The Puck Drops Here A Lunch Community <![CDATA[ The Good Old Hockey Game!]]>
That naturally makes it a truly special thing whenever a timeless sports game DOES manage to rise above and beyond the updates and become the favored game of its entire series for years. Or, in any case, a classic of the genre. How often has it happened? Let's see - there's Tecmo Bowl, NBA Jam (which can barely be called a sports game), NHL '94, ESPN NFL 2K5, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2, Punch-Out, and maybe - MAYBE - World Series Baseball, Virtua Tennis, and Blades of Steel. Gran Turismo is you believe racing games and sports games are the same thing. 

NHL '94 came out 20 years ago now, so upon picking it up, you won't be using Patrick Kane to score the Stanley Cup-winning goal for the Chicago Blackhawks, thus winning him the Conn Smythe Trophy. The average NHL player isn't around for that long unless his name is Gordie Howe, so there are currently only six players in today's NHL who were in the league when NHL '94 was first released. There are many marquee players among them, though: Jaromir Jagr - now 41 years old and playing for the Boston Bruins - Nikolai Khabibulin, Teemu Selanne, and Martin Brodeur. The other two are Roman Hamrlik and Ray Whitney. These were definitely some of the halcyon days of the NHL. In NHL '94, the Carolina Hurricanes are still the Hartford Whalers, the Detroit Red Wings hadn't yet morphed into the NHL version of the New York Yankees, Wayne Gretzky still played in his prime, and the Neutral Zone Trap didn't bring on the near-ruination of the entire sport. 

The great innovations which are popularly said to have elevated NHL '94 above and beyond the competition are the additions of the one-timer and the wrap-around. Those are certainly nice little things, but as to them making this game a classic, well, nuts to that! As with all great sports video games during the 16-bit era, the greatness of the game had nothing to do with how accurate it was and everything to do with the kinds of insane things that, no matter how accurate the game claimed to be, it would still let players get away with. Indeed, NHL '94 is a primitive beast and an imperfect and occasionally glitchy little monster. This game is still popular all over the place because the only limits imposed on it are those of your own sick, twisted imagination. 

Yes, one-timers and wrap-arounds are all over the place in the NHL. They're an important part of the sport - if you don't know how to do them, you should just drop whatever far-flung fantasy you have of ever playing for the Blackhawks, or even a minor league team like the San Diego Gulls or Buffalo Sabres. But the real fun is in the little things you don't notice until you run into them by accident, laugh at, and integrate them into your gameplay. Sabres fans remember a recent incident where Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller was plowed by Milan Lucic of the Boston Bruins. In real life, of course, it's the goalie who went down. In NHL '94, however, it would have been Lucic who would have taken the hit because in this game, the goalies are not only damn near invincible, but the players who try to check them end up getting knocked over. I once accidentally charged into an opposing goaltender with Pat LaFontaine, and LaFontaine got seriously injured! After that, my best friend and I made ramming the opposing goalie a big part of our gameplay just because we wanted to see who else we could hurt by running him into a goalie. 

The flaws in NHL '94 are really something once you get ahold of what they are and how to use them to your advantage. The vaunted wrap-arounds don't work very often. Hockey being hockey, of course, a goalie who's even half-awake would be able to detect a wrap-around coming a mile away. If you tool around a little bit, though, you'll quickly learn that the goalies don't seem to move from side to side quite as quickly as the players, and so the best scoring opportunities happen as the player skates from one side of the rink to the other while just a few feet from the net. Master this, and you'll soon be getting the puck into the net on every penalty shot, and when you really conquer it, you'll be able to come out on the top of entire games played with no goalie. 

Yes, you can do that. The game does come with an option to remove the goalie at any time so, if you play your cards exactly right, you'll be able to come back from a multiple goal deficit by yanking the goalie. Of course, to get it to work the best possible way, you'll want to make sure your lineups are in order, and the game gives you ways to customize two scoring lines, a checking line, and the lines for the power play and penalty kills. That means if your coach is an idiot, you can use NHL '94 to correct his mistakes and place the players with other players who make more sense. 

Despite the heavy emphasis on simulation, there is a slant in NHL '94 geared toward casual, arcade players as well. This is mostly because of the way body checks are executed - use the C button to perform a speed burst, which doubles as a body check. The game is rather lax about calling some of the harder hits, so even though there's no fighting, NHL '94 provides an accurate but fast and loose hockey simulation. It isn't quite as fast as the uber-smooth advanced hockey games of today, which sometimes emphasize the hitting and fighting over everything else, but it keeps pace with the other options available at the time pretty easily. Even in spite of the fact that the offsides and icing calls are there to ruin your momentum once again. Fortunately, the lack of fighting is addition by subtraction, because not having to worry about slugging with a badass enforcer means there's only action left to concentrate on.

1994 in hockey video games was the last year before EA Sports let everyone walk into the NHL and decimate every roster in the league by sliding into the GM chair. You're not getting the world in play modes in NHL '94. There's a basic exhibition, tournaments of either single games or seven-game series, and a shootout mode. Those tournaments, of course, lead to the ultimate prize of hockey, the Holy Grail of sports: The Stanley Cup. There are profile pages to help you decide who should go on every line, though, so that helps. They even come with nice little corner thumbnail photos. You will, however, notice a few stupid roster quirks. For one thing, where the hell is Paul Kariya? Also, Wayne Gretzky - who, at the time of NHL '94, had a recent Hart Trophy to his name and was leading the Los Angeles Kings to their first Finals ever - somehow only gets a numerical ranking of 87. Among the players with higher ratings are: Alexander Mogilny (96), Pavel Bure (90), Teemu Selanne (90), Jeremy Roenick (89), and Doug Gilmour (89). Scott Neidermayer only gets a 58, John Vanbiesbrouck is a mere 63 while his fellow New York Rangers goalie Mike Richter (MIKE RICHTER!) is a 61, Mats Sundin seems pretty low at 79, and Denis Savard is a 75. And the team rankings seem a lot more balanced for a league without a salary cap. Aside from the All-Star teams, the highest team rating is the Blackhawks who, with a recent Presidents' Trophy and Finals appearance in their recent past back then, earn a 78 which is still three points higher than the Pittsburgh Penguins team that beat them to the Stanley Cup in 1992.

The graphics use small sprites without a whole lot of detail. What they lack in detail, though, they more than make up in their color and fluidity. While I'm pretty sure there aren't a ton of animation frames, the sprites are small enough for EA Sports to have gotten away with it, as long as they looked good in motion. There are also a few pleasant little animation details which, while not necessary for the game, are nice to have: You can see a siren going off after every goal. There's abundant crowd animation, which is cool and sometimes ever funny. It beats a lot of the crowd animations in the other games in the series.

The sounds just rock! The slapping of the puck is more than passable, but the real fun comes in dishing out the hits! There's a good, hard sound which, although muffled, is still a joy to hear on a murder spree! And the organ music is fantastic. It includes fight songs for certain teams, like "Here Come the Hawks" (Chicago Blackhawks), "When the Saints Go Marching in" (St. Louis Blues), and "Sabre Dance" (Buffalo Sabres).

The gameplay is as smooth and fluid as the graphics, and the vaunted one-timers and wrap-arounds are all performed with smooth ease. There's no limit on the number of times you can use speed bursts, since they also double as body checks, and therefore you can check your way up the ice rather easily. The vertical rink gives off a better vantage point than the horizontal rink which had been traditional until that point, which makes it a lot easier to make accurate shots on goal and accurate passes. Plus the rinks just feel bigger.

Should you get this game? How addicted do you want to get? There are very few better games with which to bond with other people over…. At least, if you can tear yourself away from it long enough to meet people.

PS: If I come off at times like I was using this review to brag about the Chicago Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup, I was!]]> Wed, 26 Jun 2013 15:16:54 +0000
<![CDATA[ Wild On...]]>
As any hockey fan worth his salt can tell you, the Minneapolis/St. Paul area once had a hockey team called the Minnesota North Stars. Although they did manage to make the Stanley Cup Finals twice, they were generally terrible, but they were an established institution of the area. They were founded in 1967, and Minnesota is right where they stayed! Until 1993, that is, when they moved and became the Dallas Stars! Although the team moved in large part because the owners' weren't exactly deep, this wasn't sitting well among the people of Minneapolis and St. Paul, so St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman began a campaign to bring hockey back to Minnesota. It may be the only thing the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul have ever agreed on. On June 25, 1997, the NHL said it was time to create four new teams: The Atlanta Thrashers, Nashville Predators, Columbus Blue Jackets, and a team for Minnesota.

The team was named in one of those ever-popular fan contests. The six candidates were Blue Ox, Freeze, Northern Lights, Voyageurs, White Bears, and Wild. If you ask me, they're all fucking awful, but while I would have personally leaned toward the Northern Lights, Wild was the name picked out. Doug Risebrough was named the team's first general manager, and the first head coach was Jacques Lemaire. The Wild's first pick in the 2000 entry draft was Marian Gaborik, a solid pick who, except for a couple of stints in Europe, was a 30-goal guy for years in Minnesota. While the team actually showed a little bit of promise, it still didn't do especially well, though one nice highlight in the inaugural season was a visit from the Dallas Stars in which the Wild shut out the defending Western Conference Champions 6-0.

The Wild's second season started out strong, and the Wild picked up a point in all of the first seven games. That didn't keep them from finishing in last place again, though, with a record of 26-35-12-9. Or the way people SHOULD look at it, 26-44-12, since overtime losses are losses and the NHL was REALLY FUCKING STUPID about its standings back then. The next year, though, the Wild broke out. Gaborik spent a good chunk of the year in the fight for the scoring title. The Wild climbed into playoff position as the sixth seed, which only earned them a date with the then-powerful Colorado Avalanche. As heavy underdogs, the Wild let themselves fall into a 3-1 hole before pulling the mighty flip lever. They came back to win the series in seven games, which not only ejected the Avs but also prematurely sent their legendary goalie, Patrick Roy, into retirement without that triumphant Stanley Cup skate-off. In the second round, the Wild faced the Vancouver Canucks. Since their little game of spotting their opponent a 3-1 lead in the series before coming back to win in seven games had worked so well against the Avalanche, the Wild decided to try it against the Canucks too! And it worked! This put them in the Western Conference Finals against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. The Wild was now REALLY rolling on the spot-the-opponent-a-3-1-series-lead-and-win-in-seven-games strategy, so they naturally went out against the Mighty Ducks thinking it would work pretty easily against them, too. In fact, Minnesota wanted to challenge themselves this time, so they were even nice enough to let Anaheim go up 3-0 before coming back! Except this time, it didn't work. It was clear very early in the series that Mighty Ducks goalie Jean-Sebastian Giguere was keeping a tight lock on the cage. He allowed one goal to the Wild for the entire series - a series which, by the way, went only four games.

Marian Gaborik and Pascal Dupuis made sure the Wild began the next year short-handed. Why? They wanted more money and decided to hold out. So the Wild struggled for the first month of the season, but even after getting their two holdouts signed, Gaborik and Dupuis still hadn't spent a lot of their time during their holdouts working out. They were sorely out of hockey shape. After struggling through November, it was clear last year's Cinderella run wasn't a sign of things to come, so the Wild started planning for their future. They spent the year trading away many of their veteran players on the way to a record of 30-29-20-3, or as I put it, 30-32-20. (God, that's a ridiculous number of ties.) During the next year's lockout, the Wild faced a tragedy when one of their players, Sergei Zholtok, died from a heart condition during a game in the European leagues. He had had incidents with his heart in the past, and with five minutes left in one game, he left the game, returned to the locker room, and collapsed and died of heart failure in the arms of Darby Hendrickson, his former teammate.

The end of the lockout began a goalie controversy between Manny Fernandez and Dwayne Roloson. That ended when Roloson was traded to the Edmonton Oilers. The Wild didn't reach the playoffs again until 2007. They were defeated in the first round by the same team that beat them in their last trip to the playoffs: The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, who by this time had finally shed their embarrassing Disney connection and taken on the new official name Anaheim Ducks. In both years, the Ducks had gone on to win the Western Conference Championship, and this year the Ducks took home the Stanley Cup as well. It was in 2008, though, that the Wild finally figured out they couldn't get away with trying to play the Neutral Zone Trap anymore, and that new knowledge did them wonders. They won their division for the first time and easily slid into the playoffs as the third seed, this time to face the Avalanche again. They lost in six games.

During the offseason, Minnesota brought back one of their old anchors, Andrew Brunette, and they also signed Owen Nolan. But the next year brought new obstacles when Marian Gaborik suffered a rash of injuries, GM Doug Risebrough was fired at the end of the year, and Jacques Lemaire resigned. Gaborik ended up signing with the New York Rangers, but to soften the blow, the team signed Martin Havlat, fresh off a nice and productive tenure with the Chicago Blackhawks. During the first month of the 2010 season, the team announced their first-ever Captain: Mikko Koivu.

The Wild chugged along, continuing to disappoint, not making the playoffs. In 2011, Havlat was traded for Dany Heatley. In the 2012 offseason, the team picked up some high-priced, shiny new toys by famously signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to 13-year contracts worth $98 million. Prior to this season's trade deadline, they added more firepower by trading a couple of prospects and draft picks to the Buffalo Sabres for their Captain, Jason Pominville. They're currently seventh overall in the Western Conference with a record of 25-18-3, so I'm not sure how much good all that firepower is doing them. Yes, the Western Conference this year isn't a place for sissies, but hell, the Wild are loaded by ANY standard. Seventh place between Parise, Heatley, Suter, and Pominville ain't gonna cut it.

Number one is retired in the Wild's hierarchy for the team's fans, and 24 is unofficially retired for Derek Boogaard. Even without Marian Gaborik and Martin Havlat, the race to acquire every current player in the NHL is on between the Minnesota Wild and Pittsburgh Penguins! Pens grab Jarome Iginla? Wild will raise you Jason Pominville! Pens trade for Brenden Morrow? Come on, we ALL know that was just a response to Heatley! And Parise and Suter are there for management to shake their fists at Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin! And just what the hell is Pascal Dupuis doing in Pittsburgh now, anyway?!

Rivalries…. Rivalries…. Okay, who do the Minnesota Wild hate more than any other team? What makes their blood boil? Christ, do I REALLY have to try to think up and research rivalries for a team that's barely made the ten-year waypoint? They haven't had the time to develop any! But, according to some blog I'm just reading right now on The Vancouver Canucks; Anaheim Ducks; Calgary Flames; Dallas Stars; and New York Rangers for some reason. I can virtually guarantee that, with the possible exception of the Stars, these rivalries are almost always mainly on Minnesota's end. As for their defining moments, the 2003 playoff run to the Western Conference Finals. In two of those rounds, the Wild was down 3-1 and came back to win. Now, we make a huge deal of teams that win series after being down 3-0, but that's because teams that do that are extremely rare - I think we're still at the point where teams who win after being down 3-0 can be counted on one hand. Winning after being down 3-1 isn't unheard of. It's still very far from common, though, which is why it's a big deal that the Wild did it twice in one playoff. They're the only team to ever do it that many times in one year.

The logo of the Minnesota Wild is one of the coolest in all of sports: A silhouette of either a bear or a wild cat (the bear is the most accepted theory) which is painted to make the animal's features look like a frost scene at dusk: A deep yellow sun as the ear, a shooting star as the eye. This logo has met with a lot of criticism too, but I personally think it's very original.

Unfortunately, I can't give the Minnesota Wild a high rating yet. Fans outside Minnesota still keep them on the backburners at best. Fans in the Eastern Conference can still afford to completely forget they exist at all. I hope all the money the team is shelling out to Parise and Suter turns out to be worth it. Otherwise, this team is going to be risking what seems to be more stability than the Minnesota North Stars ever had.

And that's all, folks. I've now officially completed the biggest project I've ever created for myself on a consumer website: I've reviewed every team in the big three sports leagues in the United States, plus the NHL! There are groups for football, baseball, basketball, and hockey that you can find all of them in. (I started the hockey group myself.) But does this mean I'm entirely done reviewing sports teams? Hell, no! There's the Premier League in England, which I'm becoming a big fan of. There are the women's leagues, college teams, minor leagues…. Way too many to count. So I'll still be coming by with the occasional sports review, although they won't be written nearly as often, as I go back to the designated roles which brought me to Lunch in the first place: Media! You can always catch me writing about a good movie, book, video game, or music album. At any rate, thanks for reading!]]> Wed, 24 Apr 2013 15:27:54 +0000
<![CDATA[ Leaving on a Jet Plane]]>
They were created as part of the four-team expansion that included the Columbus Blue Jackets, Nashville Predators, Atlanta Thrashers, and Minnesota Wild. Now, the Flames had been the NHL's first try in the southern United States, and while they had made the playoffs several times, they were also gone after eight years. This time, the NHL had gone southward gradually, experimentally placing teams in Florida and Texas and North Carolina before trying anything so rash as placing a new team in Atlanta. But on June 25, 1997, the NHL made its grand return to Atlanta to see if people still didn't care. The name Thrashers was chosen from a fan poll, despite being the runner-up to the old nickname, the Flames. Naming the new team after the old team wasn't going to work; the Flames had kept their name upon moving up to Calgary, and that tells you just how much the people of Atlanta know about hockey, or at least the NHL. The Trasher, by the way, is the official state bird of Georgia.

Beginning operations in 1999, the entry draft that year yielded Patrik Stefan and Luke Sellars. If those names don't mean anything to you, that's because both of them - as well as the nine other guys they picked - were out of the NHL by the team's final season of existence. Stefan played 414 games, more than any of the other picks, which isn't a high number of NHL games. Both Stefan and Sellars are listed as being among the biggest draft busts in the history of the NHL. This was a big shock because Stefan was not only hyped up by the media as a franchise guy (I'm guessing the media doing this hyping was the Atlanta media), but general manager Don Waddell was considered an outstanding scout. The Thrashers finished up their first season with a record of 14-61-7 for 39 points.

Fortunately, the 2000 draft produced a better result: Dany Heatley! In 2001, the team also made a fantastic pick in Ilya Kovalchuk. Both were named to the All-Rookie Team, and Heatley actually walked home with the Calder Trophy. They still didn't help the team to the playoffs, though.

With the Thrashers lack of success on the ice, the team needed to find a way to drum up some publicity off the ice. And in 2003, publicity found the Atlanta Thrashers in the worst possible way. Dany Heatley, a kid who was now officially an up and coming star in the league, was speeding his Ferrari through Atlanta with his teammate and friend Dan Snyder when he veered out of control and his car rushed headlong into a column and went kaboom. Heatley was lucky enough to escape with just a broken jaw, broken arm, sprained wrist, and a pair of torn knee ligaments. Snyder wasn't so lucky; his injuries yielded septic shock which took his life five days later. The Thrashers dedicated their season to Snyder's memory, wearing black patches with Snyder's number. Heatley went through the criminal court system for speeding and recklessness, but the charges were later dropped because his alcohol level was actually below the legal limit. The Thrashers did come out playing some inspired hockey that year, and even took the division lead for a short time, but they weren't able to keep it up. In late December, they ran through a streak where they went 1-17-3 through February. They finished second in their division, but tenth in their conference.

After the 2005 lockout, the Thrashers took a new approach to team building: Signing old veterans! Peter Bondra, Bobby Holik, Scott Mellanby, Jaroslav Modry, and Mike Dunham were welcomed to Atlanta. But at the time, Heatley, still understandably upset from his teammate's death, hadn't quite recovered. He believed he needed a change of scenery in order to distance himself from the memories of the accident, so he was swapped to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for Marian Hossa. The 2006 season saw the Thrashers find success: They won 41 games, even though their goalies spent most of the year fighting injuries. They still missed the playoffs, but it was something to build on. And build they did: Even though their second-leading scorer, Marc Savard, departed in free agency for the Boston Bruins, the Thrashers still won 43 games and finally moved into that coveted playoff slot! Savard, by the way, played in the All-Star game that year, which was held in Atlanta. He was cheered by the Thrashers fans for the entire night. The team's first and only playoff appearance ended in a first round sweep by the New York Rangers.

Although the 76 points the Thrashers posted in 2008 matched their previous season's total, they still came in 13th place in the Eastern Conference, missing the playoffs. The team also couldn't find an agreement to extend the contract of Ilya Kovalchuk, and when he turned down two offers, the team decided to get what they could out of him and traded him to the New Jersey Devils. And oh yeah, their ownership group was also splitting apart! This time, it had something to do with percentage shares. You know, money. Losses, ownership struggles, a lukewarm fanbase…. The Thrashers were never exactly a model of stability. The relocation rumors saw all the usual suspects pop up: Kansas City; Quebec City; Hamilton; Winnipeg. In February 2011, the majority owner said the Thrashers would be looking for new investors, and while various local groups announced they intended to buy the Thrashers and keep them in Atlanta, they all fell through. I like to imagine that a few of them backed out after learning that the Thrashers didn't play baseball or football, and when informed of the truth, couldn't figure out what a hockey was. The team was sold to True North Sports and Entertainment, and in May of 2011, the deal to take the team to Winnipeg was done.

There was a lot of support there to bring back the old Jets name, so that's what True North and the NHL did. The general manager was changed, the coach was changed, but there were holdovers who are naturally still with the team. They saw the Jets go 37-35-10 for a surprisingly good 84 points in 2012, but that was only good enough for fourth place in their division. They missed the playoffs. Right now, they're again sitting just outside a playoff spot by two points. They could well get in if the few teams in front of them avoid a tank job.

The number of Bobby Hull was retired by the old Winnipeg Jets, so when the new Jets came calling, Evander Kane had to get permission from Hull to wear his Atlanta number. It's tough to say what the status of ANY number is with these guys right now. One number, for Thomas Steen was retired but yanked out of retirement for five games. Two numbers are retired with the Phoenix Coyotes for players with the old Jets. Later the Coyotes retired Dale Hawerchuk's number, forcing a current Jet to change. The status of number 37, which was Dan Snyder's number, is unknown. Some of the great players for the team have been Dany Heatley, Peter Bondra, Ilya Kovalchuk, Brent Sopel, Dustin Byfuglien, and Marian Hossa. Their current Captain is Andrew Ladd.

This team is still pretty young, and giving them any kind of real identity, especially after they've moved after so little time in their existence, just isn't possible or fair. There was that one playoff appearance, and that's pretty much it. Beyond that, well, I'm pretty sure no one wants to remember the car crash. The current identity of the Jets is based on the fact that there was an older team called the Winnipeg Jets, a WHA holdover. They were pretty bad most of the time, and they eventually became the Phoenix Coyotes.

Oh, these new teams. The Winnipeg Jets are not an extension or continuation of the older team that also went by that name. No one remembers them in Atlanta, and they can't even keep their player history straight. I want to be nicer with this team, but that's just not possible.]]> Sat, 20 Apr 2013 19:41:19 +0000
<![CDATA[ Take a Bite]]>
Other than that, it's difficult to peg the Nashville Predators. They were officially awarded to The Music City in 1997 when Wisconsin businessman Craig Leipold made a nice little presentation to the NHL brass asking "Why not Nashville?" Nashville had an arena built, and when Gary Bettman and league officials visited Nashville, thousands of people gathered on the arena plaza to greet them. In June that year, four new teams were created: The Nashville Predators, Columbus Blue Jackets, Atlanta Thrashers, and Minnesota Wild. Actually, Nashville's team wasn't created AS the Predators. The team actually designed the logo behind everyone's back, then unveiled it to all before asking the population of Nashville "So, what would you like to name the team that wears this logo?" The logo had been inspired by a saber-toothed tiger skeleton found under Nashville in 1971, and from a list of 75 suggestions, four were pulled to be the finalists: The Ice Tigers (honestly, what originality stems from slamming the word "ice" in front of a piece of 90's marketing hubris?), the Fury, and the Attack. As you can see, Predators was really the only choice. The others reek of such terribly dated 90's marketing hubris that I'm surprised the names Extreme (wait, sorry, it's the 90's, so: Xtreme) and/or Express weren't among the names considered.

Before the team even played a single game, rumors began going around that the team would be moving. There was a rumor of a franchise swap with the Edmonton Oilers, in which Liepold would take the Oilers and move them to Nashville while the new Predators owner would take the Preds to Houston. Leipold shot it down quickly, quipping there was no chance, but as you're going to see, it will be the definition of the Nashville Predators' entire existence.

On the ice, it was expansion pain time! In 1999, Nashville finished with a record of 28-47-7. They finished with the same record the following season, though the NHL standings don't say that they way they should because the league had adopted a ridiculous standings format that said wins/losses/ties/overtime losses which ran from the 2000 season to the 2004 season. Not that it really mattered to the Predators, who didn't make the playoffs until they slipped into the eighth spot in 2004. They had only a few highlights during the rocky years: In the 2001 season, they opened with a pair of games in Japan against the Pittsburgh Penguins. That same season, they finished just ten points out of a playoff spot behind goalies Mike Dunham and Thomas Vokoun. In 2002, the Predators became the second-fastest expansion team from the 90's to reach the 100-win plateau. In the 2003 season, Barry Trotz broke the record for the most games coached by the first coach of an expansion team. Considering he's still with the Predators, I'd say this record is going to be safe for some time, if not altogether untouchable.

The first few years didn't yield any real marquee players in Nashville. Their scoring leader through all four years was Cliff Ronning, whose point totals were very good, but not great. Through those first four years, only Ronning, Greg Johnson, and Scott Walker broke the 50-point barrier. Ronning was out in 2004, just in time to miss the team's first playoff trip and subsequent first-round exit at the hands of the all-powerful Detroit Red Wings. Trotz, of course, was still around. Expansion team or not, talentless or not, people with his record over the first few years are usually gone. It's a great testament to the organization's faith in him that they still didn't switch, and he was about to pay them off for it.

After the 2005 lockout, the Preds became one of the great beneficiaries of the new rules. In the 2006 season, the Predators surprised everyone by screaming out of the gate with an 8-0-1 start before a 5-1 loss to Edmonton made them the last team to lose its first game in regulation. With their new toy, Paul Kariya, lighting up the scoreboard with 85 points, three other players cracking 50 points, two more missing the 50-point barrier by one and Scott Hartnell missing it by two, the Predators spent the year going on a 49-win tear. The end result? A glittering record of 49-25-8 for 106 points and the fourth seed in a Western Conference which saw a 92-point team and three 80-point teams miss the playoffs. Their trip to the playoffs was a short-lived five-gamer against the San Jose Sharks, though.

The next year, the Preds outdid themselves once again. They got veteran center Jason Arnott and David Legwand in free agency, and those two tied for the team's top goal scorer with 27 each. During the year, they got arguable the biggest fish of all: Two of their former first round picks, Scottie Upshall and Ryan Parent, plus a couple of future picks were sent to the Philadelphia Flyers. Who did they get in return? Peter Forsberg! Seven players, again led by Kariya, cracked the 50-point mark again. The Predators went 51-23-8 for 110 points, third in the NHL just behind Detroit and Presidents' Trophy-winning Buffalo. Due to the league's fucked-up methods of deciding playoff standing, they were only the fourth seed in the Western Conference, which led to another first round match against the Sharks…. And a second five-game exit.

The Predators receded over the next couple of seasons due to roster decimations. 2008 ended with 91 points and another first round knockout against Detroit. The next year, they missed the playoffs completely, but you can't really call Nashville's season a bad one - if a 40-34-8 record and 88 points are bad, your standards might be a bit too high. 2010 brought in Marcel Goc and Francis Bouillon, and Patric Hornqvist had a breakout year. Going 47-29-6, the Preds finished with 100 points and seventh seed in the playoffs. They FINALLY faced a new playoff opponent: The Chicago Blackhawks. Unfortunately, the Hawks were the Team of Destiny that year, and the Predators got the script right on time. Nashville put up a fight, and managed to tie the series at two. In game five, they were even leading 4-3 with just over a minute left. Then Chicago's Marian Hossa hit defenseman Dan Hamhuis from behind, Chicago got an odd-man rush on the ensuing power play, Patrick Kane scored the equalizer, and Hossa became an overtime hero in Chicago. That deflated the Predators, and they lost the sixth game and the series.

Over the last two years, the Predators have been a regular season powerhouse. They posted a 104-point season last year, and missed the 100 barrier by a single point the year before. They even managed to make it to the second round of the playoffs in both years, too. Unfortunately, they've been awful this year. Their current 38 points is leaving them pretty much out of contention altogether barring a flawless surge and a bunch of other teams holding the mother of all tank jobs simultaneously, and even that wouldn't guarantee anything. Maybe it's just an aberration - a quick drop in standings THAT far is too crazy and rare to be written off as anything but the players being out of shape because of the lockout. If this year is a hiccup, the Predators will return to normal for the next few years and have a real shot at the Stanley Cup. If it's an ongoing thing, massive repairs will be necessary in Nashville.

The Predators haven't had any real transcendent players, which makes their great regular seasons pretty impressive. Their biggest drawing cards have been Chris Mason, Paul Kariya, and Peter Forsberg. Their current Captain is Shea Weber. Poile's GM work has netted him the Lester Patrick Trophy, Dan Ellis won the Roger Crozier Saving Grace Award back when that was a thing, Steve Sullivan won the Bill Masterson, and Mike Fisher - who gives the Predators a little bit of celebrity status by being married to singer Carrie Underwood - was awarded for his humanitarianism. Weber was an NHL First All-Star twice, and Pekka Rinne was a Second All-Star once.

The Nashville Predators share their division with the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks. Both of them are Original Six teams. They also share it with the St. Louis Blues, one of the teams from the NHL's first round of expansions in 1967. Predators fans will probably argue about their rivalries with any one of those three teams, and they can almost certainly make a few cases. Let's be honest about it, though: Those three teams are too busy beating the shit out of each other to give any real thought to the Predators. They're long-established teams with great stability, long histories behind them, and much more firmly entrenched fanbases. The only team that can be considered a true rival to the Predators is their fellow expansion Columbus Blue Jackets, who were created together and can grow and reveal their own stories together. If Columbus/Nashville is given a chance to thrive as a rivalry, it can become a great one.

Of course, that's assuming they're both still around to do it. The Predators, despite their success on the ice, have an ungodly level of instability off the ice even by NHL standards, and THAT is saying something. They're right down there with the Phoenix Coyotes in that respect. Anytime there's speculation of unconquered new potential territory for the NHL, the Predators are one of the names that keeps coming up. In 2007, original owner Craig Leipold was reported to have reached a tentative sale of the Predators to Jim Balsillie, head of Research in Motion. Now, Balsillie is a big-hearted guy with a lot of philanthropic instincts, but he also has an overpowering obsession with getting a hockey team to Hamilton, Ontario. Now, there's no way the NHL will ever let this happen; Hamilton's broadcast territory already overlaps that of two other major hockey markets, Buffalo and Toronto, two cities which are a 90-minute drive apart by car. Hamilton is right smack in the middle of the drive. While Balsillie told the NHL he didn't intend to move the Predators, and he never actually owned the team, he had already began taking the necessary steps to move them. He even went as far as to start advertising for season ticket deposits for the Hamilton Predators on Ticketmaster. Leipold eventually backed out strictly because Balsillie had no intention of keeping the team in Nashville, had directly interfered with the team's relationship with the people of Nashville, and would only buy the team if he could guarantee moving it, despite interrupting two fantasies and having to compensate the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs. This should have been obvious - Balsillie had tried this same shit with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the past. He went on to try it with the Phoenix Coyotes. When the NHL didn't bite, he decided to try wiping out the middleman. Or, perhaps he didn't, but what I know for sure is that the Sabres were put up for sale in 2011. An anonymous man made a hefty bid for them. All I know about the anonymous bidder is what the Sabres said, and the Sabres said he fit Balsillie's description and wanted to move the team to Hamilton.

In June 2007, Leipold again tried to sell the team, this time to venture capitalist William Del Biaggio III. HE wanted to take the team to Kansas City and made no secret of it. Like Balsillie, Del Biaggio was already selling tickets for a team he didn't own in a place the team didn't play. In july 2007, a third party made a bid for the Preds in part to actually keep them in Nashville. That same month, a rally was held that drew about 7500 fans and sold 726 full-season ticket packages. Ironically, the Tennessee group that wanted to keep the team in Nashville included Del Biaggio, but as a minority holder. In June 2008, Del Biaggio ran into trouble about unpaid loans and had to file for bankruptcy. Those unpaid loans had been acquired through fraud and used to buy the Predators. This seems to happen quite a bit in the corporate world, but it couldn't have come at a worse time for the NHL, which was already fighting a black eye because of other scams revolving around John Spano, who briefly owned the New York Islanders, and majority Buffalo Sabres owner John Rigas, who was convicted of fraud in 2005.

The Nashville Predators' arena has The Cellblock in section 303, a fan organization that has been recognized by the team's front office. The fans as a whole have made a fan tradition of giving the team a standing ovation through the entire final TV timeout. The Predators could be showing some real promise as a team on the ice. Off the ice, though, it's different. I'd like to give the Predators a positive rating, but I'm not gonna do that until I know they're stable enough to not be brought into the NHL's latest discussion about who's heading to Seattle or Houston or wherever else.]]> Thu, 18 Apr 2013 15:41:47 +0000
<![CDATA[ A Roar Worse than Their Bite]]>
It was 1992 when H. Wayne Huizenga was given an NHL team. He was the magnate behind Blockbuster Video at the time. He named the team the Panthers, after a species of big cat native to Florida. And at first, everything about these guys went so right, they seemed like the southern expansion team of Gary Bettman's dreams: The team's first general manager was Philadelphia Flyers icon Bobby Clarke, a legend who had also acted as senior veep to the team when he was done playing for it and, oh yeah, guiding it to both of its Stanley Cups. The Panthers' first draft yielded ten players who would bring the Prince of Wales Trophy to south Florida not very long afterward.

Florida hit the ice with a couple of folks who turned into big stars: One was John Vanbiesbrouck, a onetime Vezina Trophy winner during his years with the New York Rangers. Another was rookie Rob Niedermayer, who became a star, and then there was 30-goal man Scott Mellanby. In the 1994 season, the Panthers rolled to the best year any first-year NHL team ever had, finishing but a single point below the .500 mark. Unfortunately, they did that largely by playing a version of the playing tactic the New Jersey Devils would ride to their first Stanley Cup the following year: The Neutral Zone Trap. So the Panthers were already being given credit for ruining hockey, though they missed the playoffs that first year. In the 1995 season, the Panthers went 20-22-6 - that was a lockout-shortened season - for 46 points, again just out of the playoffs. To celebrate their near-success, the Panthers decided to celebrate the way most expansion teams do: By holding their first-ever coach firing! Roger Neilson was let go and replaced by Doug MacLean.

MacLean produced immediate results. His team went 41-31-10 for 92 points, good enough for the fourth playoff seeding. His Panthers then upended the Boston Bruins in the first round, winning in five games. Yeah, it was only five games, but given that the Panthers are such a young team, the image of Bill Lindsay scoring the series-clinching goal is still an iconic image to Panthers fans. In the second round, they faced a real test: Their opponents, the Flyers, held the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Somehow, the Panthers found a way to take them out in six games. After that, they moved into the Eastern Conference Finals to face the second seed Pittsburgh Penguins, beating them in a full seven game series to visit the Stanley Cup Finals in just their third year of existence. Now, the NHL playoffs have a habit of weeding out the wimps, and the Panthers had gotten there by wiping out the two top seeds of the Eastern Conference, so no one was up to write them off. They were, however, up against the Colorado Avalanche now, and back then the Avs were so good that saying the Panthers were playing against the Colorado Avalanche required putting the team name in all caps so it read COLORADO AVALANCHE. The Stanley Cup Finals played out like a chorus line for the Avs: One, two, three, KICK! In four games, the Avalanche hammered the Panthers, easily winning the Stanley Cup.

That loss to Colorado comes off as more than just a loss. It also appeared to act as a little bit of a reminder to the NHL: Dear National Hockey League, the Florida Panthers stood a very real chance of winning the Stanley Cup. They're an expansion team from south Florida. They still haven't paid their fucking dues. Don't let them intimidate you. It's perfectly alright to walk all over these guys. Yours Truly, the Colorado Avalanche. The Panthers started the 1997 riding a 17-game unbeaten streak, but in the second half, they made the mistake of trading their fearless center, Stu Barnes, to Pittsburgh. They faded, and while they made the playoffs again, the New York Rangers made their postseason a very short one. The Panthers hit the downward spiral by the 1998 season. MacLean was fired after the team started with a 7-12-4 record and replaced with their then-general manager, Bryan Murray. It didn't help. During the year, the Panthers endured a 15-game winless streak. During that streak, John Vanbiesbrouck took a hard shelling during a game against the Chicago Blackhawks, after which he never played another game with the Panthers.

After making a huge trade with the Vancouver Canucks in 1999, the Panthers reeled in The Russian Rocket himself, Pavel Bure! Bure's acquisition helped a little, and the Panthers were back in the playoffs in 2000. They also got swept in the first round by the eventual Champion New Jersey Devils.

After that, the Florida Panthers slumped. Man, did they EVER slump. In 2001, they ran a 22-38-13 record for 66 points. They tried to rectify that situation the following season by bring in Valeri Bure, Pavel's brother, hoping they would bring out each other's best. It didn't work, and at the 2002 trade deadline, Pavel Bure was traded to the Rangers. The Panthers then moved on to fuck up the 2002 draft the same way the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers fucked up the 1984 draft. The first overall draft pick that year was projected to be a defenseman named Jay Bouwmeester, and Florida wanted him. But then-GM Rick Dudley decided to send their first draft pick to the Columbus Blue Jackets, who used it on Rick Nash. Then they sent two more draft picks to the Atlanta Thrashers, who took them for only the promise that Bouwmeester would still be there by the time Florida's turn came around. Florida DID get to take Bouwmeester, but looking at that process of events, one gets the impression that they could have gotten a lot more had they just let him go. Bouwmeester is a very good player, but he's not, well, great. He is far from shoulder-the-team good, and after a few years the Panthers traded his negotiating rights to the Calgary Flames, who signed him and, a few years after that, traded him to the St. Louis Blues.

In 2006, the Panthers made another big-deal trade with Vancouver. They sent star goalie Roberto Luongo along with Lukas Krajicek and a draft pick to the Canucks for Todd Bertuzzi, Alex Auld, and Bryan Allen. The two obvious names jumping out at NHL fans here are Luongo and Bertuzzi, both stars, but this trade turned into a one-sider. This wasn't quite the Minnesota Vikings trading an entire team to the Dallas Cowboys for Herschel Walker, but it's at least on the level of the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals exchanging Ernie Broglio and Lou Brock. It's true that Luongo is a spectacular choker, but he's still in his prime as one of the best goalies in the league. Bertuzzi, on the other hand, was hurt after only a few games for the Panthers. By the trade deadline, Bertuzzi was sent to the Detroit Red Wings.

In 2008, the Panthers traded their Captain, Olli Jokinen, to the Phoenix Coyotes for Keith Ballard, Nick Boynton, and a second round draft pick. This wouldn't seem to be a good move at first, especially not after the team had been out of the playoffs since 2000. But something the Panthers were doing was starting to pay dividends. In 2009, the Panthers finished with a very strong 41-30-11 record for 93 points, second best in their history, but missed the playoffs due to the league's fuck-up methods of deciding playoff standings. Then they slumped again. It wasn't until 2012 that the Florida Panthers were finally a playoff team again. Hell, they were more than that now; they were also division champions for the first time ever, with a 38-26-18 record for 94 points. While they were eliminated from the first round by the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Devils, they gave the Devils all the fight they could, and the series ended with a seventh game double overtime.

Bill Torrey had his number retired by the Florida Panthers for his position as the team's president and general manager for their first eight years. Their all-time list of players really doesn't spring out, though. They had John Vanbiesbrouck in his later career days; Jay Bouwmeester was very good but not capable of carrying the team; Roberto Luongo was great in Florida but totally thriving in Vancouver; and currently, Brian Campbell is adding bullet points to a great career resume, but has yet to really reach the heights he found with the Buffalo Sabres and Chicago Blackhawks yet. They also had Ed Belfour at the very tail end of his career.

It's tough for hockey teams in the south to have strong rivalries at the moment. Most of the teams are still quite young, and the league itself is still looking for a foothold. The fans don't quite have that inter-generational fan resentment of one team for another yet. Their geographical rivals are the cross-state Tampa Bay Lightning, who have had considerably more success. They used to be rivals to the Atlanta Thrashers, but I don't think that one really held over to Winnipeg. Their big defining moment of identity so far is easily the 1996 Prince of Wales Trophy, which was completely unexpected and which served as the team's breakout, even though they were whomped by the Avalanche in a one-sided Finals. Other than that, they're identified by an incredible streak of non-playoff years. They missed twelve years in a row. The NHL playoffs are easier to get into than Boise State, so missing playoffs for THAT many years is simply inexcusable.

While the Panthers are named for a native animal to Florida - also, while I've always liked their colors - I would be kidding myself if I tried to say anything other than their colors, name, and sweater logo having a definite origin in the ridiculous marketing hubris of the 90's. They have an emphasis on in-your-face EXTREME!!! attitude (forgive me, we're talking about the 90's, so: XTREME!!!), and overly complicated and loud graphic design. The colors probably resonate with the people of the Miami area, though. I can't get a grip on how popular they are down there. Everyone is swooning over the NBA's Miami Heat, who are looking to run away with another Championship right now, so a hockey team that just came out of the basement isn't going to get tons of attention. However, whenever someone brings up the latest team to move to a new market coveted by the NHL, the Panthers are rarely in the conversation, so that must mean they're doing fairly decently.

The Florida Panthers are the definite losers of the NHL's Florida derby. The Tampa Bay Lightning have better players, a better overall record, the backing of NHL legends, and a Stanley Cup. The Panthers were faster to make the Finals, and even getting flattened by the Colorado Avalanche wasn't something to be ashamed of - back then, the Avs did that to EVERYONE. Hell, the Panthers even seem to have stability and a decent fanbase to offer. Outside of them, though, it's tough to sell them on a twelve-year playoff missing streak, especially with all the stars over in the Tampa Bay Area.]]> Wed, 17 Apr 2013 15:34:07 +0000
<![CDATA[ Ride the Lightning]]>
When the NHL announced yet another expansion in the late 80's, two groups in the Tampa Bay Area began fighting for the rights to bring the team to south Florida. One was headed by Peter Karmanos, the other by Phil Esposito. Karmanos eventually came into charge of the Carolina Hurricanes, so I'll spare the gory details of legal wrangling. It goes without saying that obviously, Karmanos came out on the losing end. Esposito, one of the greatest NHL players of all time, won. One of the new team's limited partners was New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

In Esposito, the new Tampa Bay team - it's not allowed to be only Tampa down there; it always has to be Tampa Bay - already had a big star. While he wasn't able to lace 'em up anymore, he did immediately grant the team presidency to himself, and general managership to, er, himself. His brother and fellow NHL legend Tony became the chief scout. To be the first head coach, the Brothers Esposito got Terry Crisp on the horn - Crisp had a known name as a player on the infamous Broad Street Bullies teams, the Stanley Cup-winning Philadelphia Flyers of the 70's, and as head coach, he helmed the Calgary Flames dynamo that broke up the Edmonton Oilers dynasty to win the Stanley Cup in 1989. Esposito held a contest to think up a name, but in his autobiography, he confessed he was inspired to name the team the Lightning just before it was held upon seeing a lightning bolt capable of reviving the dead. He held the contest anyway, but knew beforehand his team would be the Tampa Bay Lightning no matter the result.

Esposito is known best for his stint with the Boston Bruins teams of the early 70's, a gang known as the Big Bad Bruins for being both scary talented and just plain scary. Reading his autobiography, I got the impression that the best times of his life were with those teams. Also, his teams won the Stanley Cup twice. So his natural first move was to try to build a team in much the same way those old Bruins teams were created. He also signed the first woman to play in the NHL - Manon Rheaume, a goaltender who appeared in a single exhibition game against the St. Louis Blues as a publicity stunt. When the Bolts took to the ice for the first time in the regular season against the Chicago Blackhawks, they pounded the Hawks 7-3, with four of their goals coming from an unknown player named Chris Kontos. With Kontos and Brian Bradley having fantastic seasons, the Lightning jumped right up to the head of their division. Unfortunately, they also played in the Norris Division with the St. Louis Blues well over 1000 miles down the road. That was their closest divisional rival. They also got to take long-ass road trips to see the Hawks, Detroit Red Wings, Minnesota North Stars, and Toronto Maple Leafs. The long trips wore the team down, but even so, their 53 points were one of the best ever for an expansion team.

They shifted to the Atlantic Division the next year because the NHL is terrible when it comes to handling expansions. They also picked up Darren Puppa, Denis Savard, and Petr Klima. Puppa did great in goal, and the team's defense improved drastically. On the other hand, Savard was just about done, and Klima played defense like wet tissue paper. They started finishing last, although they still looked like the Montreal Canadiens of the late 70's compared to their expansion brethren, the Ottawa Senators.

In 1996, the Lightning finally made the playoffs for the first time. They beat out the defending Champion New Jersey Devils for the final spot. They were also dumped by the Flyers in six. The next year, they picked up Dino Ciccarelli from the Red Wings, with him and Chris Gratton both having 30-goal seasons. They also moved into a nice new home, the Ice Palace, and looked like a playoff lock before injuries started wiping them out. John Cullen developed a form of lymphoma. The team missed the playoffs, and by 1998, Phil Esposito was showing that as general manager, he was a damn great hockey player. Free agency hurt the Bolts, and Esposito's trades kept backfiring. Jacques Demers took over as coach and couldn't sort out the mess. That was saying something, because Demers had brought Detroit's Dead Wings teams back to life in the 80's and won the Stanley Cup as Montreal's coach in 1993. The Bolts lost 55 games. While the on-ice product had its problems, by pretty much all accounts, the problems were actually started up on high. Rumors started in the second season that the Bolts were not only bankrupt, but existed in large part as a money laundering scheme for the Yakuza. It's scouting operation was strictly Tony Esposito and his satellite dishes. I like to picture him presiding over several college and NHL games at the same time, like some kind of Orwellian security master. They were investigated by the IRS. In late 1997, Forbes magazine wrote that the Lightning's debt was equal to a staggering 236 percent of its value. Sale time! The Lightning was bought by Art Williams. He took the reins for a 54-loss year before selling it again.

The damage from the first owners was still brutal, and over the late 90's and early millennium, the Lightning became the first NHL team to ever endure four straight years of 50 losses or more. And this is the NHL, which was allowing ties at the time, making that one of the more understated unbreakable records in sports. But by now, things were starting to dawn. The team traded for goalie Nikolai Khabibulin. John Tortorella was made coach, and players Brad Richards and Vincent Lecavalier became stars. Martin St. Louis also started breaking out. By 2003, they had a new Captain in Dave Andreychuk. They finally returned to the playoffs and made it to the second round, where they lost to the eventual Champion New Jersey Devils. In 2004, the Bolts finished the season with their best point standing ever - 106, second to Detroit. In the first round, Khabibulin posted three shutouts as the Lightning beat the New York Islanders in five games. In the second round, they swept Montreal. They faced Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference Finals. It was a tight series, and neither team won consecutive games. That means it was a good thing Tampa Bay won the first game, because it also meant they won game seven, catapulting them into the Stanley Cup Finals against the Calgary Flames and their versatile superstar and Captain, Jarome Iginla. This was another tight seven-gamer. In game seven, Tampa Bay's Ruslan Fedotenko scored both goals in a 2-1 victory. The Tampa Bay Lightning were Stanley Cup Champions.

The Lightning had apparently peaked kind of early, and the next year - well, in any case the next year that hockey was actually played - they barely got to the playoffs, with 93 points. Ordinarily that's very good, but the Eastern Conference that year was ridiculously powerful, and SIX TEAMS posted 100 points or more. They were quickly ousted by the Ottawa Senators. In 2007, Vincent Lecavalier broke the single-season goal record for the team, with an impressive 52. He also got the new team record for points in a single season with 108. Throughout March, they fought back and forth with the Atlanta Thrashers for the division, but an important loss to the Florida Panthers set them back. So they had to settle for the seventh seed with a record of 44-33-5 for 93 points. They lost to New Jersey in the playoffs.

By 2008, the Lightning were back in last. With the exception of a 46-25-11, 103-point year in the 2011 season, the Lightning have been perpetually in the first year of a five-year rebuilding plan.

The Lightning haven't retired any numbers. They've had some notable players: Dino Ciccarelli, Denis Savard, Brad Richards, and Nikolai Khabibulin. Their current stars are still Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier, along with Steve Stamkos, who is currently having a Hart year. But they might be more notable for the ex-players they've had in management: Their first president was Phil Esposito. Their first head scout was his brother Tony. Their current general manager is Detroit Red Wings legend Steve Yzerman. For most of their existence, their most notable goaltender so far was Manon Rheaume - at least until Khabibulin's days. Rheaume became an inspirational figure, and her single-game stint with the Bolts has opened a lot of doors for her. But she did only play a single exhibition game, so it speaks legions about Tampa Bay's quality of goalies that she was still the most prolific goalie in the Lightning's history for so long.

The natural geographical rival to the Tampa Bay Lightning has been the Florida Panthers over in Miami. Their rivalries tend to be overlooked by big-time purists because the Lightning are a southern team, and the southern fantasies are showing the league that they haven't figured out just what ice is yet. So you don't really get the sense of big, all-out war between two southern teams. The Panthers rivalry CAN be intense at times, but let's be honest: That's not a rivalry, but an insult to the Lightning. The Lightning also have rivalries with the Carolina Hurricanes and, in probably their only rivalry with an established team, the Washington Capitals. Unfortunately, these aren't marquee battles. The teams are too young to have much history with each other, the fans are sporadic, and they all just plain suck half the time anyway.

Among NHL purists, the Lightning are known mainly as the team Phil Esposito used to own. He is still their radio color guy. They're also known as the team that played Manon Rheaume, which pissed off purists keen to write that out as nothing but a publicity stunt - which Esposito outright admits was exactly what it was. They're also known as the Yakuza team, and the team that once lost over 50 games for four straight years. Now they're known as the team of Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, and Steve Stamkos. Those three are starting to do a lot to clear the bad name of the Tampa Bay Lightning, but they still have a long way to go.

I'm not sure of the Tampa Bay Lightning are even stable. They seem to pop up in conversations about who's moving to this city or that city sometimes, although they're not nearly the conversational subjects the Phoenix Coyotes and Nashville Predators are. They're definitely the better option for adopting fans in Florida, so I can give them that.]]> Tue, 16 Apr 2013 16:44:08 +0000
<![CDATA[ At Last! Senators Capable of Doing Things!]]>
Well, maybe not so much eventually. The Ottawa Senators were one of the very first hockey teams to even lace 'em up. They were founded back in 1883, and they spent their first 44 years of life jumping from league to league, like most professional hockey teams did way back in the early days. They are widely acknowledged as one of the greatest teams of the pre-NHL days, when they were given one of the most famous nicknames in hockey history: The Silver Seven. Those Senators won the Stanley Cup eleven times, fielded a grab bag of greats, and were there in 1917 when the NHL was actually founded. The Senators teams of the 20's, nicknamed the Super Six, are acknowledged officially by the NHL to be the league's first dynasty, which is an official designation given out by the NHL to dominant championship teams instead of just something to be debated. They won the Stanley Cup four times, won their division seven times, and were known for a very brutal hardline style of playing. Unfortunately, in 1934, they became victims of The Great Depression and were forced to pack up and move to St. Louis, where they played one season as the St. Louis Eagles before their conditions and poor record forced them to suspend operations. "Suspend" in this case meant they were forced to completely shut down, never to return.

