  • New England Whalers: 9-3-4. Defeated Washington 5-4 in 1977, the New York Rangers 7-4 in 1977, Atlanta 5-4 in 1977, Pittsburgh 9-0 in 1977, Atlanta 4-3 in 1977, Washington 5-2 in 1978, the New York Islanders 5-2 in 1978, Washington 5-1 in 1978, and Detroit 3-0 in 1978. Lost to Philadelphia 4-2 in 1974, Boston 5-0 in 1977, and Detroit 7-5 in 1978. Tied the New York Rangers 2-2 in 1976, Chicago 2-2 in 1977, Chicago 4-4 in 1978, and the New York Rangers 4-4 in 1978.
  • Quebec Nordiques: 6-1-1. Defeated Washington 5-1 in 1977, Colorado 3-2 in 1978, Minnesota 5-2 in 1978, Pittsburgh 3-0 in 1978, Chicago 5-2 in 1978, and the New York Rangers 4-1 in 1978. Lost to Washington 7-4 in 1978. Tied the New York Rangers 5-5 in 1977.
Against the NHL, the remaining teams included Houston (1-2-0), Toronto/Birmingham (2-4-0), Calgary (1-1-0), Cleveland (0-1-0), San Diego (1-0-0), Indianapolis (1-1-0), and Cincinnati (1-0-0). Clearly, the WHA teams were good enough to skate alongside the NHL teams, but some NHL teams wanted nothing to do with "that other league" or playing them as a form of validation that the WHA was as good or, in some cases, better than the NHL.

Clearly, there should be some shift in thinking about how the WHA changed hockey for the better, and how the NHL benefited from the rival league's presence. Unfortunately, the NHL still has made no effort to recognize the WHA or its contributions to hockey in any way, and I find this to be a shame. The WHA wrote an amazing chapter of hockey history in its short seven-year span, and hockey fans deserve better from the NHL than its complete ignorance towards the WHA.

Like the previous DVD sets, this is also a two-DVD set of amazing hockey footage and history. Disc One has the "Remembering The WHA" documentary. It also has "Restored WHA Game Highlights" which are fantastic. There's a "Vintage Houston Aeros Features" section that has all sorts of amazing Aeros footage. The jewel of the DVD, however, might be the section that contains "Gretzky's 1978 WHA Debut" with the Racers. Outstanding footage in that section!

Disc Two has a number of "Restored WHA Team Films" that, like the Aeros features, have incredible footage. How some of this stuff has made it past hockey historians is beyond me. There's also a "Gretzky DVD Trailer" for what looks to be a future DVD in this series.

If you'd like to add this DVD to your collection, please click here to get to the ordering page. You get all the features of the two discs above, and you can even get an autograph from Timothy Gassen inside the DVD case!

If you prefer the old-fashioned way of ordering, you can do that via snail mail. There are some rules, though, so please read the following:
"Money orders in U.S. funds and cashier's checks in U.S. funds are also welcome; sorry, we cannot accept personal checks or Canadian currency. Make money orders and cashier's checks payable to PCMP LLC

"You can also send well-concealed U.S. cash in a letter, but do so at your own risk. U.S. FUNDS ONLY!"
If yuo still want to go through the Postal Service, send your funds to:

PO Box 121
Tucson, Arizona
85702 USA

Three DVDs in three days, and I am completely enveloped in WHA history. I loved watching these DVDs, and I'm glad to have ordered them. If you are interested in hockey history or just love good, old-time hockey, these DVDs have something for everyone!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

Monday 23 May 2011

WHA DVD: Jets Versus Aeros

Arguably, the WHA had the three biggest stars to play the game in their league at the same time: Howe, Hull, and Gretzky. It was the first two men, however, that really gave credibility to the league and to their two chosen teams in the Houston Aeros and the Winnipeg Jets, respectively. While some in the NHL thought that Gordie Howe's career was done after he had retired, Bobby Hull was arguably the biggest name in hockey at the time with the Chicago Blackhawks. Both men put together some pretty incredible seasons in the WHA, and both men brought championships to their respective teams. Without a doubt, these two men helped to shape the way that the WHA did business, and gave the league an immediate infusion of talent upon their arrival.

I'll repeat this before going on: this is an excellent two-DVD set about the history of the Houston Aeros and Winnipeg Jets, and some of their interactions with other teams in the WHA. Journalist Timothy Gassen does a superb job in interviewing former players and personalities that were a part of these teams' lore, and he really brings the stories that made the teams and players as popular as they were to light. Mr. Gassen has lots of video and audio clips in the stories, and there are lots of pictures shown as well. If you're a fan of hockey history, this DVD set is one to have in your collection.

