Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Hockey Hall of Huh?

Even by its own historically flimsy standards, the Hockey Hall of Fame plumbed new depths in how low it set the bar for the class of 2011. Doug Gilmour, Joe Nieuwendyk, Ed Belfour and Mark Howe were all good hockey players with gusts up to great, but what's the point of a Hall of Fame if it's not reserved for players who were consistently great over a long period of time? It's not the Hall of Above Average or the Hall of Milked It For Longer Than Most. It's the Hall of FAME.
Even at number three on the career wins list for goalies, Belfour is more famous for drunkenly offering police officers a billion dollar bribe than he is for anything he ever did on the ice. If Dino Ciccarelli had to wait his turn with 608 career goals, how does Belfour get in on the first ballot?
Of course, the genie's been out of the bottle for years. If you let Clark Gillies, Joe Mullen, Bernie Federko and Larry Murphy in, how do you say no to Gilmour, Nieuwendyk, Belfour and Howe? That's not to demean any of the above-mentioned players - except maybe the marginally crazy Belfour - but the ever-diminishing standards for Hall of Fame membership make it seem more like a Legion Hall than a pantheon of hockey immortals.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Y'all ain't from around here, are ya, boy?

It's a good thing for the free world that the National Hockey League wasn't in charge of D-Day, or the Allied Expeditionary Force might have invaded Labrador instead of the north of France.
The geographical genuises at the NHL have decided to keep the former Atlanta Thrashers-turned-Winnipeg Jets in the Southeast Division, because nothing says peach trees and magnolias like a December day in Manitoba. Presumably, the Jets will be grouped with more logical rivals when the NHL realigns for the 2012-2013 season, and in the meantime, they won't be the only franchise at complete geographical odds with their divisional assignment. The Dallas Stars are in the Pacific Division, even though the surf is seldom up in Big D, which is separated from the Pacific Ocean by most of Texas and all of New Mexico, Arizona and California. For years, baseball's National League had the Chicago Cubs in the East Division and the Atlanta Braves in the West, which conveniently ignored the fact that Chicago is west of Atlanta, and that after South Carolina, the only thing east of Atlanta is Africa. In the NFL, Green Bay, Chicago, Minnesota and Detroit used to share the NFC Central with Tampa Bay, which has about as much in common with those four cities as Casablanca has with Chicoutimi.
Aligning franchises to make geographical sense and produce a balanced schedule that doesn't impose an unfair travel burden on one team or another is really not that complicated. All you need is an Atlas and some fundamental skills in mathematics. Even my 10 year old could do it, if he wasn't so busy downloading music onto my iPod and pre-programming the GPS for our summer vacation.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Rafa got a great big bag (and other Monday morning musings)

It was a public relations bonus for the Canadiens that when it came their turn to pick in Friday's first round of the NHL draft, the best available player also happened to have a French name. The downside is that Nathan Beaulieu is French in name only, and doesn't speak the language. However, as the son of a franco-Ontarian father, there will be enormous media pressure on Beaulieu to learn French, to the point where his language development is almost as important as his hockey development, and he'd be well-served if he were traded from St. John to a Quebec-based team so he can immerse himself for the remainder of his junior career. You know and I know it shouldn't matter, but Beaulieu can spare himself a lot of unnecessary grief by gaining a working knowledge of French by the time he's ready to play for the Canadiens...If you'd have told me before last season that former Canadiens forward Alex Tanguay had a 5 year, 17.5 million dollar contract in his future, I'd have backed out of the room slowly while avoiding eye contact. But kudos to Tanguay, who represented cheap labor for Calgary coming off a career-low 10 goals for Tampa Bay, gave the Flames his best production in five seasons, and was in turn rewarded with financial security that he could dream about less than a year ago...If Red Bull's Sebastien Vettel was rattled by the last lap mistake that cost him the Canadian Grand Prix, he was well over it by the time he got to Valencia, Spain, where pole position, fastest lap of the race and the checkered flag in the European Grand Prix re-established Vettel as the most dominant force in Formula One since Michael Schumacher routinely ran away with the championship for Ferrari...When I play tennis, the most I ever need to show up with is a racket, a can of balls and a water bottle. So why is it that Rafael Nadal, who gets everything supplied by tournaments and sponsors, shows up for his matches lugging a bag big enough to carry a full set of goalie equipment? I'm not sure I even want to know who or what is inside that thing.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

What happened in Vegas shouldn't have happened in Vegas

I don't have a problem with an American team winning the Stanley Cup. The Boston Bruins have been in the National Hockey League since 1924, making the 41 year old Vancouver Canucks relative newcomers by comparison.
What is off-putting is the league's decision to hold its annual awards ceremony in a city that has absolutely nothing to do with hockey - Las Vegas. Vegas is to hockey what Regina is to surfing and Nairobi is to cross country skiing. It's great that the players and their wives or girlfriends - or in some cases, wives and girlfriends - get to sample Disneyland for grown-ups in the anonymity that comes with being a hockey player in the Nevada desert, but they've got an entire summer to be anonymous, and it would serve the fans and the sport better to hold a marquee event like the awards ceremony in a legitimate hockey town.
But what do you expect from an organization that recruits Donny Osmond as an award presenter? Yup, Donny "Puppy Love" Osmond. Where were David Cassidy and Lief Garrett? And nothing says hockey like the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, whose onstage presence was as stiff and phoney as their botoxed foreheads and store-bought boobs. (Oh, by the way, ladies, it's pronounced Mar-tihn' Sahn lou-ee', not Martin Saint Lewis.)
For better worse, what happened in Vegas didn't stay in Vegas last night. It was broadcast back to the country it should have been held in in the first place; where it would have been the main event instead of just another Sin City sideshow.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