It wasn't until 1967 that St. Louis got a new team, the St. Louis Blues. Ottawa, the capitol of Canada with a rich hockey tradition, had to wait until 1990. The NHL had been talking about expansion again in the 80's, and Bruce Firestone of Terrace Investments floated the idea by his fellow corporate executives. Although no one was very eager to throw their lot in with Firestone, apparently Firestone talked a good game. He believed the financing for a team could be found in a development project - him and his peers were real estate guys, you see. In 1989, plans were publicly announced, and the group decided they wanted to resurrect the old Senators name. While that provoked a few legal threats, Firestone had a trump card: He got permission from the descendants of the original Senators' owners to use it! There was a big Bring Back the Senators campaign which included Frank Finnigan, the last surviving member of the last Senators Stanley Cup team from 1927. The team went through a lot of financing struggles and bankruptcy through its history, but Ottawa had its team back.

The first general manager for the Senators was Mel Bridgman, a former player who had never held a GM position before. Coaching, the team picked up Rick Bowness, formerly of the Boston Bruins. On expansion draft day, the team's computer failed and the Senators, with no plan B, started taking potshots in the dark and grabbing players that were ineligible. Since most teams had this odd habit of protecting their young prospects, there wasn't much talent available in general, so the Senators were stuck building with journeymen and players who, while playing well in the minor leagues, were no longer considered hot tickets. Although they did get to pick Alexei Yashin in the entry draft, he couldn't join the team until 1993, so the Senators were pretty much stuck with a group of players basically called on by virtue of their being available warm bodies.

The opening night for the Senators was a great one. The team raised banners paying tribute to the original team's Stanley Cups, the NHL presented Bruce Firestone with a certificate of reinstatement, Frank Finnigan's number was retired, his son dropped the puck (Finnigan himself had died the previous year), Alanis Morissette sang the anthem, and the Sens beat the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Montreal Canadiens 5-3. It was the first wonderful night in a season which provided, well, absolutely no more of them. At the end of the year, the Sens held the record for the fewest road wins in one year, with one. Their record was a dreadful 10-70-4, for 24 points. At least they could take a little bit of pride in the fact that there was actually another team as bad as them. The second-year San Jose Sharks had gone an equally putrid 11-71-2, also for 24 points.

The 1993 entry draft contained a real badass prospect named Alexandre Daigle, who was the clear number one pick. Everyone wanted him. The Quebec Nordiques offered to trade several players for him. As the 1993 season went on, with the NHL rules saying the team with the worst record got the first pick, the Senators and Sharks were going neck and neck in the whose to lose competition. Ottawa seriously wanted this guy, to the point where they were calling their potential opponents to make sure their best players were going to get plenty of ice time with which to fatten their stats. The Sens didn't make any trades, either. While the Sens finished with a dreadful record, it was clear they had been tanking to earn a lot of it. Firestone was even caught making comments about how his team was losing on purpose. He thought the comments would be off the record, but apparently forgot there's no such thing as an off the record comment. He was reported and the comment cost his team $100,000 in fines. It also caused the NHL to change its draft rules, instating a lottery in 1995 to keep this from happening again. It did, however, have the desired effect, which was that the Senators get the rights to Daigle, signing him to a $12.25 million contract which was the largest ever for a rookie. The NHL wasn't very tickled about THAT, either, and and few years later it resulted in the league capping rookie contracts. Karma came around for the Senators, though, and walloped them right in the gut. Daigle's play turned out not to be worth the $12 million. Hell, it wasn't worth $12. In 1995, he was demoted to being a part-time player. Over four seasons in Ottawa, Daigle only scored 74 goals before they traded him to the Philadelphia Flyers. He posted 327 points in his NHL career.

Fortunately, Alexei Yashin turned out to be a steal. In the 1994 draft, they got Radek Bonk, who went on to post several outstanding seasons in Ottawa. Despite those two, the Senators weren't getting any better in the standings. They kept finishing in last. Attendance was bad, Yashin was rightfully pissed off that the organization was going out of its way to promote the way inferior Daigle over his stellar play and started holding out, and the team's latest first round pick, Bryan Berard, walked out of training camp and publicly said he would never, ever report to the Senators. (Karma bit him too - he went on to a not-so-great NHL career which was only barely better than Daigle's. His walkout was a real bullet dodge for the team.) On December 11, 1995, the team finally made the move which would turn it around. Randy Sexton, who had been hired as Ottawa's GM in 1993, was fired. Pierre Gauthier was hired. By the end of January, he had signed Yahsin to a new contract, gotten Wade Redden from the New York Islanders, and hired Jacques Martin to coach. In 1995, the team drafted a new star in Daniel Aflredsson. In 1997, the Sens were finally a playoff team. Their first playoff series went the distance against the Buffalo Sabres, and the two teams were evenly matched the whole way. Unfortunately, while Ottawa held a lead in game seven, Yashin managed to find his own team's net, and that own-goal was actually the tying goal for Buffalo. Buffalo's Derek Plante then won the series in overtime.

The next year, the Sens finished one game over .500 for their first winning record. In the playoffs, they scored their first series victory over the New Jersey Devils, but lost the second round to the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Washington Capitals. But it wasn't until 1999 when the Senators made their big jump - they won their division with a record of 44-23-15 and 103 points. Their first round playoff matchup was with the Sabres again. Looking to avenge their heartbreaking seven-game loss to them two years earlier, the Senators.... Got swept. Rather easily, in fact. They only scored three goals in the entire series. The next year, Yashin went through a contract holdout for the whole year, hoping to either play somewhere else or make a particular legal claim. The team responded by suspending him for the whole year and giving his Captaincy to Alfredsson, who still holds it to this day. Yashin tried to play in Switzerland, but that wasn't allowed until the dispute was over. His free agency request was rejected, and the team even took legal action to recover damages which came about from the mess.

In the millennium, the Senators started coming to dominate the regular season. They began finishing with over 90 or 100 points regularly, only to find themselves in first round playoff purgatory. Yashin was finally traded in 2001, going to the New York Islanders for Zdeno Chara, and the team also drafted Jason Spezza. They didn't win a playoff series until 2002, upsetting the Philadelphia Flyers. In the second round, they played a tense series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, but lost. The 2003 season brought the Presidents' Trophy to Ottawa, and the Sens plowed through the Islanders and Flyers in the playoffs before losing its first trip to the Eastern Conference Finals to New Jersey.

Frustrated with a bunch of playoff losses to, of all teams, the Leafs (four series losses to Toronto out of four), Bryan Murray was brought in as head coach. He spent the lockout being productive as a scout, and when hockey returned in 2005, the team had acquired Dany Heatley from the Atlanta Thrashers for Marian Hossa and Greg DeVries. Heatley, who was in dire need of a scenery change after a car accident he was responsible for killed his teammate, took the line with Alfredsson and Spezza to form the CASH Line, named for Captain Alfredsson, Spezza, Heatley. They also had the services of goalie Dominick Hasek, losing a bit of his days as The Dominator but still potent. They killed everyone in the regular season, then killed the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs. The second round was a different story. They met the Sabres once again - the same Sabres who had spent a huge chunk of the regular season keeping pace with them. Although some of the early season games had Ottawa blowing out and embarrassing Buffalo, the Sabres managed to get their act together, and by the time the second round got there, the Sabres were every bit as good as the Senators. The shock of the series was that - even though every game was decided by a single goal - it took only five games for Buffalo to ditch Ottawa. The following year, though, the two teams met once again with a big prize on the line: The Prince of Wales Trophy! What was also notable in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals matchup was that Buffalo had been the Team of Destiny. They had run right out to the Presidents' Trophy, and had their way with Ottawa all season. Ottawa had, in the past, met the Sabres three times in the playoffs, losing all three series. This time, though, things finally went Ottawa's way. The Sabres had apparently decided they were playing well enough to look past their opponents, and that made it easy for Ottawa to catch them underprepared and underperforming. The Sens knocked off the Sabres in five, thus reminding the fans in Buffalo (as if we ever needed reminding) that their teams are never, EVER the Team of Destiny. In the Finals, the Sens were easy picking for their 1992 expansion west coast counterparts, the Anaheim Ducks, who crushed them in five games which weren't as close as they looked.

So far, that was the highlight for the Senators. Team turnover began, and Heatley was traded to the Sharks in 2009. The team still hasn't fallen to the putrid levels they were playing at upon their arrival in the NHL, but they ain't good, either. Not by a long shot.

The Senators have retired two numbers, neither of which is really theirs: One is Wayne Gretzky, who I usually don't mention because the league retired his number across the board. The other is Frank Finnigan, a player for the old Senators. The 1992 Senators have, since the millennium, been another one of those talent collector teams: Dominick Hasek, Mike Fisher, Dany Heatley, Alexei Yashin, Martin Havlat, Marian Hossa, Radek Bonk, and Patrick Lalime have all been Senators. The unquestioned face of the team is Daniel Alfredsson, a career Senator since his drafting in 1994 with only a couple of lockout-forced interruptions in Europe.

The Senators have two major rivalries. The first is the good old territorial war against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The second is with the Buffalo Sabres. The Sens have met both teams many times in the playoffs. It's Buffalo which probably takes the cake, though, because the most memorable and important sign of on-ice success for Ottawa was winning the Eastern Conference Championship against Buffalo in 2007. That came after THE defining moment in the rivalry. Early in 2007, when Ottawa's Chris Neil smacked Sabres Captain Chris Drury, injuring him in the process. That wasn't going to stand in Buffalo, so on the next shift, while the Sens put out their top scoring line, the Sabres put in their checking line with order to bring it to 'em! What followed was one of the NHL's Brawls to End All Brawls. The Sabres got into a fight with the entire Ottawa bench, the goalies attacked each other, and even the coaches for Ottawa and Buffalo were seen exchanging some presumably very angry words with each other.

The Ottawa Senators are deferential to their past teams. They have the requisite Stanley Cup banners hanging from their rafters, and on the night of their first game, the NHL gave them a certificate of reinstatement. They have Frank Finnigan's number retired for his work with those old teams. However, it's important to note that the NHL does treat the 1992 Ottawa Senators as a different team from the old teams, at least in a legal sense. Unlike the Cleveland Browns, which are treated like the Browns of old in official NFL documents (their official status for the three years Cleveland didn't have a team is that operations were suspended) instead of like the expansion team they are, there's no legal suspension status given to them. They are a different team from the teams fielded in the rocky days on the NHL.

The Ottawa Senators have strong fan support, but there's no telling how soon that Stanley Cup is going to come. It was possibly a few years ago, but the team has been shifting to listlessness since then, so an adopting fan will have to be pretty patient. The payoff might be worth it, though. Take the Ottawa Senators with a grain of salt.]]> Sun, 14 Apr 2013 16:13:54 +0000
<![CDATA[ The Real Mickey Mouse Team]]>
Here's what happened: In 1992 there was this awesome movie called The Mighty Ducks that came out. Everybody loved it. Today, its still highly regarded as, at the very least, a classic of sports movies. It was a big enough hit to spawn a pair of sequels, and get the career of one of its young leads, Joshua Jackson, off the ground. When the NHL was going through its early 90's expansion round, The Walt Disney Company decided it wanted to take a shot at this hockey ownership thing. It's Disney, they got their team, and what was the first name that sprang to mind? Why, since a kids' movie came out that was called The Mighty Ducks, the name Mighty Ducks must be popular now! Time to sponge off that popularity and call the team the Anaheim Mighty Ducks! Except, for even more of an embarrassment, the Mighty Ducks didn't even get the dignity of a proper team name. Officially, they were called the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.

The new team didn't use the sweater logo from The Mighty Ducks movie. It quickly mocked up a new design of a traditional goalie mask angled to resemble a duck bill. Their first coach was first-time NHL coach Ron Wilson who, aside from a Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 1998 while coaching the Washington Capitals, has had a resoundingly average career. At least they got one thing right: Their first draft pick was Paul Kariya, who went on to become the first face of the team for a long time afterward.

Despite Kariya's presence, the Mighty Ducks got to be known as a low-scoring team for their first few seasons. They missed the playoffs in their first few years, although their first record of 33-46-5 was substantially better than that of their expansion-mates, the Ottawa Senators, who had managed to lose 70 games that same year, and the second-year San Jose Sharks, who lost 71. In the middle of their third year, the Mighty Ducks made a big trade for Winnipeg Jets star Teemu Selanne. He teamed up with Kariya and Marc Chouinard to form a very potent line, but the Mighty Ducks still kept on missing the playoffs. The Mighty Ducks didn't make the playoffs until 1997, finishing with a record of 36-33-13, their first winning record. Seeded fourth in the first round, the Mighty Ducks fought a hot contest against the Phoenix Coyotes, winning in seven games before being swept in the second round by eventual Stanley Cup Champions Detroit Red Wings. Through all the bumps and expansion pains, coach Ron Wilson was kept aboard, but after the season, he was fired for saying he would like to coach the Red Wings. On came Pierre Page for the 1998 season! And out went Paul Kariya for the year with a concussion. The Mighty Ducks made the playoffs again in 1999, but were swept by Detroit again, this time in the FIRST round.

In 2000, the Mighty Ducks finished again with a winning record, but missed the playoffs by four points as the Sharks slid into the final slot. That was the last we heard about how mighty the Ducks were for the next couple of seasons, heh heh. In the 2001 season, Selanne was traded to the Sharks for Jeff Friesen, Steve Shields, and a draft pick. Their coach - Craig Hartsburg, who had taken over from Page after he was fired after his first season - was fired during the year, and the Mighty Ducks did good enough for last place in the Western Conference.

The Mighty Ducks didn't go back to the playoffs until 2003, with new coach Mike Babcock. They had actually posted a good record to get there too - 40-33-9. Okay, it was actually 40-27-9-6 this year in NHL parlance because the league was going going with that stupid standings method reading wins-losses-ties-overtime losses, but still, the point standings don't lie, and the Mighty Ducks post 95. It was good enough for the seventh seed. They shocked the NHL by finally getting even with the Red Wings for all the times the Red Wings swept them, by sweeping the Red Wings! In the second round, the Dallas Stars loomed. The first game was the fourth-longest in NHL history, and Anaheim's Petr Sykora gave the Mighty Ducks the series lead being the overtime hero. Dallas lost in six, and in the Western Conference Finals, they played against their fellow Cinderella brethren: The Minnesota Wild. Anaheim swept Minnesota, and goalie Jean-Sebastian Giguere emerged as the Mighty Ducks' MVP allowing Minnesota only one goal over the course of the entire series.

This bought the Mighty Ducks their first ticket to the Finals, against the New Jersey Devils. This Finals had a good storyline: The Devils had a star named Scott Niedermayer. He had won the Stanley Cup with New Jersey twice already. He had a ringless brother named Rob who was playing for Anaheim. The series went the distance, with the home team winning all seven games. In game six, Devils Captain Scott Stevens knocked out Paul Kariya, but Kariya returned to the game and managed to score the fourth goal. The Devils eventually emerged victorious after a hard series, but Jean-Sebastian Giguere was vaulted into elite company by winning the Conn Smythe Trophy, which is awarded after the Stanley Cup Finals to the MVP of the playoffs. In the playoffs, Giguere had gone 15-6, 7-0 in overtime, posted a breathtaking 1.62 GAA, and recorded a streak of 168 minutes and 27 seconds without letting in a single goal. It was only the fifth time in NHL history the Conn Smythe was given to a player on the losing team.

Kariya promised a return to the Finals, with a Stanley Cup to go with it, for the following season. I wonder how specific he was about that…. Okay, I don't really, because it doesn't matter. It didn't matter to Anaheim, because Kariya left over the offseason in which he made that promise, and it didn't matter to the Colorado Avalanche, the team he wound up playing for, because they didn't get that far either. Giguere couldn't repeat his playoff heroics, and the Mighty Ducks finished in twelfth place.

In 2005, the great lockout came along, and the Mighty Ducks actually seemed to have benefitted from the time off. The team was sold, first of all. Second, Teemu Selanne returned. Third, once his contract with the New Jersey Devils was up, Scott Niedermayer signed with Anaheim because he wanted to be on the same team as his brother. When hockey finally returned for the 2006 season, the Mighty Ducks, not expected to be much better than they had been in the couple of years immediately following the Stanley Cup run, did surprisingly well under the new rules. They posted a nice record of 43-27-12 for 98 points and didn't stop in the playoffs until the Western Conference Finals, where the Edmonton Oilers beat them in five game.

The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim weren't finished there, though. Oh, no! They were only just beginning! For the 2007 season, the first thing the team did was make a change that was badly needed since their creation - they dropped the embarrassing Disney moniker. The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim were, at last, no more. The players and fans could finally hold their heads up with far more pride than they were accustomed to after the official team name was changed to the Anaheim Ducks. Maybe the Disney association was embarrassing to them, but even so, the fans HAD loved their team, and apparently they wanted them to retain at least some kind of connection to their past. So the Ducks dropped the "Mighty" and became just the Ducks. Although the "Mighty" was missing from their name now, though, it certainly wasn't gone from their game. With Chris Pronger added to the lineup, a deadly scoring line featuring Rob Niedermayer, Samuel Pahlsson, and Travis Moen, and a great defense, the Ducks were a chic pick to win the Stanley Cup. In the first 16 games of the season, the Ducks didn't lose a single game in regulation, going 12-0-4, a record since broken by the Chicago Blackhawks. They rushed out to a record of 48-20-14, tied for second place in the conference (with the Nashville Predators) and league (beneath the Detroit Red Wings and regular season champion Buffalo Sabres, who won the Presidents' Trophy with victory numbers as a tiebreaker). After storming through the Minnesota Wild, Vancouver Canucks, and Detroit Red Wings, the Ducks returned to the Finals to face their expansion-mates, the Ottawa Senators. The was not a Finals that was ever in doubt. Although three of the games were of the one-goal differential variety, Anaheim destroyed Ottawa in the attack, neutral, and defensive zones in the five games it took them to win the Stanley Cup. The Anaheim Ducks became the first California team to win the Stanley Cup, beating out their two rivals: The Sharks, and also their fellow southern Californians, the Los Angeles Kings, who were founded in 1967. The Kings responded by finally winning one of their own five years later.

The 2008 season started without Selanne and Scott Niedermayer, but Todd Bertuzzi and Mathieu Schneider made up for them. Selanne and Niedermayer had been thinking of hanging up their sticks, but they did return after all, and the Ducks finished with a 47-27-8 record. The Ducks haven't been back to the Finals since winning the Stanley Cup, but they've been far from bad. Currently, they're occupying the second slot in the Western Conference, just behind Chicago, and they have a legitimate shot at both the Presidents' Trophy and the Stanley Cup.

Despite the team's extremely young existence, they can field a fairly good all-time roster. Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne are probably the best-known faces of the team. Ryan Getzlaf is there. Jari Kurri, one of the great players from the legendary Edmonton Oilers dynasty, played a small window in a Ducks outfit, as did Boston Bruins great Adam Oates. Bobby Ryan made the NHL All-Rookie Team in 2009. Jean-Sebastian Giguere isn't a bad goalie to have around. They even have one of the fiercest enforcers in history in Brad May.

While the Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007, it was their 2003 run that does more to define them. After all, they held their own against one of the modern dynastic teams in the Finals, beat a much better Red Wings team in the first round to get there, and beat the Cinderella Minnesota Wild, a team which had, in both previous rounds, won after coming back from 3-1 series deficits. While the Ducks have a cross-southern California rivalry with the Los Angeles Kings, but that's not the big one. It seems there's a bigger rivalry with the San Jose Sharks up north, which makes sense because Los Angeles and San Francisco have been big cultural and economic rivals for a long time. And there is surprisingly a potent rivalry against the Detroit Red Wings, because the two teams have met in the playoffs so often, and lately they've been fielding comparable talent.

Let's not kid ourselves: We ALL know the Anaheim Ducks are primarily identified through one thing, and it's being The Disney Team. Yes, it's nice they're taking so many steps to distance themselves from that past, but it hasn't been nearly enough time yet. Although the original Mighty Ducks movie used a completely different sweater logo than anything the team came up with, the Disney Company produced a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-like Saturday morning cartoon in order to promote the team. Also, both sequels were unmistakable promos for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. D2 was far more subtle about it - Mike Modano of the then-Minnesota North Stars made a cameo, and the jerseys that gave the movie team its Duck Power were the NHL jerseys, but they didn't appear until the climactic third period. D3 was, without any sense of shame, leaching off the team and trying to tell everyone the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim are a thing. The guy who announces the Big Game in the end spends half of it kissing cameo star Paul Kariya's ass.

And here I thought the New Jersey Devils were supposed to be the Mickey Mouse Team! That's what Wayne Gretzky once called them, anyway. Now, the Ducks actually have a lot going for them: Stability and quality are two very important factors to look for in a team, and the Ducks have both. The Ducks could damn well win another Stanley Cup very soon. But when your original team name looks like a way of telling The Great One to go fuck himself, well, just be prepared to sndure the relentless taunts and catcalls of hockey fans. A few years ago, a Ducks fan could always point to his team's Stanley Cup as a way of getting back at Kings fans poked at the Disney association too much, but the Kings are now the defending Champions, so they don't even have that anymore.]]> Sat, 13 Apr 2013 21:16:10 +0000
<![CDATA[ Second Round Knockout]]>
The NFL and MLB were the big leagues in the United States, and the NBA was getting very popular with its superstar lineup of the 80's that featured Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan. The sports pie was bigger than ever, and the NHL was sort of standing in the corner screaming ME TOO! ME TOO! But how do you find an audience in a country which is starting to shift into places that don't know how to spell "ice?" You oversee the trading of Wayne Gretzky, hockey's greatest superstar and the only hockey player on Earth people south of Chicago can name, to Los Angeles. Then you watch as people who have never seen hockey before start buying Kings tickets to see all the fuss about how this Wayne character plays a hockey. That's what you do! The ploy worked, and so many people started buying hockey tickets now that the NHL decided it was probably the best time to take its chances on the Sun Belt, and its famous obsession with college football.

The NHL's first move in its second wave of expansions was one that really makes you admire its apparent belief in the idea of trying again if it doesn't work the first time. The Oakland Seals were put into the San Francisco Bay Area back during the original 1967 expansion. They made a run until 1976 before heading east to become the Cleveland Barons. That audience proved to be even less receptive, and so the Seals/Barons, in a last ditch effort to save what they could of their meager existence, merged with the Minnesota North Stars. By the late 80's, the NHL had wanted to bring hockey back to the Bay Area for some time. Speaking of the Minnesota North Stars, the league was actually toying with the idea of sending them to San Francisco. Or at least the owners of the North Stars, Gordon and George Gund III, were toying with it. The NHL actually said no to the move. Meanwhile, Howard Baldwin, who owned the Hartford Whalers, was pushing for a new team to go to San Jose, where a new arena was actually being built for some reason. You would think a city which never had a major league professional sports team before would know better, but hey, San Jose IS considered part of the Bay Area. The Brothers Gund sold their share of the North Stars to Baldwin's group in exchange for an expansion team which would start up in 1991.

5000 names were submitted by mail for the new team. The first place winner was Blades, but the owners were concerned about that name's connection with weapons. So they went with the runner-up: Sharks! The name was inspired by the large numbers of sharks living in the ocean, and one particular area of water near the Bay Area called the Red Triangle, where seven different varieties of sharks lived. Matt Levine, the team's first marketing head, said "Sharks are relentless, determined, swift, agile, bright, and fearless. We plan to build an organization that has all those qualities."

The Sharks hit the ice for the first time with a notable roster name in Doug Wilson, a Norris Trophy winner known for his stint with the Chicago Blackhawks. He was the team's first Captain and All-Star. After him, the roster makeup of the Sharks looked like that of any other expansion team: Rookies, journeymen, and minor leaguers - you know, leftovers. Be that as it may, their expansion troubles were particularly nasty. In their second season, the Sharks were inexcusably wretched, even by expansion standards. Their record was 11-71-2, for a grand total of 24 points. That season was the Sharks' second, and the 1993 season saw two more expansion teams join with the Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning. What's worth noting is that the Senators went 10-70-4, also for 24 points. As for the Sharks, their season was highlighted by goalie Arturs Irbe recording the team's first-ever shutout, a 6-0 victory over the Kings. Rob Gaudreau recorded the first hat trick in team history against the Whalers, then recorded the second hat trick in Sharks history nine days later against the Quebec Nordiques.

The Sharks replace their original coach, George Kingston, with Kevin Constantine for their third season. It paid off immediately, and after recording 63 points in their first two years put together, the Sharks went 33-35-16 for 82 points and a playoff spot! Of course, this is the NHL, where making the playoffs is easier than finding buffalo wings in Buffalo, so a playoff position didn't mean very much. No, where the Sharks made their TRUE statement was in the first round, where they played against the first-seeded Detroit Red Wings, who were Stanley Cup favorites. In a seven-game series, the Sharks shocked the Red Wings on Detroit's home ice. Jamie Baker scored a third period game-winner by catching Detroit's goalie, Chris Osgood, out of position. In the second round, the Sharks matched up against the Toronto Maple Leafs and, at one point, led the series 3-2 before the Leafs came back and won. The Sharks returned to the playoffs the next year, and made it to the second round then too.

In 1996 and 1997, the Sharks dropped back into last place, and how are last place teams rewarded? With high draft picks! The 1997 draft pick of the year was Patrick Marleau. Marleau, who is still with the Sharks, is currently the team's all-time scoring leader. And in 1997, the Sharks started to really build. They got goalie Mike Vernon from Detroit, a former star of the Leafs and Montreal Canadiens in Vincent Damphousse, and a new coach with Darryl Sutter. I should note right now, again, how fucking easy it is to get into the playoffs in the NHL: By 2000, the Sharks had made the playoffs several times, although they had never been, you know, a WINNING team. Well, in the 2000 season, that finally changed. The Sharks went 35-30-10 for 87 points - not great, but winning. In the playoffs, they shocked the Presidents' Trophy-winning St. Louis Blues in the first round before bowing out in the second against the Dallas Stars.

The 2002 season was the defining breakout for the Sharks. With help from Adam Graves, Owen Nolan, and Teemu Selanne, the Sharks went 44-27-8, posted 99 points, and won their division. They also fell in the second round of the playoffs. Again. If you're starting to sense a certain pattern here, stay tuned, because it's about to get worse. In 2004, the Sharks went with the youth injection method of team-building. Christian Ehrhoff, Tom Preissing, Alexander Korolyuk, and Nils Ekman provided San Jose with that required extra shot of youthful attitude and zing! Halfway through the year, they also got Curtis Brown. The Sharks won their division again with a record of 43-21-12 and 104 points. They had the second seed in the Western Conference, beat the Blues in the first round, and finally disrupted their old second round loss pattern by beating the Colorado Avalanche. In the Western Conference Finals, they fell to the Calgary Flames who, by the way, had their old coach Darryl Sutter behind their bench now.

The 2006 season started slow, and at one point, the Sharks suffered through an uncharacteristic 10-game losing streak. Solution? Trade Wayne Primeau, Brad Stuart, and Marco Sturm to the Boston Bruins for their marquee star, Joe Thornton! They got back into the race, went to the playoffs, beat the Nashville Predators in the first round, and in the second round, YES! They lost! Again! This time to the Edmonton Oilers! Starting the 2007 with a cast that included Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo, the Sharks were the youngest team in average age and the biggest in average weight. They made significant trades for Craig Rivet and Bill Guerin. They went 51-26-5 and went to the playoffs! THEY LOST IN THE SECOND ROUND! In 2008, they traded for Brian Campbell and Claude Lemieux, signed Rob Blake, won the Presidents' Trophy with 117 points, made the playoffs, and managed to avoid losing in the second round! Although this time, that was only because they didn't even get that far. The Anaheim Ducks took care of them in the first.

You know what? It will actually just be easier to list the years the Sharks didn't lost in the second round. The 2009 acquisition of Dany Heatley didn't help them very much. In 2010, they had a few older players who announced their retirements, including Lemieux and Jeremy Roenick, but they still managed to earn the top seed in the Western Conference in the 2010 playoffs and the second best record in the NHL to the Washington Capitals. They even managed to win the second round of the playoffs that year, but that hardly began to turn their playoff luck around. As a matter of fact, they ended up getting set back. Their Western Conference Finals opponents, the Chicago Blackhawks, might not have been the Vegas faves, but they were clearly doing the Team of Destiny thing that year. San Jose was out in four.

The Sharks have not yet retired any numbers, but Patrick Marleau is currently pretty much a lock for that honor. Joe Thornton and Owen Nolan should also be given a lot of consideration. For an overall roster, look at some of the name I mentioned: Vincent Damphousse. Rob Blake. Mike Vernon. Jeremy Roenick. Teemu Selanne. They also once had goalie Ed Belfour. That's not the makeup of a bad team. Lately, San Jose seems to be flooded with the great talent of the current NHL: Thornton, Dany Heatley, and Jonathan Cheechoo.

San Jose's rivalries aren't the ones we usually see on NBC Sports Rivalry Night. Of course, there's also the whole east coast bias thing, because lots of those rivalry games tend to feature the Eastern Conference teams more often than not. Or, at least, northern midwest rivalries. Yeah, anyway, the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks are the big ones, and that's largely because Los Angeles and San Francisco are forever at each others' necks.

The Sharks don't have a lot of big-time history moments that NHL fans will remember forever. What they do have is a particularly rotten identity. They're a great team more often than not these days, but it doesn't look like their choker label is going to be going anywhere anytime soon. One thing fans can be proud of, though, is that the Sharks have managed to make a name for themselves as the most popular team in a large California market. The Los Angeles Kings are the southern California team with the bigger market, the Stanley Cup, and the storied history, and the Anaheim Ducks have the Stanley Cup and, well, the unforgotten Disney name. But the Sharks have the popularity - due possibly in part to a very cool, fierce-looking sweater logo - and one of the largest national followings and most rabid local followings in the NHL.

The Sharks have a well-known pre-game tradition: At the beginning of every Sharks home game, the lights go out, and a 17-foot shark head is lowered from the rafters of their arena (which is popularly known as the Shark Tank). As the mouth is lowered, the eyes flash red, and fog pours out. The goalie then leads the team through the mouth and onto the ice to the tune of an entrance song. (Currently "Seek and Destroy" by Metallica.) Whenever the team is on the power play, the theme from Jaws plays and the fans do "The Chomp," moving their arms up and down to imitate a chomping shark jaw.

If you're looking for a newer team which you can grow with, the San Jose Sharks may be the team for you. They have a knowledgeable fanbase, a great all-time roster, and a lot of success. The bad part is that the success rarely extends far beyond the regular season, so get used to playoff disappointment. And imagine what the party will look like in the Shark Tank if the Sharks ever manage to bring home the Stanley Cup.]]> Thu, 11 Apr 2013 16:11:16 +0000
<![CDATA[ Cap Them Off]]>
The first round of NHL expansions was finished in 1974 with the arrival of the Kansas City Scouts and Washington Capitals. Between the time expansions began in 1967 and 1974, when they first ended, the NHL more than doubled in size, adding the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Los Angeles Kings, Oakland Seals, Minnesota North Stars, and St. Louis Blues in 1967; the Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks in 1969; the New York Islanders and Atlanta Flames in 1972; and now these guys. Plus there was the World Hockey Association to compete with the NHL, whose merger with the NHL in 1979 would result in the additions of four more teams. Naturally, with all these weird new teams roaming around the major leaguer professional hockey landscape, talent was now being stretched to ridiculously thin lengths. The first move Capitals owner Abe Pollin made was to hire Boston Bruins legend Milt Schmidt as the general manager of the Caps, which was a smart move on paper. Schmidt had a name in the league. The year of the Capitals' creation, the Bruins had won five Stanley Cups, and Schmidt had been with them for four of them - 1939 and 1941 as a player, and as general manager of the Big Bad Bruins teams in 1970 and 1972. So, yeah, Milt Schmidt definitely had a working hockey brain. 

Unfortunately, the thin talent was really taking a toll on the constant expansions. In their inaugural season, the Washington Capitals finished with a record of 8-67-5, good for 21 points. For comparison, their expansion-mate Scouts, who are still also one of the worst teams ever fielded, managed to put 42 points on their board. For an NHL team playing at least 70 games in a single season, that remains the standard of futility. The Capitals are the 1962 New York Mets of hockey. That year, they set records by losing 39 of their 40 road games and most consecutive losses with 17. By the time their streak of losses finally ended, at least the team had a sense of humor about it - upon finally winning again, the Capitals hauled out a large green trash can and waved it around over their heads, like the Stanley Cup. The team coach, Jim Anderson, went on record saying, "I'd rather find out my wife was cheating on me than keep losing like this. At least I could tell my wife to cut it out." The only team to even get close to those depths is the Winnipeg Jets of the 1981 season. They went 9-57-14. Those ties spoiled their run at history.

In their second season, the Capitals improved, although in this case the meaning of "improved" is relative: They went 11-59-10 for 32 points. The Kansas City Scouts were very nearly as bad again too, but in the two years the Scouts existed in Kansas City, their worst record wasn't as bad as either of Washington's first two records. They went 25 straight games without a win, allowed a whopping 394 goals, replaced their GM and head coach in the middle of the season, and, well…. I think that record speaks for itself. 

'Tis the story of the Washington Capitals during their first eight years or so. Sometimes they were dreadful. Other times, like in 1980 and 1981, they were right in contention until the very last day of the season. And "in contention" up there is relative: I mean they were in contention for a playoff spot, not the Stanley Cup or anything. General manager Max McNab was making fairly smart draft picks, though, and they came to impact the team in positive ways. Still, it didn't stop talk of the Caps leaving The District from emerging in 1982. What do you expect? Who would want to ever see a team like this? Well, okay, I would want to, but only out of sheer, morbid curiosity. A Save the Caps campaign got started up, but in the case of the Capitals, what came to rescue their hapless asses actually took place on the ice rather than off it. First, David Poile was brought in as general manager. The first thing Poile did was make the frnchise-saving trade: Ryan Walter and Rick Green to the Montreal Canadiens for Rod Langway, Brian Engblom, Doug Jarvis, and Craig Laughlin. Then in the 1982 amateur draft, he grabbed Scott Stevens. 

While Langway and Stevens patrolled the blue line, the Caps created an attack centered around Dennis Maruk, Mike Gartner, and Bobby Carpenter. The team jumped 29 points, finished third in a Patrick division which included the Flyers and Isles, and made the playoffs for the first time ever. They lost in the first round to the eventual Champion Islanders, but everyone talking about the next home of the Capitals shut their yaps. The team went on to make the playoffs for the next 14 years in a row. By 1986, they were 50-win, 100+ point finishers. They were getting stars to come through: Dave Christian, Dino Ciccarelli, Larry Murphy, and Kevin Hatcher. But they also fell into one of those inexplicable patterns no one can ever seem to crack or explain: Start slow, get hot in January, get booted from the playoffs in the first round. Second round if it was an especially good year. In that 1986 season, for example, the Caps managed to beat the Islanders in the first round, but the New York Rangers beat them in the second round. In 1987, the Capitals played in the Easter Epic against the Islanders. They had dominated through most of the game, outshooting the Isles 75-52, but by the time the game finally ended on Easter Sunday at 1:56 AM, the Isles emerged victorious when Pat LaFontaine scored the winner on a shot from the blue line. 

By 1990, the Washington Capitals were finally playing in a Wales Conference Final series. They didn't last very long against the Ray Bourque and Cam Neely Bruins, who promptly swept them. The team generally wavered up and down throughout the 90's. They started the decade as a team which regularly won over 40 games, but that started to taper off during the second half of the decade. Sometimes, they were legitimately great. Others, they were merely good. They managed to find players like Olie Kolzig, Sergei Gonchar, Dale Hunter, Phil Housley, Adam Oates,  and their all-time leading goal scorer, Peter Bondra. 

Despite the point drop-off, in 1998 the Capitals finally gave their fans a success worth talking about. They went 40-30-12 for 92 points. They went to the playoffs, where they faced the Bruins in the first round. The Bruins series may be the most epic six-game series ever played. Three of the games ran into overtime, two into double overtime. In round two, the Ottawa Senators came to have at them. Washington won in five. The Eastern Conference Finals brought the Capitals against the Buffalo Sabres, who were then the youngest team in the league in terms of collective age. The Capitals were the oldest in collective age, so Buffalo's fresh, hip club was able to run through another six-game epic. But in the end, Washington's experience won the day in a series which featured three overtime games. (Those were Buffalo's trademark back then.) It finally ended in a sixth-game overtime, when Joe Juneau rose up and put one past Buffalo's Dominick Hasek, then known all around as the best goalie in the league. 

The Washington Capitals were now in the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time ever, but there was just one problem: The Detroit Red Wings. Known to one and all as the league dynamo, the Red Wings had posted 103 points, more than any other team except the Dallas Stars and New Jersey Devils. They had to beat the Stars in the Western Conference Finals to get to the Finals, and so after that, they weren't about to let the Caps take a pity victory. Detroit won hands down. It took four games. 

To open the millennium, the Capitals won their division in back to back years in 2000 and 2001. Both years, they lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Pittsburgh Penguins. After the 2001 season, the frustrated team Captain, Adam Oates, demanded a trade. The Caps told him to shove his trade where the sun don't shine and stripped him of the Captaincy. After signed Jaromir Jagr to the largest NHL contract ever - $77 million over seven years - the Caps then trade Oates anyway. 2002 brought Jagr's old Pittsburgh lineman, Robert Lang. In 2003, the Caps returned to the playoffs after missing out in 2002, but they lost in the first round again, this time to the Tampa Bay Lightning. What the team was trying to do now was build a good team using high-priced veterans. By the 2004 season, management finally got smarterer and acknowledged it wasn't working, so you know what came next: Let the talent jettisoning begin! Jagr was sent to the Rangers - who were trying the same building strategy the Caps were failing at - Bondra was handed off to Ottawa, Lang went to Detroit, and Gonchar to Boston. Here's how desperate the Capitals were getting: When Lang was traded, he was the league's leading scorer, and it was the middle of the season. After the season, the Capitals were tied for the league's second worst record with the Chicago Blackhawks. 

You know what that means: Draft lottery time! The Caps won and got to move ahead of everyone else. Their pick was a Russian named Alexander Ovechkin. When the 2005 lockout ended, Ovechkin took center stage in another building effort. He went above and beyond his hype, and surprised the league by playing at a level equal to - and sometimes even greater than - that of heralded Pittsburgh rookie Sidney Crosby. The clear star of the Washington Capitals, Ovechkin took the team on a turnaround in 2008, when they made the playoffs, fell behind 3-1 against the Philadelphia Flyers, and forced a seventh game before going down. The next two years brought the team to dominance. In 2010, the Caps won the Presidents' Trophy and were chic Stanley Cup picks. At least until the first round of the playoffs, where they were stunned by the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens. The next year, the Caps were the best team in the Eastern Conference until they were swept in the second round of the playoffs by the Lightning. This has been their thing as of late - great regular seasons punctuated by poor playoff showings.

Washington's roster of retired numbers includes Rod Langway, Yvon Labre, Mike Gartner, and Dale Hunter. Some of their other all-time roster players are Adam Oates, Scott Stevens, Larry Murphy, and Dino Ciccarelli. Their current face and fearless leader is Alexander Ovechkin, whom the team will be fucking stupid to let go of. Ovechkin is already third on the Caps' all-time scoring leader list, just behind Peter Bondra and Mike Gartner.

The Caps have only one big name rival at the moment, and it's the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pens and Caps have the two brightest shinging stars in the league - Washington has Ovechkin, and Pittsburgh has Sidney Crosby, probably the most popular player in the league right now. They've played against each other in the playoffs eight times. Pittsburgh won all of those meeting except one, in 1994. What really makes it crazy is the fact that in seven of those series, Pittsburgh trailed at one point or another, but has kept coming back to win. It's no wonder these two teams met in the Winter Classic. The Caps' defining moments include the Easter Epic and the 1998 Conference Championship, but they're also one of the few teams to be defined by losses. Way back in the 70's, the Caps were arguable the worst team to ever lace 'em up.

Don't get used to winning very much with the Washington Capitals. They do great during the regular season, but come the playoffs, it's very rare they don't sputter out sometime along the line. They've underachieved in the playoffs since the arrival of Ovechkin. Ovechkin, while looking like an all-time great, just up and disappears in the playoffs most of the time. Even the one time they didn't choke and went all the way to the Finals, their series against the Red Wings wasn't as close as it looked, even though it was a sweep, and even if that sweep did involve more than one single-goal differential. The team can also be found be looking at teams in search of an iconic sweater logo. They've released several decent ones since the mid-90's - an eagle, a picture of the Capitol Building dome, and a different form of eagle, but what the team seems to be going with is just a font saying "Washington Capitals."

The Washington Capitals bandwagon may look appealing now, but just wait until the playoffs. They'll be one and done until Alexander Ovechkin finally gives us a playoff performance for the ages. Also, he could probably use a bit more help for that to happen. The NHL playoffs are a gauntlet. Even Wayne Gretzky couldn't win the Stanley Cup all by himself.]]> Wed, 10 Apr 2013 17:24:02 +0000
<![CDATA[ Devilish]]>
It was 1974 when the NHL finally decided it was done adding new teams for the time being. It placed two more teams into the league that year: The Washington Capitals and the Kansas City Scouts. Kansas City might seem an unusual location for a hockey team, but it did have a long history of minor league hockey teams, and since it wasn't along the Canadian border, well, that's really the only thing the NHL could ask from a potential market south of Chicago. Now, Kansas City is really two cities, one right across the river from the other: The one in Kansas and its more celebrated, upscale brother in Missouri. The NHL team was originally supposed to be called the Mohawks out of deference to both states; it combined the postal abbreviation of Missouri - MO - with the old Kansas nickname Jayhawkers, basically guerilla fighters from The Civil War who attacked the pro-slavery groups. It's also a term used to define Kansas native, and its shorter cousin, Jayhawk, is the mascot of the University of Kansas. However, the Chicago Black Hawks bitched that Mohawk and Black Hawk were too similar, and a name-the-team contest gave the Scouts the identity of one of Kansas City's iconic statues.

The Kansas City Scouts lasted two seasons. It says something about how good they were that their inaugural campaign, a 15-54-11 disaster which yielded all of 41 points, was the better of them. The next year, they started better, and were even in the run for a playoff spot after a 3-1 win over the California Golden Seals in late December. But most of the season went down the tubes as the Scouts then went 0-14-2 from December 30 to February 4 before beating the even worse Capitals in their next game. They finished on a reverse glittering run of 0-21-6. In their last 44 games, the Scouts went 1-35-8 for a final record of 12-56-12 for 36 points. With 32 teams in the NHL and WHA combined, talent stretched thin. The Scouts also had to deal with inflated player costs, poorer ownership, and a nasty economic swing in the midwest. No one bought tickets and, despite a season ticket drive for money, the 37 owners of the Scouts were killed by debt and forced to sell.

Off to Denver they went! The Kansas City Scouts became the Colorado Rockies. While the depths of the Scouts were never reached in Colorado, the team continued to play only marginal hockey, and in six years in Denver, they made the playoffs all of once. And this is the NHL, where playoff positioning is determined by filling out the proper circle on a form that tells you the answer. So even that wasn't impressive - the Rockies finished with the sixth-worst record in the league in their lone playoff year. They did field a couple of outstanding players who were worth watching, like Barry Beck, who set a record for goals by a rookie defenseman, and Toronto Maple Leafs mainstay Lanny McDonald did three seasons in Colorado before going on to his defining career gig with the Calgary Flames. They also put Don Cherry on the coach's bench for a spell, and Don Cherry is always flamboyant and entertaining. Which meant the front office hated his guts and he was dismissed after one season. The Rockies were actually able to hire and fire seven coaches in four years. No wonder they were so bad. That has to be some kind of record.

In 1982, New Jersey shipping tycoon bought the Rockies and moved them to New Jersey. Since they would somehow be defined as a New York City team despite playing in a whole other state, the new team was forced to compensate the New York Islanders and New York Rangers. And wait, see, they're not in New York, they're in New Jersey, which meant they were ALSO invading the turf of the Philadelphia Flyers, who got to take the new team's money too! To select the name, people voted in a contest to name the team after the legend of the Jersey Devil, a creature which originated in American Indian folklore and said to live in the Pine Barrens of South Jersey.

"Well, it's time they got their act together, folks. They're ruining the whole league. They had better stop running a Mickey Mouse organization and put somebody on ice." Believe it or not, that comment didn't come from a random message board devoted to today's Buffalo Sabres. That's a direct quote from Wayne Gretzky during the 1984 season after his Edmonton Oilers blew out the Devils 13-4. After a nasty sound bite like that, teams and fans naturally wanted to get even, but what could they do? They were positively shitty and surrounded by three of the NHL's glamor teams whom any players would likely sign with instead if given the option. So in response, Devils fans began showing up wearing Mickey Mouse gear whenever the Oilers visited. After all, this was a team which, throughout its earliest years in New Jersey, failed to win 20 games on more than one occasion. What else could they do?

Well, ownership DID do something, since the owners were actually stable and not worried about their next move for the first time since, well, ever. They assembled a group of competent players like Kirk Muller and Pat Verbeek and Chico Resch. Starting in the 1984 season, the Devils began a slow and steady improvement on the ice. In 1987, they hired Providence College coach and athletic director Lou Lamoriello to be the team president. He was an unknown outside college hockey, but he was the right guy for the job. You can tell that by his sheer longevity - he's still the president of the Devils.

In 1988, the Devils compiled their first winning record. On the last day of the season, they were tied with their hated archrivals, the Rangers, for the last playoff spot. New York had beat the Quebec Nordiques, and after that, the Devils played against the Chicago Blackhawks. The Devils trailed through the third period 3-2, but John MacLean tied the game, then added the winning goal in overtime. Both the Rangers and Devils finished with the same number of points with 82, but the Devils had one more win, and got the playoff spot. In the playoffs, the Devils took a level in badass! They ran through to the Wales Conference Finals, where they dragged a series against the Boston Bruins out to seven games, but lost. During the series, Devils coach Jim Schoenfeld verbally abused referee Don Koharski, who fell down during the exchange and claimed Schoenfeld pushed him. Schoenfeld was ejected from the game and ordered by the league to sit out the next game. The Devils demanded a hearing, the league refused, and so the Devils screamed something about how their rights had been violated before taking it to the New Jersey Superior Court. The Court actually ruled in favor of the Devils because the NHL's "investigation" consisted of two phone calls, one to the coach and one to the ref, and no video review. In protest, the other officials refused to work the game! After an hourlong delay, a trio of off-ice officials were found to do the work…. Which they did while wearing their scrimmage sweaters. While all this was going on, by the way, league president John Ziegler was away on personal business. Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz, chairman of the league's board of governors, was the one who finally had to give the order to play the damn game already!

The Devils started falling below .500 again the next year, but they haven't been missing the playoffs very much since then. By the 1994 season, the Devils had a classic lineup in place. It featured Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Claude Lemieux, and Martin Brodeur. They notched their first 100-point season, fought their way to the Eastern Conference Finals, and met the Rangers in a seven-game series for the ages. The Devils led the series 3-2 after dominating the fifth game. Before game six, Rangers Captain Mark Messier made a very famous guarantee before suiting back and netting a hat trick while leading his team to a raging comeback. In game seven, New Jersey's Valeri Zelepukin tied the game with 7.7 seconds left in regulation before the Rangers won in double overtime.

Before I continue, you have to understand something about hockey: There's not a sport or a league on this planet that attaches more useless, ludicrous importance to its on-floor markings than hockey: If the puck crosses the red line, blue line, and goal line, it's icing, and has to be returned to the end it came from for a face-off. If an attacking player crosses the blue line before the puck does, it's offside and there's a face-off! There used to be a violation calling for passes that went beyond two lines. Yeah, bullshit, right? Well, there are so many dumbass rules and violations regarding line placement that a team could potentially base its entire game plan on them! And for the 1995 season, it was the Devils who found a way to exploit them. They started implementing a strategy called the Neutral Zone Trap, a strategy which placed four players on the defending team into the neutral zone to act as sentries while the fifth stayed in the middle of the ice to cut off passing lanes and force the puck to the side, where it eventually gets dumped off into the attack zone. The Trap is known to reduce scoring, and the brutal physicality necessary to using it slows games way down and forces a lot of penalties. Sometimes that's essential to win difficult matchups, but when it's the primary driving force of hockey, it creates slow, boring games where the puck is pretty much just dumped and chased through 60 minutes. The New Jersey Devils relied on it as their way of life. They fucking SWORE by it. And unfortunately, the Neutral Zone Trap was also brutally effective. It allowed the Devils to win the Stanley Cup three times. That meant other teams started following suit - and the Devils ruined an entire sport.

In 1995, the Devils went to the Finals for the first time and handily swept the Detroit Red Wings. Other teams started playing the Trap in large part because it was so effective that poor teams teams were able to level the playing field against rich, star-laden teams. The Devils were routinely among the best teams in the NHL for the rest of the 90's. In 2000, they broke through again, returned to the Finals, and beat the Dallas Stars, something I'll give them a free pass on because their opponents were the Stars. In 2003, they did it again with a roster comprised of players like Jamie Langenbrunner, John Madden, Joe Nieuwendyk, Scott Gomez, Scott Stevens, and Martin Brodeur. They beat the Might Ducks of Anaheim in seven games to win the Cup again. Unfortunately, by now the Neutral Zone Trap was actually giving the league fits, and I don't mean that in just the sense that other teams hated playing against the Devils. It was also costing the NHL watchers. The few NHL games being shown on ESPN were dragging in rating so low that the network simply dumped the contract, leaving fans blacked out. New rules had to be implemented to obscure the Trap.

When hockey resumed after the 2005 lockout, the Devils still had enough star power to stay potent. They made waves. Martin Brodeur established himself as a possible equal to Patrick Roy in greatest goalie of all time discussions. The Devils also made acquisitions like Zach Parise, Brendan Shanahan, Brian Rolston, and in one controversial move, they signed Ilya Kovalchuk to a 17-year, $100 million contract in 2010. The NHL rejected that contract because it circumvented the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Kovalchuk became a free agent for two months, then the league accepted a contract for 15 years. The Devils didn't return to the Finals until 2012, though, where they lost in six games to the Los Angeles Kings.

Ken Daneyko, Scott Stevens, and Scott Niedermayer have all had their numbers pulled to the rafters in New Jersey. Other hockey legends with the Devils include Peter Stastny, Doug Gilmour, Adam Oates, and Joe Nieuwendyk. For the 1993 season, they actually had Miracle on Ice coach Herb Brooks on their bench but, while Brooks was a potent college hockey coach, he proved to not be such a great hire for the NHL.