The documentaries of these two teams are broken up into separate sections. We'll start with a look at the Winnipeg Jets before moving onto the Houston Aeros. Much like yesterday, if you'd like to keep this information away from your eyes, please scroll to the bottom of this article for information on how to order this two-DVD set. Otherwise, let's get ready for stories of the marquee players and the two most successful teams of WHA.

Winnipeg's Lasting Legacies

The Winnipeg Jets definitely made the biggest splash upon their entry into the WHA by signing hockey's most marketable and most idolized star. Bobby Hull was the Sidney Crosby of the 1970s - young, attractive, and personable. So when Ben Hatskin founded the Winnipeg Jets on December 27, 1971, he immediately wanted a marketable star to help his upstart team. With Bobby Hull becoming a free agent at the end of the 1972 season, Mr. Hatskin immediately approached the WHA owners with an idea: let's go get hockey's biggest star for our league.

Mr. Hatskin's idea, coupled with Bobby Hull's growing unhappiness over the low salaries being paid to stars in the NHL, fueled the signing that made the WHA an immediate rival to the NHL. Bobby Hull became a member of the Winnipeg Jets after the owners of the WHA franchises agreed to bring aboard the most marketable hockey figure at that time. On June 27, 1972, Bobby Hull received a $1 million signing bonus as part of a $2.5 million, 10-year contract with the WHA. Instantly, the Winnipeg Jets and the WHA had recognition and credibility in the hockey world.

It took a few weeks after the season started, but Bobby Hull finally joined the Jets for their sixteenth game of the season. The Jets opened the season in New York against the Raiders on October 12, 1972, but litigation from the Chicago Blackhawks delayed the debut of Bobby Hull. By the time that "the Golden Jet" finally took flight, the Winnipeg Jets were the talk of the hockey world.

As the first few seasons progressed, the line-up of the Jets took on a very international flavor. Hull was front and center, and he was joined by Swedish stars Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson to create one of the most dynamic lines in WHA history called the "Hot Line". Other Swedish stars such as defenceman Erik-Lars Sjoberg, forward Kent Nilsson, and goaltender Curt Larsson as well as Finnish players like Heikki Riihiranta and Veli-Pekka Ketola made their way to the Manitoba capital by 1974. Winnipeg literally was a landing ground for Scandinavian hockey stars, and Winnipeg's plan to use them changed hockey in a big way.

First, the doors was now opened for European stars to play hockey in North America. The NHL had very few players who were born and trained in Europe, but the WHA welcomed the great players from across the pond with open arms. The game itself flourished from the added talent that the WHA saw on its ice, and this led the Jets to debut a very new style of play that was quite foreign back in the early-1970s.

With Erik-Lars Sjoberg, the Jets got themselves a very good puck-handling defenceman who could skate with the very best in the world. While it was common practice at the time in North American hockey to dump-and-chase while crashing and banging along the end boards, the Swedes and Finns brought over a new style of play: puck possession.

What this type of game allowed for was more controlled passing and far more puck control than what had normally been seen in North American games. The Jets were, as Mr. Gassen points out, much like the Detroit Red Wings of today's hockey teams where they would circle back in the neutral zone if there were no opportunities to skate the puck into the zone. Because this style of play allowed the Jets more opportunities to control the puck in the neutral and offensive zones, they found themselves playing some incredibly entertaining hockey that confounded some of the WHA teams.

The one man who admired and appreciated this new style of hockey? Glen Sather. And Sather put this idea to work when he started to build the Edmonton Oilers of the early-1980s. Paul Coffey skated like Sjoberg and could handle the puck just as well. Coffey would circle in the neutral zone, waiting patiently for an opening he could skate the puck into, and he would go east-west as often as he had to when deking and dangling through defenders - all of this in the same vein as that of Sjoberg. Esa Tikkanen, Jari Kurri, and Willy Lindstrom all contributed in big ways for the Oilers during the dynasty years - all in the same vein as Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson, and Kent Nilsson. The work done by the Jets to change how hockey was played clearly had a big impact on Glen Sather and the Edmonton Oilers who, in turn, introduced it into the NHL while defeating all opponents who played the North American style of game.

The Jets would go on to win the Avco Cup three times in the short history of the WHA, including the last two Avco Cup Championships. After their win in 1975-76, the Jets put an open invitation on the table to any NHL team to play them and beat them. No NHL team took the challenge, and many feel that the Jets of '75-76 would have soundly beaten any NHL team that year. Thanks to Winnipeg, though, many of those teams got much better over time through the signing and drafting of European players and by developing a European-Canadian hybrid gameplan on the ice.