NHL rule changes nothing more than window dressing

If inter-office memoranda and news releases were still distributed by paper instead of via the Internet, the NHL would have taken out an entire Canadian forest with yesteday's announcement of redefined rules for boarding and hits to the head. Get a load of this mumbo jumbo:
"A boarding penalty will be assessed for a hit on a defenseless player that causes the victim to hit or impact the boards violently or dangerously. The new wording requires the player delivering the check to avoid or minimize contact if his opponent is defenseless. It also allows the referee discretion to determine whether the recipient of the contact placed himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to or simultaneously with the collision and whether the check was unavoidable."
How's that for clear as mud, and all in regards to something that happens at speed and in a split second? Meanwhile, here's the new deal on head shots:
"A hit resulting in contact with an opponent's head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted. The qualifying terms "lateral or blind side" for such hits have been deleted. However, in determining whether such a hit should have been permitted, the circumstances of the hit, including whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit or the head contact on an otherwise legal body check was unavoidable, can be considered."
Bottom line: no matter what the rules say, boarding with intent to injure and hits to the head are still judgement calls, meaning nothing's going to change unless the NHL has the will to enforce the rules. The discretionary escape clause for officials strongly suggests this is a public relations exercise more than it is a serious attempt to clean up the game.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

No Mickelsonitis for McIlroy(and other Monday morning musings on a Tuesday because I had Monday off)

That Rory McIlroy recovered from his Masters meltdown to win the US Open is remarkable enough. That he did it in record fashion at the age of 22 just two months after a collapse of historic proportions at Augusta is nothing short of astounding. There's no telling how much Mickelsonesque grief McIlroy spared himself by brushing that monkey off his back before it became a gorilla...His career speaks for itself, but Rafael Nadal showed another sign of a true champion when he dismissed pre-Wimbledon suggestions that he's an imminent threat to Roger Federer's record of 16 Grand Slam tennis championships. For the tournament's defending champion and top seed to publicly defer to his greatest rival is a measure of Nadal's respect for Federer, and a demonstration of the humility of a real champion compared to the substantial number of the arrogant professional athletes whose talent is exceeded only by their sense of entitlement...Say what you will about the concept of a Higher Power, but from where I sit, it's only by the grace of God that Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty has a clean bill of health and a new multi-million dollar contract fewer than 3 1/2 months after most of us wondered for a few anxious moments whether he was dead...I had the privilege of chatting briefly with Larry Robinson at the Strangers in the Night charity event at Fairview Saturday, and the Hall of Fame defenceman wondered aloud whether it's only a matter of time before someone is killed in a National Hockey League game. Many others have said the same thing, but when it comes from someone of Robinson's stature and credentials, it really gets your attention.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Tough tits for the haters

You don't have to like the Boston Bruins, but if you can't respect them, your credentials as a hockey fan are suspect.
Contrary to popular belief among their detractors, the Bruins didn't bully their way to the Stanley Cup championship. They won it old-school style, with heart, grit and a tireless work ethic. Their best players were their best players, which certainly wasn't the case with the Canucks, but the Bruins also got significant contributions from their secondary players. Unheralded journeymen like Rich Peverly, Chris Kelly, Andrew Ference, Dennis Seidenberg and Johnny Boychuk played some of the most inspired hockey of their otherwise ordinary careers, rookies Brad Marchand and Tyler Seguin acquitted themselves with distinction in their first Stanley Cup test, and the timely efforts of the supporting cast spared the likes of Milan Lucic, David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara from having to do all the heavy lifting, which could have burned the Bruins out during or even before during the Cup final. And how can you not like and respect Tim Thomas, who didn't play in his first NHL game until he was 28 - a full decade after being a ninth round afterthought in his draft year - and now has a Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy to go with the Vezina Trophy he won in 2009.
There's nothing fancy about the Bruins, but that's a huge part of their everyman appeal. Any group that takes collective committment and sacrifice to a level that more talented teams failed to achieve and comes away with a championship is worthy of respect, whether you like them or not.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Vancouver proves itself unworthy