The Devils have intense rivalries with the New York Islanders and New York Rangers. Especially that second one - the Devils and Rangers have made trades with every team in the NHL except each other. These two teams have met in the playoffs a lot, and the Rangers hold the overall edge in playoff series while the Devils have won the Stanley Cup more often in the rivalry's most intense years. (The Rangers won it once, in 1994. The Devils took it three times.) The most important moments of the rivalry happened in the middle of the 90's. The Rangers had to plow through the Devils in order to win the Stanley Cup in 1994. During their series against each other, Rangers Captain Mark Messier guaranteed a victory and his team made good on it. For a few years, New Jersey dominated the rivalry while New York wasted their money, and the Rangers and Devils never played against each other in any of the playoff years when the Devils won the Cup. Since the post-lockout resurgence of the Rangers, the rivalry has gotten intense again, and last season, they played against each other in the Eastern Conference Finals, which New Jersey won.

Upon arriving in the NHL, the Devils were known mostly for being the Mickey Mouse team Wayne Gretzky referred to them as. Those days are now long gone. The Devils have three Stanley Cups to their name now, and they came within a stone's throw of it by winning the Conference Championships in 2001 and 2012 too. Now they're known for being hardasses. Even after the implementation of the New Rules that wiped out the Trap, the Devils have a very aggressive style of play that emphasizes forechecking and puck possession. In the 2008 season, they fielded a surprisingly high-scoring squad. They've always relied on tough defense.

Unfortunately, that gave them a bad name. The Neutral Zone Trap fucking ruined the NHL. The league is still dealing with the effects as teams struggle to find a style of defense that is as effective a replacement for it. It killed the league's TV contract and wiped out a lot of fans. To be fair, the Devils did manage to lead the Eastern Conference in goals scored twice and the NHL once during the Trap era, but that says more about other teams' usage of the Trap than about anything the Devils brought to the table offensively. The Devils also have an identity in the way they give the arrogant sports fans in New York City another team to vampire when their preferred teams are sucking up their leagues and New Yorkers absolutely NEED a bandwagon to shamelessly hop aboard. That business with Ilya Kovalchuk was a little fishy, too.

Are you a native to New Jersey? Then, and only then, should you have a claim to cheer for the New Jersey Devils. Hell, be proud of them - they're doing great these days. But between the shameless bandwagon-hopping of Isles, Rangers, and "hockey" fans in New York City, the Mickey Mouse comment, the Ilya Kovalchuk legalese, and especially that fucking Neutral Zone Trap, I don't see how these guys are even remotely likable. I'll give them their 2000 Stanley Cup, but only because they beat the Dallas Stars.]]> Tue, 9 Apr 2013 17:12:35 +0000
<![CDATA[ Rocking and Rolling]]>
The Quebec Nordiques were another one of the original WHA teams, formed in 1972. They were placed in Quebec City, the capitol of the Canadian province of Quebec, which makes sense in the fact that Quebec City is a pretty important place. It's also one of the smaller markets in Canada, so the Nordiques had the distinction of being one of only two major league professional sports teams to call Quebec City home. (The other was the Quebec Bulldogs of the early NHL.) The name Nordiques, which is pronounced "nor-deeks," is of course a french word. The approximate translation in english is "northmen," or "northerners." Quebec is known as the cultural capitol of French Canada, and in a way it's a bit of the Canadian equivalent to Texas: Much different culture, a certain amount of pride in the way they are and how different they are. There's a secession movement there which doesn't stand a chance in hell of succeeding because Quebec is the second-most populous province in Canada and contains a number of economically important places, including the city of Montreal. Montreal, though, has a serious language divide - half the people there speak french as a primary language, and half english. Quebec City is a fortified city on an island, and the language is quite dominantly french.

The Nordiques were originally sketched for San Francisco, and they were supposed to be called the Sharks. But their funding imploded right before the season, so the WHA had to hurry and sell the team to a bunch of businessmen who happened to own a junior team called the Quebec Remparts. They gave them the Nordiques moniker because the team, well, played in the north. Only the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Cowboys, Vancouver Blazers, and Winnipeg Jets played further north. Hey, when you're pressed for time, ya gotta do what ya gotta do, right? The Nordiques started their legacy with Montreal Canadiens legend Maurice "Rocket" Richard as their coach. His coaching record was a respectable 1-1-0. Those numbers are rather low, you know? Well, that's because Rocket lasted through two games before deciding coaching wasn't for him and stepping down.

The first star for the Nordiques was JC Tremblay. They didn't make the playoffs until 1975, though, after Marc Tardif and Real Cloutier joined up. The Nords went all the way to the Finals that year, but were swept by the Houston Aeros. The next year, the team went nuts on offense - Tardif, Coultier, Chris Bordeleau, Serge Bernier, and Rejean Houle all posted 100-point seasons. In 1977, the Nordiques finally captured the Avco World Trophy, the trophy given out to WHA Champions. By the 1979 merger, the WHA only had three of its Canadian teams left: The Nords, Oilers, and Jets. All three were admitted to the NHL, along with the New England Whalers. When the NHL gave the survivors the customary fuck off, move to the back message usually reserved for teams that survive sports league mergers, the Nords got slammed: The senior teams in the NHL took all but three of their players. They got to hold Real Cloutier, but he wasn't nearly enough to keep the Nordiques from sinking. They also managed to dig up a great rookie named Michel Goulet. They didn't make the playoffs until 1981, having signed Soviet defector Peter Stastny in the meantime. In the playoffs, they got their asses kicked by the Philadelphia Flyers in rather short order.

Goulet and Stastny led the Nordiques on a series of playoff runs which lasted throughout the 80's. Even though this is the NHL and making the playoffs is easier than winning a poker hand with a royal flush, it said something about the Nords that in those 1982 playoffs, they dispatched the Canadiens and Boston Bruins before going to the Wales Conference Finals and meeting the all-conquering New York Islanders, who gave them a short order beating to end the Cinderella run. In the 1984 playoffs, the Nordiques were facing the Habs yet again, and it should be noted that since both of these teams were faces of French Canada, they developed a little bit of a rivalry. The sixth game of this playoff series got a little bit heated, and it became one of the most infamous games in league history. What happened? Well, Montreal won it 5-3, scoring all five goals in the third period, to win the series. That's the less notable aspect of it. The more notable aspect is the penalties list: A breathtaking 252 minutes in penalties were racked up. There were 14 fights, two bench-clearing brawls, and ten ejections, including Stastny and Dale Hunter. The game is known as the Vendredi Saint Brawl in french, and the Good Friday Massacre in english. In 1986, the Nords won their first division title, but got swept in the first round by, of all the teams to be swept by, the Hartford Whalers. 1987 saw another huge playoff war between the Nords and Habs, which ran seven games. Montreal won.

After that, the decline started. After years of making the playoffs, the Nordiques were now finishing last in their division, and in 1989, they finished with the worst record in the NHL. To inject a bit of life into the team, the Nordiques brought in coach Michel Bergeron in 1989. He had coached them through most of the 80's, to their best years. They also scooped up Montreal legend Guy Lafleur! Unfortunately, the Lafleur signing came with a major problem: Lafleur had only been playing since 1988. So how was he such a legend? Well, see, his NHL career had actually started in 1971, and ran to 1985, when he retired. In 1988, he pulled a Favre, or a Clemens, depending on whether your preference is baseball or football. The New York Rangers had given him up because all those years which turned him into a Montreal legend were clearly in the past. But hey, mileage can be overlooked with this guy, right? I mean, look at the accolades: Three Art Ross, two Harts, three Lester Pearsons (now the Ted Lindsay), one Conn Smythe, five Stanleys! Something HAD to be there, right? Well, in limited games, he did put a few points on the board, but The Flower was quite clearly out of gas. In 98 games over two seasons, Lafleur scored only 24 goals, despite still being fairly prolific for a guy with such low ice time. The season saw them finish with one of the most hideous records in league history: With a 12-61-7 record, they had posted 31 points. It was the second of three straight years with the league's worst record.

Goulet and Stastny were both traded in 1990. But they started making up for it with a young forward named Joe Sakic, and they also became the first team to ever draft a European player first overall when they got Mats Sundin in the 1989 draft. The next year, they got Owen Nolan. See what losing gets you? Good draft picks! In 1991, they picked first yet again, and their choice was a certain Eric Lindros. That last one posed something of a problem: Lindros had no intention of ever suiting up for the Quebec Nordiques, and that was very public knowledge. Although he posed with the jersey on draft day, he never actually put it on. Among the things Lindros objected to were distance, lack of marketing potential, and having to learn french. Meanwhile, the team president announced that they were planning to make Lindros the centerpiece of their turnaround. Lindros, having other ideas, refused to sign and began a holdout. The team president said Lindros would never have an NHL career as long as he held out. In the meantime, Quebec finished with another terrible season in 1992. Lindros was popular and marketable, though, so the little cold war between him and the Nords had to end sometime. And with pressure from both the league and fans, it started to look like Lindros was going to get his way.

At the time, the Quebec Nordiques still needed an entire team to get under them. The Philadelphia Flyers were convinced they were a single player away from their third Stanley Cup. They were also VERY convinced that Lindros was that player. Sports fans are well-versed in the story of the Herschel Walker trade: Herschel Walker was a great NFL running back with the Dallas Cowboys in the late 80's. The Cowboys were struggling at the time, though, and Walker wasn't going to carry the team - he was rather the only bright spot on a piss poor roster that kept finishing at the bottom of the standings. At the same time, the Minnesota Vikings were a legitimately good team looking for the one player necessary to get them over the hill, and when the Cowboys started cleaning house for a thorough rebuild, the Vikings decided Walker was their guy. They traded a very large number of players and draft picks to get him. Unfortunately, Walker's playing style didn't fit in with Minnesota's offensive playing style. Dallas, meanwhile, built a team that won three Super Bowls. So what we have between the Flyers and Nordiques right now is the NHL's version of that trade: In 1992, the Flyers parted with Peter Forsberg, Ron Hextall, Chris Simon, Mike Ricci, Kerry Huffman, Steve Duchesne, $15 million, and two first round draft picks, one of whom was turned into Jocelyn Thibault, for Eric Lindros and ONLY Eric Lindros. Lindros became a great star in Philadelphia, and in 1997, he led his team to the Finals - a four-game blowout against the Detroit Red Wings, in which Lindros scored only one goal, which came with 15 seconds left in game four, long after the entire series had been decided.

While the Nordiques traded Mats Sundin to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1994, the army they heisted from Philadelphia had turned them into a rising power. But while this was going on, Quebec City was getting phased out as a market. It was small in a non-capped league. Strike one. Operating costs were starting to go up. Strike two. The Canadian dollar wasn't nearly as strong as the American dollar. Strike three. Quebec City had no other nearby cities to get fan support from. Strike four. Quebec City was exclusively french-speaking, which discouraged non-french-speaking players and limited marketability. Strike five. The Quebec government refused to bail them out. Strike six, and somebody please fire this dumbass umpire. Some investors from Denver bailed the team out, but they had a teensy little condition: They were taking the Quebec Nordiques to Denver. I've read before that the people of Quebec City actually took it rather well; most still consider the second incarnation of the Quebec Nordiques - the Colorado Avalanche - their team, and still celebrate the successes of the Avalanche as if they were still the Nordiques.

The name Colorado Avalanche was perfect for the team now, because it was such a fantastic description of what they were doing to every other team in the league: Burying and smothering them! In 1996, they finished second in the Western Conference, and went to the Finals. In the Finals, they battered the hapless Florida Panthers in four games for their first Stanley Cup. Now, they were regularly fighting for the best record in the league. In 2000, the Avs picked up the legendary Boston Bruins defenseman Ray Bourque, who had been in the league since 1979 and was hurting for the Stanley Cup, which he had never won. In 2001, it seemed like the Avalanche were on a quest to get every player in the NHL playing for them. Besides Bourque, they had Forsberg, Sakic, Rob Blake, Patrick Roy (a 1996 trade), Adam Foote, and Chris Drury. They powered their way to a glittering record of 52-20-10 (four overtime losses added to overall losses there) for 118 points and the Stanley Cup.

The beginning of the end of Colorado dominance came with the installment of the salary cap. The cap was never going to let the Avs keep all that firepower. They did manage to stay good, though, and they did some damage in the 2006 playoffs before getting swept by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. It had been a great year, but it was also the first sign that things were changing in the NHL; the Avalanche had never been swept in a playoff series before. The slide came, but the Avs never completely let themselves fall under since then. Unfortunately, they've turned into a bit of a tease since then. They're bouncy. They'll have a good season where they win over 40 games one year, then a bad season where they'll post less than 70 points.

JC Tremblay had his number retired upon his retirement from the Quebec Nordiques in 1979. That was followed up by the retirement of the numbers of Marc Tardif, Peter Stastny, and Michel Goulet. But the Avalanche apparently don't feel like they're Quebec City's team anymore, because the second they got to Denver, all those numbers came right back out of retirement! The list of retired numbers for the Avs is completely different. It includes Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Patrick Roy, and Ray Bourque. Sakic and Forsberg are both among the immediate name people associate with the Avalanche. Bourque and Roy both performed brief but powerful stints with them. Roy came along in 1995. He was a longtime staple for the Montreal Canadiens, whom he had backstopped to two Stanley Cups before one nasty night in December 1995. On December 2, his Canadiens played against the Detroit Red Wings. They lost 11-1. Roy gave up the first nine of those goals. He had never quite gotten along with Mario Tremblay, and he believed Tremblay kept him in that night just to embarrass him. After finally getting pulled, Roy stormed past Tremblay on his way to see Montreal's GM, to whom he said his days in Montreal were officially over NOW. Bourque's acquisition was a bit more poignant. Bourque was a face as identifiable with the Boston Bruins as Roy's was with the Montreal Canadiens, but Bourque didn't leave because he hated his team. He was a career Bruin who had been drafted in 1979 and led them to two Finals, both of which Boston lost to the Edmonton Oilers dynasty. By the time he was traded to Colorado in 2000, Boston was clearly a team in rebuilding. Bourque was in his absolute twilight as a player, and wanted to make one final, spectacular run for a Stanley Cup. He approached his GM and requested a trade to an Eastern Conference team that had a shot - his primary choice was Philadelphia, and the Flyers had offered a package in return. But the GM was just finalizing his trade to the Avalanche. The GM also really wanted to see Bourque win the Cup, and he told Bourque "This may not be your first choice, but this is the team I feel is best."

In the 1996 Western Conference Finals, the Avalanche met the Detroit Red Wings. During the sixth game, Kris Draper of the Wings was slammed face-first into the boards by Claude Lemieux. Draper had to have his face reconstructed, and his jaw was wired shut for five weeks. That was the beginning of one of the nastiest rivalries in the history of the league. In one game in 1997, there were nine fights, eleven goals, 39 penalties, 148 penalty minutes, one hat trick, and a fight between goalies Patrick Roy and Mike Vernon. Lemieux was a player singled out by Detroit's players. This rivalry isn't nearly that bad anymore. The Quebec Nordiques also had that nasty war with the Montreal Canadiens.

The Colorado Avalanche currently holds the record for longest consecutive sellout streak. It started on November 9, 1995 and didn't end until October 16, 2006. That's eleven years, almost to the day. As for the identifying moments in their history, there were the aforementioned fights, but those are more of an exception to their identity than the rule, at least as the Avalanche - lord knows the Nordiques knew how to brawl. I want to single one out because it's one of my all-time favorites as a hockey fan. It's one of the great emotional payoffs NHL fans get to see for all the brutality of the sport. When the Stanley Cup is awarded, it's customary for the team Captain to be the first one to hoist the Cup and skate around for a few seconds before handing it off for the other players to each get their turn. When Joe Sakic took hold of it after the 2001 Finals, though, his first act, instead of hoisting it, was to give it to the one player who was retiring after that game after 22 years in the league of never winning it: Ray Bourque. The televised announcement of Bourque's name upon his taking the Cup is one of hockey's most famous calls. ("RAYMOND BOURQUE!") For his day with the Cup, Bourque took it to Boston.

The Quebec Nordiques were known for one of the coolest jersey designs in the league. It had a lower case letter N, done up like a Picasso, and the sweater integrated the fleur-de-lis into the design. It's worth a purchase if you can find it, especially since the Avalanche sweaters look more like the result of 90's marketing hubris than anything an NHL team should be wearing.

I would give the Colorado Avalanche a plus rating if I could. But, unfortunately, they have those awful days as the Quebec Nordiques to deal with, as well as the fact that they apparently refuse to acknowledge their past. Taking numbers out of circulation just because of a move is just classless. I give them a small amount of points, though, because they got Ray Bourque the Stanley Cup, and Bourque is a longtime favorite of mine even though he played for the fucking Boston Bruins, and I also enjoyed the way they fleeced the Philadelphia Flyers - Peter Forsberg alone became a better player than Eric Lindros would ever be. If this was awhile in the future, the Colorado Avalanche would be higher rated, but they haven't been genuinely bad in a long time, so new NHL fans should feel free to hop aboard - as if you even need me to say something like that.]]> Thu, 4 Apr 2013 16:40:16 +0000
<![CDATA[ Rock You Like a Hurricane]]>
The Hurricanes are another one of those WHA teams which started up in 1972 in the hope of beating the NHL at its own game. The WHA figured placing a team in the New England region of states might be a pretty smart move, and they were probably hoping this team would become the official team of the entire northeastern United States. The team, named the New England Whalers, began by making all the right moves: Signing former Detroit Red Wings star Tom Webster, grabbing Ted Green as their first Captain, and stealing several other great players from the Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins. The moves paid off, and when the Whalers hit the ice, they were awesome! Behind coach Jack Kelley, a legendary ex-coach of the Boston University hockey team, the Whalers rampaged through the regular season, rampaged through the playoffs, and won the Avco World Trophy, which was the trophy given out to WHA Champions, after beating the Winnipeg Jets in the Finals.

Unfortunately, the WHA had overlooked one thing: See, they made the mistake of placing the Whalers in Boston, and the city of Boston already had this equally awesome NHL team called the Boston Bruins who had actually won the Stanley Cup the very year the New England Whalers tried to encroach on their turf. The Whalers played many of their home games at Boston Garden, which was owned by the Bruins, and the owners of the Bruins weren't very keen on that. Scheduling got to be a real pain in the ass, so in 1974 the Whalers swallowed their pride and headed south…. South in this case meaning west…. Slightly…. To Hartford, Connecticut! If the move took any kind of a toll on the Whalers, they certainly didn't show it. They never managed to win the Championship again, but they were still one of the most dominant teams in the WHA. They never missed the playoffs, they finished first in their division three times, and they played for the Avco World Trophy again in 1978. They had great player stability, between Webster, Brad Selwood, Ley, and other players. They also had the services of the legendary Gordie Howe, who managed to lead the team in scoring despite being 50 years old; future NHL stars Gordie Roberts and Mike Rogers; All-Star Ron Plumb; and the best defense in the WHA. When Gordie Howe started to feel his age, the Whalers traded for Andre Lacroix with the Houston Aeros, Lacroix being the WHA's all-time leader in scoring. They also managed to makes trades for Gordie Howe's two sons, Mark and Marty.

Considering everything the Whalers had going for them, the NHL was able to see past the level of intelligence it usually shows and admit the Whalers in the 1979 merger. What the Whalers couldn't get past was the Boston Bruins. Yeah, the Bruins had a major problem with the Whalers calling themselves the New England Whalers, and they threw a hissy. One of the conditions on which the Whalers would be admitted to the NHL was that they had to drop the "New England" from their name. Well, you don't fuck with the NHL, and so the New England Whalers were axed, and the existence of the Hartford Whalers began! They also switched their color combination to blue and green, and their logo to one of the greatest logos in NHL history, one that was even able to hold up against the iconic "Hub B" sweater logo worn by the Bruins. They also managed to hold onto all but three of their players, so the Hartford Whalers looked to be pretty set for a run in the NHL.

That's how it looked on paper, anyway. In practice, the vast reservoir of intelligence shown in the NHL began to emerge again. In this case, it was the fact that the team existed in Hartford. The Whalers spent most of their time hampered with serious issues which they had absolutely no control over. First of all, they played in fucking Hartford. Hartford reached its peak population in 1950, and even if the Whalers had been created back then, the city would still have only had a population of 177,397 people. It was an industrial center which of course crashed when corporations discovered the great secret of foreign manufacturing, and while it seems to have finally started really sorting out its problems over the past decade - one of just two periods of population growth in the last 60 years or so - it still has a long way to go. Anyway, back in 1950, Hartford STILL would have been the smallest market in the NHL by far. Its arena was one of the smallest in the league. The point is, Hartford back then wasn't the kind of place which would have attracted the cream of crop in young free agents. What's more, the team's marketability was extremely limited. People who follow professional sports know the state of Connecticut also acts as a bit of a dividing line for fan loyalty in New England. Connecticut is a perpetual sports battlefield of hearts and minds to be won by the teams in both the Boston and New York City areas. That meant the Whalers were tasked with trying to steal fans from two Original Six teams - the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers - as well as the newly-created New York Islanders, a team created solely to keep the WHA out of the New York City area and one which was starting a dynasty during the time of the merger.

Yeah, this arrangement had a doom spell written all over it. The 1980 season was the Whalers' first in the NHL, and they did okay with inclination toward bad. They posted 73 points and were swept from the first round of the playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens. They managed to make a trade for another NHL legend, Bobby Hull, but that was on the back, BACK end of his career. He managed to net seven points in nine games, but after that, he retired.

After that year, the Hartford Whalers began to carve out their niche and truly define themselves as the HARTFORD WHALERS, with the all-cap typing there meant to be taken in a bad way. Part of the reason the Whalers were able to keep so many of their WHA holdovers was because they were all aging. The Whalers tried to counteract the effects of the aging players on their roster by trading away the stars who weren't aging. The trades were mostly for bad players and draft picks. To their credit, the trades were actually made in order to give the Whalers a semblance of depth which would hopefully allow them to compete with the powerful teams in Boston and Montreal. The trades didn't pan out, so it wasn't very surprising that they finished 19-54-7 in 1983 for a putrid 45 points. A coaching change was clearly in order, so Jack Evans was hired.

Under Evans, the Whalers hit the mid-80's being, well, competitive. That much you can give them. Hell, they actually played like a good team at the beginning of the 1986 season, and managed to post 53 points after their first 47 games. Then they lost their star players, Ron Francis and Kevin Dineen, to injuries. Those injuries caused the Whalers to win all of two games in February of 1986, but they also went on a 12-4-2 run once Francis and Dineen returned. They finished in fourth, made the playoffs for the first time since 1980, and even managed to sweep the first place Quebec Nordiques. They followed that up by taking the following series against Montreal to seven games, losing the seventh game 2-1 in overtime. That was Hartford's height of playoff success. In 1987, Hartford found the height of its regular season success, posting 93 points and winning their division behind Francis, Dineen, Ray Ferraro, Ulf Samuelsson, Mike Liut, and Sylvain Turgeon. In the first round they ran into the Nordiques again, who were probably still a bit pissy about the previous year, and who managed to win the series this year in six.

The Whalers made the playoffs for the next several years in a row, but this is the NHL, where playoff positioning is decided by whoever hits a buzzer the fastest. The ability to make the playoffs is more of an illusion of worthiness in the NHL than it is in any other sport. So they only other year in which the Whalers arguably deserved to make the playoffs was in 1990, when their 85 points was good enough for seventh in the Wales Conference. Unfortunately, what might have been a building foundation was ruined when Hartford once again tried to create depth by swapping stars for nobodies. The Whalers' general manager starting general managing the team right into the ground. The first victim was superstar goalie Mike Liut, sent to the Washington Capitals for Yvon Corriveau. What's important to know about this trade is that Liut wasn't exactly washing out after a few bad years. Just the opposite, really; he was having a career year when this trade was made! It was the first of a series of disastrous trades, and without Liut, the Whalers were now stuck with a second-year goalie, Peter Sidorkiewicz, as their starter, and a rookie, Kay Whitmore, as his backup. This bad move proved to make the difference in the playoffs, where the Whalers faced the Bruins and their star goalie, Andy Moog. The Bruins won the series in seven, and it's pretty remarkable that Hartford was able to take the series to seven.

In 1991, Ron Francis, who held pretty much every significant offensive record in Hartford Whalers history, and star defenseman Ulf Samuelsson were traded with Grant Jennings to the Pittsburgh Penguins John Cullen, Zarley Zalapski, and Jeff Parker. The Hockey News actually tried to sell puckheads on the idea that Hartford actually came out on the better end of this trade, but fans disagreed. The fans were proven right after less than two weeks, when a knee injury ended Parker's career while Francis and Samuelsson helped the Pens to two Stanley Cups in a row. While the Whalers had managed to cultivate a respectable fanbase, discontent started to sweep through the area and folks started rooting for the Bruins and Rangers again. While the team had young stars Andrew Cassels and Geoff Sanderson in 1994 and they managed to draft Chris Pronger that year. The Pronger draft proved to be a good one…. Just not for Hartford, who couldn't take his slow development and finally sent him to the St. Louis Blues in 1995 for Brendan Shanahan. Shanahan hated the idea of playing for Hartford, but the team instantly made him Captain, so he kept his displeasure to himself until 1996 because he didn't want to play for a small market team with an uncertain future. (Remember that remark about the uncertain future, because it's going to become very important in another paragraph or two.) He demanded a trade, was condemned by the media and fans, stripped of his Captaincy, and traded after the second game of the season in 1996.

The Hartford Whalers had become a tease and a joke by now. Of their years in the NHL, they had only made the playoffs eight times, won just one playoff series, and earned the nickname "Forever .500s." Even in playoff years, they still had to match up with Boston, Montreal, or potentially both. In 1996, the owner got frustrated with the flailing attendance and said that unless he could sell 11,000 season ticket packages, he was moving. This owner, Peter Karmanos, quite clearly wanted to move because immediately after that announcement, he made a move which strictly catered to rich people: He wiped out the six, ten, and 20-game ticket packages, leaving only the 41-game packages. He also raised the prices by 20 percent. Despite his bullshit, there was a "Save the Whale" campaign, in which the fans pooled enough money to buy 8563 packages. But then there was another problem: The Whalers had been playing in Hartford Civic Center for a long time. That's right, it was time for someone besides the owner to pony up for a new playpen! Connecticut's Governor decided he didn't want to give tax money to a sports team, although he apparently changed gears enough to give the idea a listen. Things went well at first, but then Karmanos asked for $45 million as cover for losses while the new place was built. (See folks, THIS is the kind of shit that happens when we give tax money to sports team owners.) Governor said no, Karmanos said "I'm leaving." He didn't have a new place to move, but he wanted out because he didn't think the state - which had been lobbying for an NFL team - was serious. Connecticut went on to negotiate with the NFL's New England Patriots, trying to lure them to Connecticut, but that fell to pieces when they couldn't agree on terms for a new stadium.

In May of 1997, the move announcement was made: The Hartford Whalers were moving to the Research Triangle of North Carolina. More specifically, they were going to Raleigh. Since the move had to be made in short order, Karmanos himself thought up the team's new name, the Carolina Hurricanes, and the new colors of black and red, a way of honoring the North Carolina State University Wolfpack, whose arena they would also be sharing. For the first two years in Carolina, the Hurricanes were forced to play in Greensboro, 90 minutes west of Raleigh. The arena there had the highest capacity for hockey in the league, but since people aren't exactly keen on driving 90 minutes on weeknights for hockey, especially for a shitty team, no one went to see them. Furthermore, only 29 games were televised at all, and radio coverage was pre-empted by the Wolfpack - no surprise in college basketball-mad North Carolina. Basically, the team wasn't available at all to fans without tickets, and Karmanos said in 2006 the Greensboro was probably a mistake. (Probably?!) While the Hurricanes curtained the upper deck for the 1999 season, cutting capacity to 12,000 for hockey, attendance continued to lag, and most games were lucky to get 10,000.

Although the team had serious problems off the ice, the Hurricanes were finally starting to get their act together on the ice. In 1999, Ron Francis came back, and Keith Primeau scored 30 goals, and the Hurricanes won the division. Sadly, the end of the playoffs was marked with tragedy with their defenseman, Steve Chiasson, was killed in a drunk driving accident. The Hurricanes missed the playoffs in 2000, but got the eighth seed in 2001. They lost the first round in six to the defending New Jersey Devils, but even so, 2001 is often seen as the official arrival of the NHL in North Carolina. They had been down 3-0 at one point in the series, but forced a sixth game.

In 2002, the Carolina Hurricanes broke out. They went on a dream run in the playoffs, beating the division champion Devils in the first round. In the second round, they played against the Montreal Canadiens. In game four of that series, down 2-1 in the series and 3-0 in the game by the third period, Carolina came back and won in overtime in what is known among fans as the Miracle at Molson. Carolina won the next two games by a combined score of 13-3 over the dejected Habs to take the series. They went on to win the Eastern Conference, and won the first game of the Stanley Cup Finals. Unfortunately, they were playing against the favorites of the year, the Detroit Red Wings, who won the next four games and the Cup. Game three featured a triple overtime thriller, though, and while Detroit prevailed in the end, Carolina Hurricanes hockey was now established. They squandered many of the new fans through falling back into the cellar over the next couple of seasons, but in 2003 they drafted Eric Staal. Then they replaced their coach with Peter Laviolette. In the 2006 season, the Hurricanes surprised absolutely everyone. They shattered all the team records in their history, went 52-22-8, and posted an incredible 112 points, good for fourth overall in the NHL. In the first round of the playoffs, the Hurricanes lost the first two games to Montreal before their goalie, Martin Gerber, was replaced by Cam Ward. Ward became their hero of the playoffs. Carolina won the next four games, then beat New Jersey in five. The Eastern Conference Finals also looked like a gimme - their opponents, the Buffalo Sabres, had only beaten them once all year, and that was in the regular season finale, when both teams were resting their starters after their playoff spots were long locked up. Buffalo also had its first two lines on defense wiped out through injuries going into the series. But this Sabres team had still won the same number of games Carolina did, and had 110 points in the standings. The Sabres and Hurricanes slugged it out in a seven-game war which required several overtimes. In the seventh game, Buffalo held a 2-1 lead in the third period before the Hurricanes finally stormed back and netted three goals. In the Finals, the Hurricanes met fellow WHA refugees the Edmonton Oilers. Tired from the armageddon they just survived in Buffalo, the Hurricanes let the Oilers take a 3-1 series lead, but they returned from that too, winning three straight, and their first Stanley Cup.

The following year, the Hurricanes actually missed the playoffs. They continue to keep missing the playoffs, but that may be more the fault of the league's fucked-up standings system. Since 2008, they've posted over 80 points every season, and in three seasons, they actually managed to get over 90 points. By most accounts, they've been excellent. So excellent, in fact, that the old days of the Hartford Whalers are gone and seem long forgotten.

Glen Wesley, Gordie Howe, Ron Francis, and Rod Brind'Amour had all had their numbers retired by the Hurricanes. Ulf Samuelsson, Bobby Hull, Geoff Sanderson, Chris Pronger, Jean-Sebastian Giguere, Paul Coffey, and Dave Keon have all donned the uniforms of either the Hartford Whalers or the Carolina Hurricanes. Ron Francis is clearly the big face in team history.

There's apparently a heated debate about who the Hurricanes' biggest rival is at the moment. This team really hasn't had very much time to develop ongoing rivalries yet, but the Buffalo Sabres seem to be a consensus candidate. After all, a popular activity in Buffalo is moving to North Carolina, so there are a lot of transplants there, and they do tend to be loyal to the Sabres. I heard a rumor that during Sabres games, the Hurricanes office actually checks the area code whenever someone calls about a ticket to make sure it isn't from The 716 because they want the Hurricanes to have some kind of advantage on the ice. Then there was the 2006 Eastern Conference Finals, a series many Hurricanes fans concede would have went to the Sabres had it not been for injuries. The Devils also seem to be a popular candidate, as do the Boston Bruins, a holdover from the old days in Connecticut. In the division, there's the Washington Capitals.

The Hartford Whalers had one of the coolest color combinations and logos in the history of the league. Unfortunately, the Hurricanes logo is a lot more generic and boring, so the Whalers logo is still pretty popular. The Miracle on Molson is a defining moment in the existence of the Hurricanes. The 2006 Eastern Conference Finals are another one. The Hurricanes became one of the great models of the new rules NHL after the season-long lockout back in 2005, and they seem to have stuck with it. These days, the team's overall fortunes seem to have taken a sharp turn. They're winning a lot more now, even though the NHL's fucked-up playoff structure isn't granting them the shot at the Stanley Cup they usually deserve.

Raleigh seems to be one place where the NHL southern expansion is working. There seems to be a solid fanbase down there these days. Hurricanes fans are known as 'Caniacs. The interest in hockey in Raleigh has apparently developed to a point where there are six ice rinks in the city now, as opposed to precisely none when the Hurricanes were moved.

We'll see if the Carolina Hurricanes can last. Things are looking good. The team isn't mentioned a whole lot on the list of teams to potentially be moved. Unfortunately, they just have that putrid past as the Hartford Whalers to deal with. This rating would be higher is the Hurricanes had just been a brand new team. But they're not, and so it goes.]]> Wed, 3 Apr 2013 16:47:24 +0000
<![CDATA[ A Dynasty of Drillers]]>
Even under a salary cap, the small markets can't do it. They can't attract the top free agents, because what do they have to offer? The cities themselves are dull, bigotry plays a big role sometimes, and some of the teams just don't have any stability. So it's difficult for a small market to top the league just one time, let alone multiple times. The NFL's Green Bay Packers are an exception to the rule - they've managed to play at a sustained level of excellence throughout the vast majority of their existence, and they have more NFL titles than any other team. In the NHL, the Edmonton Oilers were almost an exception. They've pretty much fallen into the status of the typical small market themselves, but in their heyday, man, they were a wrecking ball of a team no one wanted to face.

The Edmonton Oilers were founded in 1971, but didn't actually begin playing hockey until 1972. They were one of the twelve founding members of the World Hockey Association, a league founded in 1971 to challenge the NHL's stranglehold on the hockey market. It came about in large part because the NHL kept passing over Canadian markets and other traditional hockey markets in its expansions. Edmonton was a small market in Canada craving a hockey team, and the NHL kept on rebuffing it. So when the WHA came calling, Edmonton was all ears. The original team owner was a man named Bill Hunter, who chose the name "Oilers" in part because Alberta is a known oil-drillin' province and they had a minor league team once called the Edmonton Oil Kings. Before the league played its first season, though, the Oilers changed their original plans around a little bit. Another city in Alberta, Calgary, was also given a team which was called the Broncos, but they were folded before anything at all happened. So the Oilers were quickly given a name change to the Alberta Oilers with the plan to split home games between Edmonton and Calgary. The home game split plan never got off the ground. Costs, you know, Canadian provinces tend to be quite large and Edmonton is a bit of a ways away from Calgary. Also, if the WHA ever decided to return to Calgary, keeping the Oilers as the Edmonton Oilers would mean a lot less legal wrangling.

The Oilers were pretty popular. They drew fans because they were, you know, playing hockey in Canada, and because they had players like Al Hamilton, Dave Dryden, Blair MacDonald, and Bill Flett. But it was in 1976 that they made their big-move player acquisition, who was a forward named Glen Sather. No one knew it was such a big move back then, though, because Sather was an unremarkable journeyman who first year as an Oiler was also his last year as an actual player. But the Oilers needed a coach late in the season, so they named Sather as a player-coach, beginning a 23-year relationship between Sather and the Oilers which saw him coach full time and general manage as well. In 1978, the Oilers got a new owner named Peter Pocklington. But there was a bigger move the Oilers made in 1978 as well. Around that time, there was a little kid from Brantford, Ontario, running around destroying all the junior leagues. This kid wasn't a prototypical athlete. He wasn't a physically imposing monster, and his strength and speed were second to, well, a lot of people in the league. Had he been born and bred in the United States, every scout on Earth would have ignored him. There was, however, one thing this kid did have going for him, and it was a big one: He had a supernatural knack for always being where the puck was going to be, and then scooping it into the net, or at the very least finding the next guy who was in the best position to scoop it into the net. He was good at it.

I mean, he was really, Really, REALLY good at it.

He was so good that the Indianapolis Racers signed him to a contract worth between $1.1 million and $1.7 million for four to seven years. Unfortunately, the owner of the Racers had a habit of flipping sports teams for money, and he badly mismanaged an otherwise promising market in Indianapolis. It forced him to liquidate the kid after eight games, and fold 17 games after that. Pocklington also took goalie Eddie Mio and Peter Driscoll, but it was this special kid, one Wayne Gretzky, who took the Edmonton Oilers to first place in the standings and the WHA Finals in the final season of the WHA in 1979. They lost to the Winnipeg Jets, but when the merger was hammered out, both the Jets and the Oilers were allowed entry into the NHL, along with the Hartford Whalers and Quebec Nordiques.

Since the NHL wanted the n00bs at the back of the line, they held a reclamation draft to get their old talent back. Each new team was only allowed to protect two goalies and two skill guys. Gretzky wasn't supposed to be protected no matter what under the rules of the time, and who wouldn't want him? Pocklington used the force of the 21-year contract he had signed Gretzky to in order to get the league to admit Edmonton at all, promising he would fill the arenas, and since he was under a personal service contract, the only way he was getting into the NHL was as an Oiler. As all the expansion teams did, the Oilers played terrible hockey, but people filled arenas to see Gretzky, who was shattering records everywhere he went. And since this is the NHL and NHL teams make the playoffs because the league brass keeps misplacing commas, the Oilers made it into the playoffs their first two years despite not really being any good. However, this was getting their kids playoff experience, which is important because the one thing that can be said for the NHL's method of playoffs is that they're a gauntlet. It's like March Madness: There are wonderful Cinderella stories and upsets, but by the end, the truly bad teams are usually weeded out so you can trust the Finals are between two teams who are worthy of the Stanley Cup. In the 1981 season, the Oilers upset the Montreal Canadiens in the playoffs, and no matter what, they had awesome draft positions. It only took three years for Glen Sather to gather a core of talent comparable to Gretzky: Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, Kevin Lowe, Grant Fuhr, and Andy Moog.

In 1982, Gretzky broke the record for fastest 50 goals in a season when he scored 50 goals in just 39 games, breaking the 50 goals in 50 games set by Maurice Richard. He completed the season with an incredible 92 goals, crushing Phil Esposito's previous record of 76. Grant Fuhr set a record of his own by going undefeated in 23 straight games. The Oilers became the first team to score 400 goals in one season. By 1983 the Oilers were in the Finals, where they fell to the New York Islanders in four games. After the last game of the Finals, the Oilers players were walking by the Isles' locker room, and upon peering inside, they were surprised to see the Islanders in a rather subdued state, more concerned about licking their wounds than celebrating their fourth straight Stanley Cup. Many of the Oilers of those days say that's when they knew their time was beginning. In the 1984 season, the Oilers stormed through the league, putting a record 446 goals into the net, and finishing with the best record in the NHL. Upon quickly disposing of the Jets in the first round of the playoffs, the Oilers then faced the Calgary Flames, the only team to be a real challenge to the Oilers during the 80's. Edmonton prevailed in seven, then returned to easy street to beat up the hapless Minnesota North Stars to return to the Finals and set up a grudge match against the Isles. The Oilers and Islanders split the first two games, but the rest of the series was a cakewalk for Edmonton as they polished off New York in three straight, winning their first Stanley Cup.

The Oilers were now so good that they could afford to let go of the throttle a little. Since eight of their players were selected to compete for Canada at the 1984 Canada Cup, that's just what they did. They didn't play as hard in the regular season because they wanted to stay fresh. Glen Sather even took a vacation in Hawaii in the middle of the season! So, how good were the Oilers that they STILL managed to finish the year second in the standings to the Philadelphia Flyers? And storming through the playoffs in a streak which saw them win their first nine games in the postseason? And, even in the conference finals series in which they lost two games, still score a record 44 goals in the whole thing? And then, to top it all off, return to the Finals and win again, beating the Flyers in five? Who, lest you need reminding, were the one team in the NHL that year better than Edmonton?

The dynasty was broken for a moment the next year. In the 1986 playoffs, the Flames rose to the moment in a classic series against the Oilers which was bitter and dirty. It wasn't decided until the seventh game, and the Flames were helped by a stroke of great luck. The Oilers had a rookie named Steve Smith on the team. Smith made an epic blunder when he tried to make a breakout pass which ended up banking off the skate of Grant Fuhr - who, if you remember, was Edmonton's goalie - and falling into the Oilers' own net. One could argue the series might have gone Edmonton's way if they hadn't been distracted with image issues: Dave Hunter picked up a charge of impaired driving, serving a week in jail in the middle of the season. Mark Messier was also having car trouble - he lost control of it at one point and smashed into three parked cars. Sports Illustrated also alleged the team was full of rampant druggies and alkies. So in 1987, the Oilers decided to respond by coming together and extending a big fuck you finger to everyone who attacked them. They dominated the regular season, captured their second Presidents' Trophy in a row, and won the Stanley Cup again, beating the Flyers in the Finals again. They repeated yet again as champions in 1988, sweeping the Boston Bruins in the Finals with Gretzky putting 13 points on the board in that series alone.

There comes a point in every sports dynasty in which the team starts getting a little egotistical and individualistic. Sports dynasties frequently tend to start with an unselfish attitude, sometimes born of a giant chip on their collective shoulders. In 1983, when the Oilers first made the Finals and lost to the New York Islanders, that happened. But by the end of the 1988 season, the Oilers had appeared in the Finals five times and were now four-time Stanley Cup Champions. Hell, even before the 1988 season started, a lot of players were holding out for more money. The Oilers were a small market team in Canada at a time when the value of the Canadian dollar was going down and the league didn't have a salary cap. The team couldn't afford to play ball, and started running into financial trouble. So rumors started going around that Wayne Gretzky, the very centerpiece of the Oilers, was going to be traded because the team needed to unload. Gretzky would be a free agent soon, and long story short, the Oilers knew he was going one way or the other and didn't want to risk losing him and getting nothing back. On August 9, 1988, Gretzky - now universally known across the sports landscape as The Great One, a nickname which hardly does him justice - was traded to the Los Angeles Kings. He would continue to dominate the NHL for the next decade, getting the Kings to the Finals for the first time, and playing brief stints with the St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers, but he would never again hoist The Holy Grail or reach the same heights he had with Edmonton.

The Oilers were naturally weakened and shocked. The 1989 season saw the Calgary Flames, the only team good enough to regularly give the Oilers fits, win the Stanley Cup themselves. The Flames were the team that broke through during the only two years in the late 80's the Oilers didn't reach the Finals. However, the Oilers were still a powerful team, as they proved in 1990 when they returned to the Finals, taking home the Stanley Cup upon beating the Presidents' Trophy-winning Bruins. In the 1991 playoffs, the Oilers prevailed in another one of their thunderdome deathmatches against the Flames, a series which many fans consider the greatest hockey playoff series ever played. They moved on, but lost the conference finals to the Minnesota North Stars. The dynasty in Edmonton was now effectively closed, but it wasn't quite over just yet. Naturally, there was a mass exodus from the Oilers because they couldn't match the demands of a lot of their best players, and those players dispersed to the various teams who had money. Now, unlike previous dynasties which had been done in in large part because of age, a lot of the players from Edmonton left through free agency, for monetary reasons, while they still had plenty of good hockey left in them. Fate and chance are sometimes odd business partners, and in 1994, a funny thing happened. A significant number of players who had been key cogs with the great dynasty in Edmonton found themselves reunited, except now they were wearing the uniforms of the New York Rangers. Knowing each others' moves and styles in full, and led by Messier, the old Edmonton players proved they had one final Stanley Cup in them and, for a fanbase going through a 54-year Stanley Cup drought during which their total number of Stanley Cups was surpassed by an upstart team formed in 1972, they gave the Edmonton dynasty of the 80's a final, fantastic hurrah by winning the Stanley Cup for the Rangers that year. Among puckheads, the Rangers' 1994 Cup is frequently referred to as the Oilers' sixth Cup. And that wasn't the last thing the Rangers had to do with the dynasty's remnants: In 1996, they signed Wayne Gretzky, who stayed a Ranger until his retirement in 1999. In addition, Paul Coffey went to the Pittsburgh Penguins and won the Stanley Cup with them in 1991, and helped the Flyers and Detroit Red Wings in later Finals runs.

In the immediate aftermath of Gretzky's trade to Los Angeles, the Kings and Oilers played against each other in the playoffs four times. The Oilers won three of those meetings. They weren't what they used to be, though, and the fanbase was still pissed about the Gretzky trade. So that made it REALLY bad in 1991 when Edmonton decided to unload Mark Messier and trade him to the Rangers. Now fans were PISSED, stopped buying tickets, and talk about the team leaving started getting loud. As the Oilers started to get bad, a lot of dirt on the team started surfacing. Not dirt like the misbehavior in the 80's; player misbehavior is easily dealt with. No, this time it was things like the owner's business empire sinking under corruption, and deficiencies in the team's development system. See, the thing with dynasties is that they tend to draft late every year, and their consistent players and records mask bad drafts. With the key players of the dynasty now gone, the Oilers were now forced to play a series of draft picks who weren't able to fill the shoes of the legends they replaced. Well, Doug Weight and Jason Arnott did alright, but being surrounded with kids who were called up before they were ready resulted in the Oilers actually falling out of contention. Starting in 1993, they missed the playoffs every year until 1997.

In 1997, the Oilers were back in the playoffs, where they upset the Dallas Stars in the first round. In 1998, they pulled the same trick against the Colorado Avalanche, and that was after spotting them a 3-1 series lead. The Oilers started making the playoffs consistently, and in 2003, they hosted the first Heritage Classic, the forerunner to what is now the Winter Classic. They still struggled to compete as a small market, though, but that began to change after the 2005 lockout. By then, the Oilers were already competitive, but now with even the big markets being forced to face a budget, Edmonton finally had a real chance again. And in the 2006 season, they took it almost to the very, very end. They hit the free agent market and grabbed Michael Peca, but were wracked with inconsistency in goal and on offense. During the season, though, they traded for Dwayne Roloson to shore up the net, and forward Sergei Samsonov, among others. The trades paid off, Edmonton squeaked into the last playoff spot, and upset the Detroit Red Wings in the first round, who had won the Presidents' Trophy. The second round saw the San Jose Sharks performing one of their always-popular tank jobs against Edmonton, and won the Conference Championship against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. This put them back in the Finals for the first time since the dynasty, against the Carolina Hurricanes. This was the first time two former WHA teams were ever meeting in the Finals - the Hurricanes were the relocated Hartford Whalers. The Hurricanes were the definite favorite; they had posted a 112-point season, for fourth overall in the NHL and second in the Eastern Conference, one point behind the Ottawa Senators. On the other hand, the Oilers had cruised to a five-game victory in the conference finals. The 'Canes were seriously beaten, battered, and bruised after a seven-game war against the Buffalo Sabres, the last of which had required a furious third period comeback. For the first four games, it looked like Edmonton was going to win that sixth Cup which would give them validation outside the dynasty, as they were spotted a 3-1 series lead. After that, though, the Hurricanes morphed back into the team they had been through the rest of the season and took the next three, winning the Stanley Cup.

The Edmonton Oilers have been pretty spotty since then. They were great in the 2008 season and very good in 2009, but 2010 and 2011 brought them below 30 wins, and 2012 put them at 32 wins. They haven't been to the playoffs in any of them. Methinks a return to any kind of Stanley Cup glory will be awhile coming, and we certainly won't see anything like the dynasty again, ever.

The seven numbers retired by the Oilers are those of Al Hamilton, Paul Coffey, Glenn Anderson, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Grant Fuhr…. And Wayne Gretzky. Wayne Gretzky. The Great One. If people who don't know anything at all about hockey know the name of one single hockey player, that player is almost definitely Wayne Gretzky. Gretzky made his greatest impact on the league as an Oiler, and the Oilers did more for and with him than any of his other teams. After being traded to the Los Angeles Kings, Gretzky made the Finals once more, but lost to the Montreal Canadiens. He was given the Hart Trophy nine times, including eight years in a row. Those eight years in a row were all with Edmonton. As an individual, Gretzky holds pretty much every record in NHL history that means anything, as well as a million of the ones that don't. When he retired, he held the record for overall points at 2857. To get a sense of just how incredible that total is, consider the runner-up is his old teammate Mark Messier, who has 1887. In other words, you could axe all 894 goals Gretzky scored from his point total, and he would still be the all-time NHL leader. When hockey fans argue over the greatest player in hockey history, we have no illusions about what we're REALLY fighting about. The player we're campaigning for is only second best. It's such a given that Gretzky is the best ever that there's no sense whatsoever in even trying to argue it. Anyone who even tries to argue it isn't a hockey fan, and that's that. (Or they're from Boston - Bruins fans are always ready to lobby for their legendary defenseman, Bobby Orr. To be fair to them, Orr might have been the most physically gifted player in NHL history, or the most well-rounded. But still, given a choice, everyone would still take The Great One.)

Let me expound on this a bit more. Not only is Gretzky the league's greatest player ever, he was a Canadian icon. When he was traded to the Kings, the owner of the Oilers was actually burned in effigy. The federal New Democratic Party in Canada thought this was important enough to actually ask the Canadian government to act and block the trade. Obviously the Canadian government didn't do anything (as well they shouldn't have). This trade had a giant impact on the league because once the people of Los Angeles started buying Kings tickets to see what all the hype over this Gretzky character was about, the NHL TOOK IT AS LICENSE TO BEGIN EXPANDING INTO THE AMERICAN SOUTH.

As documented, the Oilers have a mighty rivalry with the Calgary Flames. The two teams are each others' avatars in a number of ways - both small markets in Alberta. They both rose to power at the same time, fell from it at the same time, and returned to it at the same time. They met in the playoffs a lot, and during the dynasty years in Edmonton, the Flames were the only team in the league capable of repeatedly dueling head to head with the Oilers. The Oilers' 2006 run to the Finals came right after Calgary's 2004 run.

There's a reason I've been writing so much about the dynasty: It's because it looms such an incredible shadow over the history of both the team and the NHL. We're loose about the word "dynasty" these days, because the idea seems to have been almost completely wiped out. From 1997 to 2008, the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup four times, and are easily the most consistent team in the NHL through that time span. But the Oilers dynasty is the last real, full out, official dynasty officially recognized by the NHL (which actually hands down a special status reserved for dominant teams). From 1983 to 1990, the Edmonton Oilers visited the Finals six times, winning five. It had some of the greatest hockey players ever, playing like a goddamned machine. I try to never say never, but the chances of such an incredible collection of talent coming together at one time, in one place, ever again are so staggeringly against odds that if I ever bet one dollar on the Vegas line in favor of it, and it happens, I'll be part of the One Percent instantly.

If we were further into history before I wrote this, I might be giving the Oilers a negative grade. But the reverberations and shadows left by their mighty dynasty are still showing. They left a real crater on the NHL, and they set such an example that other teams, and the league itself, are still trying to measure up to what the Edmonton Oilers were able to do in the 80's. It's no wonder the Oilers have inspired such a hardcore following across both the United States and Canada, and no wonder players today are still inspired by the old stories of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, and the rest of those greats.]]> Thu, 28 Mar 2013 17:44:28 +0000
<![CDATA[ Hot as Fire, Cool as Ice]]>
The Calgary Flames were a result of the NHL's quick attempt to strike at the World Hockey Association before it could get off the ground. In fact, the Flames were a secondhand attempt to strike. The primary strike was taking place in New York City. Well, not New York City itself, but the Nassau County in the New York City metropolitan area. Since the WHA was declaring itself a major league, it HAD to have a team in the New York City area, and the team they were planning to place there, the Raiders, had accepted relegation to the new arena built in Nassau County. Unfortunately, Nassau County decided it was too good (read: Had that air of New York City arrogance and privilege) to host a WHA team. Nassau just didn't accept the WHA as a major league, or the Raiders as a major league team. So the county wanted to keep the WHA out of its spanking new arena. Unfortunately, it had little legal recourse to do that with, so it resorted to begging for an expansion NHL team, which the NHL gave them since it didn't have much choice. The team the NHL created was the New York Islanders.