Houston's Historic Memories

The first thing that everyone talks about in Houston, and I can attest to this, is the weather. The hot, humid Houston weather made for some interesting times for hockey players who were used to winters in New England or Indianapolis or Edmonton. The ice suffered because of this, and players found it sluggish at times in the Sam Houston Coliseum while skating. But the Aeros turned a negative into a great positive by winning under the direction of Bill Dineen.

June 19, 1973 is a date that everyone should remember, but the people in Houston should really look at making it a holiday. That is the day that Gordie Howe signed with the Aeros to unite him with his sons, Mark and Marty, as teammates on the Aeros. The one thing that every player interviewed said was that they all knew who Gordie Howe was, and that they respected him for all that he was doing and had done for the game of hockey - even after taking an elbow and a facewash from the hockey legend!

As crazy as that last statement sounds, a lot of people felt that Gordie Howe might have been the dirtiest player in the WHA just because that's how he played the game. The difference, according to players, was that Gordie played hard all the time - regular season, playoffs, and practice! But everyone loved playing with and against Gordie Howe simply due to the immense talent he brought to the ice each and every night.

The two younger Howes certainly didn't need Gordie there to help them out. Marty and Mark Howe showed their incredible talents throughout their WHA careers, and they really helped the Houston Aeros become a dominant team in their own ways. Mark Howe was a magician with the puck on the left wing before shifting back to become a defenceman in his second professional season, the position he for which he is remembered. Jim Sherritt had the responsibility of centering Mark Howe on the left and Gordie Howe on the right before Bill Dineen decided to shift Mark back to the blueline.

Marty Howe didn't score as often as his dad, but he was a solid winger who worked well in the corners. In each of his four seasons with Houston, Marty Howe increased his point total from the previous season, and he showed that he knew the rewards of hard work and determination by winning a lot of one-on-one battles. This kind of effort doesn't go unnoticed by teammates or by the opposition.

There is a great segment at the end of the Aeros documentary about Houston's push to become an NHL city with the WHA's time coming to a close. Reports had the Aeros merging with the Colorado Rockies, and the NHL franchise would play out of Houston. The Rockies' owners, however, wanted Houston's owners to buy the franchise outright whereas the Aeros were content to allow this franchise to move in and play out of the Summit Arena with the Rockies paying rent. Because of this difference in approaches, the deal never materialized. Instead, John McMullen purchased the team and moved it to New Jersey where the Devils began play. In an ironic twist, McMullen would also own the Houston Astros in 1979 - the place to where the hockey franchise was reportedly going to move!

After a last-minute deal could not be brokered between Houston and the NHL, the Aeros folded. The Aeros were the first team to win back-to-back Avco Cups, their only two championships as a WHA team, and they were the gem of the city. Today, Houston remains the largest city in North America without an NHL franchise to have ever called the city home.

Like the previous DVD set, this two-set DVD comes with a lot of extras packed into each DVD. Disc One has the two documentaries featured above in "Remembering the WHA Winnipeg Jets" and "Remembering the WHA Houston Aeros". There are also "Jets vs Aeros WHA Game Highlights" which really show how good these two teams were. There are also higlights from "International WHA Games" that show the Jets playing the USSR in Tokyo, Japan and the Aeros battling the Finnish national team.

Disc Two contains a "Jets vs Aeros Complete WHA Game" which, to my surprise, was a very good game to watch. Both teams are highly-competitive, and you can actually see Howe vs. Hull in this game. There is also an electronic book in on this disc that you can read through called Winnipeg Jets: The WHA Years, written by Curtis Walker. It's very informative as well.

If you'd like to add this DVD to your collection, please click here to get to the ordering page. You get all the features of the two discs above, and you can even get an autograph from Timothy Gassen inside the DVD case!

If you prefer the old-fashioned way of ordering, you can do that via snail mail. There are some rules, though, so please read the following:
"Money orders in U.S. funds and cashier's checks in U.S. funds are also welcome; sorry, we cannot accept personal checks or Canadian currency. Make money orders and cashier's checks payable to PCMP LLC

"You can also send well-concealed U.S. cash in a letter, but do so at your own risk. U.S. FUNDS ONLY!"
If yuo still want to go through the Postal Service, send your funds to:

PO Box 121
Tucson, Arizona
85702 USA

Tomorrow, we'll have the final DVD set featured on HBIC as we look at "The WHA Hall of Fame: Remembering the WHA". Honestly, these DVDs have been an excellent source of information, and there is so much history contained in the videos produced by Mr. Gassen. If you want some added information on a league that no one at the NHL wants to talk about, I highly recommend these DVDs!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