The images out of downtown Vancouver last night tell you everything you need to know about why that city doesn't deserve a Stanley Cup champion. For the second time since 1994, when their team lost the seventh game of the Stanley Cup final in New York, Vancouver hockey fans went on a destructive rampage resulting in dozens of injuries and arrests and property damage that's expected to far exceed that of 17 years ago.
And spare me the claptrap about it being a handful of opportunistic hooligans and not real hockey fans who were responsible for the riot. It's no different than what routinely happens in Montreal when the Canadiens enjoy any kind of playoff success. The fans who gather by the tens of thousands create and feed the mob mentality, and among the ones who don't actually participate in the violence, thousands are willing and enthusiastic spectators. The pictures and video speak for themselves.
When media-designated pyschologists and sociologists weigh in in the coming days on the underlying reasons behind this appallingly uncivilized behavior, I hope at least one of them has the courage to question the cockamamie Canadian sense of Stanley Cup entitlement, and the role of the widespread clamoring to "bring the Cup home." The Cup is home. It's at the home of the Stanley Cup champions: the Boston Bruins.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Karma crashes Luongo's crease

I don't know who's going to win the Stanley Cup tomorrow night, but there's no question in my mind about which team deserves it the most.
Led by the ultimate overachiever, former ninth round draft choice-turned-Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas, the Boston Bruins have repeatedly stared down adversity in the 2011 playoffs, and it's been adversity that's blinked every time. The Bruins are 3-0 in elimination games, including last night's 5-2 win in Game 6 against Vancouver after winning both the Montreal and Tampa Bay series in seven games. They've demonstrated terrific poise and character in bouncing back from oh-2 series deficits against the Canadiens in round 1 and the Canucks in the Stanley Cup final. For real hockey fans who admire and respect work ethic and resolve and aren't slaves to misguided nationalism or blinded by default hatred for a traditional rival, the Bruins are easy to cheer for.
The Canucks, meanwhile, have advanced this far in spite of themselves more than they've made it on merit. They came within a whisker of squandering a 3-0 series lead against Chicago in the opening round and have blown hot and cold ever since. Like the Bruins, they're a reflection of their goaltender. Overpaid underachiever Roberto Luongo tempted fate with his petty complaining after Game 5, and his errant focus was the determining factor last night in Boston, where the Bruins chased Luongo with three goals on their first eight shots.
Having been thoroughly trounced in all three games in Boston, the only thing the Canucks have going for them in Game 7 is that it's being played in their rink, where they've won three games in this series by the skin of their teeth.
The laws of karma and averages say Vancouver's number is up, and the next lucky bounce - and the Stanley Cup - will belong to the Bruins.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Nadal still Federer's nemesis

A Rafael Nadal-Roger Federer French Open final has become something of a rite of spring on the men's pro tennis tour. Unfortunately for Federer, losing to Nadal is as much a part of the tradition as the matchup itself. Nadal tied Bjorn Borg's record yesterday by winning his sixth French Open championship and fourth against Federer, whose only title at Roland Garros was in a championship match with Robin Soderling in 2009. While his most ardent supporters don't believe that detracts from Federer's legacy as the greatest player ever, until such time as he beats Nadal in a French Open final, the claim is still open to debate. That said, there has still never been a greater champion than Federer - not only because he has more championships than anyone else, but because of the poise and dignity with which he invariably conducts himself, win or lose...It figures that the guy who dodges a suspension for allegedly biting in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final scores two goals - including the overtime winner - in Game 2. Meanwhile, even if Alexander Burrows bit Patrice Bergeron's finger, I don't blame him, and I'm surprised it doesn't happen more often because as near as I can figure, it's both a natural reaction and the best defence when someone sticks the palm of their dirty, sweaty hockey glove in your face. Worse things happen at the bottom of a football pile, and it's accepted as part of the game...And finally, a big welcome to the high-rolling Eurotrash who've arrived early for this coming weekend's Formula One Canadian Grand Prix. Don't forget to tip your waiters, waitresses and lap dancers, and remember - the best golf, poker games and steak dinners are just across the Mercier Bridge.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Shaquille O'Neal made a logical decision when he pursued basketball as his chosen profession, but with his superhuman size and strength, the just-retired NBA great could probably have excelled at any number of other sports had he taken a different path.
At 7 feet, one inch tall and 325 pounds, it's not difficult to envision Shaq terrorizing opposing quarterbacks as a defensive lineman in football, or bringing some serious heat a la Randy Johnson or CC Sabathia as a baseball pitcher. With proper training, O'Neal's enormous strength and reach provided him with considerable potential as a formidable foe in the boxing ring. And if he'd grown up in North Bay or Terrebonne instead of New Jersey and Texas, hockey coaches would have been clamoring to recruit a would-be power forward who'd have made Milan Lucic look like Kjell Dahlin.
But size also has its disadvantages in the athletic arena, and there are several sports that pose seemingly insurmountable difficulties for someone of Shaq's physical stature. Thoroughbred jockey and race car driver are only the most obvious examples. As agile as he is for a big man, O'Neal would have been relatively hopeless at a number of Olympic disciplines, including pole vaulting, cycling, equestrian, rythmic dancing and ski jumping, which can be especially unforgiving for someone with the aerodynamic properties of an anvil.
As always, though, you can't measure determination and desire. An individual as driven as Shaq might have surprised us all by making a go of something that doesn't cater to his natural athletic advantages or talent. Anyone who can't sing or act but has 5 CD's and 11 movies to his credit is not to be underestimated.