That left the NHL with a problem. The creation of the Islanders brought the number of teams up to 15, and the league knew it would probably need a 16th team in order to even out the schedule. In haste, the other location chosen by the NHL was Atlanta, where Tom Cousins, the owner of the NBA's Atlanta Hawks, basically had the team thrown at him as if it were a hot potato. In homage to the burning of Atlanta during the Civil War, Cousins decided to name his team the Atlanta Flames. Also, it helped that Atlanta is often called Hotlanta because it's, you know, actually pretty hot down there sometimes. In their first drafts, general manager Cliff Fletcher decided to focus on shoring up the net: His first two selections, Phil Myre and Dan Bouchard, were both goalies. Despite this odd GM move, the roster was decent enough, and the Flames were also decent enough through a good chunk of their first season. They were 20-19-8 by mid-January, but after that, every other team in the league appeared to pick up on the fact that the Flames were still an expansion team. The Flames only won five more games from then on out.

Grabbing Tom Lysiak for their second year, the Flames made their first playoff appearance. They were quickly swept by the Philadelphia Flyers, who went on to win the Stanley Cup. The following year, the Flames got Eric Vail, who scored 39 goals, but they missed the playoffs again. Three seasons, missed the playoffs in two of them in a league where playoff standing is determined by games of punch buggy, and you know what that means: Time to lop the coach! Coach Bernie Geoffrion was replaced by Fred Creighton, who coached Atlanta's minor league team. Creighton got RESULTS! That is, he produced a team which was good enough to win two or three more games than they lost every year, qualifying for the playoffs each time, only to be first round practice for a team much better than the Flames. Also, those first two goalies that were the first two draft picks in team history were now fighting with each other for playing time. Trades were made, stars were sent packing, but it did pay off on the ice. With Guy Chouinard and Bob MacMillan, the Atlanta Flames of 1979 posted their best record: 41-31-8. They were knocked from the first round again, though, by the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Aside from playing stagnation, the Flames were also missing another important component of hockey teams: FANS! Concerns about low attendance figures had starting crawling up by the 1976. Politicians seemed to like the team - or perhaps the votes from the all-important puckhead demographic, anyway - and players seemed to love playing in Atlanta, which would explain why they were always buying tickets themselves in an effort to stabilize the Flames. In 1980 the team signed goalie Jim Craig, whom hockey fans may know as the goalie who stood between the pipes during the Miracle on Ice Olympic victory that year. It was strictly an asses-in-seats move, and it didn't work. It was as if the people of Atlanta, well, just didn't care about hockey. The team lost money, Cousins sold it, and even though the NHL was pretty much invisible in 1980, Dallas and Houston somehow emerged as good relocation candidates. And the Flames ultimately DID end up relocating to the wild west in 1980. It's just that with the Hollywood version of wild west mythology, we tend to forget there was also a west in Canada that was just as wild as the west here. And so it went that the Flames ended up in Canada's wild west: The city of Calgary, Alberta, to make them the Calgary Flames. Don't cry for Atlanta, though - they got a brand new team, the Atlanta Thrashers, in 1999…. Which lasted for twelve years before relocating to Canada's wild west to be the Winnipeg Jets.

The Flames were welcomed immediately in Calgary, and they responded by going 39-27-14, and beating the Chicago Black Hawks and Philadelphia Flyers in the playoffs before losing in the conference finals to the Minnesota North Stars. Unfortunately, they were also faced with a tougher hockey environment. The teams in Canada could PLAY, and the fans were turning up in large numbers to watch hockey, not stagnation. And the Flames were sharing their division with the Edmonton Oilers, who weren't quite in their juggernaut phase just yet, but were showing definite signs of what they would be throughout the rest of the 80's. That being the case, the Flames started to fizzle out the following season, forcing them to axe a lot of the holdovers from Atlanta who couldn't respond to a hockey environment which sells out every night. The roster was rebuilt almost from scratch, and the team started looking at some unconventional places in order to find talent: US colleges, Europe, the Soviet Union…. It worked, and over the next few seasons, the Flames developed a core of players good enough to match the Oilers: Lanny McDonald, Doug Risebrough, Al MacInnis, and Mike Vernon. In 1986, the Flames went to the playoffs, swept the Winnipeg Jets (the old version, of course), and got locked into an old west-style showdown with Edmonton. Edmonton was the clear favorite here - Calgary finished the year with 89 points, Edmonton with a whopping 119 and a heavy Vegas line which saw them bring home their third Cup in a row. Calgary was able to upset the Oilers in seven, with the series-winning goal coming when Oilers rookie Steve Smith, in a freak accident, shot the puck off the leg of his own goaltender, ricocheting it into the Oiler net. After taking the series, the Flames then dueled the St. Louis Blues to the death in a seven-game Campbell Conference Final. This was the Monday Night Miracle series, where the Blues were down 5-2 in game six with ten minutes to go in the third. They overcame the three-goal deficit, sent the game into overtime, and won. But Calgary won the seventh game, so they got to visit the Finals and get killed by the Montreal Canadiens.

The next season began with a major tragedy when Calgary's first round draft pick, George Pelawa, was killed in a car crash before the season even started. They also made a bad personnel decision when they let St. Louis fleece them for an extraordinarily talented but unrefined player named Brett Hull. New additions Joe Nieuwendyk and Doug Gilmour shored up a run of power, though, and through the second half of the 80's Calgary was the only team really capable of challenging the Oilers. They won the Presidents' Trophy two years in a row, but usually met disappointment in the playoffs. That finally changed in 1989, when the Flames won a furious seventh game in overtime against the Vancouver Canucks in the first round, swept the Los Angeles Kings, and pounded the Chicago Blackhawks in five games for a Stanley Cup Finals grudge match against Montreal. This time, Calgary prevailed in six games. It was a significant victory because the Cup was clinched at the Montreal Forum. In all the previous years the Habs, an Original Six team founded eight years before the birth of the NHL, had lost in the Finals, they had never seen their opponent hoist the Cup at the Forum itself. It was also significant because it was the beginning of the end of the Edmonton dynamo. Since the 1983 Stanley Cup Finals, where the New York Islanders beat the Oilers, the only two Campbell Conference teams to visit the Finals at all in the 80's were Calgary and Edmonton. While the Oilers proved to have one final Cup in them - AS Oilers, anyway - their dynastic years were clearly nearing the end, and the team was forced to trade its centerpiece, Wayne Gretzky, before the season just to stay afloat.

In 1990, the Flames almost won their third straight Presidents' Trophy. They missed it by two points. They also won their third straight Smythe Division title only to lose to the Kings in the first round. And thus began the first round drought. General manager Cliff Fletcher, who had been GM since the start of the Atlanta Flames, left in 1991. His successor, Doug Risebrough, immediately got to work killing the team. Okay, well, he didn't intend to. His first deal was a blockbuster which looked like a fantastic idea at first. Doug Gilmour was pissed off and wanted a change of scenery, so a blockbuster deal sent him to the Leafs for 50-goal man Gary Leeman. It didn't work out. While Gilmour and the four other players sent to Toronto made the Leafs into a contender overnight, Leeman only scored eleven goals in Calgary. Theoren Fleury became a star, and in 1996 a trade with the Dallas Stars yielded Jarome Iginla, but that didn't keep Calgary from missing the playoffs for the first time since 1975. They rebounded in the mid-90's to return to the playoffs the next four years and won two division titles in the meantime, but kept losing in the first round. By 1997, they were out of the playoffs completely.

Also, the NHL started expanding again, and the value of the Canadian dollar was sinking. That made it hard for teams to compete in Canada's small markets, and Calgary is considered one of Canada's small markets. How bad were Calgary's finances? Well, in 1999 Theoren Fleury was traded to the Colorado Avalanche shortly after becoming Calgary's all-time leading scorer. How bad were Calgary's finances, again now? In 1999, the owners got outright asshole-ish, but they did so in a way which at least makes you respect their honesty: They came right out and gave the fans an ultimatum, saying "Buy our season ticket packages or we're fucking moving." The fans decided the team wasn't fucking around and bought tickets. Same thing happened the next year too, with the same result. As for the performance of the Flames, it's not actually as if they weren't trying. They still had Iginla, after all, and after the 2003 season, newly-hired head coach Darryl Sutter was also given the GM spot. One of his first moves was to make a trade for goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, who emerged as the best goalie in the league.

In 2004, the Flames had everything they needed. They returned to the playoffs for the first time in seven years, although they looked like easy first round pickings for the Northwest Division Champion Vancouver Canucks. The Flames beat the Canucks in seven games, which meant they could now move on in the playoffs for the first time since 1989. Then they faced the Detroit Red Wings in the second round. The Red Wings had won not only their division, but the regular season title, but the Flames beat them too. After that, they faced the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference Finals. The Sharks had won their division too, but with a history of playoff chokes, the Sharks choked again and the Flames became the first team to beat three division champions in the playoffs. They were also the first Canadian team in the Stanley Cup Finals since the 1994 Canucks. In the Finals, they faced the Tampa Bay Lightning, who were the best team in the Eastern Conference. The Flames damn near made it FOUR division champions en route to a Cup. The Finals ran a hard seven, with four single-goal decisions, two overtime games totaling three overtime periods, and a controversial no-goal in game six. When it settled, though, the Flames just ran out of gas and didn't have the depth to match the Bolts.

After the lockout of 2005 and the installation of a salary cap, the Flames were competing again and putting up solid standings. In 2006, they finished with 103 points, their best since 1989. They bowed out of the first round to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (as they were named than), though. The next year, they put up a solid 96 points, but the Western Conference was a gauntlet that year - the Flames got the final playoff spot, and the other seven teams had all broken 100 points. The next year, they hired coach Mike Keenan, Iginla became the Flames' leader in games played and goals scored, and the Flames posted 94 points on the road to another first round loss. They've been struggling ever since.

Lanny McDonald and Mike Vernon are the only Flames to have their numbers retired. Some of their great players also include Theoren Fleury, Doug Gilmour, Joe Nieuwendyk, Al MacInnis, and current face Jarome Iginla. This was a team that was stacked back in the 80's. They needed to have great players in order to have a real shot at Edmonton, and in that respect they succeeded and excelled. Like I said above, the Flames were the team which broke up a Finals run by Edmonton that could easily have gone eight years in a row and ended with a 7-1 record had Calgary not been there.

There's a natural territorial rivalry between the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers. Both are small markets in the province of Alberta. The rivalry between them is frequently known as the Battle of Alberta. Their Finals appearances and Stanley Cups frequently came at each others' expenses. And to add to it, after the Flames made a run to the Finals in 2004, the Oilers responded the following season with their own fight to the Finals. Both lost to southern teams in non-traditional hockey markets: The Flames to the Lightning, and the Oilers to the Carolina Hurricanes, both in seven-game Finals series. If the Battle of Alberta is a war of similarities, the rivalry between the Flames and the Vancouver Canucks is based on polar differences. Vancouver has had some outstanding years and is soaring at the moment, but the Canucks are generally on the lower end of the NHL standings historically. They've been to the Finals three times but never won the Stanley Cup, and the cities of Calgary and Vancouver are pretty much exact opposites in geographical, political, and economic differences.

One of the most famous moments in Calgary Flames history is from the 1989 playoffs, in the seventh game of the first round against Vancouver. Vancouver's Stan Smyl had a breakaway in the overtime period, which Mike Vernon stopped with his glove. The Monday Night Miracle is another defining moment in Calgary's history, and of course the Stanley Cup runs of 1986 and 2004 are there with Calgary hoisting The Holy Grail in 1989. In the 2004 playoffs, fans in Calgary celebrated the Flames on what people began calling the Red Mile, where thousands of fans gathered on a stretch of several blocks. Even though there were so many people, there weren't any bad incidents. (On the other hand, Vancouver fans rioted.) Since this is hockey, lots of people wear team colors, but that took a special prominence during the 1986 playoffs. At the time, Oilers fans were wearing hats that said "Hat Trick Fever" while the Oilers battled for their third straight Cup. The Flames responded by encouraging their fans to wear red, creating the Sea of Red, which is what games at the Saddledome have basically been called ever since. And in a cool little tribute to their heritage, the Alternate Captain for the Flames wears a letter A which is a small version of the sweater logo the Flames wore in Atlanta.

The Calgary Flames have a long and proud history with rabid and knowledgeable fans. I think they'll be waiting awhile for that next Stanley Cup, though, unless they can rely on a Cinderella run like last season's Los Angeles Kings going all the way.]]> Wed, 27 Mar 2013 16:42:16 +0000
<![CDATA[ Lost on an Island]]>
As for hockey, the World Hockey Association was created in 1972. Like all wannabe major sports leagues, they knew they had to exist in New York City if they were going to exist at all, so they had plans to create a team called the New York Raiders and have them play in the newly-built Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Nassau County. There was just a slight little problem: Nassau officials didn't consider the WHA a major league and were quick to write off the Raiders. Unfortunately, they only had one legal recourse to use in keeping the WHA out of the Coliseum, and that was to get the NHL there, pronto! Nassau County even found the perfect man for the job: William Shea, who had been responsible for the creation of the Mets. While the senior New York Rangers of course had reservations about ceding their area, NHL President Clarence Campbell was willing to listen to Shea, and while the NHL had just expanded to 14 teams two years before, Campbell was willing to hastily expand to Long Island to keep the WHA out. And so came a new team, or actually two new teams to keep the schedule balanced: The New York Islanders and the Atlanta Flames.

The name New York Islanders was actually a surprise. The new team was expected to be called the Long Island Ducks, after the minor league team that once played there. They were also made to pay a territorial fee to the Rangers. The Isles wasted no time doing what they were brought into the NHL to do: Wipe out the Raiders, who were then forced to play under shitty lease terms in Madison Square Garden which sent them packing in the middle of their second season. So, now with no Raiders there to keep the city away from, what now? Well, there's apparently this little sport called hockey which the Isles were called into existence to play…. So what happened was the Isles picked up a few veteran players and junior leaguers in the Expansion Draft and Amateur Draft respectively, but while the boroughs were safe from the Raiders, the NHL still wasn't safe from the WHA, and a lot of the Islanders' draft picks ended up jumping there. With hockey to be played no matter the misfortune, the Islanders played hockey. And suffered misfortune. The highlight of their inaugural season was a 9-7 win over the Boston Bruins, who had won the Stanley Cup in the 1972 season. It was one of a putrid twelve wins in a season which saw the Isles land a 12-60-6 record for an equally putrid 30 points in the standings, easily the worst in the league that year and one of the worst in NHL history. It did secure first pick in the 1973 amateur draft, though, and allowed the Isles to nab Denis Potvin, who had been called The Next Bobby Orr when he had been all of 13 years old! Potvin won the Calder, but the Isles still finished last. There were bright spots, though; they allowed 100 fewer goals than they had the previous year; and improved to 56 standings points. It turned out to be their last losing season for 15 years.

In the 1975 season, the Isles' third, the team was ready for the playoffs. They earned a good 88 points in the standings with the help of Potvin, Clark Gillies, Ed Westfall, and others. And you know who their first playoff opponents were? None other than the New York Rangers! Given the chance to steal the spotlight from their senior crosstown rivals, the Islanders did just that and sent the Rangers home. In the next round, they met the Pittsburgh Penguins and fell into one of those 3-0 series holes which usually means any following games are formalities in a series which is already over. But the reason the games are played at all is because you never know if you don't find out. The Pens choked and became only the second team to ever lose a playoff series in which they had been up 3-0, a feat since duplicated by only two other teams, total, in all of sports. The Isles advanced to the conference finals against the Philadelphia Flyers and found themselves in that situation again, down 3-0. And, shockingly, they dug themselves right back out of that hole, too! The comeback effort was ultimately cut off, though; in the seventh game, the Flyers managed to regain their composure and finish off the Isles, and eventually win the Stanley Cup that year.

The next season, the Isles drafted Bryan Trottier, who quickly found superstar form. In 1977, they unearthed Mike Bossy. During the next few years, the Islanders went to the playoffs repeatedly, always getting knocked out by the Montreal Canadiens, who would move on to win the Stanley Cup each year. In a telling show of how good the Isles were getting, though, the Habs went 24-3-0 in the playoffs in 1976 and 1977. All three losses came against the Islanders. In 1979, the Isles were the best team in the league, clinching their league-leading record in a game against the Rangers. The Rangers, however, took revenge in the first round of the playoffs, knocking out the Isles. As the Isles' bus left Madison Square Garden after the loss, Rangers fans stood outside, throwing all the shit they could at the Isles, and sportswriters started asking the question: "CAN the New York Islanders win it all?" Classy move, you know, for a team that had been in the league for all of seven year by then, no matter how good.

Well, in the 1980 season, those journalists had their answer: Yes! Damn right, the New York Islanders could win the Stanley Cup, even despite posting 91 points, which was the first time they posted less than 100 in years! I like to imagine the journalists going "humph!" in a quick breath because this is New York City sportswriting and sportswriters all seem to believe there's a script there, then going right back to doting on the Rangers. Well, the next year, the Isles proved the Stanley Cup from 1980 was no fluke. They won it again, sweeping the Rangers in the semifinals as Isles fans serenaded the Rangers with chants of "1940!," a reference to the year the Rangers had last won the Stanley Cup at the time. A third Stanley Cup victory in 1982 placed the Islanders on totally equal footing with the Rangers. The Rangers had won the Stanley Cup three times in an existence dating back to 1926 - in 1928, 1933, and 1940. And now the Islanders had won it three times in an existence dating just back to 1972. With the 1982 Cup, the Isles shouted at the hockey fans in New York City "You WILL fucking respect us!" And with a fourth Cup in 1983, the dynasty of the New York Islanders was complete. Their theft of New York City NHL elite was complete. It had taken only eleven years to win more Stanley Cups than the Rangers had won 57 years.

For good measure, the Islanders returned to the Finals in 1984. In the Finals, they faced their opponents from 1983, the Edmonton Oilers. After the Oilers lost the 1983 Finals, they happened to walk by the Isles' dressing room, where they were surprised to see a rather subdued celebration, with the NHL Champions nursing their injuries as if winning their fourth Stanley Cup was just business as usual. To this day, the players on the mighty Oilers dynasty that dominated the rest of the 80's say that sight is where it began, when they knew the Islanders were on the ropes. So upon being matched up with the Islanders again in 1984, the Oilers struck, winning the first of five Stanley Cups in seven years. The great dynasty of the New York Islanders was officially over.

The Islanders were plenty dangerous through the rest of the 80's, though. Unfortunately, they were handicapped because their talent was starting to walk off and their management started pocketing the money the team was making instead of doing what it had always done in the past, which was put it back into the team. In 1985, the Flyers beat the Islanders in the first round of the playoffs - it was the first time since 1978 the Isles had visited the playoffs and not gotten through the first round. The 1987 playoffs culminated with one of the most famous games in NHL history: The Easter Epic. It was the seventh game of the first playoff round, and the Isles were playing against a determined Washington Capitals team. When regulation ended with a 2-2 score, the game went into overtime, which ended scoreless. Then the two following overtimes also ended scoreless. Eight minutes into the fourth overtime period, after what was basically an exhausting double-header of hockey, the Isles reliable goalie Kelly Hrudey had stopped 73 shots. The young Islanders star Pat LaFontaine finally shoveled the puck into the net to end the game and punch New York's ticket to round two. Probably still feeling the effects of the Easter Epic, the Isles did manage to put up a seven-game fight against Philadelphia, but lost.

The good times were going to end at some point, and after 15 years of dominance, they ended for the Islanders in 1989. That year, they posted 61 points, tied with the Quebec Nordiques for the NHL's worst. After that season, goalie Billy Smith, the last player on the team who had played for the Islanders at their inception, retired. A short rebound in 1990 ended with a first round loss to the Rangers, after which the Isles bought out the rest of Bryan Trottier's contract, and he signed on to the Pittsburgh Penguins. He is the New York Islanders' all-time leader in games played. In 1991, the Islanders began a rebuilding project with a pair of blockbuster trades. The first sent the Isles' superstar, Pat LaFontaine, to the Buffalo Sabres as the centerpiece of a trade for Buffalo's Pierre Turgeon. He then sent longtime Captain Brent Sutter and Brad Lauer to the Chicago Blackhawks for Steve Thomas and Adam Creighton. These trades and an influx of players from the former Soviet Union added to an already talented core of players like Derek King and Ray Ferraro and Patrick Flatley, and in 1993 they were in the playoffs again. In the second round of the playoffs, the Isles faced the Penguins, who had won the Stanley Cup the previous two years and were clean-cut favorites to win it again. The Isles pulled off the upset in seven games, though, creating the Miracle of 1993. Their Cinderella run ended in the Wales Conference Finals against the Montreal Canadiens. In 1994, the Isles started to languish. They got back to the playoffs, barely, and were brushed aside like dust in a lopsided sweep by the Rangers. Ah, yes, the Rangers. The senior team which had been embarrassed by the Islanders for most of the last 20 years, who had to suffer the indignity of being a much older team with fewer Stanley Cups to claim, had packed itself up for the 1994 season with many of the key components of the Edmonton Oilers dynasty of the 80's. By the end of the 1994 season, those old Edmonton players proved they had one final Cup in them and, now taking the ice as the New York Rangers, won it all for the fans in the Big Apple. Rangers fans could finally walk with pride again.

The Islanders weren't being handled very well now, and so after barely upgrading over the last few years, they started a massive rebuilding project. Ray Ferraro, the team's leading scorer, was allowed to walk away in free agency, and you can guess what everyone thought of that move. As much so with Pierre Turgeon, who was traded to Montreal for Kirk Muller, a player who didn't want to be involved with a rebuilding team and who ultimately only played 45 games for the Islanders before he was sent to the Toronto Maple Leafs. The rebuilding project also involved a new jersey and logo, which went terribly wrong because the logo resembled the Gorton's Fisherman, a fact the Isles never forgot, largely because opposing fans - mainly the Rangers' fans - wouldn't let them for get it. The Islanders were mocked at games by chants of "fish sticks!" General manager Don Maloney was fired. His replacement, Mike Milbury, wasn't much better, and the Islanders began the first real extent playoff drought of their existence.

In 2000, a team sale brought an influx of cool, green CASH! Unfortunately, Milbury was still the GM, and his investments weren't very popular. He traded away two future stars, Roberto Luongo and Olli Jokinen, then took Rick DiPietro in the entry draft over Dany Heatley and Marian Gaborik. The team failed in immediate improvement, and was once again the worst team in the NHL. The coach, Isles legend Butch Goring, took the fall, and Milbury stayed the GM. (Hey! Back then they were operating THE EXACT SAME WAY the Buffalo Sabres are now!) Fans were pissed, even more so when Milbury passed on Ted Nolan as a head coach candidate in favor of Boston Bruins assistant Peter Laviolette. But before the 2002, he also managed to grab Alexei Yashin, Michael Peca, and Chris Osgood, and the Islanders had a turnaround season which saw them post 96 points. They lost to Toronto in the first round of the playoffs. After that, though, they were pretty much relegated to first round purgatory.

The Islanders since the 2005 lockout have been a passable team. They have a fantastic star in John Tavares who is going to light up the league, but have been hit or miss as a team. This isn't the dynasty years anymore, that's for damn sure.

Six players have had their numbers retired by the New York Islanders: Denis Potvin, Clark Gillies, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Bob Nystrom, and Billy Smith. Other great Islanders have been Pat LaFontaine, Brent Sutter, Todd Bertuzzi, Ron Hextall, and Butch Goring.

The rivals of the New York Islanders are naturally the upscale, sexy New York Rangers. The Rangers, in history and prestige, have always been the Giants to the Islanders' Jets, the Yankees to their Mets, and Knicks to their Nets. It no doubt pisses Islanders fans off, especially now that the Islanders' period of looking down at the Rangers is long over. The Rangers rule broadway again, not that the Isles ever REALLY ruled it in the first place because they play in the middle of fucking nowhere in Nassau County while the Rangers play in the Center of the Universe in Manhattan. These two teams have a lot of history with each other, and have played against each other many times, often brutally. The Islanders also have a rivalry with the Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils. All four teams in this pissing contest are littered with history, prestige, and Stanley Cups - the Flyers, who have won the Stanley Cup fewer times than anyone else in this land war, have won it twice. The Devils won three times, while the Isles and Rangers won it four times each.

The Islanders have a great history on their side too. The Miracle of 1993, the Easter Epic, the dynasty, all big deals in hockey lore. Even their 1984 loss in the Finals was big because it helped pave the way for the Edmonton Oilers seven-year whirlwind tour through the NHL. The 1994 playoffs loss came against the Rangers while the Rangers were on their way to their first Stanley Cup since 1940. Of all the Renegade teams in New York City, the Islanders are the only one that had the opportunity to condescend to their seniors for a considerable stretch of time, and the bragging rights for that are eternal. Even now, the Rangers can't get too uppity because, even though they're competitive and the Islanders seem stuck on rebuild, they still have an equal number of Stanley Cups. Rangers fans won't have bragging rights until their team stops choking in the playoffs and comes through.

On the other hand, the Islanders play in a shithole in Nassau County. Their arena is pretty much universally considered the worst in the NHL. The Gorton's Fisherman years were an embarrassment, as was the mismanagement which got them into the hamster wheel purgatory in which they now reside. And frankly, even if it's accurate, no team in the New York City area should ever call itself the Islanders - it's a name much more suited to a team in Hawaii, because the New York City metropolitan area doesn't really have the isolation of an island. It's the largest city in the country, and you can't get away with this kind of shit.

I can see an appeal to adopting the Islanders. But get used to life in a rut, and having a stupid name.]]> Tue, 26 Mar 2013 17:35:07 +0000
<![CDATA[ The Other Canadians Team]]>
Vancouver, being a Canadian city, was naturally a great hockey home for a very long time. The city started fielding professional hockey back in 1911, in fact! Back then, there was the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, a three-team league which included a team called the Vancouver Millionaires. In 1915, the Millionaires were the first team from the west coast to ever win the Stanley Cup, beating the Ottawa Senators. After the 1926 season, the Millionaires folded, and Vancouver was left with, well, the Vancouver Canucks, a minor league team created in 1945 which went through the Pacific Coast Hockey League and the Western Hockey League. Across those two leagues, the Canucks won four regular season titles and six league championships in 25 years of existence. When TV money started calling out to the NHL in 1967, the owner of the Canucks and the Mayor of Vancouver decided they should probably put in a bid. The NHL, demonstrating the vast intelligence it's known for, rejected their application. 

Almost everyone seemed to realize the rejection was stupid. There was speculation afterwards that the bid was hindered by Stafford Smythe, the president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, because he once quipped after a failed business deal based in Vancouver that the city wouldn't be getting an NHL team in his lifetime. Yeah, overkill, I know. To be fair, though, there were also reports that the Vancouver bid was pretty weak - the folks who created the bid kinda coasted through it, because they believed their city was already a lock and the presentation was nothing but a formality. Fast forward to 1969. One of the 1967 expansion teams, the Oakland Seals, is already in financial hot water. Canada is still pissed off at the NHL because the six teams created in the 1967 expansion are all American, and none of them are particularly close to the border. A deal was quickly concocted in an attempt to rescue the Seals by moving them to Vancouver, but the NHL has a few reservations. And by that, I mean they killed the deal for no other reason than the fact that they didn't want to see one of their spanking-new teams die off so quickly. Unfortunately, killing a deal like that could result in a nasty lawsuit, so to get around that, the NHL meekly promised Vancouver would get a team come next expansion. So when the 1969 expansion came around, the WHL Canucks were bought and turned into an NHL team.

The Canucks would have a small advantage over the teams from the 1967 expansion. 1967 created six teams, doubling the size of the league. 1969 created just two teams, so the Canucks would have more access to prime draft beef. Unfortunately, the problem with a two-team expansion is that there's still another new team to compete with for talent, so the Canucks had to luck out and hope their fellow expansion team, the Buffalo Sabres, wouldn't gobble everything up. Draft lotteries were held between the Canucks and Sabres for both the Amateur Draft and the Expansion Draft. When the Sabres ended up winning both, the fate of both teams was effectively sealed. Buffalo took the projected star, Gilbert Perreault, in the Amateur Draft. The Canucks' selection, Dale Tallon, didn't do badly; he became an All-Star twice in Vancouver. He was also traded to the Chicago Black Hawks in 1973. Perreault, meanwhile, became a career Sabre who put 1326 points on the scoreboard in a 17-year career. They took Gary Doak in the Expansion Draft, who was a lot worse; he netted a grand total of 130 points in a 16-year NHL career. 

In the earliest years, the Canucks were placed in the East Division for some weird reason. This left Vancouver with numerous disadvantages. First of all, the East Division was competitive as hell. Check out this makeup: The Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres, and Detroit Red Wings were all there. Second, there was still the talent disparity of being an expansion team. Third, Vancouver is NOT an eastern city! The Canucks had to travel vast distances to play their divisional matchups, which doesn't exactly leave the players fresh to fight. Andre Boudrias emerged as Vancouver's leading scorer in those first five years, but the Canucks didn't have a winning season until the 1975 season, when they were put into the new Smythe Division. That was slightly friendlier and included the expansion Kansas City Scouts and the perpetually weak Minnesota North Stars for them to beat up on, as well as easier travel. The winning season came just in time, too; the World Hockey Association was trying to butt into the Canucks' market by introducing the Vancouver Blazers. The Blazers performed a lot worse and hightailed it to Calgary the next year. 

The Canucks posted another winning record in the 1976 season, but in a preliminary playoff series that ran for two games, they lost to the New York Islanders. After that, the Canucks sank into the mediocrity which would come to truly define their entire existence. After the 1976 season, they didn't post another winning record for 16 years, one of the NHL's longest streaks. Hell, one of the longest streaks in sports, for that matter, and since the NHL is the only major league in the United States and Canada that allowed ties, that's an even more impressive record than it sounds. And so it came to pass that the Vancouver Canucks began to define futility.

OR DID THEY?! See, this is the NHL, after all, the league in which playoff positioning is basic missionary! Be that as it may, the Canucks were able to make the playoffs in nine of those years - which, for all you math whizzes out there, is the majority! In the 80's, the Canucks were led by a core which included Stan Smyl, Thomas Gradin, and Richard Brodeur. I'm not sure how much good they actually did, seeing as how the Canucks spent the entire decade, you know, losing, but in 1982 they were having SOME kind of impact. That year, the Canucks went a paltry 30-33-17, posting 77 points. It was somehow good enough for second in their division. More to the point, they got to the playoffs. Now, despite the NHL's stupidity regarding playoff placements and the fact that it's so easy to get a spot in the first place, you can give the NHL playoffs this: The bad teams, despite getting regular invitations, don't get to move on very often, and about 95 percent of the time they're all systematically wiped out by the time the Stanley Cup Finals roll around. Yeah, well, see, in the 1982 playoffs, that didn't happen. In the first round, Vancouver made mincemeat of the Calgary Flames, a team even worse than they were. In the second round, they killed the Los Angeles Kings, another team that was even worse than they were. In the third rounds, they beat up Chicago, who had the same number of wins as the Canucks but also five more losses and was five points behind in overall standings. Vancouver was now in their first Stanley Cup Final ever! It was a run of supernatural good luck, but luck has very rarely won the Stanley Cup, and the team awaiting the Canucks in their first Cup Final was the New York Islanders, a dynasty in the midst of a four-year run which saw them take home the Cup every year. With 54 wins and 118 points, the Isles were number one in the entire league that year and had earned the right to compete for The Holy Grail. Made to play against an actual hockey team for the first time in the playoffs, the Canucks' Cinderella clock chimed midnight and their luck ran out. The Isles, clearly exasperated at the fact that a losing team could potentially fucking win, exposed the Canucks for what they were and Vancouver was promptly swept.

The Canucks of the 80's included skilled players like Patrik Sundstrom and Tony Tanti, but after the miracle run of 1982, the Canucks went right back to being the Canucks. They continued losing, and made the playoffs four times over the rest of the 80's. It's possible they might have been better than their losses indicate, because they were also forced to share their division with the Calgary Flames and the world-conquering Edmonton Oilers, quite likely the two best teams in the league back then. Each time they made the playoffs, they were eliminated by one of them. In 1989, when the Flames won the Stanley Cup, they managed to take them to a seventh game, but a series loss is a series loss. 

In the 1991 season, Canuck Captain Stan Smyl resigned because his on-ice role had been reduced by then. In his place came a rotating Captaincy of Trevor Linden, Dan Quinn, and Doug Lidster. Smyl retired at the end of the season, as the team's all-time scoring leader. The team had also managed a draft steal in the late 80's: Pavel Bure. In the early 90's, the Canucks' fortunes finally started to turn, and in 1992, they finally finally snapped out of their funk. Going 42-26-12, Vancouver won its division, and coach Pat Quinn was honored with the Jack Adams Award. Bure emerged as a bona fide superstar, recording back to back seasons of 60 goals. The Canucks were now good enough that in 1994, their 41-win season was considered underachieving - though, to be fair, their total record was 41-40-3; the thing with those annoying ties was that the single split points tended to pile up, and with the Canucks either winning or losing, they weren't getting essential points in the standings. Therefore, their seventh-seed playoff spot could have been considerably higher, but it didn't stop them from making a hell of a run at it! In the first round, Vancouver played a close series against Calgary. After four games, Vancouver was one game away from elimination, but they rallied back and took the next three. In game seven, a one-timer pass from Calgary's Theoren Fleury made its way to Robert Reichel. Vancouver goalie Kirk McLean stacked his goal pads right on the goal line to keep the puck from going in, making what Vancouver lore now knows as "The Save. The following period, Bure took a breakaway pass, deked out Calgary goalie Mike Vernon, scored, and won the series. Following five-game romps over the Dallas Stars and Leafs, the Canucks reached their second Stanley Cup Final. Their opponents? The mighty Edmonton Oilers! Remember all that trouble the Oilers caused for the Canucks in the 80's? Well, that all changed, at least to an extent. The Canucks won the first game on the strength of a 52-save performance by McLean, but lost the following three. But instead of falling meekly into the night this time, Vancouver went on to win the next two. In game seven, Trevor Linden netted two goals despite playing with cracked ribs. With a minute left in regulation and Edmonton up 3-2, Nathan LaFayette took a shot and hit the post. If ever there was a play that summed up the whole existence of the Vancouver Canucks, that was it. Time expired, and the Oilers won their sixth Stanley Cup.

Hold on…. Editor's message…. Okay, you know what? I really don't care this time! I mean, sure the Oilers were wearing the sweaters of the New York Rangers, playing in Madison Square Garden, and the NHL records say this was the first time the Rangers won the Cup since 1940! There were an awful lot of guys on that Rangers team who played for the Oilers dynasty of the 80's, and it SHOULD record an Edmonton Cup!…. Casual fans? Okay fine. You know what? The New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994. NOT the Edmonton Oilers.

So anyway, that Cup loss was a real wind-taker. While the core of the Canucks was still young, talented, and capable of production, the Canucks reverted to their regular form and went back to sucking beyond belief. They didn't record another winning season after that for six years. While Pavel Bure was reunited with his old CSKA Moscow teammate Alexander Mogilny after a big trade with the Buffalo Sabres, the expected chemistry never developed between them. Fortunately, in 1996 the Canucks were able to make up for that when they traded a warm body named Alek Stojanov to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a warm body named Markus Naslund. While it looked like a fair trade at the time, it's now regarding as a lopsided fleecing on Vancouver's part. Stojanov was sent down to the farm soon after, and except for a couple of callups, he became a career minor leaguer. Naslund became Vancouver's fearless leader, a beloved face of the team, and eventually their all-time leading scorer. In summer of 1996, they came close to signing Wayne Gretzky, but they made the mistake of giving The Great One an ultimatum, and The Great One doesn't DO ultimatums! He was WAYNE GRETZKY, after all, the greatest player in the history of hockey, and he'll do whatever the hell he wants! The Canucks made up for that the following summer by inking a deal for Mark Messier, the greatest Captain in NHL history, the guy who led the Edmonton dynasty in the 80's…. Okay, fine, AND the 1994 Rangers too. 

Here's how goofy and hapless the Canucks could be: Canucks Captain Trevor Linden, knowing Messier would be a superior Captain, resigned his Captaincy to Messier after the signing. Linden later regretted the move, saying he thought Messier was generating too much tension and hostility in the locker room. Linden was traded soon after to the Isles for Todd Bertuzzi, and he was soon New York's Captain. Meanwhile, no one warmed up to Messier, so after his contract was up, they made no attempt to get him back. Even Fearless Leader never got the Canucks back to the playoffs. 

The turn of the millennium saw the Canucks emerge and contend. Naslund and Bertuzzi were joined by Brendan Morrison in 2002, and together, they became The West Coast Express, becoming a line of high-scoring wingers and All-Stars. In the 2003 playoffs, the Canucks won their first playoff series in eight years. In 2004, the Canucks also started getting a lot more media attention than they're used to, but not in a good way: On March 8 that year, Bertuzzi grabbed Colorado Avalanche forward Steve Moore from behind and punched him in the head. As Moore fell, Bertuzzi landed on top of him, and Moore suffered three fractured neck vertebrae, face cuts, and a concussion. It was a revenge shot for a blow Moore landed on Naslund during a previous game, but it was still a cheap shot and Bertuzzi was suspended through to the start of the following year. He also faced legal action, with Moore filing lawsuits in both British Columbia and Colorado. 

The Canucks had trouble adjusting to the post-lockout rules, but by the end of the millennial decade, they had clearly emerged as one of the best teams in the NHL. The 2011 season was the team's 40th anniversary, and to celebrate, the Canucks decided to present their fans with something they had never seen before - the Stanley Cup! Or so it went for most of the season. Led by star goalie Roberto Luongo, brothers Henrik and Daniel Sedin, and their eternal point man Naslund, the Canucks came on as the best team in the NHL. They won the Presidents' Trophy handily for the first time ever, with 54 wins and 117 points. They also won the Campbell Bowl as Conference Champions and were the clear favorites to blow the opposing Boston Bruins out of the water. They REALLY REALLY looked like a Team of Destiny that year, but the Bruins clearly hadn't gotten the script. Vancouver played well in the first two games, taking them both, but some troubling signs crawled up: One is that the dominant Canucks won them both by just a single goal. And the differential wasn't a result of the Canucks coasting, either; Boston was matching them the whole way. The first game ended with a final score of 1-0, with the lone goal coming from Raffi Torres with just 19 seconds left in the game. The second game ended 3-2 in overtime. But it was in game three where the real fun began. Boston scored the first goal eleven seconds in and Loungo, with a history of playoff meltdowns to shed.... Melted down in a way I've never seen. In game three, nine total goals were scored, and Boston scored the first of them, the last of them, and all but one in between. Although it was the third game, it set the tempo for the way the series played out. Boston whomped Vancouver in the fourth game too. Vancouver finally responded in game five, putting Boston on the ropes with a 1-0 victory, but anyone paying attention up to this point knew the Canucks were a dead team walking and merely prolonging the inevitable. And so, in games six and seven, Vancouver truly reverted to being the Canucks again. They played like a dazed little league team, got stomped quickly and easily, and the Bruins won their first Stanley Cup in 39 years. The commentators after the series tried to sell the public on the idea that it was one of the great classics of Stanley Cup history, but I don't know what the fuck they were watching. The games Vancouver won were hotly fought and exciting. The games Boston won were the Bruins taking potshots at the little ducks in a shooting gallery. If anything, this Final was a defining argument against the idea that a Finals series is automatically good just because it went seven games.

The Canucks are still dominant. Hell, last year they even took home the Presidents' Trophy again. The most prized symbol of on-ice success, however, still eludes them.

The list of retired numbers for the Canucks includes Stan Smyl, Trevor Linden, and Markus Naslund. The numbers of Wayne Maki, Luc Bourdon, and Rick Rypien were taken out of circulation following their deaths. Some of the greats who have passed through Vancouver include Mark Messier, Cam Neely, Pavel Bure, Mats Sundin, and Igor Larionov. For such an old and popular team in a famously devoted market, the Canucks don't pack a lot of all-time talent.

Although it isn't one of the NHL's marquee rivalries, the Canucks have a giant land war going on with the Calgary Flames. This exists in part because the two cities are so different from one another: Geographically, Vancouver is in a small little nook that was somehow carved out amidst forest, mountains, and the ocean. Calgary sits right on Canada's plains. Vancouver is a bastion for Canadian leftist politics, while Calgary leans to the right. They've faced each other plenty of times in the playoffs, starting when Vancouver beat Calgary in 1982 on the way to their first appearance in the Finals. Calgary holds a 3-2 edge in playoff series overall. While the rivalry cooled a little bit in the late 90's, the millennium brought it back with a fury in the 2004 season, when both teams were competing for the division. It became even hotter with the emergence of Markus Naslund and Calgary's Jarome Iginla as two of the league's best. One year, those two players were in a Nike commercial promoting their rivalry.

Some of Vancouver's identifying moments include their first two runs to the Stanley Cup Finals, McLean's save, and unfortunately, the Bertuzzi/Moore incident. Mostly the Canucks are known as the bad team that came out of the 1969 expansion, an identity which they should have been able to shed in the last decade or so. Unfortunately, on the moment they were supposed to rise up and turn their fortunes around forever, they reverted to their lovable loser form at the worst possible time. Once a bad team, always a bad team until they bring home the Cup. Until that happens, Vancouver will be known for being a historical loser. They'll also be known for throwing riots in the streets after the Canucks lost the Stanley Cup in 1994 and 2011. And, uniquely, they're also known for being the team that just can't find a decent sweater logo. They've been though many different designs in their history, but none of them stuck. Their first design was a simple shot of an ice rink with a stick crossing it. After that, they introduced the Flying V, one of the most maligned sweater designs hockey has ever seen. They followed that up with the Flying Skate, and finally seem to have found something that works with a letter C that has an orca breaking out of the top.

Are the Vancouver Canucks the NHL's version of the Chicago Cubs? You could make the argument. They're historical losers with a rabid national following, beset with a series of odd misfortunes for the times when they were doing well. (Oddly, the Canucks and their expansion-mate team, the Buffalo Sabres, seem to have switched places for now: The loser Canucks have come to the front of the league, while the historically powerful Sabres are one of the worst teams in the NHL, beset with a wimp of an owner who refuses to fire his useless GM.) There's one great thing to be said about the Vancouver Canucks, and it's that they're always interesting and fun. If you want to hop the bandwagon, there's always room. And hell, with them playing the way they are now, there's a serious chance they won't be the NHL's Chicago Cubs very much longer.]]> Sun, 24 Mar 2013 17:43:30 +0000
<![CDATA[ Desert Dogs Who Need Bones]]>
Okay, now that I've noted that, on to the obvious question: Even with the growth of hockey, what ever made him think the NHL could thrive in the desert? A desert in which the people are barely even registering the NFL team which also lives out there? Phoenix, Arizona is not anyone's first definition of a traditional hockey market, and the fans there have proven that repeatedly. Here we have a team that can't seem to get it together either on or off the ice. The Phoenix Coyotes have been one of the NHL's poster boys for the whole-the-hell-are-they? teams, the teams that no one follows, cares about, and seems in constant danger.

It wasn't always like that for the Coyotes. They were formed in the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1972. Not as an NHL team, though - apparently hockey-hungry Winnipeg just wasn't good enough for the elitist suits running shit in the NHL. The NHL had recently expanded to 16 teams at the time. The problem was, in those rounds of expansions - 1967 creating the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, Minnesota North Stars, Oakland Seals, Los Angeles Kings, and St. Louis Blues; 1969 bringing in the Vancouver Canucks and Buffalo Sabres; and 1972 introducing the Atlanta Flames and New York Islanders - only created ONE team in Canada! (Meaning that yes, the NHL was always this fucking stupid.) As you can imagine, Canada wasn't pleased, and a couple of opportunistic American businessmen - Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson, who had previously founded and run the American Basketball Association - teamed up with Bill Hunter, president of the junior Western Canada Hockey League, to see if they could get hazard pay outta some pissed off Canadian cities who felt a little jilted. They went and formed the World Hockey Association, bringing teams to Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Quebec City, and Ottawa. The WHA was set up to challenge the supremacy of the NHL, giving the senior league its first major competition since the Western Hockey League collapsed in 1926.

The WHA was pretty open about the fact that it was ditching the hated reserve clause, and that allowed the league to roam around raiding the NHL's best and brightest. Meanwhile, a certain team in the NHL which shall remain nameless (hint: It rhymes with "Schmicago Schlackshawks") was being run by a man named Bill Wirtz, a frugal owner who wasn't paying his preeminent stars what they were worth. This royally pissed off a player named Bobby Hull, which wouldn't have meant a whole lot if Hull wasn't, you know, the greatest player in this team's history and one of the greatest players in NHL history. Hull ditched his old team (The Blackhawks, alright? They were the Chicago Blackhawks) to jump aboard the WHA and the Winnipeg Jets. Once the Jets were done raiding the NHL, they then pioneered a whole new way of looking for the cream of the crop of hockey talent: Checking out the best players in Europe. That found them a couple of linemates for Hull with Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson. It also made the Jets the premier team of the WHA. The WHA lasted for seven years before merging with the NHL. The Jets played in the Finals in a whopping FIVE of those years, winning them three times.

In 1979, most of the teams in the WHA folded while the Jets, Hartford Whalers, Edmonton Oilers, and Quebec Nordiques joined the NHL. Of course the senior NHL, being the NHL, was a complete dick about the merger and forced the n00bs to pay a heavy price for entry into the league. The NHL threw a big initiation party for the WHA teams in the form of something called the reclamation draft. It cost them three of their top six scorers, and in the regular draft, they had to draft 18th out of 21 teams. One of the players they protected in the reclamation draft was a defenseman named Scott Campbell, who showed a lot of promise but also suffered from a chronic asthma which was exacerbated by Winnipeg's nasty weather. He was out of the league completely in 1982.

Setting off their place as an NHL team, the Jets immediately paid their dues. Their first couple of years were wretched. In 1981, they won all of nine games. There was a bright spot in the suffering, though, with draft picks. In 1980, they drafted Dave Babych second overall. The next year they drafted Dale Hawerchuk first overall. With them being keystones of a strong nucleus, the Jets were restored to respectability quickly, but they were also hit with a hell of a dire misfortune: They were stuck in the same division as the Oilers and Calgary Flames. Back then, the league and playoffs were set up in a way which pretty much guaranteed the path to the Campbell Conference Finals would take them through one of those cities. Knowing that, I don't think I have to elaborate very much on the Jets' fate in the playoffs. In the 1985 season, they finished with a record better than every other team in the league except three. They accumulated 96 points, the best they would ever do in Winnipeg. And while they were actually able to beat the Flames in the first round of the playoffs, they were swept by Edmonton in the following round. Between 1983 and 1990, the Jets and Oilers faced each other in the playoffs six times, and Edmonton won every matchup. Just to rub it in, the Jets only won four total games in those six series. The Jets were just destined to languish in the playoffs back then. They only won two playoff series through the 80's - the one I previously mentioned in 1985, and a second in 1987, where they beat Calgary again (only to lose to Edmonton in the second round again).

Time to give Gary Bettman a bit more credit: During his commissionership, player salaries started to go up to the point where they were comparable to the salaries of players in other popular sports. What that meant for the teams was that operating costs were also rising. Meanwhile, the value of the Canadian dollar was going down. This started smacking the Canadian teams like a rented mule, because while they collected revenue in Canadian dollars, they had to pay salaries in American dollars. On the ice, the Jets' win totals also started going down. In 1990, they traded Dale Hawerchuk, their star and Captain, to the Buffalo Sabres. They began missing the playoffs with regularity, and even on the occasions they were able to sneak in, they kept losing in the first round. The fans were troopers about it; the Jets had a very loyal following, but there were questions about whether Winnipeg was big enough to support them. Their home building was also one of the worse arenas in the league; it was an aging barn with views so bad, they obstructed the luxury suite views…. Or at least they WOULD have obstructed the luxury suite views, had there been any luxury suites!

Various people stepped in, drawing up every scheme they could think of to save the Jets. All the efforts by local businessmen fell through, so the Jets were sold to American businessmen Steven Gluckstern and Richard Burke, who planned to move the Jets to Minnesota, where they were to fill in the void left by the recently-departed North Stars. That didn't go anywhere, and the two of them made an agreement with Phoenix businessman Jerry Colangelo to move the Jets to Phoenix. Off they were, while Winnipeg was left to accept a new minor league team called the Manitoba Moose for consolation. The NHL finally returned to Winnipeg in 2012, creating a new Winnipeg Jets team by heisting the Atlanta Thrashers.

In Phoenix, meanwhile, everyone apparently thought the name "Phoenix Jets" or "Arizona Jets" would sound stupid. So they threw a contest to come up with a new name, and thus the name "Coyotes" was created. To create a little bit of buzz, the 'Yotes signed one of the NHL's best and brightest: Jeremy Roenick, fresh off a starring stint in Chicago because they had an owner, Bill Wirtz, who was frugal and didn't want to pay him what he was worth. Roenick teamed up with such players as Keith Tkachuk, Shane Doan, Mike Gartner, and Nikolai Khabibulin to lead the 'Yotes to a stretch of six seasons where they finished at .500 or better, making the playoffs every year but one. And the one year they didn't get that far, they managed to post 90 points, which made them the first team to post 90 points and miss the playoffs. Unfortunately, they still couldn't make it through the first round. The best they could do was the 1999 playoffs, where they built a 3-1 series lead which they proceeded to squander to the Blues. They fell in overtime in the seventh game.

There was another problem that cropped up: During the team's first eight years in Phoenix, their arena, America West Arena, was absolutely state of the art!…. For the NBA's Phoenix Suns, whom - it should be properly stressed - the place was built for. Now, if you've seen hockey and basketball arenas, you'll note there's a bit of a size difference, and America West Arena wasn't built with a hockey team in mind. The floor was barely large enough for a standard NHL rink, and so the team had to quickly re-engineer the joint to accommodate a 200-footer. As a result, there were parts of the upper deck that were actually sticking out over the rink! Therefore, capacity had to be cut after the first season, and a new arena was built in suburban Glendale.

In 1998, the team was sold and one of the people who became a part owner was Wayne Gretzky, recently retired and looking for the next big thing. Unfortunately, he got on at the worst possible time. For one thing, the Coyotes were back to stinking up the league again. For most of the millennium, they were barely competitive. Since a good team is important to attract fans who might otherwise not have any interest, attendance also started to drop in a way that was seriously worrying to the league. The team also had a downright shitty lease with Phoenix, which resulted in massive financial losses which they still haven't really recovered from. To try to give the team a shot in the arm, the Coyotes signed Brett Hull (Bobby's boy). Two days later came one of the ultimate embarrassments in hockey: Wayne Gretzky hired himself as coach, despite having never coached before, at any level, unless you count his kid's little league team. Five games after the season began, Hull had recorded all of one assist, and decided he wasn't capable of playing anymore. Just like that, he retired. Gretzky stepped down in 2009.

