Monday, June 23, 2014

Markov, Pat Burns and severed heads

Three years at $5.75 million per is plenty steep for a defenceman on the wrong side of 35 and with two reconstructive knee surgeries in his medical history, but it was the cost of doing business for the Canadiens to retain Andrei Markov.  It's a measure of how much they value Markov that the Habs gave him a better deal than he probably could have negotiated as an unrestricted free agent.  It's also an example of what you can do when you've got ample cap space and your franchise is a cash cow.

The embarrassingly overdue election of the late Pat Burns to the Hockey Hall of Fame begs the question: what changed since 2010, when Burns was dying of cancer and the Selection Committee declined to induct him while he was still alive?  The whole notion of multiple years on any Hall of Fame ballot defies logic.  You're either worthy of the honour or you're not, and letting guys who deserve induction swing in the breeze for years on end is unworthy of the institution.

A generation ago, if you weren't part an ex-patriate community from a traditional soccer country, chances are the World Cup wasn't on your radar.  Canadians don't even have a dog in the fight at Brazil 2014, but soccer fever has gripped this country to the point where the normally all-consuming NHL draft and free agency are afterthoughts.  That said, do we really have to continue to making a British accent a pre-requisite for being a soccer analyst on Canadian network television?  The obligatory deference to Old Blighty on matters of soccer expertise only serves to undermine the reality that the beautiful game is now part of the Canadian sports mainstream.

The upside of flopping as a child prodigy is that there's a substantial comeback window.  Golfer Michelle Wie, who spent years underachieving relative to the promise she showed as a 13 year old, won her first LPGA US Open title this past weekend at the ripe old age of 24.  Don't be shocked if Wie wins another major championship or three before she starts knitting booties for the grandkids.

Much like the collective bargaining agreement grudgingly accepted by CFL players two weeks ago, the release of injured receiver Jamel Richardson by the Alouettes was a case study in Canadian pro football economics.  Richardson could yet come back from a long-term knee injury and perform at an All Star level for another team, but as one of the highest paid players in a budget-conscious league, it made more sense for the Als to let him go.

If England are the Toronto Maple Leafs of World Cup soccer - no championships since 1966, the year before the Leafs' last Stanley Cup - what does that make Algeria?  According to a television graphic on Sportsnet, a 4-2 win over South Korea in the group stage was Algeria's first World Cup victory since 192.  Presumably, that's a typo, because soccer in the second century AD was traditionally played with the severed head of a vanquished enemy, which I'm pretty sure is against World Cup regulations.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Why not Saku?

    The overdue decision to re-retire Canadiens jersey number 5 in honour of Guy Lapointe pretty much rights all the perceived wrongs regarding whose names and numbers were missing from the rafters at the Bell Center.  The next number that I strongly believe should go up has taken me into the most puzzlingly bitter arguments I've ever had with fellow Canadiens fans and observers.
     When you mention Saku Koivu and number 11 as worthy of the honour, there's a backlash that's entirely out of proportion to what's being discussed.  The objections are two-fold, and we'll take them one at a time: 1. Unlike the pantheon of legends already honoured, Koivu was a marginally above average player who never won a Stanley Cup.  True enough, but he was also the Canadiens' second longest-serving captain after Jean Beliveau, and his inspirational comeback from cancer and the community service it spawned are unrivalled chapters in franchise history. 2. Why retire a guy's number just because he got sick?  It's not about the cancer - it's about how Koivu handled it.  The courage and humility that he displayed in his battle against life-threatening illness transcended hockey.  The only scenario that ever came close to matching Koivu's two most emotionally-charged Bell Center appearances - once when he was still in recovery and again when he returned to the lineup - was the momentous ovation for Rocket Richard on closing night at the Forum.
     On their own, neither his playing career nor his battle with cancer represents sufficient reason to retire Koivu's number, but taken together, they tell the story of a loyal and long-serving soldier who represented the Canadiens with unsurpassed honour and dignity in the franchise's leanest years and his own darkest hour. The case for retiring Saku Koivu's jersey is a compelling argument that merits serious consideration more than it deserves smug dismissal from self-appointed guardians of the CH legacy.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Therrien gets his due

It was mere coincidence that only 54 percent of Canadiens fans surveyed approved of Michel Therrien's contract extension on the same weekend that the painfully clownish Mario Beaulieu was elected Bloc Quebecois leader by an almost identically lukewarm 53 percent majority vote.  Therrien and Beaulieu have both been classified by their detractors as bumblers who got where they are in spite of themselves, but that's where the similarities end.  Like him or not, Therrien has taken the Canadiens from rock bottom to the Stanley Cup semifinals in only two seasons, and that warrants substantial reward in a results-driven business.  Whether he can take them to the next level remains to be seen, but I'm comfortable predicting this much: the Canadiens will have more success under Michel Therrien than the Bloc will ever have under Mario Beaulieu.