Sunday 22 May 2011

WHA DVD: Gretzky, Indy, And The WHA

Yesterday's chatter about interleague play between the NHL and the WHA got me thinking more about the WHA, and it was then that I realized that I had something I had not yet posted on HBIC. There are so many things that the NHL was forced to adopt thanks to the popularity of the WHA, but because the NHL is unwilling to recognize the league's history, a lot of this history goes unmentioned. But when you realize that a lot of the NHL's biggest stars either got a start in the WHA, like Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier with the Indianapolis Racers, or played a big part in the popularity of the league, like Bobby Hull or Gordie Howe, you have to expect that the league did some incredible stuff in helping the NHL get better.

Today, we get a look at a DVD all about the Indianapolis Racers, Wayne Gretzky, and the impact of the WHA on hockey as a whole. As you're probably aware, Wayne Gretzky got his start in Indianapolis, but so did Mark Messier. Those two men would go on to lead the Edmonton Oilers to four Stanley Cups as teammates before Messier would guide them to a fifth Stanley Cup and then take the New York Rangers to glory in 1994. The Racers certainly were on the right track to success had it not been for the WHA folding at the end of 1979.

I'll say this before going on: this is an excellent two-DVD set about the history of the Indianapolis Racers and some of their interactions with other teams in the WHA. Journalist Timothy Gassen does a superb job in interviewing former players and personalities that were a part of the Racers lore, and he really brings the stories that made the Racers as popular as they were to light. Mr. Gassen has lots of video and audio clips in the stories, and there are lots of pictures shown as well. If you're a fan of hockey history, this DVD set is one to have in your collection.

I'll have more details below explaining where you can get a copy of the two-DVD set, but there are some excellent stories to be told. I'm not going to tell you everything contained within the stories found on the DVDs, but I will point out some of the more interesting things seen in the five years that the Racers took the ice. I'll also have a full explanation below about what you can find on the two DVDs included in the set, and I have to say that the features found make this two-DVD set worth every penny.

Let's get this started. If you want to skip this section by, please just scroll to the bottom where you can find ordering information. Otherwise, here are some of the highlights I took away from the "Red, White & Blues" story of the Indianapolis Racers.

There are other things that are presented in this DVD that made me raise my eyebrows in disbelief. The WHA was the cutting edge that the conservative NHL never was. They introduced regular-season overtime to help break ties long before the NHL considered it. They helped to raise salaries of players as a whole - competition is great for all the players when star players can demand more money from either league in negotiations. Those two examples alone changed the face of hockey considerably in both leagues and beyond.

The Racers joined the WHA in 1974 in the third season of the WHA's operations, and moved into the brand-new Market Square Arena in downtown Indianapolis. Bob Lamey was hired as the voice of the Racers, and he held the radio calls for the early years that the Racers existed in the league. One of the first exhibition games that Mr. Lamey called was when the Indianapolis Racers battled the NHL's Detroit Red Wings in an exhibition game on October 4, 1974. The two teams would battle to a 3-3 tie in that historic game in Detroit.

As promising as that game was, the rest of the first season for the Racers didn't go so well. They finished a dismal 18-57-3 on the season, but the fans were coming out to support their hockey team. In a show of faith, team management brought in a few NHL stars to give the fans more reason to continue to show up. All in all, though, Indianapolis missed the playoffs in their expansion year after a horrible year on the ice for wins and losses.

With a dispersal draft happening in 1974-75 after the Chicago Cougars and Michigan Stags shut down operations, the Racers acquired Pat Stapleton, a high-scoring, offensive defenceman who had won the Dennis A. Murphy Trophy with the Cougars in the previous season. They also hired fiery coach Jacques Demers to lead them behind the bench. These two changes put the Racers on the right path to success, but they weren't done there.

Despite their first-season blues, the team embraced their newly-found success at the box office. With all the changes happening and the new players such as Hugh Harris and Reg Thomas performing well, the Racers would go on an improbable run. With just six weeks to play in the WHA's regular season, the Racers put the pieces together and became unbeatable. They went on a winning streak that saw them go from last-place in the Eastern Division to a 35-39-6 record, good for first-place in the Eastern Division! The team acquired Dave Keon for the playoff run that season, adding an NHL veteran to their rising squad. Goaltender Michel Dion was named as the best goaltender thanks in part to their six-week run that saw them lose only four games of the last 20.