The on-ice product since then has been sorted out. Dave Tippett took over as coach in 2009 and he's turned them into a real, honest to god force. In his first season, he got them across the 50-win barrier for the first time, ever. In 2012, he brought them to the brink, getting them to the conference finals for their first time, ever. Things are looking up for the Coyotes right now on the ice. Off the ice, though, it's a much different story. The Coyotes declared bankruptcy in 2009, and the NHL has been running the team itself ever since. The NHL was planning to present the former owner, Jerry Moyes, with an offer to sell the Coyotes to Jerry Reinsdorf, who owns MLB's Chicago White Sox and the NBA's Chicago Bulls. But hours before he could, Moyes put the team in bankruptcy with the intent to sell it to Jim Balsillie, who intended to move them to Hamilton, Ontario. Now, Balsillie is obsessed with getting the NHL to Hamilton. Unfortunately for him, the league won't let him do it because the overarching broadcast area runs through that of two teams: The Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs. Buffalo and Toronto are 90 minutes away from each other by car, and if you drive from one to the other, Hamilton is smack at the halfway point. The NHL had blocked his ownership bids twice before, once with the Pittsburgh Penguins, then again with the Nashville Predators, and in 2011 an unnamed bidder who fit his description made a massive bid on the Sabres themselves. But I digress. The NHL is currently pending a sale of the Coyotes to former San Jose Sharks owner Greg Jamison, after other bids fell through. The current deal with Jamison was delayed because he can't reach an agreement with the league.

The Phoenix Coyotes are very deferential to their past as the Winnipeg Jets. It's seen in their list of retired numbers: Keith Tkachuk, Bobby Hull, Dale Hawerchuk, Thomas Sheen, Teppo Numminen, and Jeremy Roenick. Of those players, only Roenick played for them exclusively in a Coyotes jersey. Unfortunately, this team isn't exactly swimming in All-Star talent. Brett Hull and Mike Gartner played for them at the absolute ends of their careers - Gartner was there for a year before retiring, and Hull played all of five games for them. Shane Doan is their face, their Captain, and the only player on the team now who goes all the way back to Winnipeg. He's a career Jet/Coyote, something which can't be claimed by a ton of players.

The Coyotes are a western team, so their games and rivalries tend to not get as much airplay as a lot of others. I guess the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings are there as far as rivalries go, but they're not rivalries a lot of NHL followers seem to take seriously. Back in Winnipeg, the Jets had those playoff series with the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers, but those are long gone, and the Coyotes are also disadvantaged by the fact that they're usually pretty bad. The fans the Coyotes do have seem to be more concerned about ownership than getting themselves up for a hard fight against a team from southern California, and it's tough to blame them at this junction.

The Coyotes really don't have a very good identity to hinge on. When they arrived in Phoenix, they were identified primarily by horrid sweater designs which exemplified all the worst aspects of 90's marketing hubris. Cartoons, color complexity, and a design meant to come off as in your face. The sweater logo looked like a hockey-playing Picasso coyote. Their designs now are a lot more simplified and a lot better, with the sweater logo being the head of a howling coyote and the color scheme having a dominant sedona red with sand-colored accents. And those old shirts are actually the best part of their identity. What really sucks about being a 'Yotes fan now is that the team is identified as clearly being one of the most unstable in the NHL. Until last year's conference final run, everything we heard in regards to the Coyotes was: Have they been sold? Who is buying them? They haven't moved yet? Where are they going to move? Why aren't they moving now? You can forgive born and bred Phoenix hockey fans for cheering for some other team, because this chatter isn't the kind that causes confidence in a fanbase. If they DO cheer for the Coyotes, in fact, they have a lot of courage in sticking to them. If they don't, you can't blame them, because they probably don't want to emotionally commit too much to a team which may not be around very much longer.

I think it says everything about the Phoenix Coyotes that most NHL onlookers seem to care about the team's finances than its recent performance surge. If you're a fan of the Coyotes, well, no matter how lowly I grade a team, I have always stressed the importance of not letting my grading discourage adopting fans. What I haven't done is give out the advice I'm going to right now: Abandon ship. If you don't, godspeed to you all.]]> Sat, 23 Mar 2013 20:19:42 +0000
<![CDATA[ Flying High Again]]>
Perhaps the story of the Philadelphia Flyers, Philadelphia's NHL team, can provide a little bit of insight on the kind of mentality Philly sports fans have. On the one hand, most fans would love to be able to adopt the Flyers and call them their own team. They were created in the 1967 expansion, which effectively makes them one of the NHL's senior teams now. And since their creation, they've given one of the very best possible names to expansion teams in general - they were immediately successful, and have since managed to compile a lifetime winning percentage of .579, which is second overall in the history of the league. Out of the other expansion teams - and by that, I mean both the Class of 1967 and every other team brought into the NHL afterward - the Flyers have appeared in the Conference Finals more than any other team, and in overall playoff appearances for the expansion teams, only the St. Louis Blues have as many as they do. And, oh yeah, they also won the Stanley Cup twice.

On the flipside, the Flyers made a habit of breaking hearts. They haven't actually come through for Philadelphia since their second Cup, which they won back in 1975. They've fielded numerous teams which have shown great promise, beat up on the NHL during the regular season, and done a load of damage during the playoffs only to tank at the last minute, in the worst way. One could build an argument that the Flyers are the NHL version of the Boston Red Sox.

The story of the Philadelphia Flyers begins in 1964, when Philadelphia Eagles president Ed Snider was in Boston watching a basketball game. During the game, he spotted a bunch of Boston Bruins fans lining up to buy tickets. This was a pretty big deal, seeing as how the Bruins were not only stirring in a long Stanley Cup drought in a league stacked against them, but they were mired in dead last at the time. So when Snider heard the NHL was starting to make plans to expand, he made a proposal to the league, which chose Philadelphia as an ideal market to expand into. In 1966, the team held a name the team contest, and the name Flyers was chosen.

Since they were an expansion team, the Flyers had trouble finding talent in the expansion draft. You think the Original Six were ever going to stupidly leave their cream of crop on the market for the n00bs? Of course not! But they did find a player of real talent in the expansion draft with goaltender Bernie Parent, who became the team's very talented staple in goal for the better part of a 15-year career. They also bought the minor league Quebec Aces. Between the expansion draft and the Aces, the Flyers were able to grab Ed Van Impe, who went on to become their fearless Captain; and Andre Lacroix, who would lead the Flyers in goals. It took them a week to win their first game, but since the NHL sort of brushed all the expansion teams into the same conference, the Flyers were able to take first with a losing record. In the playoffs, success wasn't fast; they lost to St. Louis in the first round. In their second season, the Flyers finished 15 games under .500. But since this is the NHL and a playoff appearance in the NHL is the league either rewarding a team for a great season or apologizing to a team for a terrible season. So the Flyers went to the playoffs! They were destroyed by the Blues again, in the first round again.

The second year left Snider royally pissed off, so he went to his GM, Bill Poile, and gave him a simple directive: Go bigger, go TOUGHER. Apparently an idea of tough was a 19-year-old diabetic from Flin Flon, Manitoba, named Bobby Clarke. And to let Snider know his mandate was heard after all, they also drafted Dave Schultz, who would soon establish himself as one of the nastiest enforcers hockey would ever fear. Although the Flyers missed the playoffs the next year, Clarke emerged as the best player on the team. Although the first couple of years in the 70's were rocky for the Flyers, the mandate resulted in the short-order building of a team that was as scary talented as it was just plain scary.

It was 1973 when the Philadelphia Flyers were no longer JUST the Philadelphia Flyers, a write-off expansion team there for the Original Six to fatten their winning percentages. It was the year the Flyers became the famous, dominating Broad Street Bullies. Rick MacLeish became the first player on the team to score 50 goals. The team recorded its first winning season, ever. Clarke became the youngest person in league history at the time to be named Captain, a nice honor which went well with his Hart Trophy. The Flyers returned to the playoffs, beat the Minnesota North Stars in six games, and lost the conference finals to the Montreal Canadiens. The following year, they sent a message to the NHL that the Original Six weren't going to be receiving any cookies from the expansionists just because the expansionists were new. They were going to fight the Original Six and sock with them blow for blow, and they did. That year, they went back to the playoffs and, upon beating the New York Rangers in the conference finals, became the first expansion team to beat an Original Six squad in the playoffs. Those conference finals are among the legendary NHL series, and the Rangers did draw it out to a seventh game which was notable mainly for a fight between Dave Schultz and Ranger Dale Rolfe. Well, not so much a fight as a one-sided beating as career enforcer Schultz pummeled Rolfe while Rolfe's teammates just hung back and watched it happen. In the Finals, the Flyers faced a Bruins team which was now just as talented and tough as they were. It was the Broad Street Bullies against the Big Bad Bruins, and the Bullies prevailed in six. The REAL shocker came the following season, when the Flyers returned to the Finals only to learn there wouldn't be yet another arrogant Original Six team for them to beat up. Their opponent now was another expansion team which was actually younger than they were - the speedy, high-tempo Buffalo Sabres and their famous scoring line, known as The French Connection. It was the first Stanley Cup Final between expansion teams. The third game was a classic which was played in the fog of an unusually warm Buffalo spring day. Players couldn't see the puck or each other and, during the game, one player killed a wayward bat. The Sabres won it in overtime, but the Flyers had won the first two in the series by then. Their coaching and goaltending were superior, so they took the Stanley Cup again in six games.

The LCB Line - named for Reggie Leach, Bobby Clarke, and Bill Barber - continued to make the Flyers a potent force through the decade. In 1976, hockey brought the Super Series to North America. Two Soviet Union teams - the Soviet Wings and the Red Army - went on an exhibition tour, playing against NHL teams. The Flyers were the only team that beat the Red Army, out-muscling them and even sending them to their locker room in the middle of the first period in protest of a hit on one of their players. They only returned when their salary for the entire series was threatened, and Philly won quite handily. (The Soviet Wings also only lost one game in their tour, to Buffalo.) The Flyers also went back to the Finals in 1976, but lost to Montreal, which was emerging as arguably the greatest dynasty in hockey history. Afterward, the Broad Street Bullies days started to decline a little bit - Schultz was traded to the Los Angeles Kings. After the 1978 season, the Flyers were stunned when their coach, Fred Shero, walked away because he wanted to general manage and coach the Rangers. In 1979, Bernie Parent suffered a nasty eye injury which ended his career. They did have one more Conference Championship in them, in 1980. In the Finals, they faced the New York Islanders. The end of that Final was hit with controversy in the last game. The Isles, see, won that game 5-4 in overtime. But on the play that resulted in their second goal, they happened to be offside, but no one made the call. The linesman admitted blowing the call after the game.

After a few down years (read: first round playoff exits), the Flyers hired coach Mike Keenan in 1984. He brought the team back to respectability right off. In the 1985 season, the Flyers won 53 games, best in the league, behind Captain Dave Poulin and goalie Pelle Lindbergh. They hammered through the playoffs, beating the Rangers, Islanders, and Quebec Nordiques to return to the Finals. The ride ended there, because Philadelphia's Finals opponents were the juggernaut Edmonton Oilers. Needless to say, the Oilers pounded the Flyers in five games. A month into the following season, Lindbergh was fatally injured in a car accident. While his specter loomed on the season, the Flyers persevered instead of using his death as an excuse to phone in the year. They won 53 games again, best in the Wales Conference. Tim Kerr scored 58 goals, defensemen Mark Howe and Brad McCrimmon led the league in plus/minus with whopping numbers of plus 85 and plus 83 respectively, and Lindbergh's replacement, Bob Froese, did his job beautifully, being named a Second Team All-Star and sharing the William M. Jennings Trophy with teammate Darren Jenson.

1986 saw the rise of a new netminder, Ron Hextall. The Flyers continued to play powerful hockey through the 80's, despite a nasty playoff collapse in 1988 against the Washington Capitals which resulted in Keenan getting fired. The 90's started off on low notes, and the Flyers missed the playoffs due to a few factors: Hextall missing games due to injury, suspension, and holdout; Poulin being traded to Boston; and the replacement of the GM. While they made a trade for Rod Brind'Amour in the 1992 season, they continued to play like shit, which resulted in another playoff miss and coaching change. That year, the Flyers made a watershed trade. There was a highly projected pick in the draft named Eric Lindros whom the Flyers wanted. How badly did they want him? Well, this tells the story: The Quebec Nordiques owned his draft rights. To get him, Philadelphia gave up Steve Duchesne, Peter Forsberg, Ron Hextall, Kerry Huffman, Mike Ricci, Chris Simon, and two draft picks - one of which was magically turned into Jocelyn Thibault. They also parted with a cool $15 million. ALL for this ONE GUY. Philadelphia thought Lindros was going to take everyone to the top of the league. And that's exactly what he did! He took the Nords - who became the Colorado Avalanche soon after - to two Stanley Cups through the simple method of not playing for them! To be fair, he did put up some impressive statistics in Philly and become a preeminent star, but the accepted fact of the matter is that Philly got Phleeced.

When a team gives up talent like the Flyers did for Lindros, he better be able to fucking carry the team. Yes, Lindros played extremely well. He was placed on a line with John LeClair and Mikael Renberg which was given the coolest line name ever: The Legion of Doom. His contributions got the Flyers back to the playoffs, and he won a Hart Trophy. Hell, he even got the Flyers to the Finals in 1997, where they played against the underdog Detroit Red Wings. Unfortunately, he didn't show any leadership, and he didn't make any dents in Detroit's defense, either. He scored one goal in the entire series. It was in the fourth game of a Detroit sweep. There were 15 seconds left on the clock in the third, which meant that, since Detroit had TWO goals on the board by the time Lindros found the net, the game was already over. More to the point, Lindros also spent a ton of time on injured reserve and suffered a series of concussions. He was also fighting with GM Bobby Clarke, and whining about trainers who failed to detect one of his concussions. After a big fight about contractual restrictions, he wound up sitting out the entire 2001 season, after which Clarke traded him to the Rangers, presumably saying to them "He's your problem now."

After a 2001 first round playoff loss to the Sabres, the Flyers were in dire need of a spark. And who would bring more spark than Jeremy Roenick? JR was signed to what became one of his signature gigs while Lindros was traded. They also got Adam Oates at the trade deadline to help a terrible power play. The Flyers did rejuvenate, winning their division in 2002, but they still lost in the first playoff round, this time to the Ottawa Senators. In 2003, they made it to the second round with the help of the newly-signed Tony Amonte, but lost to Ottawa again. The Flyers started going deep into the playoffs again and with Keith Primeau and Simon Gagne, started playing more like the Flyer teams of the olden days. That all started changing after the lockout. While they started the 2006 season with high expectations and Peter Forsberg, they had problems with injuries, and were booted from the playoffs in the first round by the Buffalo Sabres, who were the template team for the New Rules NHL. In 2007, the Flyers took a nosedive. It was their 40th Anniversary season, and also their worst in history. Primeau retired, Forsberg was lost to chronic injury, and the Flyers started the season with a 1-6-1 record. At that point, Clarke resigned as GM and coach Ken Hitchcock was fired. At one point, the Flyers lost ten straight games. At another they lost 13 straight home games. They finished 22-48-12, the worst in the league and with the most losses in franchise history. And to top it off, they didn't win the draft lottery.

When it became clear the Flyers weren't going to salvage the 2007 season, the team set its sights on rebuilding. They started trading immediately, letting go of Forsberg and Alexei Zhitnik. In the offseason, they signed former Sabres Captain Daniel Briere. In 2008, a year after being the worst team in the league, the Flyers were back in the conference finals, where they lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Flyers kept upgrading, bringing in Claude Giroux and Chris Pronger. Peter Laviolette was hired to coach, and in 2010, the Flyers were Eastern Conference Champions. Their road through the playoffs saw them pull off a first round upset against the Devils. Then they fell into a 3-0 series hole against the Bruins in the second round, but they forced a seventh game. In that game, they fell behind 3-0 but came back and won 4-3. In the conference finals, they beat Montreal in five games, with goalie Michael Leighton recording three shutouts. There was no question that Philadelphia was hot going into the Finals, but their opponents, the Chicago Blackhawks, were just BETTER. In a series defined somewhat by a pair of average goalies, Chicago's Antti Niemi was just a little bit better than Leighton when it counted, and Chicago took the Stanley Cup in a six-game series. To have a chance against the considerably more talented Blackhawks, the Flyers needed to win the first two games in order to dispirit them, but they didn't. They managed to take games three and four, and to have a shot at redemption, they needed game five to grab control. They lost that too, in convincing fashion. When they tied game six with a late goal, they had a chance in overtime, but Patrick Kane scored Chicago's Cup clincher after four minutes.

The Flyers since have been largely a flashback to the Broad Street Bullies days, but this season, things just aren't going right for some reason. They're threatening to miss the playoffs again.

Five numbers have been retired in Philadelphia: Bobby Clarke, Bill Barber, Barry Ashbee, Mark Howe, and Bernie Parent. Pelle Lindbergh's number was removed from circulation after his death. Other great Flyers have included Mark Recchi, Paul Coffey, Adam Oates, Dale Hawerchuk, and Darryl Sittler. Bobby Clarke is very clearly the defining face of the Flyers. He led them on the ice, and then built them off the ice. His work helped them to the Finals in 1997, even if he did get fleeced by the Nordiques/Avalanche. He was actually the general manager for 22 years, longer than he was a player. Right now, Claude Giroux is the face of the on-ice team.

The Philadelphia Flyers have rivalries with, well, everyone, since they're a Philadelphia team. Actually the big one is with the cross-state Pittsburgh Penguins. While the Flyers have won more overall games than the Pens, the Pens have won the Stanley Cup three times, last in 2009, as opposed to two Stanley Cups in Philadelphia. They're not very fond of the New York Rangers either, or the Islanders for that matter. Outside the division, they have an intense rivalry with the Buffalo Sabres which is especially nasty if the two of them meet in the playoffs. The Flyers hold a definite edge over the Sabres in the playoffs. It was the Sabres, after all, that the Flyers beat to win the Stanley Cup in 1975.

The Flyers are one of the marquee teams in the NHL. Those who watch NBC Sports regularly know the Flyers get a huge bulk of attention, no matter how they're doing. For everything the Flyers have gone through, their most defining moment might be the Dave Schultz/Dale Rolfe fight back in the 1974 playoffs. It established the Philadelphia Flyers brand, permanently giving fans the perception of the Flyers of a team of brutes who don't take anyone else's shit. The Flyers are routinely among the toughest teams in the league, and they've built their identity around big hits, fights, and general intimidation. The Broad Street Bullies teams had great talent, but are better known for beatings. This is actually one of the things I respect about them - they play for playoffs, not necessarily for the regular season. Once playoffs start, the regular season is meaningless, and the playoffs are a gauntlet of strength and stamina as well as skill. The Flyers, despite not having won the Stanley Cup in awhile, are always built to tackle the part of the hockey season that really counts.

The Flyers are also among the most easily identifiable teams in the NHL. Their orange jerseys are distinctive, and their logo curves around into the shape of the letter P, of course for the city of Philadelphia. (And also a very clever take on a former logo of the Philadelphia Phillies, their baseball team.) But to me, it looks more like a wheel with a wing sprouting out of it, a nod to the speed and grace of hockey. The Flyers sing "God Bless America" instead of the national anthem before every game, and are one of two teams to have tried wearing hockey pants instead of regular shorts for a short time.

Yes, the Philadelphia Flyers are probably going to end up breaking your hearts should you adopt them. Yes, as a Sabres fan, I'm obligated to hate their guts. But part of the reason they've been so successful, despite not winning the Stanley Cup since 1975, is because I just haven't seen a whole lot of quit in these guys. That's the important thing. Even if this season goes totally down the tubes, they'll still get up to fight another day.]]> Thu, 21 Mar 2013 16:47:08 +0000
<![CDATA[ The Chosen Frozen]]>
Hockey history in Pittsburgh goes way, way back to the US Amateur Hockey Association and the Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets. While the team did manage to win their championship in two consecutive seasons, Pittsburgh back then was probably a baseball town, so the team did run into financial problems. The NHL gave Pittsburgh a team called the Pirates back in 1925, which made perfect sense because it was Pittsburgh that turned hockey into a professional sport in the United States way back in the 1890s. The Pirates ran for five years, then turned into the Philadelphia Quakers for another year before folding altogether. To replace them, Pittsburgh then picked up an AHL team called the Hornets, who won the Calder Cup three times.

Naturally, Pittsburgh was a strong candidate for an NHL expansion team in 1967, especially on the involvement of Jack McGregor, a state Senator who lobbied campaign contributors and community leaders to bring back the NHL. McGregor was banking on the idea that an NHL team would be an awesome urban renewal tool for Pittsburgh, whose decline had started by then. The local investors McGregor appealed to included the Heinz Company and Art Rooney, which gave the city a boost because Rooney owned the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers, and Heinz now has their name on the Steelers' field. He managed to add a bit more pull from Chicago Black Hawks owner James Norris and James's brother Bruce, who owned the Detroit Red Wings. You think the NHL was likely to say no to Pittsburgh with all that firepower going for it? Yeah, they got their team easily, and since the Pittsburgh Civic Arena was nicknamed The Igloo, they decided to call the team the Penguins. What connection Penguins have to Igloos, I don't know.

General manager: Jack Riley, who had previously general managed the AHL's Rochester Americans and built a team that won the Calder Cup. Of course, since the NHL was the NHL and was still ruling under the thumb of the Original Six, they didn't let Pittsburgh grab anyone who was, ahem, good. They did pick up Ken Schinkel, Keith McCreary, Bryan Watson, and Les Binkley. Yeah, those guys would recreate The Production Line, right? Fuck no, but to the surprise of everyone who doesn't follow the NHL, it was good enough for the Penguins to make the playoffs. In 1970 and 1972. The Penguins could have had an early superstar, and in fact they briefly did - in the 1969 draft they got Michel Briere, who was quickly drawing comparisons to Phil Esposito and Bobby Clarke. When he joined the Penguins formally, he was the top rookie in the league, and placed second in Calder Trophy voting, just behind Chicago's Tony Esposito. In the 1970 playoffs, the Penguins swept the Oakland Seals, with Briere scoring an overtime series-clincher. Briere led the Penguins that year in playoff scoring, even though the team lost the second round to the St. Louis Blues. Just days after the end of the playoffs, though, Briere was in a car crash in Quebec, suffering brain trauma which put him into a coma. He never recovered, and a year later, his brain finally surrendered and let it go.

By 1974, the Penguins were fighting it out with the California Golden Seals for last. Riley was fired and replaced. While his replacement did manage to pull the Pens up a notch in the standings, that still meant missing the playoffs. Maybe that would have gone somewhere, but in early 1975, Pittsburgh's creditors started going all shylock on their asses and demanding their debt payments. This forced the team into bankruptcy, the offices were padlocked, and it looked like they might be outta The Steel City. Around that time, there were rumors everywhere about how the Penguins and Golden Seals would be taken to Seattle and Denver respectively. The Seals did eventually wind up moving - they became the Cleveland Barons for two years before merging with the Minnesota North Stars, ending their existence. Pittsburgh was saved through an intervention group that involve former North Stars coach Wren Blair.

On ice, the Penguins' fortunes started to get better in the mid-70s. First they fielded The Century Line, with Syl Apps, Lowell MacDonald, and Jean Pronovost. In the late 70's, they slowly brought in better players like Rick Kehoe, Pierre Larouche, Ron Stackhouse, and Dave Burrows. That gave them offensive power that other teams feared, but despite big efforts from goalie Denis Herron, the Pens couldn't defend against The Mighty Ducks. I don't mean the NHL Mighty Ducks, I mean the little league Mighty Ducks from Disney. Although the offense looked like something that might push the team to a breakout, the Pens screwed up by replacing their general manager with Baz Bastien, a guy who liked to trade draft picks for old vets in their twilights. It worked in the short term, getting them to the playoffs in 1979 and allowing them a first round victory over the Buffalo Sabres before they were swept by the Boston Bruins. Unfortunately, it also damn near crippled them in the early 80s. They made a bunch of first round playoff exists. Sure they were drawing out seven-game series against much better and higher-seeded opponents every time, but a first round loss is a first round loss.

The Penguins bottomed out for two straight years and, with more financial problems, looked again like they would fold. As the 1984 season got close to its conclusion with the Pens just one spot ahead of the last place New Jersey Devils in the standings, Pittsburgh management started making a ton of dumbass moves that looked like they would weaken the team for another short term. As a result, the Penguins posted a whopping THREE six-game losing streaks in the final 21 games of the season to hit rock bottom. In one game, Pittsburgh held a 3-1 lead after the first period only to lose 6-3. It really made fans wonder what the hell was going on, and if coach Lou Angotti was really as bad as he had seemed for awhile. Maybe Angotti was desperate to rescue his job and acting like a fighter on the ropes with nothing to lose, doing everything in his power and trying every unconventional technique he could think of.

Then again, maybe he was tanking on purpose. (Read: That's EXACTLY what he was doing.) The biggest prospect in the draft that year was a big guy named Mario Lemieux, and he was one of the most highly touted prospects the league had ever seen. Angotti later admitted he tanked in order to get Lemieux and save the Penguins, although he never felt comfortable with the idea. Comfortable or not, it worked, even as teams offered substantial trade packages for the draft pick. Angotti held his ground, got Lemieux, and Lemieux immediately got to work in the following season. He scored on his first shot on his first-ever NHL shift. Although the Penguins still spent four more years out of the playoffs, Lemieux earned the respect of NHL fans and players everywhere, including Wayne Gretzky. While a handful of professional athletes have worn this particular nickname ever since the release of a certain video game, it's Lemieux who will always and forever be the original Super Mario.

Although the Penguins kept missing the playoffs for a few years, it wasn't as if they were doormats. In two years, they missed the playoffs by one game on the last day of the season. In 1987, they missed by two games and presumably gnashed their teeth as four teams with equal or worse records than them qualify. In 1989, with swarming talent like Kevin Stevens, Rob Brown, Paul Coffey, and Tom Barrasso there to assist Lemieux, the Penguins were finally in the playoffs again. In the early 90's, the Penguins kept strengthening their roster, bringing in Ulf Samuelssson, Bryan Trottier, and Lemieux's most famous lancer of all, Jaromir Jagr. In 1991, the Penguins went to the Stanley Cup Finals and thrashed a Cinderella Minnesota North Stars team with a losing record. This brought a huge development for the NHL: After the Finals, the Penguins were invited to meet President George Bush at the White House. Its been a longstanding tradition for sports champions to meet the President in the NFL, NBA, and MLB, and the Penguins were the first hockey team to ever be given that honor. It was a major statement for just how much the NHL was growing in the United States. Unfortunately, something sad also happened the following season when the Penguins lost their coach, Bob Johnson, to cancer. Although Scotty Bowman was brought in to replace him and the Pens won the Stanley Cup again, it was a rather somber victory.

Cancer, in the form of Hodgkin's disease, tried to claim Lemieux too. His career was left in jeopardy, but Lemieux took two months of aggressive radiation treatments and was out of the league the whole time. After his last treatment, though, he flew out to Philadelphia to rejoin his team for a game against the Flyers and even managed to score a goal and an assist. Super Mario was back, and before the game, the Philadelphia fans gave Lemieux a standing ovation, a moment to remember because sports fans KNOW how often Philadelphia fans applaud opposing players for anything at all, much less a guy playing for Pittsburgh. With Lemieux, the Penguins continued to be a dominant force in the NHL through the 90's. They didn't return to the Finals, but they did win the Presidents' Trophy in 1993. With new additions like Martin Straka and Alexei Kovalev, Pittsburgh kept making deep playoff runs until a first round loss to Philadelphia in 1997 stopped them dead.

Lemieux, concerned about his health, retired after the 1997 season. The Pens weren't quite as good as they used to be without him, but the real battle hit when their free-spending ways of the early 90's came back to bite them in the ass. They owed $90 million at one point, and were forced to file for bankruptcy yet again when Lemieux returned with an odd proposal: Years of deferred salary added up and made him one of the team's largest creditors. He asked if he could recover his money by turning it into equity and buying the Penguins, promising to keep them in Pittsburgh. The court and league both said yes, and so Super Mario had now saved the Penguins twice. And, oh yeah, he sort of unretired in 2000, even leading them on another deep playoff run in 2001. Although he stayed until 2006 this time, it didn't prevent the Penguins from falling back to the same position they were in back when Lemieux saved the team the first time: Rock bottom with dwindling attendance. In the 2004 Entry Draft, the Penguins had their hearts set on a young phenomenon named…. ALEXANDER OVECHKIN! HA! Yeah, you thought I was going to bring a certain OTHER young phenom into it, didn't you? Well, since Pittsburgh didn't bottom out quite as much as they needed to in order to get Ovechkin, Ovechkin went to the Washington Capitals. Second overall, the Penguins found a pick named Evgeni Malkin, so try not to cry for Pittsburgh too hard.

Everyone still bitches (rightfully) about the 2005 season lockout, but ironically, that lockout might have rescued the Pittsburgh Penguins. There were more whispers about a move, this time to Kansas City. This lockout, however, was caused in large part by the horrid financial shape of the Pens and many other teams like them, who kept filing for bankruptcy protection. And after it resolved, the league began organizing a draft lottery in order to protect itself and fans from, well, the kind of shit the Pens had pulled in order to win the draft rights to Mario Lemieux. Pittsburgh won that first draft lottery, and that gave them the rights to ANOTHER certain young phenomenon. Yes, you're free to just make the assumption now that you made last time. I'm talking about Sidney Crosby. The Next One.

Under Crosby and the new salary cap, the Penguins began to build. They found a ton of new talent, and in 2008 they made a wild move no one expected at the trade deadline, the Pens made a trade for Atlanta Thrashers dynamo Marion Hossa. It helped them get close to the top, as Hossa shed his then-reputation as a playoff choker with a playoff performance for the ages. The Penguins went to the Finals, losing a hard-fought six-game series against the Detroit Red Wings. Then they lost Hossa…. To Detroit, where he had wanted to go in order to win the Stanley Cup. So the Penguins - whom I've always since imagined to be a little pissed at Hossa - showed him up by going to the Finals again in 2009, and winning their third Stanley Cup. Against Hossa's new team. (I live that story. Even though Hossa now plays for my favorite team and helped them win the Stanley Cup in 2010, I still love it.) The Penguins have been arguably the best team in the league since.

Michel Briere and Mario Lemieux are the only Penguins who have had their numbers retired. Lemieux, though, was such a great and respected player that the league waived its three-year waiting period after retirement in order to put him in the Hall of Fame immediately. Even though I don't name Hall of Fame players in this series anymore, that should tell you something. Some of their other greats include Luc Robitaille, Tim Horton, Paul Coffey, Andy Bathgate, Bryan Trottier, and Ron Francis. The Penguins also have the distinction of being one of the four NHL teams coached by Herb Brooks, he of the Miracle on Ice. The other three are the New York Rangers, Minnesota North Stars, and New Jersey Devils. He wasn't a very good NHL coach, though; in seven total NHL seasons, he went 219-222-66. He made five playoff appearances, going to the second round three times. But hey, this is the NHL, where going to the playoffs means your team is good enough to win a bantam title, barely.

The big rivals of the Pittsburgh Penguins are the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals. The Flyers rivalry is the most natural, and it even has history and development behind it because both teams were created at the same time. They've both won the Stanley Cup multiple times, and both can easily be argued as the most successful team of the 1967 expansion. Both of them reside in Pennsylvania. The Capitals have faced the Penguins eight times in the playoffs, and the Pens hold a 7-1 advantage. The 2011 Winter Classic was between the Pens and Caps, and both teams are fielding players who can be argued as the best in the league - Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh and Alexander Ovechkin in Washington.

For a team that won the Stanley Cup three times, the Pittsburgh Penguins aren't exactly swimming in memory. A lot of the team's biggest moments involved financial instability, it seems. The fifth game of the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals was a big one, mostly because I believe it to be the greatest hockey game I've ever seen in my life. Also, Pittsburgh's second Stanley Cup was won in a sweep against the Chicago Blackhawks, and that's a series I consider as proof that sweeps don't always project dominance. In the first game, Chicago gave up a considerable lead. The third game ended with a 1-0 score. Three games were decided by one goal, and the fourth was decided by two. The Pens' identity rests largely on Mario Lemieux, who means everything to the team, and Sidney Crosby, who before he ever suited up for a single NHL game, had people who were so fucking stupid as to say he would break every record Wayne Gretzky ever owned. That's why his nickname is The Next One, which isn't heard very often these days while people call him Sid the Kid instead. Crosby isn't going to break very many of The Great One's records, if any, but he's plenty good and worthy of being the face of the league right now. Yes, I said the LEAGUE.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are sure looking awfully stable at the moment. If it was a few more years from now, I would rate them higher, but it's tough to get behind a team if its recurring pattern is to file for bankruptcy then get saved by one of the greatest damn players in NHL history. That's why I have to rate them low. Again, though, an adopting fan shouldn't get discouraged by my rating. The Pens are currently an excellent team and a lot of fun, and there's no better time to hop the bandwagon.]]> Wed, 20 Mar 2013 16:02:49 +0000
<![CDATA[ Crown Them]]>
Yep, it's easy to forget about the Kings and ask yourself, really, who the hell are the Los Angeles Kings? Just be sure not to ask within earshot of an NHL fan, lest you be promptly whapped upside the head and reminded: They're the goddamn Stanley Cup Champions, you idiot!

Los Angeles and hockey have actually been married for decades: The Pacific Coast Hockey League had the Los Angeles Monarchs of the 1930's and the Western Hockey League had the Los Angeles Blades in the 60's. That second league there, the WHL, created a lot of stir and fears in the senior NHL that the WHL was going to declare itself a major hockey league so it could be eligible to compete for the Stanley Cup. The NHL's solution was to expand in the hopes of nullifying the threat. In Los Angeles, there lived a Canadian expatriate and entrepreneur by the name of Jack Kent Cooke. Cooke was an astute observer, and among his various observations was that he wasn't the only Canadian expat living in southern California. Nor was he the only hockey fan expat living there. In fact, southern California was rife with expats from all over the place, including hockey-mad places like Canada and the northeastern United States. Natural fanbase, you know, people who probably missed being able to watch their sport of choice. Why not give them a new team to root for?

For the entry fee of $2 million, Cooke got a new team for Los Angeles in the 1967 expansion. He decided to call his team the Kings, and he assigned them the colors of purple and gold. The purple was later officially referred to as "forum blue," but it doesn't change the fact that those colors were assigned because they were traditional colors of royalty. And also because Cooke kind of, you know, owned the Lakers at the time. He originally meant for the Kings to play in Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, but the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission already had an agreement with the Blades. The pissed-off Cooke responded by saying "I am going to build my own arena… I've had enough of this balderdash." Harsh words from a Canadian!

The new arena wasn't completed by opening day, so the Kings played their first two months at Long Beach Arena. For the first few seasons, the coolest sport on Earth was introduced to the Los Angeles area through players with lovable nicknames: Bill "Cowboy" Flett, Eddie "The Jet" Joyal, Eddie "The Entertainer" Shack, and Real "Frenchy" Lemieux, the nicknames of whom were all Cooke's idea. In a nice debut run, the Kings finished second in the Western Division, just missing the winning Philadelphia Flyers by one point. The Kings were the only expansion team that posted a winning record at home, but that didn't stop them from getting wiped out in the playoffs at the hands of follow expansionists the Minnesota North Stars. It took seven games. The Kings followed it up with another good season, but eventually poor management started rearing its ugly head and the Kings ran into hard times. See, the team's general managers set upon a bad habit which they used as a keystone building philosophy for many years: Trade a first-round draft pick for a veteran NHL star who is past his prime! Since the Kings started doing that - the aforementioned hard times, you know - attendance also started to suffer. Cooke eventually mused that he finally knew why so many people from cold weather climates were moving to California: They hated hockey!

In 1972, the Kings actually made a couple of trades that worked out for them: First, the Montreal Canadiens had a goalie named Rogie Vachon. His career had started in 1967 as a backup there, but quickly established himself as The Man as he won the Vezina and two Stanley Cups. By 1972, though, he had managed to lose his starting job to some guy named Ken Dryden. Maybe you've heard of him. Since Vachon was now expendable, he demanded a trade and was sent to the Kings, where he became The Man once again and slammed shut a revolving goalie door. The second Bob Pulford, taken from the Toronto Maple Leafs, first as a player, than as a coach. With them, the Kings still missed the playoffs, for the first couple of years anyway. But under Vachon and Pulford, their rickety defense turned into one of the best in the league, and they were back in the playoffs by 1974. Pulford went to lead the Kings through three of the greatest seasons in team history, including a 105-pointer in 1975 that is still the Kings' best. They weren't able to capitalize on that success, though. 

In 1975, sick of first round playoff exits, the Kings traded for one of their defining players: Marcel Dionne, who had already established himself as a superstar with the Detroit Red Wings. And now the Kings were his boys when he took them to a record of 38-33-9 for 85 points and second place in their division. In the playoffs, they swept the Atlanta Flames in the first round, but the Boston Bruins beat them in the second. They returned to the playoffs the next season, sweeping the Flames AGAIN but losing to Boston AGAIN. In 1979, two unknown players were placed on Dionne's line: Dave Taylor and Charlie Simmer. Taylor was in just his second year, while Simmer spent his career so far in the minors. But them and Dionne, together, created one of the highest-producing lines in history. And since this line was so good, hockey people deemed them worthy of a cool nickname that must accompany all great hockey lines. In this case, that nickname was the Triple Crown Line! In 1981, the whole line was selected to play in the All-Star Game. They also won 43 games, but were upset in the first round again by the New York Rangers. 

1982 saw the Kings fall into 17th place in the league. The league had 21 teams at the time, so that's ordinarily wouldn't be a good standing. Since the NHL is the NHL and playoff spots are determined by whichever team can drink a slushy without getting a headache, though, the Kings were in the playoffs! The first round matched them up against the Edmonton Oilers, a rising team gathering a lot of talent that would enable them to dominate the 80's like few others before. Edmonton was equipped well back then, though it wasn't quite their time yet. The steams set the stage for a series which was one of the most amazing ever played. While no one gave the Kings a chance in hell, they managed to take the first game in Edmonton 10-8, which is still the highest-scoring Stanley Cup Playoff game in history. The Oilers recovered from that shock to win the second game, but it took overtime. With a series split in the first two games, the teams went to Los Angeles. The Kings went down quickly and easily, or at least that was the thought upon the conclusion of the first two periods, after which Edmonton was up 5-0 and no one would have blamed the Kings for phoning in the third period. What happened instead was that Los Angeles mounted an incredible all-out assault on the Oilers in the third period which saw them return from the dead, pick up all the momentum, and fucking tie the damn game with five second left to go! After just two and a half minutes of overtime, the Kings' Daryl Evans fired a slap shot right off a face-off which went over the shoulder of Edmonton goalie Grant Fuhr, and the Kings won the game! It was dubbed the Miracle on Manchester. Edmonton didn't recover from that nasty little jolt, and they bowed to the lowly Kings in just five games that year. The Kings didn't make it past the second round, though; they were fittingly booted by the Vancouver Canucks, who were almost as bad as the Kings but ended up in the Finals anyway.

The Kings were in middling purgatory by the mid-80's. They started missing the playoffs more. Vachon moved in as general manager in 1984. Dionne was traded to the Rangers in 1987. Of course, newer players were replacing them, and the youngsters coming in included Bernie Nicholls, Jimmy Carson, Luc Robitaille, and Steve Duchesne. Although these kids held their own, coach Pat Quinn decided to just up and quit for no reason. Well, okay, there was a reason: He signed up to be the coach and general manager of the Canucks. And with time left on his Kings contract too! NHL President John Ziegler considered that classless, tactless, and many other kinds of -less, so he suspended Quinn for the rest of the season and barred him from taking control in Vancouver until June. He also banned Quinn from coaching anywhere else in the league until the 1991 season. The Kings actually kept making the playoffs, but hey, you know, it's the NHL so that means precisely shit. Even if the Kings were better, the conferences were laid out so the Kings' road to the Finals took them through the great Oilers dynasty of the 80's, the almost-as-powerful Calgary Flames who became the one team to break the Oilers' dynasty, or worst of all, both. 

In their frequent playoff series against the Oilers, the Kings would watch Edmonton's guys with awe. In particular, there was this one guy named Wayne Gretzky who was so dominant that he owned one of those cute little nicknames worthy of Cooke's years: "The Great One." They'd sit, they'd stare on in hopeless admiration as Gretzky killed them time after time, like he did every other team in the NHL. Then in the late 80's, the small-market Oilers began having cash problems, and they felt the need to reduce payroll. The Kings' owner at the time, Bruce McNall, must have been a great Gretzky admirer from afar, because once The Great One was on the market, I like to imagine the conversation between McNall and the Kings' GM involved the GM screaming "DID YOU HEAR WAYNE GRETZKY IS AVAILABLE?!" Then McNall presumably screamed back, "YOU BET YOUR ASS I DID! GET HIM TO LOS ANGELES YESTERDAY! OR ELSE!" I can't specify what the "or else" was in this essay - even though I made that entire exchange up just now - because it never needed to come about. The GM swept in and nabbed The Great One!

Los Angeles was suddenly a contender! Gretzky, as he is wont to do, led the team in scoring and picked up the Hart Trophy in the process for the ninth time in his career. The Kings finished second in their division that year with a record of 42-31-7 for 91 points, which made them fourth overall in the league. In the first round of the 1989 playoffs, the Kings faced Gretzky's old team, the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers ran up a 3-1 series lead, though, but Los Angeles managed to rally and expel Edmonton. While this may look like a case of The Great One being able to flip off his former team, Los Angeles lost to Calgary in the second round. Sure, the Kings could contend with Gretzky, but what Los Angeles had erased from their minds was that while Gretzky was the shining star of the Oilers dynasty, he was surrounded by a treasure trove of some of the greatest talent to ever grace the NHL. The Oilers turned out to have one more Stanley Cup in them, which came in 1990 after that hiccup in 1989 where the Flames won it. The Kings won their only division title in 1991 but struggled in the playoffs. They took a first round matchup against Vancouver in six but lost in the second round to their good old buddies, the Oilers. Hell, the Oilers wiped out Gretzky's Kings in the playoffs in three straight years. 

By 1993, the Kings were flying with Gretzky, former Oilers dynasty Jari Kurri, Tony Granato, Rob Blake, Alexi Zhitnik, and Kelly Hrudey. They suffered a difficult stretch through the middle of the season, but by the playoffs, they were flying again as Barry Melrose coached the shit out of them! In the first round, the Kings scored an incredible 33 goals against the Flames. In the second round, they punded Vancouver, who had beaten Los Angeles five times out of seven during the regular season. The Western Conference Finals between Los Angeles and Toronto that year were classic. In the fifth game, Toronto won in overtime. In game six, the Leafs scored two third period goals to tie the game at the end of regulation. In game seven, Gretzky scored a hat trick and whacked Doug Gilmour in the face with his stick. The Kings won, and in the first Stanley Cup Finals they ever played, the faced mighty Montreal. The Kings did manage to steal the first game from a well-rested Habs team, but the second game, when Montreal coach Jacques Demers suspected Los Angeles enforcer Marty McSorley had an illegal stick, and so he requested a measurement. Demers was right - McSorley's stick had too much of a curve, McSorley was penalized, and Montreal pulled their goalie for a two-man advantage which they used to score and tie the game. Montreal won in overtime and went on to win the following three games for the Stanley Cup.

That was pretty much the crowning achievment for the Kings. Although Gretzky continued to score very prolifically while flanked by Robitaille, Blake, and Kurri, te Kings started slumping. While the Kings had created real excitement about hockey in southern California, their owner defauled on a loan, and Bank of America threatened to bankrupt his ass if he didn't sell. IDB Communications founder Jeffrey Sudikoff and Madison Square Garden president Joseph Cohen bought the team, but man, were they ever in for a shock: McNall's free spending put them in trouble. The new owners couldn't make payroll, and the team went bankrupt anyway. They were forced into a lot of trades, and so a talented roster started looking like Gretzky, McSorley, Blake, Kurri, and I'm sure after them the Kings would have paid any of the spectators to lace 'em up if they thought they could get away with it. Meanwhile, Gretzky was in search of his fifth Stanley Cup, and he started making a demand that the Kings find a 50-goal forward and an offensive defenseman. Or a trade, whichever they could afford. In 1996, they were able to afford the trade and sent him to the St. Louis Blues.

A second place finish in their division in 1998 was nice, but the Kings were effectively dead after that. Three straight playoff appearances from 2000 to 2002 were more of a reprieve than anything else. A rash of new veteran star signings like Valeri Bure, Jeremy Roenick, and Pavol Demitra weren't working out. Luc Robitaille, who had spent previous years lately bouncing between teams, returned but retired soon after. The Kings were now officially rebuilding, but with smart people running the front office, they started drafting and rebuilding very effectively. They found Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick. They traded for Ryan Smyth. They signed Simon Gagne. The 2012 season saw them opening by firing their coach, Terry Murray, and putting John Stevens in as interim for four games until Darryl Sutter was named for the position. They managed to make the eighth seed in the playoffs, with a 40-27-15 record. In the playoffs, they beat the first-seeded Canucks in five games. Then they crushed the Blues in four, and in the Western Conference Finals, they beat the Phoenix Coyotes in five. They became the second eighth seed to ever make it to the Finals. And in disposing of the New Jersey Devils in six games, the Kings became the first eighth seed in any American sport to ever win the Finals.

Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor, Luc Robitaille, Rogie Vachon, and Wayne Gretzky have all had their numbers retired. Gretzky, of course, I usually don't mention because his number was retired everywhere in the league, but he was legitimately a King, and he played for them in his prime, put up some serious numbers, and got them to the Finals. He's very important to their history. Other great Kings have included Paul Coffey, Bob Pulford, Larry Robinson, Terry Sawchuk, and Grant Fuhr. Taylor and Dionne, of course, helped make up the Triple Crown Line, a line that gave a lot of fans a lot of great Kings-related memories.

The Los Angeles Kings once had fierce playoff rivalries with the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames, but those aren't quite as strong as they used to be. Their biggest rivalry may be with the Vancouver Canucks, but I really don't get the feeling that Kings fans really throw themselves into rivalries.

The Kings have quite a few defining moments in their career. It's rare that they come out right on the top of anything, so that one division title they won in their history is a pretty big deal. So is that Finals appearance in 1993. So are any number of playoff series against the Edmonton Oilers, including the Miracle on Manchester. And of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention last season's Stanley Cup, the first the 45-year-old team ever won.

The Kings were trailblazers in hockey by being the first team to succeed in California. In 1967, two California teams were created: The Kings and the Oakland Seals. The Seals went through a series of name changes, though, which couldn't have meant anything good about their stability, and around a decade later, they moved to become the Cleveland Barons. The Seals stayed in Cleveland for two years, stinking up the NHL until their owner, in a last effort to keep the team from falling out of existence, merged with the Minnesota North Stars (today's Dallas Stars). The Kings lasted, and in fact excelled, and they found a large group of core supporters who can't help but be wild about their beloved Kings right now. As much as Detroit has the Red Wings, Buffalo has the Sabres, and Montreal has the Canadiens, the Kings truly belong in Los Angeles, and now they even have a Stanley Cup which lets them hang out with the cool kids, the Dodgers and Lakers.

The Kings changed their colors to silver and black in the early 90's. I've heard the theory they did it because of the Los Angeles Raiders, who wore the same colors. Maybe that was helping them get attention, but I'd like to think Wayne Gretzky and a winning team did more in that respect. Once the old purple and gold era closed, the Kings never really found a consistent symbol, and I guess the silver and black was brought back just because those were the team's only colors in the eyes of younger fans. It's odd that an attempt to piggyback off the colors of another, more popular team in a whole other sport created the team's defining color scheme, but apparently it happened.

Eighth seeds don't win anything. If they do, it's a fluke. Perhaps, though, the Los Angeles Kings' run last year was just an early, well-timed tap into their true potential. They're currently 12-7-2, in second place in the Pacific Division, so if you're looking for a team to get on board with, now may be the best time in the history of the Kings. You can't argue with a King, after all, and historically these Kings have much to be proud of. They're the kinds of Kings who would lead in the thick of battle, whether that battle is making an inroad for an unheard-of sport or winning the Stanley Cup.]]> Wed, 6 Mar 2013 20:34:07 +0000
<![CDATA[ Twinkle, Twinkle Little Stars]]>
Someone was a real shithead. I know that simply because I know the Stars began their life in the 1967 NHL expansion as the Minnesota North Stars. It was first announced back in 1965 that the NHL was going to expand by 100 percent, so it would have twelve teams instead of just the six it had had for the previous 25 years. In response, a nine-man partnership was created to get a franchise for the Minneapolis/St. Paul area in Minnesota. Since the league appears to have spent a small time frame back then operating on actual sense, it worked! The team would be called the Minnesota North Stars, following a public contest which decided the official motto of Minnesota would double as a perfect team name. That motto would be "L'Etoile du Nord," which is French for "The Star of the North." They blew it when it came to getting the arena built on time, though; seats were still being installed at the moment fans showed up for the team's first-ever game in 1967.

The North Stars were successful very early on. They were, in fact, in first place in the West Division halfway through the season. Of course, it should be noted that the NHL was stupid about divisional alignments for this expansion. They were in first place in their division because the league had taken all the expansion teams and tossed them into a division specifically created just for them. Halfway through the year, forward Bill Masterson was skating toward the opposing goal in one game when he slipped backward and slammed his head against the ice, which rendered him unconscious. He never regained consciousness, and two days after the accident, he died. Doctors described the death as a massive brain injury, and to this day, Masterson is the only player to have ever died from an injury sustained during a game. Hockey writers established a trophy in his honor to be awarded to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey. It was nice, but it didn't stop Minnesota from going on a six-game losing streak following the news of his death. Ultimately, they finished fourth in the division with a record of 27-32-15. Being an NHL team, this more than qualified them for the playoffs! They even managed to beat the Los Angeles Kings in the first round before falling to the St. Louis Blues in the West Finals. And that series went the distance, with the deciding game going into double overtime.

The team was led by players like Lorne Worsley, Cesare Maniago, Bill Goldsworthy, Dennis Hextall, and team Captain Ted Harris in the early days. It was a good thing the North Stars had such quality players because by 1972, the World Hockey Association was setting up shop across town. They put a team into the area called the Minnesota Fighting Saints. The NHL was smart enough to schedule the occasional exhibition game between the two leagues, but oddly enough, the North Stars never did get around to playing a (probably) much-anticipated - or at least hoped-for - game against the Fighting Saints. Even so, the Stars and Saints battered each other over who would get the cold, hard cash of Minnesota's hockey faithful. Eventually, the Saints folded because the WHA merged into the NHL and it was the North Stars who had the ever-important TV contract.

Ironically, the North Stars themselves were in financial dire straits by 1978 because the team had missed the playoffs in five of the previous six years. No one wanted to support a band of losers like that, and so attendance dropped so much that the North Stars were very close to going the way of the Fighting Saints themselves. A pair of brothers stepped in to help: The Brothers Gund, George III and Gordon. They owned another expansion team from 1967, the California Seals, who at this point were in their fourth incarnation and their second city as the Cleveland Barons, and they were also strapped like a boot. Their solution was so unique it's a shock the NHL let it happen: They would fold their team and merge it into the Minnesota North Stars. While the North Stars survived, the Gunds got a sweet deal out of it by becoming the majority owners of them. Many Barons players went to Minnesota to join their new team: Gilles Meloche, Al MacAdam, and Mike Fidler were among them, and while they helped bolster the lineup, the North Stars drafted Calder Trophy winner Bobby Smith and 40-goal scorer Steve Payne.

Early in 1980, Minnesota matched up against the Philadelphia Flyers. At the time, the Flyers were them-ing high on a 35-game undefeated streak, the longest undefeated streak in North American sports. The North Stars hit the gas in this game and brought Philadelphia's streak to an end with a 7-1 blowout. The night appeared to begin a turnaround for them. With new additions like Neal Broten and Dino Ciccarelli, the North Stars posted winning records for the next five years which included two trips to the Conference Finals: The first was in 1980 against Philadelphia, who avenged the end of their streak. The second was the following year against the Calgary Flames. This time, Minnesota won and jumped into their first-ever Stanley Cup Finals. They lost in five games, though, to the New York Islanders, who were the class of the NHL at the time.

In 1982, the North Stars landed a highly coveted draft pick by the name of Brian Bellows. He became an anchor for Minnesota over the 80's and in his rookie year, he took the team to 40 wins and 96 points, both the height of what the North Stars ever achieved in Minnesota. They fell to the Chicago Black Hawks in the second round, though. This time, failure only served to encourage the North Stars. Determined to erase their past failures, the team hired a new coach in Bill Mahoney, then made a blockbuster trade when they shipped Bobby Smith off to the Montreal Canadiens for Keith Acton and Mark Napier. It resulted in another division title, though that was more a result of the division being very weak than anything else. I mean, 39-win teams usually don't win divisions. The North Stars were the only team in their division that year to have a winning record. They finally defeated Chicago in the playoffs as well, which set them up to get them into the Finals for the second time in four years. There was just one problem which stood between Minnesota and another shot at the Stanley Cup: The Edmonton Oilers. Featuring Wayne Gretzky. And Mark Messier. And Jari Kurri. And Paul Coffey. And Grant Fuhr, for whom the great Andy Moog was a backup! If you think a 39-win team stood a chance against THAT firepower, you're probably a Texan.

After that year, the North Stars posted another winning season in 1986. It was their last winning season in Minnesota. The team fell out in the 1988 season, when it won only 19 games. But since this is the NHL and playoff spots might as well be decided by games of paper-rock-scissors, the North Stars were actually in contention for the playoffs right up until the very last day of the season! On the last day, they played against an equally putrid Toronto Maple Leafs team and lost, which cost them their playoff spot…. And officially made them the worst team in the league. That year, though, they drafted the player who went on to become not only their greatest, but arguably the greatest American player in NHL history: Mike Modano.

The North Stars were afflicted with nasty attendance problems, and the Gund Brothers apparently had designs of returning to the San Francisco Bay Area. The NHL didn't want the team to leave, so they compromised by giving them a new team for the area. Naturally, this required an ownership change, so the North Stars were bought. This actually seemed to energize the team at first, at least as much as a losing team can be energized: They posted yet another losing season in 1991, but got to the Finals anyway. However, since their opponents were the Mario Lemieux/Jaromir Jagr Pittsburgh Penguins, you can guess how a losing team did. Unless, of course, you're from Texas. Somehow, though, Minnesota did actually end up stealing two games to extend the Finals to six. Even so, they fans didn't turn out to support the North Stars, so the new owner got permission to move them after not reaching a stadium deal and a sexual harassment lawsuit which resulted in the owner's wife threatening to leave him if he didn't move the team. What that last one has to do with moving a team, I don't know, but the owner was widely hated in Minnesota after leaving. Both the team and the league did what they could to mend the emotional wounds left there. When Dallas won the Stanley Cup, their video paid tribute to the North Stars, and the NHL promised a new team.

The Dallas Stars were an experiment. They were one of the three teams in the south, along with a pair of totally new teams in Florida, the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning. They were all meant to see how well hockey would fly in non-traditional markets. The team was virtually unknown even in Dallas, but word picked up when they started winning for once. They got Guy Carbonneau, Joe Nieuwendyk, and coach Ken Hitchcock. By 1997, the Dallas Stars were contenders. In 1998, they fell in the Western Conference Finals. In the 1998 offseason, the Stars acquired Brett Hull, who had fallen out with his old St. Louis Blues after establishing himself as an all-time great with them.

The 1999 Stars won 51 games and recorded 114 points. They won their division, the Presidents' Trophy, and their goalies won the William Jennings Trophy for fewest goals against. They tore through Edmonton and St. Louis in the playoffs before playing a big, rivalry-establishing series against the Colorado Avalanche which went for seven games. In the Stanley Cup Finals, they faced a brutally physical Buffalo Sabres team. While Dallas was easily the better team on paper, Buffalo slugged it out for six difficult games, splitting the first four. After losing game five 2-0, the Sabres dragged game six through three overtimes before Brett Hull scored the most controversial goal in the history of the NHL. After a long-ass review, officials decided to let the goal stand. Back then, the league had the infamous Crease Rule in effect, and long story short, the officials decided to overlook a loose puck and a second shot on the idea of it being a single possession. The trouble with the whole scenario is that, no matter what the rule said or what happened in Buffalo's crease, the rule had been applied rather liberally throughout its entire existence. When it was applied, it seemed to go on the basis of any individual official's interpretation. The goal was allowed, and the Dallas Stars had "won" the purty spittoon. In other words, Buffalo was royally fucked. Dallas, meanwhile, returned to the Finals the following year, but lost to the New Jersey Devils.

Over the first half of the millennium, Dallas was absolutely dominant. At least until the playoffs started, that is! In 2001, they went to the second round but were offed by a sweep against St. Louis. They enjoyed a winning year in 2002 but didn't make the playoffs. The next year, they posted the best record in the Western Conference, only to be ousted in the second round again by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. In 2004, they were beaten in the first round by Colorado. The next year, there was the lockout.

The post-lockout new rules got the Stars to start making changes, letting some of their vets leave as free agents and signing guys like Eric Lindros, Matthew Barnaby, Jeff Halpern, and Darryl Sydor. They really didn't fit the model of the new NHL, so they got into the playoffs as the sixth seed and were booted in the first round by the Vancouver Canucks. They've been declining since then, and making a lot of stupid moves which didn't pan out. First of all, Sean Avery. Yeah, he can hit, but he's a dirty player and a cheap shot artist who made his infamous "sloppy seconds" comment about actress and ex-girlfriend Elisha Cuthbert during his stint in Dallas. That got him suspended for the season, and he was later waived. They cut Johnathan Cheechoo. They released Marty Turco and Mike Modano while nabbing Andrew Raycroft to replace them. These aren't smart moves, and Dallas has been out of the playoffs for four years now. They seem to be improving at the moment, but by that, I mean their current season record is 10-11 and not as bad as it could be. They're in tenth place in the Western Conference.

The Dallas Stars have retired the numbers of Neal Broten, Bill Goldsworthy, and Bill Masterson. Mike Modano will probably have his number retired. All four players began their careers with the Minnesota North Stars, and only Broten and Modano have played for them during the Dallas days. Their all-time roster also includes Brett Hull and Ed Belfour, both of whom played for the 1999 team. The Stars originally drafted Jarome Iginla, the current face of the Calgary Flames, in 1995, but let him go in very short order. Brian Bellows, Dino Ciccarelli, and Bobby Smith are among the team's all-time scoring leaders. Despite being one of the more historic teams in the NHL, they're surprisingly short on names.

It was a shame the Stars moved out of Minnesota, because they could have joined in the Central Division and possibly been part of a longstanding battle which also included the Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, and St. Louis Blues. (Provided, of course, the Nashville Predators and Columbus Blue Jackets would have been in another division.) The Dallas Stars have developed a playoff rivalry with the Colorado Avalanche, and that was really something back when both teams were regularly contending. This doesn't mean one of them has an advantage, though, because Colorado currently sucks too. Be that as it may, the Dallas Stars are currently fodder for the Anaheim Ducks, who are looking like they're in the middle of a great resurgent season; the Los Angeles Kings, who won the Stanley Cup last season; the perpetually dangerous San Jose Sharks; and the always-there Phoenix Coyotes. Okay, that's cruel to Phoenix - they made a surprise run last season and have a lot of promise for the future. They're a point behind Dallas in the standings right now. Even though the Stars are in tenth place in the conference, this is a conference where a mere two points is all that separates the Stars from the third-place Blues and Canucks.

One of the defining moments for the Stars is one of hockey's most tragic: Bill Masterson. He was given an honor by having his number retired and a new trophy created in his memory, and his death isn't the fault of anyone. Maybe people who don't know anything about hockey are wondering just how a player hitting his head on the ice could have done such damage to a man. The explanation is simple: Back then, the position players didn't wear helmets. Goalies had only started wearing them nine years before, when legendary Montreal Canadiens goalie Jaques Plante got fed up after taking one too many pucks to the head. Since the NHL is just that pathetic, things didn't change after his death. It wasn't until 1979 that helmets were finally mandated.

The other great defining moment in Stars history comes from Dallas, and the taint on it is so dark that the vast majority of NHL fans and workers don't even consider it valid. That would be the No Goal Game which won the Stanley Cup for them against Buffalo. The only support for it these days seems to be coming out of Dallas, even though the Dallas Morning News hockey writer was the first one to question it. The NHL archives will say Dallas won the purty spittoon that year, and despite being a complete idiot about it for the ensuing ten years, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman even admitted he screwed up handling it. The man who scored the goal, Brett Hull, adamantly defends the goal's legality, but even he admits the way the rule was set up screwed the Sabres. The controversy actually caused the repeal of the Crease Rule the following season. (And even after its repeal, it showed up one final time in the following season's playoffs to screw the Sabres. After that game, one of the league's executives actually called the postgame show to explain just what happened.)

The Dallas Stars should be more storied than they are. Yes, they do have diehard fans in Dallas, but it seems like the crowds there prefer to wait for their beloved Cowboys to hit the turf while an ice sport takes a backseat. Even without the No Goal, they don't have very much going in their favor. The fact that Gary Bettman apparently used their move to Dallas as a springboard to trying a mass southern expansion works against them, considering how that's been going. There isn't a whole lot to make me believe anything which goes against the northern perception of southerners believing the greatest trophy in sports is just a purty spittoon and wishing the Dallas Stars had been able to win the Stanley Cup as the Minnesota North Stars so the people at the games would at least recognize it for what it really is: The world's greatest beer mug.]]> Sat, 2 Mar 2013 21:50:26 +0000
<![CDATA[ On Winged Wheels]]>
In 1926, it was a well-known fact that the Western Canada Hockey League was on its last legs and soon going bye-bye. The NHL was looking to expand at the time, and Detroit put in five applications for a team. The league was pretty firmly set on a plan to put one new team in Detroit and another new team in Chicago, but that plan was met with opposition by the New York Americans, who preferred that Chicago get both new teams. Back then, things like that needed unanimous approval, so the Amerks' dissent was all that was needed to set up a nice little roadblock. A month later, though, the NHL amended its constitution so that all that was required was a simple majority, and so it went to pass that both Chicago and Detroit would get one team each. Now, who to find to create those teams?

On May 3 that year, just a day after the NHL constitution was amended, a pair of Detroit promoters named Morris Caplan and Morris Friedberg made an announcement: They had bought the Victoria Cougars, the Stanley Cup Champions of 1925, in expectation of getting an NHL team! Detroit was tentatively given a team, but Caplan and Friedberg weren't the ones getting it - rather, it was a whole different group. It was conditional, though: The group needed to have an arena ready to go for the upcoming season. At the time, it was expected to be ready in December, and in the meantime, the Cougars were sold for $100,000, of which the aforementioned Caplan and Friedberg got a cool $25,000 cut. By September, the team got its permanent approval, and the Victoria Cougars were officially now the Detroit Cougars. The name fit with Detroit's sports ethos. The city already had a football team called the Lions and a baseball team called the Tigers, right? The NHL, though, doesn't consider the Detroit Red Wings a continuation of the Victoria Cougars.

Oh, yeah: The arena wasn't quite ready for the season, so in their inaugural season, the Detroit Cougars might as well have been called the Windsor Cougars, since they played in Windsor, Ontario. The team was managed by Art Duncan, a former player from the Calgary Tigers. To get him, the Cougars had to ditch players Art Gagne and Gord Fraser because of some distribution rules. The team went 12-28-4 in its first season, which was the worst record in the NHL that year. The Cougars traded Duncan to the Toronto Maple Leafs, replaced him with Jack Adams, and started improving. In their second year, the Cougars went 19-19-6. By 1929, the Cougars were a playoff team with Carson Cooper leading in scoring. In a two-game series against Toronto which was decided by the number of goals scored, Detroit was outscored 7-2.

In 1930, a newspaper promotion resulted in the Cougars changing their name to the Detroit Falcons. In 1932, Chicago grain merchant James E. Norris bought the team and wiped out its financial problems. His first act was to change the team's name yet again, this time to the name they've gone by ever since: The Red Wings. In 1933, the found rookie of the year Carl Voss. The next season, they made their way to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time, only to lose to the Chicago Black Hawks. In 1936, though, they reached the Finals again, playing the longest overtime game in NHL history, a six-OT marathon against the Montreal Maroons, along the way. In the Finals, they defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs. The following season, they returned to the Finals and won their second Stanley Cup against the New York Rangers. And to cap off this eventful decade, in 1938 the Red Wings played games against the Montreal Canadiens in Paris and London, which made them the first NHL teams to play in Europe.

They began the 40's just as strong. They made the Finals in 1941, 1942, and 1943, winning their 1943 matchup by sweeping the Boston Bruins. The Red Wings were a solid contender through the rest of the 40's, and they managed to make the Finals another three times. Those Finals appearances, however, took a backseat to a certain player they were fortunate enough to pick up in 1946: A guy by the name of Gordie Howe, whom you may have heard of. In Red Wings history, Howe is THE guy. He is frequently in the discussion for the greatest player in NHL history, at least for the era before Wayne Gretzky arrived and closed every conversation regarding the subject. Since it was his first season and he hadn't reached his prime yet, though, he wasn't yet the guy who kept opposing goaltenders up scared through the nights. In fact, in his first season, he only recorded seven goals and 15 assists. In his second season, though, he was paired up with his linemates Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay to form one of the greatest lines in NHL history: The Production Line.

Detroit wouldn't win the Cup again until 1950, though, when they fought the Rangers to a double overtime in a seventh game - as fans refer to it, hockey as it should be. It was upon that victory that Ted Lindsay took the Stanley Cup and skated around the ice today, beginning one of the greatest traditions in professional sports. The Production Line led them to the Stanley Cup three more times during the 50's. Now, usually a run like that would be a great show of dominance, but the NHL was corrupt as hell during the Original Six era, which ran from 1942 to 1967. Red Wings owner Norris was probably the sneakiest guy of a group of magnificent bastards. Norris owned the Red Wings, and the NHL had a firm rule stating that no owner could own more than one team. Norris, however, leapt through more loopholes than, well, uh, something that leaps through a lot of loopholes. First of all, he owned the lease to Chicago Stadium and the president of the Chicago Black Hawks, Bill Tobin, was basically his personal little puppet, meaning Norris basically owned the Black Hawks too. He also held majority stock over the New York Rangers, and since he had helped pay mortgages for the Boston Bruins during The Great Depression, he held a strong influence over them too. That covered four of the Original Six, and the only one he cared about was his Red Wings. Furthermore, after World War II, the league constantly rejected expansion bids, the criteria for which seemed to keep mysteriously changing. Hell, the war damaged the league so badly that two of the league's teams, the New York Americans and Montreal Maroons, had to suspend operations. When they tried to reactivate, the league wouldn't let them. Both of those teams technically still exist, but they haven't been active in a long time. The results showed in the standings: After 1941, the Red Wings, Canadiens, and Maple Leafs won every last Stanley Cup until 1970, when Boston broke up the monopoly for good. During that span, those same three teams only missed the playoffs eight times, COMBINED. There was an exception to the tri-team Stanley Cup monopoly in 1961, when Chicago collected enough talent and payroll to steal it, but since it didn't really prove or change anything, it is usually written off as an aberration by hockey historians.

I had to bring that up because while Detroit was doing well, Ted Lindsay was pissed off at the owners' absolute control and the conditions players had to play under. Even though he had led the Red Wings to the Cup in 1955 and the Finals in 1956, Lindsay and a fiery, outspoken young goalie named Glenn Hall were traded to Chicago in 1957. The reason? They teamed up with Montreal defenseman Doug Harvey to form a players' union. That was one of a rash of bad trades. In 1955, they traded Terry Sawchuk to Boston. They traded to get him back two years later, but his best days were behind him, so it was extremely lopsided when they had to give up Johnny Bucyk in order to do it. The Wings were reeling by the late 50's, but underwent a short rejuvenation in the early 60's. They still had Howe, after all, and Ted Lindsay made a quick comeback while Norm Ullman and Parker MacDonald scored consistently. They made the Finals four times between 1961 and 1966, but lost every time. In 1963, Jack Adams, who had been coach for 15 years and general manager since 1932, was fired.

A year after they had last made the Finals, Detroit finished out of the playoffs. It was the beginning of a seemingly endless dark period for the team. Between 1967 and 1983, the Red Wings only went to the playoffs twice, and they only won one playoff series. From 1968 to 1982, they had a whopping 14 head coaches, and that doesn't even include interims. None of them lasted three seasons. There were time factors involved: The old development system was phased out of the sport, which was bad for Detroit because it allowed Jack Adams to get young prospects to commit to his team by the time they were 16. In 1970, the Red Wings hired a successful college coach named Ned Harkness, who was another factor when he tried to force a new style of play on a group of old veterans. He was also a strict disciplinarian who tried to set new rules demanding short hair, no smoking, and limits on drinking and phone calls. While he was promoted to general manager halfway into his first season, he was also forced to resign by 1973. There was the 1967 expansion. And although Detroit managed to acquire Frank Mahovlich in a trade with the Leafs in 1967 and he had two great years there lined with Howe and Alex Delvecchio, he was traded to Montreal in 1970. And speaking of Howe, have you noticed how I mentioned that he first arrived in 1946? Yeah, after playing for a very productive 25 years as the face of the Detroit Red Wings, Howe laced 'em up for the last time in 1971. Delvecchio left in 1974. During this era, the team became known as the Dead Wings.

Help wasn't exactly in a hurry to get to Detroit. The Dead Wings era lasted into the early 80's. Finally, things started to look brighter in 1983, when the Red Wings drafted Steve Yzerman. In his first year, Yzerman led the Wings in scoring. With a little help from John Ogrodnick, Ivan Bolirev, Ron Duguay, and Brad Park, Detroit finally made it back to the postseason. Although the Wings sank back into irrelevance for the following couple of years, 1983 was the beginning of what eventually became a run of dominance which would have made the Detroit Red Wings teams of the 50's proud. Hell, it would have made the Montreal Canadiens dynasty of the 50's proud, and those guys won the Stanley Cup five times in a row! By 1987, Yzerman was aided by Petr Klima, Adam Oates, Gerard Gallant, and Darren Veitch, and they ran all the way to the Conference Finals before the Edmonton Oilers finally did them in. They also won the next year for the first time in 23 years, but their division was notably weak, and the Red Wings were the only winning team in it. While they made the playoffs regularly again, they weren't especially good for the late 80's and early 90's.

That all changed when coach Scotty Bowman, the greatest coach in NHL history, took the wheel in 1993. In 1995, he got Detroit to the Finals, where they were swept by the New Jersey Devils. That, however, was just a temporary setback. The Wings were flooded with star power now: Nicklas Lidstrom. Darren McCarty. Brendan Shanahan. In 1997, they were back in the Finals to face the Philadelphia Flyers, who were led by their Legion of Doom line consisting of Eric Lindros, John LeClair, and Mikael Renberg. The Flyers were favored, but Bowman threw a finesse defense at them featuring Lidstrom and Larry Murphy, whose puckhandling abilities effectively made the Legion's vaunted forechecking pretty much useless. LeClair and Lindros only scored one goal each during the whole series, and they both came well after the games were over. Detroit swept Philadelphia. The following season, they defended their Stanley Cup in another sweep, this time against the Washington Capitals.

Detroit, for everything going wrong with the city itself, was a hockey players' most desirable destination by the millennium. The talent they were collecting at the time showed it: Luc Robitaille, Dominick Hasek, and Brett Hull were all along for the ride by then. Joined by rookie center Pavel Datsyuk, you bet your ass this team was gonna do some damage! They all won the Stanley Cup again in 2002 in five games over a Cinderella Carolina Hurricanes team. Bowman retired in 2003, but with the talent they had amassed, nothing could stop them. They've been one of the top Vegas lines to win nearly every year. In 2006, the won the Presidents' Trophy; it was their fifth. In 2007, Steve Yzerman retired as one of the great players in NHL history and a guy totally worthy of the legacy of Gordie Howe's team. That did nothing at all to slow them down. They simply made Lidstrom their Captain. Then they returned to the Stanley Cup Finals and beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games, including a classic fifth game. The following year, they signed Marian Hossa. The previous year, Hossa had been traded from the Atlanta Thrashers to the Penguins, and helped the Pens get to the Finals. It was a single-year contract which Hossa said was strictly so he could finally have a turn to win the Stanley Cup. Well, he did play a huge part in getting the Red Wings to the Finals in 2009, where they faced…. The Penguins. And this time, the Penguins avenged their loss from the previous year, meaning Hossa now had the distinction of playing for two Stanley Cup runners-up in a row, the second of which he had signed with solely to win the whole thing. Don't feel too bad for him, though; after his year with Detroit, I guess he thought to himself "fuck it" because he signed a longer contract with yet another new team. His new team, the Chicago Blackhawks, got him to the Finals for the third time in three years with his third team - a first in the NHL. This time, he finally won.

The Detroit Red Wings are still a juggernaut. In 1995, they won both the Presidents' Trophy and the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl. Even though they lost the Stanley Cup, it was still the start of a run that made them the closest thing the NHL currently has to a dynasty. Over the next 14 years, they managed to compile five more of both of those, as well as four Stanley Cups. They're still a great team and an ever-present threat to win the Stanley Cup.

The Detroit Red Wings have retired the numbers of Terry Sawchuk, Ted Lindsay, Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio, Sid Abel, and Steve Yzerman. Notable players from their history include Dominick Hasek, Luc Robitaille, Larry Murphy, Brett Hull, Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Chris Chelios, and Curtis Joseph. That list consists of players who have played for Detroit during the millennium. Lindsay was the first player to try to organize a union, along with another then-Red Wing, Glenn Hall. Hall would go on to form his own incredible career with the Chicago Black Hawks. Gordie Howe is known as Mr. Hockey, and as I mentioned, he was arguably the greatest player of the pre-Wayne Gretzky era. He was also one of the toughest guys in the league; back in his day, there were no designated checking line guys there to act as enforcers, so all the great players had to look out for themselves. Howe was so good and so tough that he even has a term named for him: The Gordie Howe Hat Trick. A player is said to have achieved this feat by scoring a goal, an assist, and getting into a fight all in one game. While it was named for him, Howe actually only pulled off the feat twice in his career. The list of great historical players who have been Red Wings at one time or another has to be seen to be believed, because it's pretty impressive.

The Detroit Red Wings, being an Original Six team, are another team easily identifiable through their sweaters and the large number of Stanley Cup banners hanging from the rafters of their home arena. They've won the Stanley Cup eleven times, more often than any team in the United States and more than all but the Toronto Maple Leafs (13 times) and Montreal Canadiens (24 times). The logo comes from the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association, which James E. Norris had been a member of. The club had roots in cycling, and were known as the Winged Wheelers. The Red Wings have a longstanding rivalry with the Chicago Blackhawks, and the St. Louis Blues got in on the act when they were formed too. The Chicago rivalry is THE rivalry, though, one of the marquee contests of the NHL, because it's older and the two cities hate each other for every other sport as well.

The Red Wings have The Legend of the Octopus! This seems like a pretty offhand thing. The practice started back in the 1952 playoffs, because back then the number of arms the octopus has represented the number of playoff games the team needed to win the Stanley Cup. It started when a pair of brothers who owned a store in Detroit threw an octopus onto the rink. Since then, the practice persisted. (I hope to god the octopi being thrown were already dead.) Now the octopi are stuffed animals, and the unofficial mascot of the team is a giant octopus hanging from the rafters of Joe Louis Arena affectionately named Al, after the owner of the Arena. Other teams have adopted the practice of throwing stuffed animals onto the ice during playoff games. For the Florida Panthers, it's rats; it's catfish for the Nashville Predators; a rubber snake for the Phoenix Coyotes; salmon for the Vancouver Canucks; and in an incident in the 2010 second round between the Red Wings and San Jose Sharks, a small shark with an octopus inside its mouth.

There's pretty much no downside at all to adopting the Detroit Red Wings these days. Really, it's just the threat of being treated like a bandwagon fan. They're currently the most consistently great team in the league, and while they wear red, their touch is pure gold.]]> Thu, 28 Feb 2013 17:39:03 +0000
<![CDATA[ Falling Leafs]]>
Wait…. Editors message…. What the hell do you mean, it was a movie?! You realize that I now have to start this essay all over again?!

(Seven hours later….)

Okay. Ready now. It's incredible to see the NHL's legendary Toronto Maple Leafs spiral out of control the way they have over the past several decades. This is one of the league's premier teams we're talking about here, one of its oldest, and one with 13 Stanley Cups under its belt. (Only the Montreal Canadiens have more, with 24.) They are the most valuable franchise in the NHL. However, their best years appear to have just dropped off the face of the Earth. They haven't even made the Finals since 1967, which was the last year of the Original Six before the expansions began. How did this happen? Let's see if we can find out.

In 1909, the National Hockey Association was founded. They didn't have a team in Toronto, though, because none of the play places there were big enough. By 1911, though, they got that big-enough arena, and so they got a new team called the Toronto Blueshirts. (Officially, they were known only as Toronto Hockey Club, though.) They turned into an excellent team, too, winning the Stanley Cup in 1914 and 1918. After winning that first Stanley Cup, they were bought by a man named Eddie Livingstone. Unfortunately, Livingstone was a real asshole. See, his entrance into the NHA pissed off the other owners because the league charter forbade one owner to own more than one team, and when Livingstone bought the Blueshirts, he already owned the Toronto Shamrocks. He also argued with the owners of his team's arena over lease terms and threatened to move the team to Boston. He bickered over the rights to players. When the league was reduced to five teams in 1917 and needed to vote to suspend one in order to keep the league going on an even number of teams, it shouldn't surprise you by now to learn it was the Blueshirts who were suspended. Nor should it come as a big shock that this didn't sit well with Livingstone, who sued the other owners. By November of 1917, the other owners were fed up, but their league constitution didn't allow them to simply vote the Blueshirts out. So they suspended their whole league and, without telling Livingstone anything, formed a whole new league of their own: The National Hockey League. Although the NHA was officially now a one-team league, the founding NHL teams remained members of the NHA on paper and were able to keep voting down Livingstone's attempts to keep the league running.

At the time, Toronto was Canada's second-largest city, so naturally the NHL needed a team there. The Toronto Arena Company was given a temporary franchise, and they got to use the old Blueshirt players until the quarrels with Livingstone were finished. The Toronto team, still called the Blueshirts or just the Torontos, won the inaugural Stanley Cup in the new league. In spite of the Blueshirt players on the roster, NHL history records the Blueshirts' and Leafs' histories as separate. The next season, the NHA voted against playing again, which of course was code for the fact that all the owners would be doting over the NHL. Livingstone filed another lawsuit, and instead of settling and giving money or players to Livingstone, the Arena Company returned its temporary franchise to the NHL and then created a new one of its very own! The new team was called the Toronto Arena Hockey Club, better known as the Toronto Arenas. With Livingstone fighting to bring back the NHA, the Arena Company decided only NHL teams would be allowed to compete on their home ice, which was a decisive blow to Livingstone. Livingstone's lawsuits dragged through the Canadian legal system for almost a decade, and while the courts eventually decided in his favor, he never got his team back.

Lawsuits have a habit of piling up bills, though, and these bills were taking chunks of change so big that the Arenas had to start selling off their stars. For the 1919 season, they won a putrid five games and were so bad, they actually requested permission to suspend themselves before league president Frank Calder talked them out of it. Five-game winners have a habit of sitting out Finals no matter what the sport (most of the time, anyway), so they got to watch the 1919 Finals between the Seattle Metropolitans and Montreal Canadiens on TV or, well, whatever it was they used back in those days. The 1919 Finals were called off by a Spanish Flu epidemic, though; Montreal, having basically no team, tried to forfeit. Seattle, wanting to be sportsmanlike about it, refused to take the Cup. The Finals were cancelled and the NHL records the Stanley Cup as unawarded for the season. But since the Arenas were desperate for a bright spot that year, they proclaimed themselves the World Champions anyway, by default.

In 1919, Livingstone (christ, we're STILL on this guy?) won a judgement against the Arena Company for a cool $20,000. Upon getting the decision, the Arena Company , acting quickly, declared bankruptcy just to fuck him over. They were sold, and former Arenas manager Charlie Querrie put together a group of people who had run an amateur team from the Ontario Hockey Association called the St. Patricks. So that became the new team name. In 1922, the St. Patricks finished second to the Ottawa Senators, but caught fire in the playoffs and fought the Sens themselves in a two-game Finals which was decided by the total number of goals scored. Ottawa scored four. Toronto, five. It was their second Stanley Cup, and the only one they pulled in as the Toronto St. Patricks. They missed the playoffs in four of the next five years, though.

In the late 20's, Querrie lost a lawsuit to Livingstone (ach! HIM again!) and sold the St. Patricks to an ownership group led by Toronto Varsity Graduates coach Conn Smythe. Smythe argued that Querrie should reject a better offer coming from Philadelphia, because civic pride was more important than money. When Smythe took over on Valentine's Day of 1927, he renamed the team the Maple Leafs. The next year, they played for the first time wearing their iconic blue and white sweaters. Smythe's teams started a little slow; they were pretty bad for his first four years. But it wasn't too long before Smythe started performing the work that made his name one of the chief names hockey historians absolutely have to know. He put together the great Kid Line, featuring Busher Jackson, Joe Primeau, and Charlie Conacher and matched them with coach Dick Irvin. In 1932, they went the distance and defeated the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Finals. Smythe was quite happy about that; he had been tapped as The Man to run the Rangers, but was fired within a year because of a dispute only to be upended by them.

Eddie Shore of the Boston Bruins almost killed Leafs star forward Ace Bailey in 1933 with a nasty hit from behind. Coming to Bailey's aid, Red Horner knocked Shore out, but Bailey was writhing on the ice. His career was over, but the Leafs avenged him by reaching the Finals. In fact, they got to the Finals in five of the following seven years, but never won. One of the losses was to the now-defunct Montreal Maroons. Their 1940 loss was to the Rangers, which I'm sure Smythe was ecstatic (read: royally fucking pissed off) about. In 1940, the Leafs helped keep their archrivals, the Montreal Canadiens, in the league. They were pretty much dead at that point, and Smythe didn't want to see them go, so to get them to be good enough to make them a gate attraction, he asked them to hire Dick Irvin. Yep, his own outstanding coach. Irvin went on to win the Stanley Cup three more times with Montreal, setting them up to become the most successful team in NHL history. Smythe replaced him with Hap Day, and he couldn't complain. Day took them back to the Finals in 1942, where they came back from a 3-1 series hole against the Detroit Red Wings to win. No other team has pulled that off since.

The Maple Leafs proved to be deep and rich with talent. In the early 40's, like every other team, they were getting decimated by aging stars, plus health problems, plus some ridiculous little war that was going on. So their lesser-known players like Frank McCool (yes, that was his real name) and Babe Pratt. Despite all their losses, they still won the Stanley Cup in 1945. And then in 1947 as well. Also in 1948. And 1949. Those last three were the first time any NHL team put together such a streak of Cup successes. With the 1948 victory, the Leafs claimed the title for most Stanley Cups over the Canadiens, a record Montreal would take back in ten years. In 1951, the Leafs and Canadiens met in the Finals. All five games went to overtime. In the fifth game, Tod Sloan scored with 42 seconds left to send the game to overtime, where Bill Barilko scored the winner for Toronto, which clinched the series and brought Toronto a fourth Stanley Cup in five years. Sadly, Barilko disappeared in a plane crash four months later near Timmins, Ontario. A popular Canadian band, The Tragically Hip, wrote the song "Fifty Mission Cap" based on his plight.

After 1951, Toronto wasn't playing like they used to, so the Cup went to the Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings year after year. The Habs' 50's dynasty closed with a sweep of Toronto. In the 60's, though, Toronto was able to pick up another band of future legends like Frank Mahovlich, Red Kelly, Johnny Bower, Dave Keon, Andy Bathgate, and Tim Horton under their great coach and general manager, Punch Imlach. Imlach brought them more Stanley Cups in 1962, 1963, 1964, and 1967. The 1967 Stanley Cup is a sentimental watershed for the Leafs. They played in the Finals against Montreal, and Montreal was such a heavy favorite that they built a Stanley Cup stand for the 1967 World Expo in the city. The Leafs were written off as has-beens, but their experience proved to be a difference-maker as they clinched the Stanley Cup in six games.

Imlach may have won the Stanley Cup four times, but he had a few key flaws as a coach. First, he was autocratic and insulting. Andy Bathgate publicly complained about him in 1965. Second, he never could accept the Players' Association, which was created around that time. That presumably caused a lot of friction, since it was led by Leaf players. Third, he couldn't seem to figure out the new talent influx brought about by the 1967 expansion. He engineered a ton of turnover but there wasn't any improvement, so Stafford Smythe (Conn's son, who owned the team now) fired him after a bad first round playoff loss to the Boston Bruins.

Ownership changed hands from Stafford Smythe to Harold Ballard after Ballard, a partner, bought Smythe's shares after Smythe's death. Stafford Smythe's boy Thomas insists Ballard doctored the will in order to do that. No matter what happened, it doesn't change the fact that Ballard became one of the most hated owners in NHL history. He traded the team's most popular players, blocked Dave Keon from signing with another NHL team when his contract wore out - causing him to jump to the WHA - and actively kept payroll as low as he could get away with in order to reel in as much money as he could. The Toronto Maple Leafs on the 70's featured players like Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Tiger Williams, Ian Turnbull, and Borje Salming. They were competitive, but they only made it past the first round of the playoffs once. That changed in 1979, when Ballard brought back Punch Imlach as GM. They were friends, see, and if you can figure out the kinds of goofy shenanigans the duo got up to, then you're the first star because you've been paying attention! Yeah, McDonald was traded to the Colorado Rockies, pissing off Sittler, who was the Captain. A member of the team anonymously told the Toronto Star that Ballard and Imlach would do anything to get at him, and trading McDonald was their way of trying to undermine Sittler's influence. They were also pissed that so many of their players were bitching about their contracts, and in response to the trade, Sittler resigned as Captain and the team trashed its locker room. Sittler's agent said the trade was classless, and the Leafs began a downward spiral. Sittler - Toronto's all-time leading scorer - was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers two years later.

The 1979 Leafs finished five games under .500 and only made the playoffs because the Quebec Nordiques, a holdover from the WHA merger, were there to pad them in the standings. (Ballard, of course, had thrown a hissy about the merger because the WHA's three Canadian teams had undermined his revenue and, uh, oh yeah, some shit about roster raids or some such.) For the following twelve years, they were barely competitive. They missed the playoffs six times, finished about fourth only once, and posted a .500 record only once. In the 1985 season, they finished 32 games under .500, the second-worst in their history. The times they made the playoffs, they did so with terrible records because it's the NHL and they make playoff teams out of non-NHL teams that don't even know what hockey is in that league. In 1988, they finished with the third-worst record in their history and the second-worst record in the league and were still in contention on the last day of the season. They got in that year because their division was so bad that only Detroit had a winning record.

Ballard died in 1990 and the team was bought by another Ballard friend, supermarket tycoon Steve Stavro. Fortunately, "friend" in this case didn't mean "lackey." Stavro hated the spotlight and decided to not interfere with the team. When Cliff Fletcher took over as GM in 1992, he turned the Leafs into contenders overnight. Since Toronto was the league's fourth-largest market, the Leafs weren't impacted badly from escalating player salaries, and a legion of new stars like Doug Gilmour, Dave Andreychuk, and Felix Potvin brought the Leafs to the brink in 1993. They played their way into the Campbell Conference Finals, where they matched up against the Los Angeles Kings. In a classic series, one player ultimately made the difference. That player was Wayne Gretzky who, by the way, didn't play for the Leafs. In 1999, they made another run to the Conference Finals and with talent like Curtis Joseph, Mats Sundin, Steve Thomas, and Sergei Berezin, they were favored to return to the Finals. It wasn't meant to be that year, either. They were offed in five games and mostly played like they were intimidated by the vicious, physical Buffalo Sabres team they were playing against.

The Leafs proved to be a strong team early in the millennium, but they never closed. In 2004, they had perhaps their grand opportunity, finishing their best in 41 years. They got to the second round of the playoffs, were the Flyers sent them packing. Mats Sundin, the team's longtime Captain, left in 2008, by which time the team was struggling again.

Ordinarily I start this part of my reviews with lists of retired numbers these days. However, the Toronto Maple Leafs aren't one of those teams that does that sort of thing for the most part. They've only done it twice, and those numbers are there to honor Bill Barilko and Ace Bailey. The former disappeared in a plane crash, the latter was crippled in a nasty on-ice incident. They DO honor numbers, though, and their honors list has Johnny Bower, Turk Broda, Hap Day, Red Kelly, King Clancy, Tim Horton, Charlie Conacher, Ted Kennedy, Syl Apps, George Armstrong, Wendel Clark, Borje Salming, Frank Mahovlich, Darryl Sittler, and Doug Gilmour. Some legends who have suited up in The TO include Ed Belfour, Gerry Cheevers, Pierre Pilote, Joe Nieuwendyk, Grant Fuhr, and Terry Sawchuk.

Rivalries? Montreal. BIG. Been called hockey's greatest, and much as fans like myself pull for the Detroit Red Wings/Chicago Blackhawks rivalry, Toronto/Montreal is difficult to dispute. Objectively speaking, the Maple Leafs/Canadiens rivalry was more of a rivalry than Red Wings/Blackhawks because both of these rivalries go back through the Original Six years. Those four teams are the only ones during the Original Six quarter century that ever won the Stanley Cup, but even as a Hawks fan, a fact of puckhead life I have to face is that the Blackhawks don't really belong on the list of Original Six Stanley Cup teams. The era ran from 1942 to 1967, Chicago only won the Stanley Cup once, an aberration victory in 1961. The rest of it was dominated by Detroit, Toronto, and Montreal, who won it every year except 1961. Toronto and Montreal were stealing the title of team with the most Stanley Cups during those years. They were COMPETITIVE. And now, both have fallen on extended Cup-less stretches together. Both seem to be rising powers with each other these days. The rivalry was a feature of a short story called The Hockey Sweater, a classic of Canadian literature. These days, they're also duking it out with the Ottawa Senators. In Buffalo, we like to believe there's a hard rivalry with the Sabres, but Toronto doesn't seem to take that very seriously.

The Montreal/Toronto rivalry can even extent to cultural influence. The Montreal Canadiens are the New York Yankees of hockey. The Toronto Maple Leafs of the Pittsburgh Steelers of hockey! Leafs fans are everywhere. You can't get a ticket, even during the bad years, and the season ticket list has 2500 names on it. The fans pop up everywhere, at every game, and this even extends to hockey fans living in Sun Belt cities. The iconic blue and white sweater of the Maple Leafs is constantly among the best-selling in the league. Huge numbers of Leafs fans also live in the Ottawa Valley and the Niagara Region, so whenever the Leafs visit Ottawa or Buffalo for games, there's an almost 50/50 split of fans in the audiences. This is in spite of hardly being rewarded. In a ranking list of all 122 professional sports teams in the Big Four North American sports leagues, the Leafs were ranked 121.

References to the Toronto Maple Leafs are everywhere in Canadian popular culture as well. The Kids in the Hall, an acclaimed sketch comedy from the early 90's, sometimes referenced them. Comedy team Wayne and Shuster performed a sketch on their old radio show in which their imaginary team, the Mimico Mice, played against the Leafs. Foster Hewitt wrote a novel in 1949 called He Shoots, He Scores! which featured actual players and managers of the team. Actually, several books featured the Leafs. One of them, a 1971 romance novel called Face-off, was turned into a movie. I already mentioned a certain song by The Tragically Hip. Mike Meyers is a big time Maple Leafs fan who often hides his love for his team in movies in ways both subtle and not. In Goldmember, there's a scene where Mini-Me wears the Leafs sweater, and another scene with a news ticker which at one point says "Maple Leafs win Stanley Cup." The Love Guru revolved entirely around a guru who was hired by the Leafs to help their star player sort out his head so he could lead the Leafs to the Cup.

You can't be blamed for adopting the Toronto Maple Leafs. When people tell me maybe they would like to adopt the Buffalo Sabres as their team, I first ask them if they're crazy. Then I point out that Toronto is only a 90-minute drive from Buffalo. Given a lot of factors, though, I can't give them too high a rating, especially based on a Stanley Cup drought which is now the longest in the NHL. The Leafs are the only Original Six team which has failed to win the Stanley Cup in my lifetime. They haven't even made the Finals. On the upside, though, that may just add to a developing mystique which blows into Chicago Cubs proportions.]]> Tue, 26 Feb 2013 18:19:28 +0000
<![CDATA[ Blueshirted]]>
When the NHL decided it should probably try to place a team in New York City if it was going to successfully expand into the United States, it created the New York Americans in 1925. The Amerks were a huge success playing where they did, in Madison Square Garden. At the time, the president of the Garden was a man named George Lewis Rickard, a promoter affectionately known to virtually everyone as Tex. Rickard had told the Amerks they would be the only hockey team to play in the world's most famous sports arena, but he apparently had doubts about this hockey thing when he said that. He WAS from Texas, after all. When the Americans started making money hook, line, and sinker, Tex presumably pulled out a pair of six-shooters and shouted "YEE-HAW!" while firing into the air. Then again, maybe he didn't, but it doesn't change the fact that he starting gunning for a new Madison Square Garden team which he could personally call his own. Tex got his team, and while he was first planning to call them the New York Giants, the name was officially New York Rangers Hockey Club by the time it finally got to him in 1926. The origin of the name comes from Tex's name itself. It's presumed that either Tex did it or the media. I'm inclined to believe it was the media, given their penchant for cute little nicknames like the one that the Rangers were named for: Tex's Rangers.

Tex managed to talk Conn Smythe into assembling the team. Smythe is a well-known NHL management legend, but at the time, no one had ever heard of him. He got involved because Boston Bruins owner Charles Adams liked his work with the University of Toronto, and recommended him to Rangers president John Hammond. Smythe's tenure didn't last long, though; him and Hammond got so royally pissed off at each other by the eve of the first season that Smythe was actually given $10,000 to leave. Smythe went on to become a legend with the Toronto Maple Leafs and was replaced by Lester Patrick, co-founder of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. For the first season, the team was immediately a winner. They pulled in their division title, but lost to the Bruins in the playoffs. It didn't keep the team from taking in the legendary nightlife of 1920's New York City, though, becoming celebrities and obtaining a new nickname: The Broadway Blueshirts.

In their second season, the 1928 season, the Rangers won the Stanley Cup. In defeating the Montreal Maroons in the Finals, the Rangers became the first American NHL team to ever win the Cup. One of the great hockey stories comes from these Finals: Back then, teams didn't dress backup goaltenders, so when regular goalie Lorne Chabot left the game with an eye injury, the Rangers were stuck until they spotted Ottawa Senators goalie Alex Connell among the attending crowd. The Maroons were given the power to say no to that idea for some reason, which they did, so Lester Patrick, at 44, suited up himself for two periods, and for an unpracticed coach, he wasn't too shabby: He only gave up one goal. Frank Boucher scored the winning goal for the Rangers in overtime. The Rangers went back to the Finals the next year, but lost to Boston.

The Rangers were having a string of mediocre years in the 30's when they started lining up brothers Bill and Bun Cook on wing, right on Boucher's line. In 1933, they met the Maple Leafs in the Finals and beat them again three games to one. The Rangers spent the rest of the decade in middling hell before Lester Patrick stepped down in 1939, leaving Boucher to coach for the impending 1940 season. Boucher didn't do too badly - he only took the Rangers to second place that year, plus their third Stanley Cup victory against the Detroit Red Wings.

After that, pretty much nothing happened. Okay, that's only true if "nothing" is defined in relative terms. Plenty actually HAPPENED, you know, like the Rangers collapsing in the mid-40's. They lost games by as much as 15-0. They once fielded a goalie who posted a ridiculous 6.20 goals-against average. They spent five years missing the playoffs before getting into the final spot in 1948 by a squeaker, only to lose in the first round. They went to the Finals in 1950, and had to play all their "home" games in Toronto because the circus was in Madison Square Garden. They managed to drag the Finals out to seven games, but ultimately lost to Detroit.

Oh, right. Another couple of things happened: One is that in 1942, the New York Americans folded out of existence, caving the Rangers as the sole fix of New York City hockey fans and kicking off the Original Six era. The other is that in the 40's, Red Wings owner James E. Norris became Madison Square Garden's largest stockholder. He didn't buy controlling interest, because it would have violated the league's rules against one person owning more than one team, but he had more than enough influence to totally fuck the Rangers over like he was doing to the Chicago Black Hawks. Since Norris was a monopolistic asshole in a corrupt league, he pretty much exclusively doted over his Red Wings.

The Rangers weren't just cooked after those 1950's Finals - they were barbecued, charbroiled, and slathered in sweet sauce even well before them. They rivaled the Black Hawks in being the NHL's most helpless team, a terrifying thought when you consider that for the 25 years following 1942, the NHL only had six teams. The Original Six era was an era of some of the stupidest rules and nastiest corruption in sports history. James Norris owned the Detroit Red Wings, had his puppet Bill Tobin in charge of the Chicago Black Hawks, was the largest stockholder in the New York Rangers, and had great influence over the Boston Bruins by way of mortgages extended to keep them running during the depression. The NHL also had a rule stating that teams had exclusive rights to contracts over promising local players who happened to live within 50 miles. Boston, Chicago, and New York were not only at the disadvantage of living well out of reach from the best players - since most came from Canada - but everything Norris did with those three teams was meant to put them at a disadvantage. Detroit was less affected by the 50-mile rule since it's right on the Canadian border, and everything Norris did with the other teams under his control was pretty much guaranteed to aid the Red Wings. This showed in the standings: During the 25 years comprising the Original Six era, only the Red Wings, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup. There was one exception, an aberration in 1961 when Chicago managed to steal it.

The Rangers were finally rejuvenated again by the late 60's with goalie Eddie Giacomin and Bernie Geoffrion, who had been a staple of the great Montreal teams of the 50's. In the 70's, they managed to return to the Finals on two occasions. Once was in 1972, when they lost to the legendary Big Bad Bruins in six games. The other was in 1979. That time they had Phil Esposito with them, the fiery, competitive cog of the 1972 Bruins. Unfortunately, the Canadiens were at the end of one of their always-popular dynasties at the time, two years removed from fielding the greatest team anyone had ever seen. Montreal won it in five games. 1974 saw the Rangers play one of the great hockey series ever against the Philadelphia Flyers. In the seventh game of that series, though, Dale Rolfe of the Rangers got his ass kicked HARD by Philadelphia's Dave Schultz. New York's top line - nicknamed the GAG line, for goal-a-game - consisting of Jean Ratelle, Vic Hadfield, and Rod Gilbert - was on the ice, and none of them lifted a finger to help him. While the GAG line helped the Rangers in the standings, this incident symbolized a commonly held view of them at the time: They were soft. They had been bullied in the 1972 Finals as well.

When the New York Islanders arrived in 1972, they paid the Rangers a huge encroachment fee. But they were in the playoffs by 1975, where they faced the Rangers in the first round. After splitting the first two games, the deciding third ended with a tie in which the Isles beat the Rangers eleven seconds into overtime. In his autobiography, Thunder and Lightening, Phil Esposito described his time playing with the Rangers and how it differed from his stint with the Bruins. He said several players on the Rangers were druggies, and basically wrote in a nutshell that the team's mentality was complacent - they didn't care whether they won or lost. After Esposito had retired and entered into behind-the-scenes play with the Rangers, he also wrote that when the Edmonton Oilers had to unload Wayne Gretzky, the Rangers had a legitimate shot at getting him but the team blocked it off because hey, what for? They were making good money.

Throughout the 80's, it was this attitude that probably prevented the Rangers from getting very far. They made the playoffs every year except one. They only real damage they did in the playoffs was in 1986, when they were being guarded by rookie goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck. They got to the Conference Championship that year, but were ultimately ditched by eventual NHL Champion Montreal. The following year, they picked up Marcel Dionne from the Los Angeles Kings…. Where he had already spent twelve years, and was slowing. At this time, talk of a Curse of 1940 began to arise. During the 1940 season, see, the mortgage on the Garden had been paid off, and since the Rangers won the Cup that year, Madison Square Garden Corporation had a little paper-burning ceremony in which they tossed the mortgage into the Cup and lit it up. Another theory was about Red Dutton, general manager and coach of the old New York Americans. Following the 1942 season, a lot of NHL players signed up for military duty, and that ravaged the Amerks so badly that Dutton decided to suspend the team for the year. When Frank Calder died in 1943, though, the NHL named him President and he held the position until stepping down in 1946. When he stepped down, he did it with the intention of finally reviving the Americans, but the league backed out of a promise to let them return, and Dutton bitterly said the Rangers would never win the Stanley Cup as long as he was alive. He died in 1987.

In 1992, the Rangers won the Presidents' Trophy. In the playoffs, they took a 2-1 series lead against the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins but lost the series. In 1993, the team was killed by injuries and a 1-11-0 finish that left them in the basement. In 1994, the Rangers got a new coach in Mike Keenan. They had also, in the meantime, picked up a mighty player bounty from the Edmonton dynasty of the 80's: Esa Tikkanen, Craig MacTavish, Adam Graves, and perhaps most importantly, Mark Messier. And those old Oilers all proved they still had it in them: The Rangers ran to a sterling 52-24-8 record to win the Presidents' Trophy. They ran through the playoffs, beating the Isles and Washington Capitals before slamming into a tough New Jersey Devils team. Losing the opener in double overtime, New York won the next two games before New Jersey got back into the series and won the following two, 3-1 and 4-1. The day before the sixth game, Mark Messier of all people guaranteed a win. Keenan said that by doing that, Mark was saying he believed in his team. Messier rose up like Joe Namath in game six, scoring three goals in the third period to set up a seventh game which New York won in double overtime 2-1, when Stephane Matteau scored the winner. After that, they faced a Cinderella Vancouver Canucks team in the Finals. It was as climactic as hockey gets. The Rangers lost in overtime in game one. Then they won the following three games while Vancouver scored only four times. The Cup looked like a wrap, but the Canucks pulled themselves together for a decisive game five win. They did it again two nights later, and the seventh game is one of the league's classics. The Rangers took a 2-0 lead in the first, but Trevor Linden of Vancouver scored short-handed. Messier put New York back up on a power play, and although Linden found the net again, the Rangers held on. New York was finally a champion again.