The New England Whalers and Indianapolis Racers would battle in the first-round of the WHA playoffs. The Racers and Whalers battled through six hard-fought games before Game Seven of their opening round series was played in Indianapolis. New England came out and absolutely dominated the game, but not one fan left Market Square Arena, and the Racers were cheered throughout the game. The Whalers would eliminate the Racers with a 6-0 score in Game Seven, but the fans continued to cheer for their hometown boys. Hockey fever had gripped Indianapolis!

By the way, check out that photo again. Did you see the stripe on Bolduc's helmet? What's up with that? It appears that only Bolduc had it because his teammate facing the camera doesn't have one. Un-uniform uniforms in 1976!

Captain Hugh Harris began his own campaign for the 1976-77 season to continue the positive success that the team had started. Harris began trumpeting a campaign called "Positive Waves" for the fans and to attract other star players to Indianapolis. They even hired a mascot named Moriarity who pushed the "Positive Waves" message. Moriarity was a character from the movie Kelly's Heroes, and both the team and the fans took to this "Positive Waves" campaign in a big way. Players would do all they could for fans, and the fans responded by filling Market Square Arena.

The expansion franchise just 100 miles down the road turned into one of the hottest hockey rivalries the world has seen. The Indianapolis Racers and Cincinnati Stingers had some of the roughest and toughest games in the history of the WHA, and part of that was due to Cincinnati's mascot, Slapshot. The intimidating bee would challenge players on the ice as well as riling up the crowd, and the Stingers immediately became the hated rivals of the Racers thanks to proximity of the cities and the swagger the Stingers carried as an expansion team.

Andy Brown, the last goaltender in the NHL to play without a mask, was one of the signings this season. He continued his non-masked ways with the Racers. Brown was involved in an incident in Cincinnati where Slapshot was skating on the ice and happened to cut in front of Brown during the warm-ups. Brown, being not fond of the bee mascot, gave a tap on the mascot's shins, and Slapshot dropped to the ice like he had been shot. For the rest of the evening, the Racers were the team "that killed Slapshot" which only served to heighten the animosity between these two clubs.

The fans loved the hockey action as much as they did the team, and the team finished in third-place in the Eastern Division with a 36-37-8 record, good enough for a playoff spot. They knocked off their high-flying arch rivals in the Cincinnati Stingers in the quarterfinals in a sweep for their first playoff series win in franchise history, but fell to the Quebec Nordiques in the semi-final by a 4-1 series count. The positive vibes felt throughout the city of Indianapolis was evident at the end of this season, though, as the team experienced its best season in the history of the franchise in 1976-77. The proof of that is in the attendance as the Racers led the league in total attendance over that season.

On an interesting note, Game One of the series between the Stingers and Racers saw the game go to three overtime periods. Gene Peacosh was the hero that night in Cincinnati as the Racers forward scored at 8:30 of triple-overtime, but that game was the longest game played in WHA history! Two intense rivals created a little history in their first playoff meeting! In a secondary note, after defeating Indianapolis, Quebec went on to win the Avco Cup, so they were definitely the best team in the WHA in 1976-77.

The summer of 1977 saw a major change in the direction for the Pacers as the team found itself on the brink of bankruptcy. Millionaire Nelson Skalbania purchased the club, but Racer fans saw a mass exodus of their heroes leave for Cincinnati: Pat Stapleton and Reg Thomas were the most notable players that made the 100-mile trip to the Stingers.

Needless to say, Racer fans were not happy, and the players that replaced their stars were not at the same level of play. Because of this, the Racers stumbled after their best season to a 24-51-5 record in 1977-78, and there was a sense that the Racers were back in "expansion mode" after seeing the exodus of players suit up in yellow and black of the Stingers. The Racers missed the playoffs, and, as a result, the fans were not a happy bunch.

The 1978-79 season was all about one name: Gretzky. Wayne Gretzky debuted as a 17 year-old with the Racers in this season, and he actually wore a few different numbers. He eventually landed on his famous 99, but he also wore #20 and #17 in an intrasquad game. October 22, 1978 was the day where Wayne Gretzky scored his first professional goal, and he did it against the Edmonton Oilers on a backhander past goaltender Dave Dryden. Four seconds later, he had his second professional goal.

Ironically, he scored his last goal as a Racer on October 28, 1978 against the New England Whalers on a backhander as well. Wayne Gretzky's legacy, however, was only eight games long as absentee owner Nelson Skalbania's Racers slipped into last-place and the fans stopped showing up. Skalbania liquified his assets by selling off his most marketable stars - Gretzky, goaltender Ed Mio, and forward Peter Driscoll - to former business partner Peter Pocklington of the Edmonton Oilers. The Gretzky era in Indianapolis was over well before The Great One had made his impact on the game of hockey. And the Racers franchise would be over just 17 games later. The Racers lost their final game to the New England Whalers by a 7-4 score, and folded on December 15, 1978.

Gretzky's sale to the Oilers opened the door for another future superstar who wore #18 in Indianapolis: Mark Messier. Messier spent just five games as a Racer on a professional tryout before the Racers folded. Messier then went on to the hated Cincinnati Stingers where he wore #27. Gretzky and Messier were two pretty good building blocks to build a franchise around, especially when you consider what Peter Pocklington got out of having those two on his team.

Wow. That's quite a history in just five years. And, honestly, the stories told by the players, broadcasters, and personalities in "Red, White & Blues" is amazingly detailed despite it being only one of the features of the 50-minute exposé on this team. Timothy Gassen deserves some real congratulations for his work in this journalism, and his DVD set deserves some recognition for the hard work that went into it and the excellent production value that came out of it.

I especially liked the "Teammates" section of the "Red, White & Blues", and there's a special clip of Admiral Dewey, defenceman Darryl Maggs' dog that would routinely be at practice. In the picture above of Admiral Dewey, you can see that he has a puck in his mouth. Admiral Dewey would fetch loose pucks on the ice after practice, and there's a great clip of him chasing down a puck that Darryl Maggs lightly shoots across the ice. Those kinds of clips are what makes these DVDs so special!

Let's run down the features on Disc One. There is, of course, "Red, White & Blues" which is the history of the Indianapolis Racers, and runs approximately 50 minutes. "Racers All-Stars" shows 1977 highlights and player interviews from the Racers, and runs approximately 15 minutes. "Racers Fight Reel" is three minutes of the best fisticuffs from the Racers' point of view. There is also a 155-page Racers book and three hours of restored WHA radio broadcasts! Those highlights alone would be worth the price of admission, but there's still another disc in the DVD case!

Disc Two has the Racers' final victory in franchise history on it. The visiting Edmonton Oilers and Wayne Gretzky visit Market Square Arena, and the game is shown in its entirety! This features runs approximately 81 minutes, and, according to the DVD case, "is the most complete restored game footage that exists of the Indianapolis Racers". Disc Two also has the third period of the April 4, 1978 game between the Racers and Stingers from Market Square Arena as well. It runs 26 minutes, and contains some excellent footage of both teams! Again, these are excellent additions, and they really show you how the game was played in the WHA.

If you'd like to order a copy of this two-DVD set, please check out wharacers.com. While there, you can get over to the ordering page where you can pick yourself up a copy of this excellent examination of the Racers. You get all the features of the two discs above, and you can even get an autograph from Timothy Gassen inside the DVD case!

If you prefer the old-fashioned way of ordering, you can do that via snail mail. There are some rules, though, so please read the following:

"Money orders in U.S. funds and cashier's checks in U.S. funds are also welcome; sorry, we cannot accept personal checks or Canadian currency. Make money orders and cashier's checks payable to PCMP LLC

"You can also send well-concealed U.S. cash in a letter, but do so at your own risk. U.S. FUNDS ONLY!"
If yuo still want to go through the Postal Service, send your funds to:

PO Box 121
Tucson, Arizona
85702 USA

Lastly, if you have any questions about anything, feel free to send an email. Tomorrow, I'll preview the second two-DVD set of this WHA series as we look at all three DVDs in the series over the next couple of days. Honestly, this look at the Racers has me excited for the next DVDs, so stay tuned for more WHA action!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

Saturday 21 May 2011

Real Interleague Play Would Have Been Awesome

With Major League Baseball embracing interleague play once again, the detractors and supporters are out in force about whether or not this is a good move by baseball. The detractors find the games to be meaningless in the grand scheme of things while the supporters like seeing teams they rarely see travel through their home ballpark. While the NHL has always been the league of leagues in hockey, there were a few lucky cities that saw both an NHL team and a WHA team take up residence during the WHA's short life as a pro hockey league.

One such city was Minneapolis/St. Paul where the North Stars and Fighting Saints both held ground until the Saints finally closed up shop in 1977. The teams played on opposite sides of the Mississippi River, but they never once played against each other despite battling for the hearts of Minnesotans. So what happened during the historic years when the Stars and Saints fought over Minnesota?

Jerry Kirshenbaum of Sports Illustrated wrote a very interesting article on the battle that was waged between the NHL's North Stars and the WHA's Fighting Saints during this time. Mr. Kirshenbaum's article was published on November 10, 1975, and showed an interesting side to this battle after Philadelphia and Vancouver had both ousted the Blazers in favour of NHL teams in years previous to 1975, and the Toronto Toros reportedly looking at a move to Hamilton to escape the Maple Leafs' stranglehold on the city of Toronto in 1975.