Keenan left following the Cup because of a dispute with the general manager. The Rangers, meanwhile, got progressively worse. First the Cup, then a second-round exit the next year, and finally, a complete fizzle. Part of the problem was that they started gunning for the biggest names without a damn for anything else. In 1995, they arranged a deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins which brought Ulf Samuelsson and Luc Robitaille to the team. In 1996, it was Wayne Gretzky, whom you may recognize as two things: The Great One, and they guy they could have had about ten years earlier. Later, Pat LaFontaine, Theoren Fleury, Eric Lindros, and Pavel Bure. Most of these guys were aging, and the 1994 guys started retiring and dropping. The GM ran Messier out of town and tried to get Joe Sakic of the Colorado Avalanche to replace him, but Sakic didn't become a Ranger. The Rangers started finishing out of the playoffs despite having the highest payroll in the league. Gretzky retired in 1999.

The 2005 season lockout was the best thing to happen to the Rangers since then. They had picked up yet another superstar in Jaromir Jagr, and began building around him. Behind guys like Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Straka, the post-lockout Rangers were reborn and finished with their best record since 1994. Long story short, the Rangers since then have consistently been a chic Stanley Cup pick. I've picked them a few times myself. Unfortunately, they have playoff hiccups and haven't even been back to the Finals, although after last year's appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals, there's a chance they could still pull through if they can beat Boston, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh.

The Rangers haven't had quite as much success as one would expect from an Original Six team. I guess James Norris can be blamed for a chunk of that, but the soft 70's teams and all-star 90's teams are also culpable. The Rangers have the worst record of the Original Six era. Of the Original Six, only the Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks have an overall losing record, and the Blackhawks at least have their Stanley Cup victory from 1961 to show for the shit they endured for those 25 years. The Rangers have still been able to retire eight numbers for nine players: Eddie Giacomin, Brian Leetch, Harry Howell, Rod Gilbert, Andy Bathgate, Adam Graves, Mark Messier, Mike Richter, and Wayne Gretzky, whose number is retired in the whole league but who WAS a Ranger. Other Rangers greats include Jean Ratelle, Tim Horton, Phil Esposito, Jacques Plante, Jari Kurri, Guy Lafleur, Marcel Dionne, and Mike Gartner.

There are a lot of identifying marks to the Rangers. The most significant is probably their shirt, one of the best in the league. Blue, mainly, with accents of white and red and the word "Rangers" written diagonally downward from the top left. It's a simple design, but one of the most popular in the league, just because it doesn't try to do anything fancy. Even the team's former third jersey was well-received; it featured the head of the Statue of Liberty and the team's initials. Yeah, it's pretty hard to screw up the team jersey. Team traditions include the team gathering at center ice after every home win and raising their sticks to salute the people who turn up at the games while the New York Rangers Victory Song is played. They adopted Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" at the beginning of the 2006 season after learning that it's one of Jaromir Jagr's favorites. Since he became Captain, the song was played in the team's locker room after every win. When the fans found out, the song started getting played at the five-minutes-to-go mark of the game when the Rangers are winning handily. The team also has its supporters in Madison Square Garden's legendary blue seats, where in the 70's, more blue collar fans would sit and heckle the fans in the red seats below. This tradition actually carried over to Yankee Stadium and gave birth to the Bronx Bombers' famed Bleacher Creatures.

Andy Bathgate invented the curved stick that is now standard in hockey at every level. Stan Mikita of the Chicago Black Hawks, one of the stick's pioneering users, even said as much. (Later, Mikita tried to claim sole credit for himself.) The 1994 Stanley Cup was a watershed moment, but perhaps the best Rangers story is the Curse of 1940. I love a good curse story, and the Curse of 1940 is one of the weirdest. It had odd ways of showing up. When the Madison Square Garden Corporation learned it could make more money from the circus than from sports, for example, it was before it was possible to configure an arena to hold a circus and a sporting event in one day. So the Rangers and the NBA's New York Knicks were forced to move their home arenas elsewhere for playoffs. So the Rangers were forced to go to Toronto and use Maple Leaf Gardens as their home in the 1950 Finals. After they took a 3-2 series lead, the league then cited an obscure rule that a deciding Stanley Cup game couldn't be played on neutral ice. So the series was moved to Detroit, where the Red Wings won games six and seven. The 1944 Rangers were hurt by the war and asked for permission to fold until the end of it. The NHL, led by Red Dutton, whose New York Americans had simply folded without making that request, said no. The Rangers got destroyed in the standings that year. Their minor-league goalie, Ken McAuley, gave up 310 goals in 50 games, a record most goalies have never even come close to matching. There was James Norris and his ownership of the Garden. The biggest embarrassment during the curse years was the New York Islanders. They were created in 1972 and were the best team in the NHL by 1980. They won the Stanley Cup four times in a row starting that year, which meant by 1983, they had already won the Stanley Cup one more time than the Rangers.

When picking a favorite team for a sport you're just learning about, it always seems safe to go with The New York Team. The New York Rangers have a great history, but one that's wrought as much pain as any team. Be careful with these guys - they'll break your heart.]]> Fri, 22 Feb 2013 20:40:28 +0000
<![CDATA[ Big and Bad]]>
The Boston Bruins can lay claim to one very important thing that no other hockey team can claim: They are the oldest NHL team in the United States. They came about in 1924 because the NHL, which at the time consisted of only Canadian teams, decided it might have a little bit of success if it was willing to risk going south of the border. It took a Boston grocery tycoon named Charles Adams to talk the league into it. Adams had fallen in love with hockey watching the 1924 Stanley Cup Finals between the NHL's Montreal Canadiens and the WCHL's Calgary Tigers. So that very same year, he talked the NHL into coming to the States, and the league added the Bruins and the Montreal Maroons. Since Adams wanted the team to succeed, the first thing he did was hire an innovator and former star player named Art Ross. Ross acted as the face of the team for 30 years, which included four stints as head coach. To come up with a nickname, Adams said Ross would have to come up with a ferocious animal which would exemplify speed, agility, and cunning. So Ross came up with the perfect name: The Boston Bears! Of course, just calling them the Boston Bears would have been kinda boring, so he decided to use the old english term for brown bear: Bruin. The nickname happened to fit very nicely with the team's original uniform colors of brown and yellow, which were the colors of Adams's grocery chain, First National Stores.

The Bruins won their first-ever game against the Maroons. In case you've forgotten, though, the Maroons were the other expansion team that year, and so they played like an expansion team. The Maroons finished next-to-last in the league that year. Still, that was better than the Bruins finished - Boston went 6-24-0 on the year, good for last. The team didn't take very long to get better, though, and by their third season they had drafted the first of their many great stars: Eddie Shore, the player Paul Newman's character in Slap Shot idolized. They finished only one game above .500, but made it to the Finals anyway. There, they were one of the two representatives in the first-ever Finals to be played by two teams in the NHL. Unfortunately, it was the other team, the Ottawa Senators, who took home Lord Stanley's Trophy. It wouldn't be until the 1929 season until the Bruins would first hoist the Cup themselves.

The year after that, the Bruins posted an incredible winning percentage of .875, with a record of 38-5-1. They found the net a total of 179 times, a mile better than the runner-up Canadiens. They allowed only 98, also better than every other team. They had 77 points on their standings, where the next-closest teams were the Canadiens and Maroons, with 51 each. They got a first-round playoff bye, killed the Maroons in the second round, and in the Finals, they…. Lost to the Habs. Their winning percentage for that season is still a league record.

Despite the loss, the Bruins stormed throughout the 30's, carried by the likes of Shore, Tiny Thompson, Dit Clapper, Babe Siebert, and Cooney Weiland. That gang brought Boston to the top of the standings five times. It didn't translate into Finals success until 1939, though, which is coincidentally the same year the Bruins adopted their new and now-iconic black and gold palette. Unfortunately, great core players have a habit of growing older, so the Bruins made a few key player losses along the journey. In 1939, they traded Thompson for a rookie goalie by the name of Frank Brimsek. Brimsek was a great replacement for Thompson, as he became the first rookie ever selected to an All-Star team, won the Vezina and Calder Trophies, and picked up the nickname Mr. Zero. Faces in front of Brimsek also changed: There was the famous Kraut Line consisting of Milt Schmidt, Bobby Bauer, and Woody Dumart. Eddie Shore was with the team until 1940, when he was traded to the New York Americans for his final season in the NHL. Although the Bruins would win the Stanley Cup again in 1941, the Shore trade closed an era.

War brewed in Europe, and the stars of the Boston Bruins enlisted. Brimsek went to war. The entirety of the Kraut Line also went to war. Bill Cowley became Boston's final remaining star, with the assistance of Busher Jackson and Dit Clapper. By 1943, though, the New York Americans had folded, reducing the NHL to a mere six teams who are nowadays referred to as the Original Six. Talent was depleted to such an extent that, like in Major League Baseball, freaky things could happen in any given season. In 1944, for example, Herb Cain would put up 82 points, which at the time was THE NHL record. While Cain had a respectable career, his second-highest point total was 45, which came in 1945, and beyond that he never climbed above 36 until he was sent to the minor league Hershey Bears of the AHL two years later, at which point his NHL career was over. The stars were back after the war, and with Clapper now coaching, the Bruins made the 1946 Finals. (They lost.) After that, the stars were losing steps. The Bruins were kicked from the first round of the playoffs for three straight years. Brimsek was traded to the Chicago Black Hawks in 1949, and their promising young star Don Gallinger was banned soon afterward for being Pete Rose's inspiration. (That means he gambled on his own team.) Once that happened, the only star they had left was Johnny Peirson, who played until 1958 before becoming a beloved color commentator for the team in the 70's.

It was finally Boston's turn to be the dregs of the NHL. Between 1947 and 1967, the Bruins had only four winning seasons. But a six-team league can do funny things for standings, and so in 1953, 1957, and 1958, the Bruins did manage to make the Finals. Only 1957 was a winning season in those three trips, but it really didn't matter anyway as the Bruins bowed out to the Montreal Canadiens all three times. They also managed to miss the playoffs for eight straight years, from 1960 to 1967. It was a good thing the owner of the Bruins, in 1954, decided to order a new kind of machine, invented by a guy named Frank Zamboni, to resurface the ice because otherwise the fans would have had nothing to watch. They were the first NHL team to use it. In 1958, the Bruins created another milestone by by signing a New Brunswick native left winger named Willie O'Ree. He was the first black player in NHL history. Unfortunately, O'Ree just wasn't a very good player. He only played during two seasons in the NHL - 1958 and 1961 - for a total of 45 games, in which he netted six goals and ten assists for 16 points. Not good. The team didn't have a developed farm system, so when the Bruins found The Uke Line - named for the Ukrainian heritage of players Johnny Bucyk, Vic Stasiuk, and Bronco Horvath - along with Don McKenney and Fleming MacKell to enjoy a little bit of success in the late 50's, it seemed a freak accident. A long and difficult rebuilding process awaited.

In 1966, Boston found the keystone who would lead them back to greatness: Bobby Orr! He won the Calder that season, even though he was given a constant challenge physically from older vets, and won respect by beating up Montreal enforcer Ted Harris in his first fight. For 1966, Orr scored 13 goals and added 28 assists. New York Rangers defenseman Harry Howell took home the Norris Trophy for best defenseman that year. In his acceptance speech, he said he was glad to win it that year, because "Orr will own this trophy from now on." (Actual quote!) Orr, who finished second in the voting, won it for the next eight consecutive years.

With their keystone in place, it was time to REALLY start building! Boston's next move was to fleece the Chicago Black Hawks, taking Fred Stanfield, All-Star Ken Hodge, and hockey legend Phil Esposito for what amounted to three pieces of deadweight. With goaltending great Gerry Cheevers and other stars like the still-there Johnny Bucyk, John McKenzie, Derek Sanderson, and Dallas Smith, the Big Bad Bruins finally took form. Then they took it to the NHL. And in 1970 and 1972, they took the Stanley Cup again. In the 1971 season, the Bruins had seven of the league's top ten scorers. They also set the record for number of wins in a season. Whereas the NHL never had a player who posted 100 points in a season until 1969, the Bruins had four players do it in 1971. (The first player to do it, by the way, was Esposito.) You would think this team would be unstoppable in the playoffs, but in game two of a series against the Canadiens, they were up 5-1. It looked like a one-sided romp because Montreal had a rookie goalie named Ken Dryden, but Boston somehow managed to lose the lead, then the game 7-5. They never recovered, and lost the series.

1973 began a lot of upheaval. Cheevers, Sanderson, and McKenzie all left to try their luck in the new World Hockey Association. Their coach was fired, the team was sold, and the Bruins bowed out of the first playoff round after Esposito went down injured. For the 1975 season, Don Cherry stepped behind the bench as the Bruins reloaded with lots of grinders and enforcers. Cherry made them a hard, competitive team, but 1975 was also Bobby Orr's last full year in the league. Upon a trade to Chicago, Orr only played in a handful of games before bad knees forced him to retire a few years later. Cherry's rebuilding eventually resulted in the popular Esposito being traded to the Rangers. While Cheevers was finally done in the WHA in 1977 and the Bruins finally reached the Finals again, they were no match for the Canadiens that year. Same story the following season - Boston managed to field eleven players who each scored 20 goals, but they still lost to Montreal come the Finals. In the 1979 semifinals, Boston was playing a seventh game against Montreal. (Who else?) The Bruins were up by a goal, but they were called for having too many men on the ice late in the third period. On the ensuing power play, Montreal's Guy Lafleur tied the game, and the Canadiens won in overtime. Don Cherry was fired after that.

That was the end of the Big Bad Bruins era. In 1979, the Bruins drafted Ray Bourque, the really awesome Bruins defenseman who isn't Bobby Orr. He became the new face of the team for the next two decades, and the Bruins made the playoffs every year in the 80's. They were back in the Finals by 1988, led by the like of Bourque, Cam Neely, and Andy Moog. In game four of that series, a blown fuse resulted in the rest of the game being cancelled. The game was tied at 3-3 when it happened, and maybe the cancellation and the shift to Edmonton might have mattered more in a close series. But it was game four, and Boston was down 3-0 in the series to an Edmonton Oilers team that no one stood a chance of beating. Their appearance in the 1990 Finals against the Oilers went slightly better. Edmonton was playing without Wayne Gretzky, after all, and without the greatest hockey player the world has ever seen, the series managed to expand to FIVE games before the Oilers brought Boston down again! The 1991 and 1992 seasons were really the last window for those Bruins teams, and they didn't even make the Finals in either of those years - they lost in the Conference Finals both times, to the Pittsburgh Penguins both times. After that, the Bruins never made it past the second round, with 1993 being a particular humiliation because they were one of the best teams in the league, yet they lost the first round to the Buffalo Sabres, who had the second-lowest point total among playoff teams. It was a sweep against a team which hadn't been to the second round in ten years.

In 1997, Boston missed the playoffs for the first time in 30 years. It ended the longest such streak in pro sports history. Bourque's era concluded in 2000. That year, the Bruins plummeted in the standings despite a young core bringing high expectations. Bourque requested a trade because he had not yet won the Stanley Cup, and while he wanted to go to an east coast team, general manager Harry Sinden sent Bourque to the team he thought would give Bourque his best chance at the Holy Grail: The Colorado Avalanche. In 2001, his final season, Bourque finally won his Cup, and his act in his day with the Cup was to take it to Boston for a rally in Boston's City Hall Plaza.

Meanwhile, the Bruins themselves floundered and sputtered as a shell of what they once were. Yeah, they made the playoffs a few times, but the NHL playoffs are an illusion, and so they kept failing. They didn't get past the first round until 2004, and in the second round that year they blew a 3-1 lead to Montreal. By 2007, they were in last. Fortunately, success was just around the corner. In the later half of the millennium, the Bruins brought in some great players: Milan Lucic, Zdeno Chara, Tuukka Rask, Nathan Horton, and Mark Recchi. In 2011, they returned to the Finals, where they faced the favored, Presidents' Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks. Now, this turned into one of those playoff series that prove a seven-game series isn't necessarily a good series. The games Vancouver won were exciting, single-goal victories which proved Vancouver wasn't going to crawl into the night. Unfortunately, Vancouver only won three games out of seven played. Their goalie, Roberto Luongo, melted down in the other four in a way I've never seen before. Boston's four victories were some of the most one-sided events I've ever seen in sports, and so the 2011 Boston Bruins emerged triumphant. They've been playing at Big Bad Bruins-like levels ever since.

Boston's greats are a hell of a roster of their own. Bruins with retired numbers are Eddie Shore, Lionel Hitchman, Bobby Orr, Dit Clapper, Phil Esposito, Cam Neely, Johnny Bucyk, Milt Schmidt, Terry O'Reilly, and Ray Bourque. Although it's generally accepted hockey knowledge that Wayne Gretzky is the greatest hockey player to ever lace 'em up, people can still make a very solid argument to give Bobby Orr that same title. Phil Esposito is an Orr fan, and he makes the case in Thunder and Lightning, his autobiography. (It's not a very good book, though. Esposito really doesn't come off very well.) Esposito is one of the greatest pre-Gretzky players and, good autobiography writer or not, one of the league's most colorful characters. Ray Bourque is in the conversation for greatest defenseman, along with Orr and Paul Coffey.

The Boston Bruins have a very heated rivalry against the Montreal Canadiens. The rivalry is largely one-sided in Montreal's favor, although it's evening out lately. As all Boston teams do, they also have bad blood with the New York Rangers. The Buffalo Sabres - against whom Esposito played his final game - also have a heated rivalry against the Bruins, but I think that's probably more on our end than theirs. After all, the Sabres were created in 1970, and the other two are Original Six teams who grew up with the Bruins. There are a lot of great moments in Bruins history, but the one that really stands out the most to ANY NHL fan is The Flight. That is one of the sport's great iconic images. It happened in the overtime of game four in the 1970 Finals. 40 seconds into overtime, Orr scored the winning goal against St. Louis Blues goalie Glenn Hall and, at the moment the shot was taken, he was tripped by Noel Picard of the Blues. He flew through the air with his arms raised in triumph. It's arguably the sport's most recognized image of all time.

Every time I turn around, it seems like the Bruins have a dangerous new superstar to show everyone. It makes sense - Boston is a big, exciting city, and the Bruins are a storied and popular team which guarantees a lot of exposure. The team has built its brand on being the big and bad players of the league. Even outside the Bid Bad Bruins era, there was Bourque. There's Zdeno Chara now, being the face of the team, and one of the most talented and nastiest players in the league. Milan Lucic is a hitter - last season he famously slammed Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller, which set the tone for Buffalo's season when the Sabres didn't retaliate. They're a team that easily comes off as everything all of us other fans wish our teams were: Insanely skilled, willing to give and take hits, and can take some brute punishment and stand up for themselves in fights. The sweaters of the Bruins are also icons. Their logo is a letter B surrounded by a spoked wheel, representing the Boston area's nickname of "The Hub." The Bruins have won the Stanley Cup six times, more than any American hockey team except the Detroit Red Wings.

I'll be honest: I HATE the Boston Bruins. Passionately. They were the first sports team I ever learned to hate. I couldn't stand the way they kept taking the division and the first round in the playoffs against the Buffalo Sabres every year. And yet…. If the Montreal Canadiens represent everything a professional hockey team should be, the Boston Bruins represent the appeal of the sport to its fanbase, from the speed and skill to the blue-collar roughness and big hits. Ray Bourque is one of my favorite players, ever. I wish Zdeno Chara played FOR one of my favorite teams. You're not going to find a better representation about hockey, of both what it is and what it CAN be and so, much as it pains me, if you're an aspiring fan looking to adopt a team, I am giving the Boston Bruins my absolute highest recommendation. Above even the teams I cheer for, I would have CHOSEN the Boston Bruins.]]> Sat, 16 Feb 2013 21:28:56 +0000
<![CDATA[ "To You From Falling Hands We Throw the Torch. Be Yours to Hold it High."]]>
The city of Montreal, Quebec IS hockey. Montreal is the very essence of the rich history of the National Hockey League and the Stanley Cup. Hockey had been played there since the late 1800's, after all, and in 1893, it was the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association that was awarded the first Stanley Cup on behalf of the affiliated Montreal Hockey Club. Montreal teams, in fact, won the Stanley Cup the first four times it was awarded, and 14 of the first 20 times it was awarded, back when no one knew what the hell to do with a Stanley's Cup. At one time, Montreal fielded at least five professional hockey teams. Today, the Canadiens remain. And that's important, because the Montreal Canadiens represent the tradition, excitement, history, and hell, the very definition of professional hockey.

The Canadiens - who are nicknamed the Habs, which is short for Les Habitants - are the only NHL team to predate the NHL. In 1909, an industrialist named Ambrose O'Brien was in Montreal to buy supplies for a railroad contract. Since he was from Renfrew, Ontario, the Renfrew Creamery Kings asked him to attend the meetings of the Eastern Canada Hockey Association because they needed a representative if they were going to join the league. The ECHA ultimately said no, but later that day it turned out to be a diddled bullet because the ECHA also decided to disband their league and form the Canadian Hockey Association. Why that weird move? They were pissed off at the Montreal Wanderers because the Wanderers had performed their namesake by moving to a smaller venue which didn't allow their visitors to take as much cash at the gate. The formation of the CHA was an effort to ditch them. In the hotel lobby where the meeting was held, O'Brien ran into Wanderers manager Jimmy Gardner ask asked "Hey, why don't the two of us get together and form a new league? It'll be the Wanderers, Renfrew, Cobalt, and Haileybury." Gardner's response? "I like that idea! But you know, maybe you should consider forming a club in Montreal for the francophone players there? It'll be a good rivalry, and great for profit!" The league that emerged from this meeting was the National Hockey Association, which was founded on December 2, 1909. Two days later, Le Club de Hockey Canadien was founded.

Team foundings must have been really fast back then, because just a month and a day later, the Canadiens took to the ice for their first game. Jack Laviolette coached them to a 7-6 victory over Cobalt in overtime before a sellout crowd. After the season, Club Athletique Canadien owner George Kennedy bitched about the name "Canadiens" belonging to HIS team. O'Brien, not looking for a fight, sold him the team, and that same year, the Habs adopted their famous red sweater with a horizontal blue stripe across the front. The Canadiens reached the playoffs for the first time in the 1914 season when they tied the Toronto Blueshirts for the league lead. Here's how stupidly professional hockey was operated back then: In order to decide the Champion of the Universe, the two teams played in a two-game series with the winner based on - get this! - total GOALS. While the Canadiens had the services of legendary goaltender Georges Vezina at the time and used him to shut out Toronto in the first game, Toronto returned the favor in the next game, and since Montreal had scored two goals against Toronto's six, they lost the series. Don't feel too bad for the Habs, though, because two years later they won the NHA Championship, which came in the form of something called the O'Brien Cup. Not only did they win the O'Brien Cup, but the O'Brien Cup victory catapulted them into their first Stanley Cup Final to face the Portland Rosebuds of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. The best of five series ran for all five games, and in the deciding game, Montreal's Goldie Prodgers scored the winning goal with under four minutes remaining. The Montreal Canadiens were Stanley Cup Champions for the first time.

By 1917, the NHA was shot because Blueshirts owner Eddie Livingstone was always fighting the other owners over rights to players. The other owners - especially Kennedy - wanted to vote Livingstone's contentious ass out! Unfortunately, the NHA constitution didn't allow that, so the answer to the problem was an easy one: They'd just create a whole new league, the National Hockey League, and not invite him! Yeah, league founding must have been VERY easy back then.

The Wanderers folded soon after a stadium collapse, but the Canadiens won the 1919 NHL Championship. They were scheduled to play a series against the PCHA Champion Seattle Metropolitans in the Stanley Cup Finals, but the season never got that far; the Finals were cancelled because of a nasty Spanish Flu outbreak. Kennedy's team was almost entirely bedridden, Kennedy tried to borrow players from the PCHA's Victoria Aristocrats, but PCHA president Frank Patrick put the clamps on that idea. Since there was no team left to field, Kennedy forfeited the Stanley Cup to Seattle. The Metropolitans did the sportsmanlike thing and turned it down because their coach, Pete Muldoon, didn't think it would be right to claim it just because his opponents had no team. Montreal's star defenseman, Joe Hall, died of the Spanish Flu on April 5, 1919.

One of the NHL's first superstars, Howie Morenz, made his debut in the 1924 season. Although the Habs finished the year second to the Ottawa Senators, they beat the Senators in the playoffs. In the Finals, they defeated the Calgary Tigers of the Western Canada Hockey League to win the Stanley Cup for the second time. They also opened their classic home arena, the Montreal Forum. They couldn't repeat the following season, so when they introduced a special jersey design celebrating it, it looked bad until they went on a playoff rampage, beating the Toronto St. Patricks. Their would-be championship opponents, the Hamilton Tigers, then refused to play a playoff series until they were paid extra. In response to that, NHL president Frank Calder suspended the whole team, declared Montreal the champs, and sent them west to play the WCHL's Victoria Cougars for the Stanley Cup. The Cougars won the series and the Cup. It was the last time a non-NHL team was ever awarded the Stanley Cup.

During the first game of the 1926 season, Georges Vezina collapsed. He had tuberculosis. He never played again, and died in 1926. In his honor, the Vezina Trophy was created to be given to the goalie who allowed the fewest goals in one season. In the 1928 season, Morenz became the first player to ever score 50 goals in one season. In the 1930 Stanley Cup Finals, Morenz became the first player to ever net more than one Stanley Cup-winning goal with a victory over the Boston Bruins.

During The Great Depression, the Habs suffered both in standings and attendance. They had to make ends meet by selling Morenz to the Chicago Black Hawks in 1934. Chicago won the Cup that year, and Montreal's pissed fans let their voices out on the season's last day when they gave Morenz a standing ovation when he scored against them. The sale didn't help, and the Canadians were sold by 1935, and their on-ice success reflected their instability when they finished last. Cecil Hart was hired to bring Montreal back to respectability, but he only agreed of they could get Morenz back. Although the Canadiens managed to do that - and Morenz was overjoyed - his return lasted less than a season. In 1937, he died of a coronary embolism induced during a game against Chicago in which his leg was broken in four places. Meanwhile, the Habs continued to act as a bottom step. Another tragic nadir happened in 1939 when Babe Siebert - who retired from playing that year and was automatically named coach after retiring - drowned before the season began. The decimated, devastated Habs only won ten games, and the team was so strapped that it considered at least suspending operations, at least for World War II. Instead, it was sold.

The Depression had forced three teams to shut down by now, and the New York Americans' time was on the clock. (They folded in 1942.) Toronto Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe viewed this all from afar, with increasing frustration. Maybe the Canadiens WERE his main rivals, but he would be damned if he let them fall out into the night! So in order to get people to see the Habs again, he went to Montreal's owners and told them about this one guy, Dick Irvin, who had coached his Leafs to seven Finals and a Cup in nine years. Hire him, Smythe said! Montreal took him up on the idea. By 1943, the war had wrecked rosters across the NHL. The Detroit Red Wings lost nine guys, the New York Rangers ten, the Leafs six. But Canadiens GM Tommy Gorman managed to ensure jobs in key war industries to keep players, so they only lost Ken Reardon. Their young phenom, Maurice Richard, tried to enlist but his medical history got him turned down.

Slowly but surely, Irvin turned the Canadiens around. In 1944, the Habs were finally champions again. In 1946, they won it again. Irvin won his third and final Montreal Stanley Cup in 1953. In the 40's, the Canadiens had fielded Maurice "Rocket" Richard, Toe Blake, and Elmer Lach. By 1950, Jean Beliveau had made his debut, and he was signed full-time a couple of years later. By now, the Canadiens were no longer some scrappers who had lucked out a few times. They had risen to become the class of the NHL, the epitome of on-ice greatness and off-ice professionalism. The were now the MONTREAL CANADIENS, the Canadian, NHL response to the New York Yankees. For the 1956 season, the long-retired Toe Blake was placed behind the bench to coach, and coached the hell out of the Habs. From 1956 to 1960, Montreal won the Stanley Cup every year. The 1960 Finals were Montreal's tenth straight appearance in the Finals. Richard retired in 1960, and the league was temporarily relieved when the Chicago Black Hawks broke Montreal's Cup streak in 1961.

The Habs weren't slowed down for very long. Starting in the 1965 season, they started off on what may be hockey's greatest dynastic tear: From 1965 to 1979, they won the Stanley Cup a whopping ten times! What made it even more impressive was that most of those titles came after expansions began in 1967. Their GM, Sam Pollock, is often considered the greatest GM in NHL history, and he was often quick to trade aging stars for draft picks. The Canadiens kicked off this dynasty in 1965, winning again in 1966. In 1967 - the last Final of the Original Six era - they returned to the Finals again, and Montreal was so confident about the Habs' victory because the Canadiens were such heavy favorites that the Expo '67 site even had a spot built for the Stanley Cup. The Leafs rose to the occasion and won the Cup.

Not that the Finals loss or the expansions mattered to Pollock. He was already hard at work drafting greats like Larry Robinson, Ken Dryden, and the immortal Guy Lafleur. In this era, pretty much everything just went Montreal's way. Coach Al MacNeil getting into juvenile spats with a bunch of his players? Fire his ass after one season, even though he won the Cup, and replace him with fucking Scotty Bowman! Soviet Red Army in town? Ended in a tie, which was fitting because the Red Army and Canadiens were, at the time, the two greatest hockey teams in the world. Down 4-3 in the 1979 semifinals with two minutes to go in the deciding game? Watch Bruins coach Don Cherry flip his shit and get penalized for sending too many players onto the ice, then let Lafleur do his thing on the power play! World Hockey Association setting itself up as a legitimate rival to the NHL? Hold onto your guys while they raid all the other teams! The 1977 Montreal Canadiens are often considered the greatest team in NHL history. They won 60 games on an 80-game schedule, lost just eight games - just once at home - and Guy Lafleur led the league in scoring while taking home the Hart, Lester B. Pearson, Art Ross, and Conn Smythe Trophies. Bowman got the Jack Adams Award, and Robinson took the Norris. Ken Dryden - who won the Vezina that year - said the Canadiens were so dominant that he was a little bored by the lack of competition.

Everyone was getting older, though, so Dryden and Yvan Cournoyer retired in 1979. Serge Savard was gone by 1981. Things weren't going badly, though. Lafleur still played, and produced several more good years. They picked up solid contributors like Mats Naslund and Guy Carbonneau, and Bob Gainey capably replaced Savard as Captain. They did screw up by using the 1980 entry draft to take Doug Wickenheiser, though. Wickenheiser struggled in the league, and was traded to the St. Louis Blues in the 1984 season. The guy taken immediately after him was projected star Denis Savard, who was a huge hit in Chicago, and whom everyone expected Montreal to take. He was a native, after all. Unfortunately, the team's fortunes WERE starting to take a noticeable dip, and the team's mystique had been hurt by straight playoff exists against upstart teams like the Minnesota North Stars, Edmonton Oilers, and Quebec Nordiques. In 1985, they did luck out and draft Patrick Roy, the greatest goaltender in history, and in his rookie season, he goaltended Montreal to Stanley Cup number 23 against the Calgary Flames. The two met in the Finals agin in 1989, and Calgary won. Over the 80's and 90's, the Canadiens were led by players like Roy, Claude Lemieux, Vincent Damphousse, Chris Chelios, and Petr Svoboda. For the 100th anniversary of the Stanley Cup, it returned to Montreal after a five-game Final against the Los Angeles Kings.

That closed the curtain on Montreal's hockey dominance. It's possible they might have a 25th Stanley Cup under their belt by now, or maybe more, but the entire era pretty much went up in flames on December 2, 1995. Those proverbial flames would be the ones coming out of Patrick Roy's ears that night after he had allowed nine goals on 26 shots by the second period. Montreal lost that game to Detroit 11-1, and Roy believed coach Mario Tremblay had deliberately left him in to be embarrassed. Upon getting to the bench, Roy swooshed by Tremblay and told team president Ronald Corey that it was his last game in Montreal. Four days later, Roy and a grab bag of other players were traded to the Colorado Avalanche, who won the Stanley Cup that very season. He would take Colorado to another Cup in 2001 before retiring in 2003. Montreal, meanwhile, is stuck in a lull. Since the 1993 Finals, they don't even have a Prince of Wales Trophy to show for any success. They've had highlights, like Jose Theodore winning the 2002 Hart Trophy and participating in the Heritage Classic in 2003, the first outdoor game in league history, and the one which resulted in the creation of what is now the Winter Classic. They went through what was, for them, a serious stretch of mediocrity. In 2010, they finally returned to the Conference Finals, but lost to the Philadelphia Flyers. Hopefully, though, that can be a success to build on.

Considering the history of the Montreal Canadiens, it's a hell of an honor to have your number retired by them. They've honored 17 players with 15 hanging numbers, and they're not schlumps, either. They're among hockey's great luminaries: Jacque Plante. Doug Harvey. Emile Bouchard. Jean Beliveau. Bernie Geoffrion. Howie Morenz. Maurice Richard. Guy Lafleur. Dickie Moore. Yvan Cournoyer. Henri Richard. Elmer Lach. Serge Savard. Larry Robinson. Bob Gainey. Ken Dryden. Patrick Roy. Morenz was hockey's first great superstar, the first player to score 50 goals in a season. Plante was the first player to ever regularly don a mask; he played his first NHL game in a mask in 1959, after taking one too many pucks to the face and getting fed up. Beliveau is the all-time leading scorer in playoff history. If you're into Hall of Fame numbers, over 50 Hall guys have played in Montreal.

Going back as far as they do, the Canadiens have rivalries against a lot of teams, most notably the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers. If you're this successful, everyone wants a shot at you. Montreal has pretty much dominated through the bulk of this rivalry, although Boston is taking a late edge, winning seven of their last eleven playoff meetings dating back to 1988, and taking the Stanley Cup in 2011. In 1955, this rivalry caused the Richard Riot, and that's not hockey context for "riot" I'm using. In a game, Maurice Richard took a high stick from Boston's Hal Laycoe, opening a gash which required five stitches. The ref signaled a delayed penalty, and play kept going because the puck was still in Montreal's possession. When it ended, Richard skated up to Laycoe, and smacked him in the face with his stick. The linesmen tried to restrain him, but he kept breaking free to keep attacking. He broke his stick over an opponent's body, was restrained by linesman Cliff Thompson, and violently broke away to punch Thompson in the face, knocking him out. Then he left the ice with Montreal's trainer. Laycoe was punished hard with both a five-minute major and a ten-minute misconduct, and in the locker room, Boston Police tried to arrest Richard. They left him alone after the promise that the league would take care of it. There was a hearing before league president Clarence Campbell, and since Richard had slapped a ref in an earlier game against Toronto, you can guess how it went. Richard was suspended for the rest of the season. Montreal people didn't take it well, and accusations of racism flew because Richard was French-Canadian. After the hearing, Montreal played against Detroit in a game with first-place implications, but considering what happened, the game came off as almost secondary. Players and officials were worried about the too-sullen crowd. Campbell was at the game, and fans started pelting him. One fan attacked him, and soon afterward, someone set off a tear gas bomb. The Forum was evacuated, the game forfeited to the Red Wings, and the departing crowd joined some demonstrators outside The Forum. They smashed windows, attacked bystanders, overturned cars, and started fires.

The Montreal Canadiens have been one of the NHL's enduring symbols of class, tradition, and professionalism. Their logo and jersey are among the most recognizable in the league - red with a blue stripe for home, white with red shoulders for away. A C with an H in the middle. Many people believe the H stands for Les Habitants, the team's nickname, but it actually means hockey. This is perhaps the thing they're most associated with, along with how old they are, being the first NHL team, and being symbolic of everything professional hockey in Canada.

The Montreal Canadiens are one of my favorite teams. I grew up cheering for them because one of the first little league teams I played on was called the Canadiens, and our sponsor sent us team photos and trading cards and other nice little knickknacks. They basically made my teammates and I think of ourselves as an offshoot of the real Montreal Canadiens. And you know what? I still am a fan. To me, the Canadiens represent everything everything a band of professionals should be.]]> Thu, 14 Feb 2013 18:14:08 +0000
<![CDATA[ Commit to the Indian]]>
The Stanley Cup was established in 1893, and Canadian teams fought over it pretty much exclusively for the next two decades. But back then, there were the NHA, PCHA, and the Western Hockey Association. And there was the Portland Rosebuds, who in 1916 became the first American team to compete in a Stanley Cup Final. They lost to the Montreal Canadiens that year, and the American hockey fans would have to wait until the following season to finally have a chance to hoist the Cup when the Seattle Metropolitans beat the defending Habs. Since this was basically the NHL's crazy anything-goes era, though, the Rosebuds folded in 1918. They were reborn in 1925 when the Regina Capitals moved to Portland that year, but were quickly bought by coffee magnate Frederic McLaughlin when he learned the National Hockey League was starting a wave of expansions into the United States. The NHL needed a team in Chicago, and so McLaughlin took most of the Rosebuds players to Chicago and renamed them after an infantry division he had been the commander of in World War I: The Blackhawk Division. An odd paper discrepancy left the team to be called the Black Hawks for most of their existence, but that was corrected in 1986.

McLaughlin actively ran the team, serving as his own general manager despite having no hockey background, and became a bit of a radical for his willingness to promote American players. A number of his players - Doc Romnes, Taffy Abel, Alex Levinsky, Mike Karakas, and Cully Dahlstrom - became mainstays with the team, and the Chicago Black Hawks were the first team to field a lineup of players who were all born in America.

The Hawks posted a fairly decent record in their first season, going 19-22-3 to finish in third place and losing the first round of the playoffs to the Boston Bruins. "Fairly decent" wasn't good enough for McLaughlin, though, and he got into a big fight with head coach Pete Muldoon over whether or not the Hawks were good enough to finish in first. McLaughlin threw a major hissy fit, fired Muldoon, and on the way out the door, Muldoon promised he would curse the team so they would never finish first! At least, that goeth the legend. Although hockey fans believed in the Curse of Muldoon for decades, the whole thing was in fact made up by Toronto Globe and Mail sportswriter Jim Coleman, who admitted to it years later. Coleman had been running a deadline, had nothing to write about, and created the whole story, figuring the Curse of Muldoon would be forgotten after about two days. Well, the Black Hawks went their first 39 years - and three Stanley Cup victories - without ever finishing in first. Good thing Coleman never mentioned that.

By the 1928 season, the Hawks had become the worst team in the league. Three years later, though, they made the Stanley Cup Finals, led by goalie Charlie Gardiner. While Chicago took an early 2-1 lead in the five-game Finals, they flatlined it for the final two and Montreal took the Cup. It wasn't until three years later that the Hawks made the Finals again, against the Detroit Red Wings. The Finals ran four games, with the last one being a double overtime thriller in which Gardiner kept the Red Wings blanked as Chicago held on for the 1-0 clincher.

Four years later, the Black Hawks…. Well, kinda, sorta sucked. They got into the playoffs, although it was a real squeeze with a 14-25 record. Once the playoffs started, they managed to stun the Montreal Canadiens. Going into the second round, they then pulled another stunner against the New York Americans. That vaulted them into the Finals, against the Toronto Maple Leafs. By then, goalie Mike Karakas was injured and unable to play, and the desperate Hawks lucked out by finding minor leaguer Alfie Moore of the Pittsburgh Hornets out of a nearby Toronto bar and pulling him onto the ice. Moore played one game and won, and tried it for the next game with another player who lost. For the next two games in the Finals, Karakas was outfitted with a special skate, and he proceeded to win both. The 1938 Chicago Black Hawks are still the worst team to ever win the Stanley Cup.

In 1944, Doug Bentley scored 38 goals. His lineman, Clint Smith, led the team in assists, and the Hawks upset Detroit and returned to the Finals. It had been a good season, even though the Hawks were quickly destroyed by Maurice Richard and the dominating Montreal team he led. Surely, things would be even better through the coming years, with another championship on the way, right? Perhaps it would have. Unfortunately, McLaughlin died in 1944, and his estate sold the team to a syndicate led by Bill Tobin, the longtime president of the Black Hawks. Not so bad, except for a few sleazy details. See, back when McLaughlin first bought the Rosebuds, he outbid a certain James Norris in order to take control. By 1944, Norris owned the rival Detroit Red Wings. Why does this matter? Because Tobin was his puppet. Also, because Norris had bought Chicago Stadium in 1936, which made the Hawks his own personal tenant. This scenario played out even worse than the Kansas City Athletics arrangement, where they kept sending their best players back and forth to the New York Yankees via trade. At least the Athletics weren't ignored. The Black Hawks were. If the Black Hawks and Red Wings made a trade, it was done with Fox News-like levels of lack of bias for Detroit. Red flew, and black was clipped and grounded as it became the face of NHL futility from 1945 to 1958. Between those years, Chicago only made the playoffs twice. This was during the Original Six era too, making it even worse than it sounds. Meanwhile, Detroit won the Stanley Cup four times in that timespan.

When Norris finally kicked the bucket, the Black Hawks were taken over by Norris's oldest son, also named James, and a Red Wings minority owner named Arthur Wirtz. This was looking at another royal screwjob which could have set up the Wings for absolute dominance, but I guess Norris and Wirtz wanted a new challenge because they took their new ownership seriously. After taking the Hawks through a financial reversal of fortune, they hired former Detroit coach and general manager Tommy Ivan, and got to work rebuilding. In 1957, the Hawks struck gold. Or rather, they struck a Golden Jet! Bobby Hull made his debut that year, and he would go on to become the greatest Black Hawk, known to all by the nickname Golden Jet for his golden blond hair and speed. The next year, the Hawks found Stan Mikita. Pierre Pilote emerged as a guy who had just the right knack for knowing exactly who was in scoring position, and Glenn Hall was heisted from Detroit as a superior backstop. Chicago was a contender again by the end of the 50's. In 1959 and 1960, they were booted by the Canadiens in the playoffs. In 1961, with the Hawks finally sick and tired of being Montreal's playoff stepladder, the Hawks formed a plan for defense designed to wear out Montreal's galaxy of superstars. It worked like a charm - Chicago beat Montreal, then they went to the Finals, where they avenged all the shit the Wings put them through and won the Stanley Cup for the third time. This third Stanley Cup Championship is still very special to Chicago. The Original Six era ran from about 1942 to 1967, and 1961 is the only year during the quarter-century that it never went to Montreal, Detroit, or Toronto.

Chicago was in eternal contention during the rest of the 60's, and they even made the Finals twice more, losing in 1962 to the Leafs and 1965 to the Habs. Pilote won the Norris Trophy (top defenseman) three straight times, and Hall was an All-Star for eight years. Hull and Mikita were one of the most feared lines in the league, with Mikita even winning back-to-back scoring titles and Hart Trophies. They had a strong supporting roster which, at one point, actually included Phil Esposito. Although the team was never quite able to pull themselves together the way they did in 1961, 1967 included another big moment for the team: It was the final year of the Original Six NHL, and at long last, the Chicago Black Hawks broke the (again, totally nonexistent) Curse of Muldoon by finishing first. They lost in the playoffs to eventual champion Toronto, though.

Expansion hit in 1967, and Glenn Hall was drafted by the St. Louis Blues. In the 1968 season, Pilote was traded to the Maple Leafs. Then the team got REALLY fucking stupid and sent a trio of young forwards to the Bruins in exchange for three of their guys. Business as usual from the outside, but the players Chicago sent to Boston included Esposito, one of the NHL's true legends. It also included Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield, solid contributors both - Hodge was even an All-Star. So this routine trade was a fleecing by Boston which helped create the core of the Big Bad Bruins teams of the 70's. Bobby Hull broke his own scoring record with 58 goals, but in 1968, the losses of Hall, Esposito, and Pilote proved to be too much to take, and the Hawks missed the playoffs for the first time since 1958. It was also the last time they missed the playoffs until 1998! Hall was missed, but not for that long, because the Hawks found a new goalie in Phil Esposito's little brother Tony, who was every bit as good as his sibling. He backstopped the Hawks to another Finals appearance, where they finally bowed out before another one of those dynastic Canadiens teams everybody loved so much. All through the 70's, while the Black Hawks didn't win the Stanley Cup, they did conclusively prove the Curse of Muldoon was dead with a capital D-E-D and buried. They won their division seven times.

Unfortunately, the team's core was starting to hurt. Bobby Hull was one of the NHL's marquee stars, which meant it was a bad idea for Hawks owner Bill Wirtz to piss him off for underpaying him. When the World Hockey Association came along in 1972, Hull bailed for their Winnipeg Jets. Mikita retired late in the decade. The Hawks tried to pull one over on the Bruins in 1976 by trading for Bobby Orr, but the Bruins clearly knew something the Hawks didn't, as could have (and SHOULD have) been signified by the fact that the Bruins were, you know, TRADING BOBBY FUCKING ORR! Orr's health was in serious decline, and by the time he retired in 1979, Orr had only played in 26 games for the Black Hawks, total. While the Hawks kept making the playoffs, well, in the NHL the playoff teams are decided by a single question: Are you a professional hockey team playing hockey in the National Hockey League? If the answer is yes, congratulations! You're in the playoffs! Yeah, they got to the Conference Finals in 1982, but they were Cinderella-ing it by then.

Fortunately, there was another talent influx just around the corner. Denis Savard was drafted in 1980. Later in the decade, they drafted Jeremy Roenick and Ed Belfour, who led them to the Conference Finals again in 1989 after a fourth-place finish and three first-round losses in the previous three years. They lost to the eventual champions, the Calgary Flames. In 1990 Savard was traded to Montreal for Chris Chelios, and in 1992 the Hawks returned to the Finals on the backs of Chelios, Roenick, Belfour, and Steve Larmer. Their eleven straight playoff wins set a record. They were blanked 4-0 by the Pittsburgh Penguins, who were the defending champions. Despite the sweep, the Finals were much closer than they looked and could have gone either way. In the first game, Chicago managed to give up two three-goal leads. Chicago lost the second game 3-1, but games three and four ended with respective scores of 1-0 and 6-5. That year, Chicago hosted both the NBA and Stanley Cup Finals. The Bulls won their title, the Hawks lost theirs. The Blackhawks coach was Mike Keenan who, in a weird coincidence was part of this same kind of situation again in 1994. He moved on to coach the New York Rangers by then, and in 1994 both his Rangers and the New York Knicks played in their league Finals. This time, though, it was Keenan's team that won.

The early 90's dominance of the Blackhawks was gone before too long with Bill Wirtz more than earning the nickname Dollar Bill for his frugality. Roenick, Belfour, and Chelios were all traded. Denis Savard returned, but only on his last legs. The Blackhawks got progressively worse, and in 1998, they finally fell out of the playoffs. They were one season short of tying the Boston Bruins for the record number of consecutive playoff appearances. Except for a surprise season in 2002 and a quick exit from the first round, the Hawks were gone from the playoffs for the next eleven years. Gone, also were the team's better players: Eric Daze and Tony Amonte. The best player on the team became Tuomo Ruutu, a solid player who was nonetheless incapable of carrying a team himself. They spent the decade missing the playoffs by a wide margin every season. When I first moved to Chicago in 2006, this was the Blackhawks team that greeted me, the one that I willingly adopted.

Bill Wirtz was a good man with a lot of people who were fiercely loyal to him, I should let it be known. He loved his team, too. Unfortunately, his business acumen wasn't able to evolve with the changing times, and it worked against him in a terrible way. While I made the choice to adopt the Hawks - really, I grew up having my heart ripped out by the Buffalo Sabres, so it wasn't like I couldn't take it - and became a diehard fan, Wirtz had so thoroughly run the team into the ground by then that Chicago had forgotten about them, in some cases literally. He made some PR moves which were outright shitty: In 2006, he let go of longtime announcer Pat Foley. He had home games blacked out, citing it as unfair to season ticket holders. He raised ticket prices to an extent at which they were among the NHL's most expensive. When an author wrote a book critical of Wirtz and tried to sell it outside games, Wirtz had the author arrested. The parts of Chicago that remembered the Windy City even had an NHL team were so apathetic to it that the Chicago Wolves of the minor league AHL were literally more popular than the Blackhawks. For awhile, the Wolves were able to sell themselves on a slogan which zinged the Hawks: "We Play Hockey the Old-Fashioned Way: We Actually Win." I remember being out one night in an underground music show chatting up a girl. I happened to mention that I'm a lifelong puckhead.
"Oh. Are you a Wolves fan?" she asked.
"Well, yeah, I guess. I'm a Blackhawks fan, really," I responded.
"Who are the Blackhawks?" The question didn't shock me so much as her earnestness in asking it did.

In 2007, Bill Wirtz lost a battle to cancer. The team was expected to pass to his first son, Peter, but Peter only held onto it for a few weeks because he wanted to stay with his day job, running Bismark Enterprises. So the team passed into the hands of another son, Rocky. Now, for years fans had been calling on the Wirtz family to sell the team to a radical, Mark Cuban-like owner. As it turned out, Chicago had its own Mark Cuban under its thumb all along. Rocky decimated his father's dated policies. He started airing home games again. Then he hired John McDonough as president, which was important to getting attention because McDonough had been the PR master responsible for turning the Chicago Cubs into a nationally popular team. He established a fan festival, announced a partnership, ironically, with the Chicago White Sox, and Wirtz got to work hiring long-alienated stars like Hull, Mikita, and Esposito to serve as ambassadors. Because of McDonough, the Blackhawks took to Wrigley Field for the second-ever Winter Classic against Detroit.

Meanwhile, general manager Dale Tallon was collecting all the right players: Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Brian Campbell, and others to form the core of a high-flying team which was temporarily coached by Denis Savard. After the 2008 season started badly, Savard was fired but immediately brought back as an ambassador. Joel Quenneville was hired. The Hawks missed the playoffs again, but they sent a message to the NHL. In 2009, they were back, and they made it to the Conference Finals only to lose to Detroit. (Again.) The next year, the Hawks hired Marion Hossa as a free agent, and made Stan Bowman - Scotty's boy - their general manager. They easily made the playoffs. Even having to start a backup goalie with the merely-decent-at-best Antti Niemi, the Blackhawks tore through the Nashville Predators and Vancouver Canucks. In the Conference Finals, the long-frustrated San Jose Sharks looked to be the team that stopped the Hawks, but they ended up performing one of their famous tank jobs. In the Finals, they met the Philadelphia Flyers. The goaltending was shaky on both sides, but Niemi proved to be just a hair better in goal when it was needed. The Flyers were clearly the inferior team, and to have a chance, they needed to win the first two games and/or game five. They weren't able to. And so, when game six concluded with an overtime goal from Patrick Kane, the Chicago Blackhawks skated off the ice as the Stanley Cup Champions for the first time since 1961. The city went nuts.

The team needed to dump some significant salary since then, so it's a good thing they got through the window. Even so, the Hawks are exciting again, and among the NHL's elite and popular. As of this writing, they are 10-0-3 on the current season, flying on an incredible streak which hasn't yet seen them lose a single game in regulation yet. They have 23 points so far, and are so far the best team in the NHL this year.