Honestly, this battle sounds like it's the Hatfields vs. the McCoys. The Saints, inexplicably, scheduled home games on the same nights as the North Stars in their efforts to capture the hearts of fans. I'm not sure who came up with this tactic, but it was interesting to see what happened despite the futility of this plan.

It is in this spirit that the Saints, who mostly avoided such head-to-head battles in previous years, scheduled 19 home games this season on nights that the North Stars were playing across the river. The first two of these confrontations were standoffs, the Saints drawing a bigger crowd one time, the Stars the next. Another showdown occurred last Wednesday night. The Stars, before an oddly somnolent crowd of 8,335 in Bloomington, managed a rare win, shutting out one of the NHL's most recent expansion teams, the 2-year-old Kansas City Scouts, 2-0. In St. Paul, a somewhat livelier gathering of 12,210 watched the Saints lose 6-4 to the WHA expansionist Cincinnati Stingers. But the attendance figures were still inconclusive; the St. Paul numbers were swollen by a special promotion in which kids were given free Saints jackets.
Where the teams differed in their approach to winning this battle was the style of play each team employed. The North Stars played a much more defesnive style of play, preferring to grind out wins with their star goalie, Cesar Maniago, and their band of lesser-known players. The Saints, on the other hand, preferred a more unorthodox style of play, allowing players to run-and-gun and brawl whenever necessary. In the WHA, that meant a large number of games with high scores and lots of penalty minutes.

The Saints also were pretty adept at grabbing free agents that had built some popularity as North Stars. One such player was Henry Boucha, a born-and-bred Ojibwa and Minnesotan, who arrived from the Detroit Red Wings in 1974 in a trade with the North Stars for Danny Grant. Mr. Boucha was involved in a very serious stick-swinging incident with Boston's Dave Forbes in his short time with the North Stars. In 1975, Boucha made the jump to the Fighting Saints after his blurred vision and cracked orbital bone caused the North Stars some concern. Mr. Kirshenbaum caught up with him for a comment on the building territorial war between the two hockey clubs.
The Minnesota-born Boucha is the latest of a string of North Stars wooed away by the Saints, but recent surgery on the eye damage by Forbes — Boucha's third such operation — delayed his debut until last week's Cincinnati game. He scored two goals, talking afterward not of fighting but of his old team across the river. "If we played the North Stars in a seven-game series, we'd beat them in five," he crowed.
Animosity? I'd say so. Neither the Yankees and Mets nor the Cubs and White Sox have shown that kind of hatred towards one another for a long time, but I'm pretty sure that if they did, those baseball series would be a lot more fun. Clemens vs. Piazza was the last time we saw fireworks of that magnitude, and that was fun to watch!

As history tells us, both teams eventually succumbed to the pressures of losing too much money - the Saints folded in 1977 while the North Stars eventually moved south to Dallas in 1993. Clearly, though, the NHL squad lasted a lot longer than the WHA club did, though, and Mr. Kirshenbaum foreshadowed this fact at the end of his article.
If only because of recent history, the betting has to be on the NHL club to hang on. Given his painful experiences at Philadelphia and Vancouver, it is not surprising to find Johnny McKenzie making conciliatory noises. Puffing a cigarette in the Saints' dressing room after the Cincinnati game, he said, "Minnesota's a great hockey state, and if they start winning, I think both teams can survive here." The part about the state, at least, makes sense.
With the Minnesota Wild, the NCAA teams, and the local high school hockey teams all showing great attendance numbers, hockey in the state of Minnesota has never been better.

But how cool would it have been had the Fighting Saints and North Stars battled for Minnesota hockey supremacy like Henry Boucha had wanted? That's the kind of interleague hockey game that I would have loved to see, and it may have made one or both of those teams much stronger in the long run.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

Friday 20 May 2011

Atlanta Has Heard This Before

This weekend is pretty much the wake for the Atlanta Thrashers franchise if you believe the hype that the Thrashers will start the season in Winnipeg next season. From all the rumblings I've heard, it sounds like it's just a matter of signing and delivering at this point, but I have to say that I feel for the fans in Atlanta. I really do. I went through the pain and frustration and anger that Georgians are feeling right now in 1996 when the Jets were uprooted and moved to Phoenix. I'm not writing this article out of sympathy, though, because this happened once in the past with a franchise that now exists in Calgary. While the pain and frustration and anger is at a high right now for Georgians, history, it seems, is definitely repeating itself.