As you can see, the Chicago Blackhawks are one of the oldest and most storied teams in the NHL. As such, they've had a score of some of the league's greatest players suit up for them. Bobby Hull is chief among them, though Jeremy Roenick, Chris Chelios, Doug Gilmour, Steve Larmer, Ed Belfour, Max Bentley, Al Rollins, Duncan Keith, and Charlie Gardiner were no slouches, either. They've all won trophies, after all. All-Stars include Eric Daze, Jocelyn Thibault, Martin Havlat, Marion Hossa, Doug Wilson, Pit Martin, Doug Bentley, and seemingly their entire 1961 team. Glenn Hall, Keith Magnuson, Pierre Pilote, Bobby Hull, Denis Savard, Stan Mikita, and Tony Esposito have all had numbers retired. The Blackhawks as a team have won one Presidents' Trophy, their conference trophy seven times (they switched conferences, so they've won the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl five times and the Prince of Wales Trophy twice) and the Stanley Cup four times. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are currently the faces of the Blackhawks.

The Hawks' 49-year Stanley Cup drought is surpassed only by the 54-year drought the New York Rangers suffered from 1941 to 1994. That's one of their primary markers, in fact. That and the never-existed Curse of Muldoon come with the mystique of being one of the NHL's oldest teams. It was the Blackhawks who started the fan tradition of cheering wildly during the national anthem. The Hawks are also identified by one of the most recognizable and prettiest uniforms and logos in sports. It's an Indian head - controversial, yes, but ultimately even the most ardent American Indians' rights proponents around Chicago agree that, no matter what they think of it, it's one of the more tasteful and respectfully done ones. The third jerseys are some of the nicest-looking in the league. They were voted by The Hockey News as the best in the NHL, and one of the 25 best in professional sports by GQ magazine. The same basic design has been in place since about 1955, with only a few minor changes here and there. The fans constantly sell out games these days, and so Chicago is known to house the most devoted hockey fans in America. That's what people are trying to sell us on, anyway. The truth is, while there were pockets of diehard holdouts when I moved to Chicago during the bad years, I find the general fanbase to be possibly the most overrated since people began hopping on the New England Patriots bandwagon. When I moved to Chicago, I was seen as odd for being a hockey fan. If the Blackhawks fanbase was everything it's cracked up to be, the team never would have been allowed to be forgotten to the level it was.

Like all Chicago teams, the Blackhawks have a fierce rivalry with Detroit. The marquee rivalry of the NHL has long been between the Hawks and the Detroit Red Wings. These two teams can't stand each other, and they've met several times in the playoffs, including in the Finals. They played against each other in the 2009 Conference Finals. Detroit took that match. The Hawks beat the Wings in the 1934 Finals to win their first Stanley Cup championship, and again in the 1961 Finals for their third. The St. Louis Blues, far from being known as just "those expansion guys who stole Glenn Hall" have become a team of history and tradition in their own right, even though they're a lot younger than the Blackhawks. They have an ongoing rivalry against Chicago too.

In over 80 years of hockey, the Chicago Blackhawks have been to the highest highs and the lowest lows. They've won the Stanley Cup, and been the face of futility. They've exemplified everything wrong about dual team ownership. They've fielded legends, and gotten fleeced for other legends. They've won squeezers of games and gone on rampaging winning sprees. The story of the Chicago Blackhawks is a long one which has rarely been boring, and you'll be hard-pressed to find another team which contains the incredible ride the Hawks have taken their fans on.]]> Wed, 13 Feb 2013 19:08:45 +0000
<![CDATA[ The Ohio State Blue Jackets]]>
Ohio had an NHL team from 1976 to 1978 called the Cleveland Barons, and they weren't all that awesome. This was a team that had come into existence as part of the NHL's Class of '67, after all, as the Oakland Seals. There were six teams created in that expansion: The Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Minnesota North Stars, St. Louis Blues, Los Angeles Kings, and Oakland Seals. Of the teams on that list, the Flyers, Penguins, Blues, and Kings have all become some of the most storied teams (and biggest draws) in the league. The Flyers and Penguins have both won the Stanley Cup multiple times. The Kings won it last year for the first time, and the Cup-less Blues have a few Conference Championships. The Minnesota North Stars were well on their way to that same territory before their dumbs owner smelled more dollars in Dallas and took them there, where to the surprise of no one, people don't give a shit anymore. They do have a couple of Conference Championships of their own, though, and they were awarded with the Stanley Cup in 1999, and they're still around. My point is that the Cleveland Barons were the final hurrah name of the Seals. Of the 1967 teams, they're the only ones to have folded into history.

Columbus entered their expansion bid in 1997, but they needed an arena. The citizens of Columbus, showing common sense, voted it down, so Nationwide decided to finance the whole thing with their money. (This REALLY needs to happen a LOT more often.) Voila! Team! To be perfectly fair to Bettman, though, the other bidders were a real shit list: Atlanta; Houston; Nashville; Minneapolis; Oklahoma City; Hamilton, Ontario; Hampton Roads, Virginia; and Raleigh. Of course, Atlanta, Nashville, Minneapolis, and Raleigh got teams anyway. This bid ended with the creation of the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Minnesota Wild, who became the league's newest teams in 2001.

In the expansion draft, the Jackets took a journeyman goalie named Rick Tabaracci from the Colorado Avalanche. Other draft picks included Dwayne Roloson, the backstopped who would go on to backstop the underdog Edmonton Oilers to the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals…. And who skipped Columbus to WILLINGLY play in the minors the year of the expansion. They also took defensemen Lyle Odelein and Mathieu Schneider and forwards Geoff Sanderson, Turner Stevenson, and Dallas Drake…. Only to watch Schneider get signed by the Kings and Drake leave for the Blues.

In 2000, it was time for the Blue Jackets to hit the ice. They lost to the Chicago Blackhawks, which wasn't a good thing because the onetime powerhouse Hawks were well on their way to being the league's favorite doormat by then. (Except for a brief squeeze-in appearance in 2002, Chicago missed the playoffs every year from 1998 to 2009.) It would become routine for the Blue Jackets over the season; they finished 28-48-9 (no, I'm NEVER going to be doing the win-loss-tie-overtime loss thing in this series, even if they did have an impact on the standings. A loss is a fucking loss!). Geoff Sanderson did score 30 goals, becoming the first Jacket to do so, and Ron Tugnutt gave the team a solid performance in goal with 22 of those wins, which actually tied the record for most wins by a goalie for an expansion team. That was impressive, considering the last goalie to reach that mark was Lorne Chabot. To really appreciate the 74-year gap between Chabot and Tugnutt, you have to realize that Chabot was goaltending for the New York Rangers when he did that. Even so, the team only finished with a paltry 71 points.

The next year, the team finished with an even worse 57 points, good enough for next-to-last in the NHL. The team's lone highlight wasn't even a highlight; it was one of the most unimaginable of all possible lowlights. Jacket Espen Knutsen took a shot that flew off Calgary Flames defenseman Derek Morris and struck a 13-year old fan named Brittanie Cecil in the head, killing her. As a result, the NHL now requires teams to hang nylon nets above the glass behind the goals. Knutson helped create a charity in Brittanie's name, and the Blue Jackets wore special patches with her initials for the rest of the season on their helmets.

The Jackets started the 2003 season by going 7-6-1 after their first 14 games, and were starting to look like they turned a corner. Fan expectations grew, but I guess everyone forgot that the NHL season goes for 82 games. They crashed, missed the playoffs again, and in midseason, the Jackets held their first-ever coach firing by cutting Dave King and replacing him with their general manager, Doug MacLean. Marc Denis was made the starting goalie, and start he did! He started in a whopping 77 games, tying second for games started in a single season. (Grant Fuhr started 79 in 1996 for the Blues.) He also set a record for minutes played with 4511.

2004 brought some nice key additions: Center Todd Marchant, defenseman Darryl Sydor, and coach Gerard Gallant. Also, they had picked up some guy named Rick Nash in the 2003 draft. Although the Jackets finished with a paltry 62 points, Nash broke out tying for the Rocket Richard Trophy (most goals) with Calgary's Jarome Iginla and Ilya Kovalchuk of the New Jersey Devils by scoring 41 goals. The Blue Jackets also avoided the Central Division cellar for the first time, leaving the bottom to the Blackhawks.

Doug MacLean was fired in 2007. He had been the Jackets' only general manager, and had served briefly as their head coach. His moves had always failed to result in a playoff berth. Scott Howson was hired from Edmonton, and they found a new minor league team to hook up with. Gallant was relieved as coach, and replaced with the great Ken Hitchcock, and for the first time the Columbus faithful had real reason for optimism. They kicked off the 2008 season - the first full year with Hitchcock - by destroying the defending champion Anaheim Ducks in their first game. Things went down a little by the trade deadline, though, because the team couldn't come to a good contract term with Captain Adam Foote. He requested a trade to Colorado, and was given one. Even so, the Jackets had the best season in their short history that year. They stayed above .500 until the last game, finished with 80 points, and as for their divisional standing…. Still in fourth. Hitchcock was awarded with an extension.

In 2009, the Blue Jackets traded for Jason Williams and Antoine Vermette, both of whom produced a lot and benefitted the team. The team benefitted so much, in fact, that they were finally lifted into the playoffs upon a 4-3 shootout victory over Chicago. They were handily swept out of the first round by the eventual Conference Champion Detroit Red Wings, though. And that's now that. That lone playoff season is the highlight of the Blue Jackets' history so far. They've been faring better in recent years than they did earlier - after the playoffs, they finished with 79 and 81 points - but they dropped back to the division basement. In the 2012 season, the finished with 65 points, then Rick Nash left to play for the Rangers. That really doesn't leave anything except the constant talk about how the Columbus Blue Jackets are going to be moving.

The Blue Jackets are still a young team, and as such, they haven't retired any numbers. They had a superstar in Rich Nash, and in the 2009 season, they got a rookie goalie who walked away with the Calder in Steve Mason. Mason is looking like a keeper; in the 2009 season, he went almost 200 minutes without allowing a single goal.

The Blue Jackets have one really cool tradition: Since the Blue Jackets name was given to the team because of Ohio's rich connotations with the Civil War, the team fires off a replica cannon after every goal. They also have a surprisingly lively rivalry against the Detroit Red Wings, mostly through carryover elements of college football's insane war between Michigan and Ohio State. It's a lot bigger on the Ohio side than the Michigan side, though, because the overall series between the Red Wings and Blue Jackets is lopsided as hell, and between the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues, they really have bigger fish to fry anyway. Their expansion-mates, the Minnesota Wild, are a smaller rivalry. If there's a truly great rival to the Jackets, it's the Nashville Predators through the similar ages, game intensity, and a couple of playoff races. One former Jackets coach once referred to Nashville coach Barry Trotz as Darth Vader. Columbus/Nashville holds a lot of promise as a rivalry, but both teams will probably have to stay put for it to work. On the highly unlikely chance that happens, it could blossom into one of the greats. Wikipedia says the Blue Jackets also have interconference rivalries with the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins because games with them sell out in Columbus. This HAS to be on their end, because as a Buffalo native and lifelong Sabres diehard, it sure as hell ain't on ours.

How does one cheer for these guys? How do you fall in love with a team whose drawing power hitches mostly off the mighty Buckeyes? Whose very identity these days is mainly "team that's gonna move soon?" Well, I don't. You'll have to ask the people of Columbus, because I can't think of anything which could redeem a team like the Columbus Blue Jackets.]]> Tue, 12 Feb 2013 17:41:45 +0000
<![CDATA[ Sabre Dance]]>
In 1936, though, the Bisons were forced out of their home arena when the place collapsed. Why did it go down? Typical Buffalo fashion: 13 inches of snow piled onto the roof. It was the heavy, wet stuff too. They tried to join the International American Hockey League for the 1937 season, but their home was too small for them to make a profit, so the team was finished by December 1936. In 1940, the Syracuse Stars were relocated to become a new Buffalo Bisons franchise, and through 30 years and affiliations with the Montreal Canadiens, Chicago Black Hawks, and New York Rangers, the Bisons with their famous Pepsi cap logo became the beating heart and soul of hockey in Buffalo. Over those 30 years, the team won five regular season titles and, more importantly, five Calder Cups.

In the 60's, the NHL had had six teams for decades, and they decided the whole six-team routine was getting a little bit thin, especially with the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs dominating the top of the standings. So they decided to mix things up by increasing the number of teams in the league by 100 percent, to make twelve! In Buffalo, guys with money were listening: Robert Swados, and brothers Seymour and Northrup Knox. By 1965, they had already filled out their applications for one of the expansions, but the NHL had a slight problem: The Toronto Maple Leafs kind of, you know, EXISTED, and Toronto's broadcast area overlapped with Buffalo's. So Buffalo was overlapped and the six teams created for the 1967 expansion were the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Los Angeles Kings, Oakland Seals, Minnesota North Stars, and St. Louis Blues. The Blues' creation was grating to the three brothers because St. Louis had no real history or connection to hockey, and it was the Blues who were created in the place of a Buffalo team.

Swados and the Knox brothers weren't the only ones pissed off by the expansion choices. Take a look at that list of teams again. What's one thing they all have in common? If you said "none of them are in Canada," give yourself a first star! And since hockey is Canada's national obsession, les habitants weren't exactly pleased. Since the league was worried about a TV contract and the possibility of the Western Hockey League declaring itself a major league, it decided to expand again, this time by creating the Vancouver Canucks and, yes, bringing the NHL team to Buffalo that the city had desired, since Buffalo is right on the border. Since the new owners were tired of seeing Buffalo teams being called the Bisons, they commissioned a name-the-team contest. Seymour Knox selected Sabres as the winning choice because a saber is a weapon of tradition, long carried on the battlefield by leaders, and a sword great on both offense and defense. Former Leafs coach/general manager Punch Imlach was hired for the same jobs by the Sabres.

In the 1970 draft, the big pick was a phenom named Gilbert Perreault. One of the expansion teams got to pick first, so they decided by roulette wheel. The wheel landed in favor of the Sabres, the Sabres got Perreault, and the Canucks got to take Gary Doak. The eternal fortunes of both teams was pretty effectively decided right then. The Sabres endured their expansion troubles, as all teams do, but they kept drafting the right way. In their second season, they drafted Rick Martin, and in the 1972 season they picked up Rene Robert in a trade with the Penguins. All three of these guys played on the same line, and due to the fact that all three had French-Canadian roots, the line would become popularly known as The French Connection. They went down in history as one of the greatest NHL lines of all time, and in the 1975 season, they lifted and carried the Sabres to the Stanley Cup Finals, just five years into the team's existence. The Sabres looked like a good pick to win the Stanley Cup in an the first all-expansion Finals, which put them against the Philadelphia Flyers. Those Flyers, though, were fielding a brutish crew nicknamed the Broad Street Bullies, and with superior coaching and goaltending, they managed to choke off the Connection and take the Stanley Cup in six games. The third game of those Finals, though, became one of the classic stories in NHL history. Buffalo was unusually hot for that month, and Buffalo Memorial Auditorium had no AC, so the game was played in a heavy fog which made players, officials, and the puck invisible to spectators and, in some cases, each other. Known as the Fog Game, it was also a tight fight, which the Sabres won in overtime through Robert's heroics.

With the addition of Danny Gare, The French Connection continued to give opposing goalies nightmares right through the rest of the 70's. They played extremely well, and at one point they became the first NHL team to beat the Soviet Wings, the national team of the Soviet Union that everyone in the hockey-playing world was afraid of. The French Connection years officially closed in 1979, when Rene Robert was traded to the Colorado Rockies. (They were the team that existed before the Avalanche.) Despite the loss of Robert, the Sabres did manage to win the Wales Conference Championship in 1980. Unfortunately, Rick Martin also shattered his knee that same year. He career was basically over, and while he tried to hang on, the Sabres knew his time was up and sent him to the Los Angeles Kings.

The 80's got to be a frustrating time for the Sabres. Again, the team played very good, strong hockey. They were exciting to watch. They drafted Dave Andreychuk and Phil Housley in 1982; the former would become the NHL's all-time leader in power play goals, the latter the all-time American point leader until Mike Modano passed him. Gilbert Perreault reached the 500-goal plateau in the 1986 season before retiring. The Sabres drafted Pierre Turgeon in 1987, and in 1989 they helped a young Soviet hockey player named Alexander Mogilny defect. In 1984 they also drafted Tom Barrasso, a prolific goalie who won the Calder Trophy (best rookie) and Vezina (best goalie) the same year. Despite all this firepower, though, the Sabres developed a recurring pattern: Play well throughout the season, fighting for first most of the time. Lose first place in the last month or two. Make way into playoffs (they only missed the playoffs twice in the 80's), and become a sisyphean team by getting ejected in the first round in an unending cycle, usually at the hands of the Canadiens, Boston Bruins, or Quebec Nordiques.

If this era had an official close, it came on March 22, 1989 in probably the scariest and most horrific on-ice incident in NHL history. Tom Barrasso had been traded by then, and one of Buffalo's netminders was a rather pedestrian man by the name of Clint Malarchuk. His career was an inauspicious one, and if this night had been better for him, he would be an NHL footnote. That night, though, the Blues happened to be in town, and at one point during the game the puck was sailing down the ice toward the Buffalo goal. St. Louis's Steve Tuttle and Buffalo's Uwe Krupp gave chase, and caught up just about when the puck reached Malarchuk. Unfortunately, they crashed into Malarchuk, and somewhere in the commotion, Tuttle's skate managed to slash Malarchuk's jugular wide open. Malarchuk quickly got to the locker room, he had the equipment manager call his mother to say he loved her, than asked for a priest. Fortunately, Buffalo trainer Jim Pizzutelli knew what to do: He reached into Malarchuk's neck and pinched off the bleeding until the doctors got there. It took them 300 stitches to close the wound, and Malarchuk lived. Today, that injury is mentioned right alongside Theismann's Tibia and fibula. Malarchuk returned to the NHL, but not for much longer.

In the 90's, the Sabres kept collecting talent. One seven-player deal brought in New York Islanders superstar Pat LaFontaine, who teamed up with Mogilny to terrorize opposing goalies. They also grabbed Dale Hawerchuk from the Winnipeg Jets that year for an extra scoring hand, and traded for goalie Grant Fuhr, who netminded the great Edmonton Oilers machines of the 80's. In the 1993 season, they acquired traded for the Blackhawks backup, Dominik Hasek. That name is going to be important later. But in that same 1993 season, the Sabres were finally fielding a team worthy to succeed those great 70's Sabres teams, and they went to the playoffs and beat their first round hiccups. Their sweep of the Bruins culminated with a dramatic game four which went to overtime, where the big hero wasn't Mogilny or LaFontaine or Hawerchuk but… Brad May, one of their enforcers. The goal is now known in Buffalo sports lore as "May Day."

In 1996, the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium closed, and a new coach named Ted Nolan brought a work ethic and toughness to the team. The Sabres reinvented their look with a black, silver, white, and red look with a logo known as the Water Buffalo. Fuhr mentored Hasek, which was a good thing because he started going down with injuries a bit too often. By the time he returned, Hasek's unorthodox style (which should be known as "just keep the damn puck out of the damn net" but for some reason isn't) was working well enough to set him up as THE MAN. Although the Sabres had started a talent dump since May Day, going as far as to trade LaFontaine, who had been their fearless, saintly leader for years. Even so, they won the division in 1997 on the back of Hasek, who was turning into the greatest goalie in the league.

A rash of trades throughout the mid-90's turned the Sabres into a castoff unit by the later half of the decade, and outside of Hasek, Nolan didn't have tons of talent to work with. Also, he wasn't getting along with his star goalie, either. So it says a lot that the Sabres began to thrive under Nolan. Instead of complaining, the team had a very unusual way of responding to their new designation as the league's unwanted and misfits: They morphed into a unit of bruisers, hitters, and fighters. Adopting a new identity as The Hardest Working Team in Hockey, the Sabres threw the chips on their shoulders at everyone else in the league. No superstar was too good for these guys to want to have at them, no team too good, no enforcer too tough. The scorers on those late 90's teams were tough enough to watch their own backs. Their defensemen could clobber like enforcers, and their enforcers were guys no one wanted to fuck with. If an opposing star skated around, say, Curtis Brown, it didn't matter because Michael Peca would be right beside Brown to knock the star onto his ass. Although the lack of talent was a bit of a concern, other teams quickly learned that if they had the gall to step onto the ice with the Buffalo Sabres, then win or lose, man, they were gonna FEEL it!

Hasek won two Hart Trophies (MVP), and in 1999 the Sabres returned to the Finals, this time against the Dallas Stars. An objective evaluation of the series places paper favor squarely in Dallas's corner. The league wasn't capped back then, and the Stars, led by Brett Hull, Mike Modano, and goalie Ed Belfour, were clearly superior. So the Sabres took to the series Sabre-style, and slugged it through six hard-fought games. In game six, with the Sabres down three games to two, it took three overtimes before Brett Hull scored the game-winner. Back then, the NHL had a rule stating that goals were disallowed if a player's skate entered the goal crease before the puck did. The problem was Hull took two shots while in the crease, and the NHL also played favorites that year because that rule had been applied rather liberally, and there were a lot of discounted goals which looked very similar to other goals that had been allowed to stand. Why the rule wasn't applied that night in June remains a mystery, but the official standings decided Dallas "won" the Stanley Cup. Commissioner Gary Bettman was a complete dick about this thing for a decade before finally admitting he screwed up in 2009. The sportswriter for the Dallas Morning News even called people out. In Buffalo, Dallas never won the Stanley Cup, the 1999 Finals never ended, and we're ready to resume when Dallas is.

The next year brought Doug Gilmour, who played real clutch hockey down the line to get the Sabres to the playoffs. They thumped the Flyers in the first round, but a freak puck bounce ended their run against Pittsburgh in the second round. The team Captain, Michael Peca, was traded in 2001 after a nasty contract dispute, and Hasek was traded to the Detroit Red Wings. The Hardest Working Team in Hockey was no more. After a terrible couple of years which saw the threat of a very possible move, a deal sent a maddeningly inconsistent center named Chris Gratton to the Phoenix Coyotes for a fourth stringer named Daniel Briere that not even the Yotes wanted. Briere had a scoring touch and became a very popular player in Buffalo. After the 2005 lockout, Briere became the centerpiece of a team which became the model of the faster, newly-open NHL.

The 2006 and 2007 seasons were Buffalo's best ever. The 2006 team was probably the most skillful and best-rounded squad in Sabres history. They won 52 games, went to the playoffs, and made mincemeat of the Flyers and the Ottawa Senators. Then they met the Carolina Hurricanes, and the injuries to their defense were piling up. The Hurricanes had played against the Sabres six times that season, winning five. Their one loss to Buffalo was the regular season finale for both teams, and both had long since locked up their playoff spots and were resting starters. While the teams both finished with 52 wins and Carolina was just two points ahead in the standings, they were clearly better, which made this series incredible. The Sabres took the first game 3-2, and the Canes responded with a 4-3 victory next. The teams went to Buffalo, and the Sabres took game three by one goal, but failed to strangle the series in the next game, which Carolina won in a 4-0 blowout. The Hurricanes won the next game in overtime and Buffalo, now on the brink, responded with an incredible 2-1 overtime win in game six thanks to JP Dumont. In game seven, Buffalo took a 2-1 lead into the third period, but their injuries and the physical toll of the Stanley Cup Playoffs finally caught up with them. Doug Weight tied the game for Carolina, then Rod Brind'Amour took the lead, and with a minute left, Justin Williams scored the insurance goal. The Carolina Hurricanes would go on to win the Stanley Cup that year. The following season, the Sabres started 10-0. The entire league was now their doormat, and they won the President's Trophy. Unfortunately, they tanked in the Eastern Conference Finals against Ottawa, a team they had spent all season destroying, and also the team that LOST the Stanley Cup.

The Sabres since then have decided to play the league's farm team. After those magical two years, Briere became a mainstay in Philadelphia and their other co-Captain, Chris Drury, went to the New York Rangers. They won the division in 2010, but that quickly proved to be an aberration for a team which keeps getting rid of its best players. In 2011, lifelong Sabres fan Terry Pegula bought the team and spent until the Sabres had the highest payroll. He promised he would fight for multiple Stanley Cup victories. Unfortunately, he's also wimped out about getting rid of the Sabres' two biggest obstacles: General manager Darcy Regier, who has had that position since 1997, and coach Lindy Ruff, who replaced Ted Nolan in 1997. I like these two guys a lot, but they've clearly done all the damage they're able to do with the Sabres and need a change of scenery. The current faces of the team are Thomas Vanek, who is currently playing MVP-caliber hockey; Captain Jason Pominville, and goalie Ryan Miller, the American National Team hero of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Some notable names have played for Buffalo. Scotty Bowman once coached the team, but that was in the late 80's, when many of their stars were growing old and he couldn't build anything close to the powerhouses he led in Montreal and Detroit. Gilbert Perreault and Pat LaFontaine are still considered the best players in team history, and the legendary Tim Horton - he of the donut shop - was a Sabre from 1972 until his tragic death in a car crash in 1974. Perreault, Rick Martin, and Rene Robert all have their numbers retired under a large blue banner which reads "The French Connection," the name of their line, and all three of them are immortalized in statue form outside the Sabres' arena, the First Niagara Center, as well. Horton, LaFontaine, and Danny Gare have also had their numbers retired. One of Buffalo's cult heroes is Rob Ray, a great enforcer who forced to create a new rule named for him because of his habit of ripping off his shirt and pads whenever he got into a fight. Ray is the only player in NHL history to accumulate over 3000 penalty minutes with the same team, and his total minutes is fifth or sixth overall, ever. In the early 90's, he and teammates Brad May and Gord Donnelly became the only three players on one team to be penalized for over 300 minutes in a single season. When the game was over, though, even the people who most hated Ray while on the ice consider him one of the NHL's class acts and all-around nice guys off the ice. The NHL gave Ray a humanitarian award for his tireless charity work with disabled children. (I met him when I was about ten. He really is a hell of a nice guy.)

The Sabres have a fierce rivalry in the Playoffs with the Philadelphia Flyers, who beat them for the Stanley Cup in 1975. The Boston Bruins are also principal rivals, as are the Toronto Maple Leafs by proximity. Buffalo's nastiest rivalry for the time may be with the Ottawa Senators. A lot of the greatest Sabres games in history were overtime playoff games, many of which happened during The Hardest Working Team in Hockey era. It happened a lot back then that the Sabres would put just enough goals in, Hasek would shut the door, and the Sabres would find a way to will themselves to victory. The 2006 Eastern Conference Finals, the May Day game, The Fog Game, and one particularly dramatic game four against the Rangers in the 2007 playoffs are among the league's classics. The Rangers game resulted in Buffalo's collective heart failure because the Sabres scored the tying goal with eight seconds to go, then won in overtime. Loudmouth Jaromir Jagr, one of New York's arrogant players, bitched that he didn't think the Sabres were that good after that.

Sabres fans were known for a long time for the Thank You Sabres chant, which originated after a 1973 playoff loss to Montreal. The Sabres' radical remake of their image was accepted more than loved, and after ten years they returned to their traditional blue and gold colors. Unfortunately, they had also contracted Reebok to make a new logo, which was known as The Slug and won comparisons to Donald Trump's hair. It was quickly ditched after two years of being seen as one of the worst, most hated logos in league history, and the Sabres returned to their original logo, one of the league's proudest: A representation of a charging buffalo and a pair of crossed sabres. Lending to the team's image is the organ play of "Sabre Dance" at the team introduction and after every goal. In deference to hockey's Canadian lineage and Buffalo's location on the border, the Sabres are the only team in the NHL to perform both the American and Canadian national anthems at every home game, no matter who their opponents are.

Don't listen to Facebook numbers or the old guard trying to sell you on the Buffalo Bills. It's the Sabres who currently own the city's sports soul. Gary Bettman, for all his faults - and his complete shitheadedness in the aftermath of the 1999 Finals - knows what a gem he stumbled into with the Sabres. Buffalo hockey is a religion, and the city frequently pulls in playoff ratings twice that of every other NHL city, whether or not the Sabres are involved. Pittsburgh is ranked a distant second, and they need help from two Finals appearances - one a victory - the league's best player, and more televised games than any other team. In becoming the city's team, the Sabres have hit all the right notes, holding open practices every year, letting little league hockey teams play between periods during games, and throwing a giant party in the plaza outside the First Niagara Center for every home game which attracts a few thousand people to go along with the 21,000 in the Center - who by then are in on standing room only because there are only 18,000 seats. The Buffalo area has produced more NHL talent than any other city in the United States.

When a reviewer begins a project like this, there's always that one thing he's eager to write about. Well, the Buffalo Sabres are mine. Remember what I just said about kids playing at Sabres games between periods? I did that a few times as a tyke. It's tough for me to admit this team may never win the Stanley Cup, but even so, my deep emotional connections to them aren't wavering. I try to be objective about these essays, but there are times I can't help fawning. The Buffalo Sabres are my all time favorite sports team.]]> Sat, 9 Feb 2013 20:59:17 +0000
<![CDATA[Ice Hockey Quick Tip by BaronSamedi3]]> Mon, 4 Feb 2013 16:43:11 +0000 <![CDATA[Wayne Gretzky Quick Tip by BaronSamedi3]]> Mon, 28 Jan 2013 03:39:14 +0000 <![CDATA[Patrick Kane Quick Tip by BaronSamedi3]]> Thu, 24 Jan 2013 18:39:08 +0000 <![CDATA[ Were the 80's REALLY like this?]]>
Rob Lowe stars as Dean Youngblood, a young man that has spent most of his life on the farm, but dreams of a shot at the NHL. but first he must play in the juniors before he can make his way to be big league so he heads up to Canada and joins the Hamilton Mustangs where he forms a friendship with the team captain Derek Sutton, played by Patrick Swayze.

Yes, the basic plot isn't exactly anything to get exited about, and you can probably guess everything that will happen when you hit the half-way point, but the over-the-top nature of the film lessens the annoyance one would feel from watching the trite plot. although sadly the forced romance of Rob Lowe and the love interest (the coaches daughter) played by Cynthia Gibbs is an especially painful part of the film that doesn't become easier to watch through the lens of "so-bad-it's-good"

The film starts off in pure 80's fashion with a montage of Rob Lowe skating in an empty rink, shooting pucks into the net (100% sure he didn't do his own skating) set to 80's music and you can be sure that you'll get another montage later in the film. you can pretty much count all the cliches in this film, the montages, the awful romance, homoerotic locker scenes, I was half expecting Val Kilmer to pop up at one point and say "you can be my wing man any time!"

As far as the acting goes, quite a few of the performances are an absolute delight to watch, for varying reasons. Ed Lauter chews the scenery as the cranky coach, Keanu Reeves screws up the French-Canadian accent, Patrick Swayze brings the usual hammy performance, and George J. Finn, who plays Racki, takes the cake as the Canadian stereotype who forms a rivalry with Youngblood early in the film.

If you want to buy/get this film for the hockey scenes, you would be better served elsewhere, I can assure you they are nothing special. While they did get NHL players to cameo in the film, they didn't affect the quality of the hockey scenes, and the most prominent footage of any of those players in the film (Steve Thomas, he was playing for the Maple Leafs at the time, according to Wikipedia) is him getting towel-whipped in the locker by Swayze.

I can't say I've heard of a single band on the soundtrack, but I guess if somebody was trying to explain what was up with the 80's, they could just give them the Youngblood soundtrack CD and they would just go "Oh right, I see what you mean" it's all new wave/hair rock up to 11, as the saying goes.

Final word? No doubt this movie is bad, but if you can rent it this film might just be a pretty amusing few hours to waste.]]> Tue, 3 Jan 2012 00:42:55 +0000
<![CDATA[ One Hockey Night]]>
What the kids didn't know was that Dad was building then a surprise. Busy in the back yard and the garbage, he was up to something. Then, on Christmas he revealed his big surprise...

Hockey, the greatest game in the world. We simply can't wait until it's time to build a rink in our yard. The best thing about a Canadian winter!]]> Thu, 16 Dec 2010 12:00:00 +0000
<![CDATA[ First Place in the NHL!]]> Fri, 5 Nov 2010 22:28:55 +0000 <![CDATA[ I think Hockey Musical says it all]]> Written and Directed by Michael McGowan
Starring Noah Reid, Allie McDoanald and Olivia Newton-John

Canada is a different country after this year’s Olympic games in Vancouver.  Its sense of pride was rediscovered through a collective rallying behind its many talented athletes.  And one sport brought the country together like no other – hockey.  In 2008, director Michael McGowan did something similar to enhance Canadian pride, albeit on a much smaller level, when he released his last film, ONE WEEK, a cross country road trip that showed how majestic Canada’s countryside truly is.  And so it would stand to reason that combining McGowan’s filmmaking efforts with hockey itself should amount to a film that would resonate in the hearts of Canadians.  Instead, SCORE: A HOCKEY MUSICAL reminds everyone why Canada isn’t famous for its movies.

Noah Reid, a homegrown Canadian from Toronto, where the film takes place, plays Farley Gordon, a 17-year-old with enormous hockey potential that has yet to be tapped.  Personally, I never saw any of this supposed prowess on screen but his buddies sure think he’s got the goods.  He is such an amazing force on the ice that he inspires his teammates to burst into song in celebration.  You might think that hockey and musicals don’t really go together but after seeing SCORE, you will actually know for a fact that they don’t.  That isn’t fair though.  Perhaps if McGowan had bothered really pushing the skills on either the musical or the hockey front, it would have worked.  Instead though, he treats us to some barely passable hockey playing, some fairly grating singing and some just plain pathetic attempts at dancing.  If a director isn’t going to bother pushing anyone to excel, why should anyone bother showing up for his amateur effort?

Being home-schooled by pacifists (Olivia Newton-John and Marc Jordan, looking more annoyed to be there than I was), Farley has limited experience with team sports and somehow managed to miss that fighting is almost an integral part of playing hockey with a team.  Farley must figure out who he is in a world that is pulling him in so many indiscernible directions at once.  Unfortunately for him, he has to warble his way through some pretty nauseating lyricism to get there.  Fortunately for us, it only takes him ninety minutes to get there.  

Thanks for reading.
For more ]]> Sat, 25 Sep 2010 15:41:09 +0000
<![CDATA[Chicago Blackhawks Quick Tip by dbranan13]]> Fri, 18 Jun 2010 22:05:04 +0000 <![CDATA[ HERE'S TO THE GREATEST MOTHER OF ALL TIME]]>

This review was written after my mother passed, the first one after.


There are two things that lead me to write this review, the most important being that this film was one of my mom's favorites. She passed away recently after 13 years of battling various types of cancer [no lie, multiple]. The second being that the winter Olympics just passed with the US doing very well in hockey, in this true story they went all the way and won the gold. When getting ready to write this I thought about various things, things I should say, should it be about the film and just that, or should I discuss my mama as well. The truth is I am not sure even still while typing this but it may serve as some kind of therapy, who knows. What I do know is that even if she was still around this is a very good film that shows what America is all about. In hockey, war, friendship, love, and life this is still the greatest country ever. From the actual hockey all the way to the acting the film is suburb in every way, and I mean that.

I am sure after all the years this film as been out you know the story, the story of the underdog. The story of the people who are not even looked at as worthy to be in there let alone win the thing. Yeah that is the story of the American Olympic Hockey Team from the 1980 Winter Games. The team was coached by Herb Brooks who was the coach at the University of Minnesota at the time, turns out this guy was a genius. He was counted out even before he got the job and once he did no one supported his decisions except maybe one or two people. Even still no one believed he could lead the US to victory especially over heavy favorites the Soviet team. Still as it would turn out he was the right man for the job, and his methods were excellent.

From the get go he wanted his team to be able to practice and come together longer than planned, so instead of a week long try out he had one day. Picked 26 guys who were all talented but maybe not the best over all in some cases, he wanted the best potential team players. Then he wilted it down to just 20 and off he went making his team of no name college guys [remember pros were not playing at the time in the Games] making them hate him so they wouldn't hate each other, which made them a team. Eventually that hate turned to respect for Brooks which made them into a family. It was that frame of mind that Herb wanted all along because it was no longer a team of individuals but one unit. It was that unit that would go on to give this country something it needed most off all in that time. What was that one thing, well for some it was hope, for others a good time, for others an escape, but one thing is for sure it was more than a hockey game.

Kurt Russell does a fantastic job of playing Herb Brooks and gets the man point blank, from his mannerisms to his voice and everything else. From what I can tell from the excellent special features he spent a lot of time with Herb and basically became him on the set. Same thing for all of the players on the team, they actually became the people they were portraying. Honestly Kurt could have won some awards for this because it truly is a great film and he did a great job. The surprising thing about this film is how good the kids are that played the players. Finding people that can act and play hockey is an amazing task, I mean my brother fits that to a t but finding a whole team is amazing. Also Patricia Clarkson does a great job as Herb's wife for the time that she is on screen, as does every one in the film.

Gavin O'Connor did a great job directing this film and making as true as possible and bringing this story back to life. You could tell when watching the behind the scenes he really did enjoy making this film. Writer Eric Guggenheim as well did an excellent job turning this true life sensation into a screenplay; I wish he would do more films. Also DP Dan Stoloff did a marvelous job, I love the way they filmed the hockey. This movie truly is a great film and not only should be watched but should be owned. I recommend buying this film as soon as possible because during these times it is could to see something like this. There are some excellent special features from behind the scenes, to the true story, to an excellent audio commentary.

This is not the grand review that I wanted to write but I just can't seem to get the words to come out. As I type and type after watching this movie I can't help but think about my mother, I was hoping to not only honor this film but to honor her as well. To be honest I am not even sure if I should post this or not, I guess I did if you are reading this. This movie is not only a true story but it showcases the best this country has to offer, its people. I get goose bumps when the legendary line "do you believe in miracles" is said, it is also the actual audio from that game. So here's to the greatest person I have ever had the pleasure and honor of knowing. The strongest person to have ever impacted my life, who was actually a hockey mom, we all miss and love you.

So here's to my miracle, my mother.]]> Mon, 10 May 2010 01:03:36 +0000
<![CDATA[ Loved it]]>
This book is aimed at a younger audience so is constructed in a manner that will keep their attention. Loaded with cute pictures and caricatures - its a fun, fun trip through the world of hockey.

For those who are into fun facts and stats, you will also love this book and, of course, mention of MY team is frequently done as Montreal practically invented the sport of hockey - although we won't be seeing any Stanley Cups this year!

This book is a joy and great for all the young sports lover.]]> Wed, 17 Feb 2010 12:00:00 +0000
<![CDATA[ One of the best sports films ever made.]]>
Highly recommended for people who enjoy sports movies and comedies.]]> Tue, 5 Jan 2010 18:37:26 +0000
<![CDATA[ Detroit Red Wings versus Chicago Blackhawks Game 4]]>
That being said, I am excited that the Chicago Blackhawks are a revised franchise and have made it so far in the playoffs.  I was at the Boundry in Bucktown when the 'Hawks beat Vancouver for a trip to the Western Conference Finals. The bar patrons went nuts and it was fun to be part of the environment, and for that moment I was happy for Chicago. But I was thinking about the next matchup to come.

Fast forward to Game 4. The Wings had dropped one at the United Center and there was the controversey surrounding the Kronwall hit (totally legal btw!).  It was an important game because it the Wings won, they had it in the bag.  If the 'Hawks won, then they had hope and we were looking at a long series. I wanted the Wings to win so they could get their starters healthy for the Cup finals. Once the first period was over, I knew the Wings had this one. Their poise, confidence and all out man-handling of the Blackhawks was impressive. The Blackhawks showed their age and inexperience and most notably, the glaring difference of who is the better team.

Good for Chicago for bringing hockey back.  But just like how it was for the MJ Bulls of the 90s, in order to be legitamite, you have to beat the best team. Chicago showed fight, but they aren't quite there yet.
]]> Tue, 26 May 2009 18:51:56 +0000
<![CDATA[ You need to know hockey to undertand the haikus]]> Sat, 7 Feb 2009 12:00:00 +0000 <![CDATA[ Rousing, 'come from behind" hockey movie]]>
I do find few movies about the fanatics who drives themselves to excel interesting or the fanatics who drive people to excel, to go far beyond what they themselves thought possible.

That's what "Miracle" is all about, a coach named Herb Brooks who drove a group of mostly collegiate hocky players to fuse into an Olympics winning team, trumping the Soviets, who had won four consecutive championships.

Kurt Russell plays Herb Brooks. What we see is a narrow, driven man who has only one goal: to produce an Olympics winning hockey team through his coaching. And Russell conveys that image beautifully, leaving us with an impressiona of a guy we probably wouldn't want to spend any time with (and, likewise, we would be of no interest to him) who ignored his family and browbeat 20 some kids into submission until they became a functioning team.

It's a great movie about a coach. The players, as they were in the real incident, were submerged to the coach's will and ego. The hockey scenes are exciting. I don't know enough about hockey to comment on their authenticity and, frankly, I don't care.

In the end, it is the story of a driven, selfish man demanding that his recruits obey his every order and become, to a large extent, automatons until they fuse into a single whole, a team. Look closely and you will see the techniques of every successful army since the beginning of time: slavish obediance while preserving the capability to make individual decisions. It worked for Alexander the Great, Julius Ceasar, George Patton and Herb Brooks, when he applied it to hockey.

A lot of the film centers on rah-rah American patriotism which needed a boost after feckless Presidency of Jimmy Carter who cancelled American participation in the 1980 Summer Olympics to "protest" the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It is a nice feeling to see the United States portrayed positively in a Hollywood movie, for a change.

Overall, "Miracle" is an entertaining movie about an eccentric coach, the team he built and the results they acheived. Best of all, it's a true story.

Jerry]]> Sun, 4 Jan 2009 12:00:00 +0000
<![CDATA[ Excellent work, made even more touching by his recent death...]]>
A Death in Montreal; Short Shifting in Fantasy Land; Skating the Rideau Canal; New Skates; Passing the Torch; "Excuse me, Mr. Delvecchio..."; Back to the Barns; Requiem for the Cucumber; Much of What I Know about Life I Learned Tending Goal; The Rink Rat; Unknockable; Searching for Hobey Baker; Goodbye to the Backyard Rink?; Acknowledgments; About the Author

Falla wrote and covered hockey for Sports Illustrated in the 1980's, but his attachment to hockey goes far deeper. Like many of that time, he grew up following and idolizing the Orrs, Richards, and Beliveaus, the names that made hockey what it is today. But even deeper than that, the game became part of his being, from visiting the ice rinks of the "original six" to building his own backyard outdoor rink every winter. Open Ice is a series of his stories and thoughts about his attachment to the game, and what he's done to uncover the stories of the legends. In some cases, it's attending the funeral of Maurice Richard in Montreal, even though he had to travel halfway across the country to do so, just because it seemed like the right thing to do. Other stories revolve around his quests to discover the deeper personal stories behind old-timers like Hobey Baker and Georges Vezina. In the process, I as the reader get to know and understand the real person behind the historical image that we have left after so many years.

The stories that affected me most were his personal anecdotes. For instance, he talks about how he snuck out of college one day to watch the Red Wings practice at the old Boston Gardens. Detroit skated out, and seemed to be missing a goalie. Falla played goalie growing up, and thought it would be an incredible experience to be on the ice, if even for just a practice session. He mustered up all the courage he had and asked Alex Delvecchio if they needed a practice goalie. Even thought they didn't need him, the lessons he learned about pushing past fear to take a chance resonated deeply. Same with the last story about his backyard rink and his struggles to continue the tradition as he got older. Even though he always felt as if it was "the last year" he'd do it, the tradition and continuity it provided him, his family, and his friends would always provide the last-minute motivation to redig the post holes and set the boards up one more time.

If all you want are stories about hockey players, Open Ice will be a disappointment. But if you are in a reflective mood and enjoy reading about things that drive people on in life, Open Ice is an excellent read, guaranteed to make you feel warm and connected.]]> Sat, 13 Dec 2008 12:00:00 +0000
<![CDATA[ A beautiful book that brings the history of the game alive...]]>
Contents: Prologue; The Temple and the Chalice; Gold After Silver; Blood and Champagne; The Dustbowl Dream; A Cool Medium; Us and Them; The Soul of a Nation; Hope and Betrayal; The Winter of Our Discontent; Reclaiming the Game; Acknowledgements; Index

This is a coffee-table companion book to a CBC series of the same name. Not living in Canada, I can't say I've seen the series. But if it's anything like the book, it must be outstanding. McKinley goes back to the beginning of the game we know as hockey, back to 1875 when the first game was played in Montreal. Many other variations of the game existed before then, but generally speaking, this is when the game started in its modern form. Lavishly illustrated, he works his way up through time, from the birth of the Stanley Cup to the lockout season of 2004-2005. In between, you learn about the great names of the sport who often are just names attached to trophies unless you know the history... Hobie Baker, Frank Calder, Conn Smythe, and many others. The stories of teams put together to challenge for the Stanley Cup, back in the day when it was up for grabs to just about anyone. There's even coverage of the Portland Rosebuds, who challenged the Montreal Canadiens in 1916. Junior and women's hockey also figure prominently in the story, so whatever your particular interest niche is for the game, you'll find it in here.

I remember a few years back when my kids attended a hockey camp in Penticton, British Columbia. The final day included a game played in the city arena that was home to the Penticton Vees. It's an old-time barn, with plenty of memorabilia from years gone by. But until I read this book, I didn't realize just how big a deal that team was. That team went over to Germany in 1955 and beat the Russian team for the World Championships, and was the toast of Canada in the midst of the Cold War tension of the time. Walking through the arena, you could almost feel the ghosts of history, the thousands of games that had been played there. It's hard to explain, but hockey in Canada is more than just a sport, it's a national identity and obsession.

I don't know that I've spent as much time lingering and savoring a book than I did this one. It's a pleasure to read, and will add immensely to your understanding and respect of the game.]]> Tue, 27 Feb 2007 12:00:00 +0000
<![CDATA[ "Do You Believe in Miracles?"]]>
But in February of 1980, the nation witnessed something that revived everyone's spirits and united people in a way they hadn't been since the middle of Vietnam. During the Semi-final game of the Olympic hockey game, the amatuer U.S. team beat the mighty Soviet powerhouse in a sport they had dominated for more than 20 years. The chanting of "U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A" was first heard during those games and the little team that could went on to win the gold medal by defeating Finnland.

MIRACLE is a movie that recreates those events. The tone, mood, and setting is captured almost perfectly and places the audience right in the midst of what it was like living in America in 1979-1980. Great pains have been taken not only to just physically recreate the events that the members of the U.S. hockey team went through, but the emotions and mentality, too.

The "actors" playing the hockey players in the movie really aren't "actors" but are instead first and foremost real hockey players. This is just one example of many that illustrates the extent the filmmakers went through to get things right.

However, though the movie is thought as being about the 1980 U.S. hockey team, it's really a very personal movie that really isn't about the team, but about the man who led them there, Herb Brooks. Brooks had played on the 1960 team that lost to the Soviets for the first time and since that time had made it his life's ambition to beat the Russians at their own game. The majority of the country had no idea at the time of Brooks' unusual and somewhat controversial training methods and even if they had I don't think most people would have given it much thought. It was Brooks' determination and leadership that formed the team and gave them the opportunity to perform a little "miracle" for all the world to see.

A couple a bits of trivia about the film. The scene in MIRACLE where the players are forced by Brooks to skate back and forth doing drills after their 3-3 tie with Norway was filmed over the course of 3 days, 12 hours a day because the filmmakers wanted the "actors" to look as exhausted as possible. Also, the shot of New York that is seen in the movie with the World Trade Center in the background is actual footage shot for the movie, post 9-11. The Two Towers are seen in the picture were actually digitally recreated, making MIRACLE the first movie to "create" the towers since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

MIRACLE is a movie sure to stir up some sort of emotion from those who were alive to watch the famous moment of sport live. For those who have only read about the event in history books or watched it on ESPN or on a DVD, the effect isn't quite the same and the movie will probably not have as much significance. Nevertheless, the film is well made and makes for a great sports picture.]]> Thu, 3 Mar 2005 12:00:00 +0000
<![CDATA[ Nostalgic]]>
The extra features, especially the ESPN round table with Kurt Russell who played Herb Brooks, and three of the real players, including goalie Jim Craig, team captain Mike Eruzione, and Buzz Schnieder were outstanding additions.]]> Sat, 4 Sep 2004 12:00:00 +0000
<![CDATA[ It's Just A Game.......Right?]]> This is a highly motivational film, full of subplots involving many of the characters and political undertones. When you boil down to it, though, this is a movie about Americans being Americans. Unlike most films, this one shows the Soviets as the arrogant, unstoppable force. Soviet hockey was exactly that at the time. Americans are shown to be average folks just trying to get by, many giving up money for one shot at Olympic glory.

Overall, the film is amazingly accurate. From dekes and wristers to hairdos and hope, this movie stays true to formula. The extras are knockout as well.

I highly recommend this movie. The language isn't too bad(a cuss word here or there), and it has a great message of hope to it. Don't blow this off as another "hockey movie." "Slapshot" this ain't.

]]> Mon, 14 Jun 2004 12:00:00 +0000
<![CDATA[ Although parts play like a Movie of the Week, Miracle delivers.]]> Pros: Russell and nostalgia.

Cons: No substance given to supporting roles.

The Bottom Line: A rousing and enjoyable film that although light, delivers the goods.

In 1980, America was in a state of transition and turmoil as political events threatened world stability. The Reagan era was just starting but the nation was still trying to deal with economic issues as well as the Iran hostage crisis, and long gas lines.

As if those issues were not enough, the Cold War was still in full swing and tensions had mounted due to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Against this backdrop, coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell), is busy preparing a team of college Hockey players to represent the United States in the upcoming Winter Olympics.

Since the Olympics were being held in Lake Placid New York, the pressure was on for the U.S. team to make a respectable showing as the Olympic committee did not want the team to be embarrassed in front of the home crowd.

This was a task easier said than done, as the young players would be facing the best the world could throw at them, including the invincible Russian team that had not lost a game in 15 years and had recently handily defeated a team of NHL All Stars. The Russians like many of the teams that the Americans would face had played with each other for years and were like well-oiled machines in comparison to the assembled Americans who had less than a year to prepare.

The early part of the film focuses on the team selection process and Brook’s constant pushing of the team mentally and physically, even when it is to the dismay of his assistant coaches and disdain of his players. The audience is introduced to the players but they are never given much depth as the story focuses on Brooks and his desire to beat the Russians.

The later part of the film deals with the warm up games the team faced and then swings into the Olympics and the march to glory. The games are recreated mainly in highlight format as the focus of the films game recreation is saved for the dramatic and emotional game with the Russians. The action is fast and furious and is very accurate to the actual game itself.

While very emotional and entertaining, much of “Miracle” unfolds like a movie of the week. Russell does a great job as Brooks, but the supporting cast is not given any chance to shine. Patricia Clarkson is wasted in the role of Mrs. Brooks as she is not given much to do other than utter a few lines of encouragement and be the wife by the side of the coach.

All that being said, “Miracle;” is an uplifting and enjoyable look back at arguably the greatest moment in U.S. sports history. The film does stir the emotions and those of us who were old enough to remember the huge shot of patriotic pride that enveloped the land during those magical two weeks and how that team gave a nation renewed hope for the future and made us feel good just when we needed it the most.

3 stars out of 5

Gareth Von Kallenbach

Yes]]> Fri, 6 Feb 2004 12:00:00 +0000