I want to point to an article written by Kathy Blumenstock and published in the March 10, 1980 edition of Sports Illustrated. It was a fabulous article about the arrival of Olympic hockey hero Jim Craig in Atlanta where he posted his first win in his first game while wearing the fiery "A" on his chest. The key to this article, however, is that the epigraph reads as follows:

"Georgians suddenly turned on to the alien sport of hockey last week, giving a lavish welcome to Olympic Goalie Jim Craig, whose pro debut with the Atlanta Flames was a rousing success, on and off the ice"
This article, written in 1980, speaks about how Georgians suddenly took to the "alien sport of hockey" thanks to the arrival of one star player that had some notoriety to him.

Now, there's no doubt that the Thrashers have had a number of star players like Kovalchuk, Heatley, Hossa, and Lehtonen, but none have been of the home-grown variety like Jim Craig was. However, the fans came out for the one and only time that the Atlanta Thrashers made the playoffs, and that same season saw Marian Hossa score a franchise-best 100 points and Lehtonen post the most wins in franchise history in one season with 34. The basis of a solid, young team was there with Kovalchuk, Hossa, and Lehtonen leading the way. Hossa would finish the season sixth in scoring, while he and Kovalchuk finished with 43 and 42 goals respectively. Atlanta won their first and only Southeast Division title, and there was a reason to be excited for the first time in Thrashers history about the progress this team was making with these youthful stars in the lineup.
"Craig may be the savior of the Atlanta franchise. Plagued by poor attendance, Atlanta is resigned to losing at least $2 million this season. Rumors of the Flames' departure from Georgia are rampant; according to the latest ones, the team will play next season in Calgary or Dallas or East Rutherford, N.J. But with Craig in the lineup, there could be a turnabout. His box-office appeal immediately became apparent."
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? The Thrashers, plagued by poor attendance, lost boatloads of money, including an estimated $25 million this past season. Rumors of them moving to either Winnipeg or Quebec City were floating since the season ended, but there doesn't seem to be any sort of marketable star to try and salvage something of this Thrashers franchise in the Atlanta area.

I hate to bring this up, but the stories of Atlanta Flames leaving and the Atlanta Thrashers leaving sound eerily similar: marketable young stars, fans really taking to the game, the franchise awash in red ink, and the inevitable departure from Atlanta. There's an old adage that I try to keep fresh in my mind when I'm reading stories like this: "those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it". It seems like this adage should have been painted on the walls of the Philips Arena.

Indeed, there are even some former players who feel that the history of the Atlanta Flames should have been promoted by the Thrashers. Phil Foley of the Atlanta Examiner spoke to former Atlanta Flames goaltender Joel Bouchard about the Thrashers' dismissal of Atlanta's hockey history, and it sounds as though Mr. Bouchard is a little angry about the history of the Flames being erased from Atlanta's hockey history.
"When we came here the first meeting I had with the Thrashers... they asked the players to be involved," he said of a meeting shortly after an expansion franchise was awarded. "The new general manager said, 'in no way shape or form will the Atlanta Flames players be involved.'

"When we had our NHL alumni tournament, the general manager would do anything to have his player and coaches be somewhere else."
Let's be honest here, though: a very large part of the problem with the Atlanta Thrashers franchise was ownership and management. As trades decimated the youthful Atlanta lineup in 2007, players like Heatley, Hossa, Kovalchuk, and Lehtonen have all gone on to success elsewhere, including making the playoffs more often than they had in Atlanta. While money issues were always a concern with Atlanta, especially when the team posting double-digit losses in the millions, the one thing that could have turned the franchise around was winning. Bouchard's made the same comments on the radio this week in Canada.

"All the city needed was a winner," he told TSN Radio. "They proved that when they made the playoffs the one year. The coach that made the playoffs (Bob Hartley) they couldn't wait to get rid of the next year. It was poorly, poorly managed.

"You can't fool the people all the time. If you can't field a winner, you should move over and it was never done."

The two histories of the franchises seem fairly similar. Sure, there are some differences in the way that both franchises met their ultimate demise in Atlanta, but the end result is the same. And so it appears that Winnipeg will become the new Calgary as another of Atlanta's NHL franchises is set to move north. And I'll let Phil Foley finish this article off because he makes a very damning point about the Thrashers in his article:
And as another one of Atlanta’s hockey teams looks increasingly likely to be headed to Canada, it seems like that the Thrashers organization failed to recognize the simplest of life’s lessons: those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

Due to that, the Thrashers are poised to fly north for the winter for good.
Quoth the Thrashers, never more.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!