Louis Leblanc we hardly knew ye, but we knew ye well enough to trade ye to Anaheim for a fifth round conditional draft choice, because ye had no future in Montreal.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman got his marketing dream Stanley Cup final matchup between New York and Los Angeles, and the Rangers and Kings delivered some captivating playoff hockey, but to what avail? Hardcore hockey fans are still buzzing about the 35 minutes of heartstopping overtime before the Kings clinched the Cup in Game 5, but the overwhelming majority of casual and uninitiated fans that Bettman was hoping to bring into the tent were long gone after the Kings had taken a 3-0 series lead and oblivious the relative drama of Games 4 and 5.

Hockey Night in Canada's glitch-ridden CBC finale was a sadly appropriate sign-off for a program with few remaining redeeming features.  Rogers Sportsnet, which takes over editorial control of HNIC next season, doesn't have a tough act to follow but is already showing suspect judgement in retaining the fossilized remains of Bob Cole while failing to lock up Elliotte Friedman, who's far and away the show's best reporter/host, and Tim Thompson, the creative genius behind Hockey Night's brilliant musical montages.  That's like throwing out the baby and keeping the bathwater.

It's not surprising that members of the Canadian Football League Players Association ratified a new collective bargaining agreement on terms that were much more agreeable to the league than they were to the union.  The CFL is a relatively low budget operation, and most of the players barely make enough to pay the bills.  They don't have anything close to the collective or personal wealth that NFL, NBA,  NHL or Major League Baseball players can fall back on in the event of a work stoppage.  For the overwhelming majority of CFL players, striking literally means starving.

Speaking of starving, it's been a struggle since I got the bum's rush from TSN 690 last fall, but the upside of being fired by the all sports radio station is that I don't have to spend the next month pretending I'm a soccer expert.  Go Sierra Leone!

Quick power rankings:
5. Nestle
4. 'n Easy
3. Time multimedia
2. Draw McGraw
1. Jonathan

Sunday, June 8, 2014

On F1, California Chrome, Bob Cole and Charlie Manson

                       "There's your problem, right there."                                                   (Photoshop by Josie Gold @thatgoldgirl)

Now that was a Canadian Grand Prix with something for everyone.  Fans of the actual sport were treated to a refreshingly competitive race full of intrigue and drama that broke the mold of a heretofore predictable season.  The crash-happy crowd who prefer wrecks to racing got their fix in the form of a spectacular accident on the last lap, which resulted in Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo taking the checkered flag under caution.  The only thing missing for Formula One purists was the signature scream of the old V-8 engines, which were replaced this season by quieter and more fuel-efficient V6s.  That's a nice sop to the tree huggers, but for seasoned race-goers, the ear-splitting howl that you heard when you first emerged from the Ile Ste. Helene Metro (or that woke you from a dead sleep if you live in St. Lambert) was as essential to the F1 experience as good-looking women and borderline sunstroke.  For the sake of the sport's appeal, it behooves F1 to find a way to deliver a more traditional-sounding exhaust note for 2015.

I can understand the frustration of California Chrome owner Steve Coburn in the immediate aftermath of losing the Belmont Stakes, and I agree it would be a more level playing field if every horse were required to run all three Triple Crown races or none at all.  However, Coburn went to the races knowing the rules, and complaining about them afterwards came across as sour grapes.  Also, if he were an advanced stats nerd, Coburn would realize that Wins Over Replacement is way more important than the Triple Crown.

As is customary on unregulated media with unlimited access, the internet was churning out the usual number of hoaxes this weekend.  I fell briefly for a couple of them - the reported trade of Joe Thornton from San Jose to Toronto, and multiple posts claiming Charles Manson had been granted parole.  While neither story turned out to be true, I have confirmed through my sources that the Leafs have acquired Manson for Nazim Kadri and Dion Phaneuf.

Rogers Sportsnet has retained Bob Cole for play-by-play duties on Hockey Night in Canada in 2014-15. The terrorists win.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Lafleur unfiltered

     By the traditional definition of the term, Guy Lafleur falls short of the qualities expected of an "ambassador", which is his public relations role with the Montreal Canadiens.  He's not the train wreck that, say, Don Cherry would be as Canada's ambassador to Sweden, but it's not a stretch to say that Lafleur has never mastered the subtleties and nuances of high-level diplomacy.  When you ask him a straightforward question, you usually get an honest, unfiltered answer.
     Lafleur's candor caused a stir this week when he was quoted by La Presse as saying the Canadiens can't win with players like Max Pacioretty and Thomas Vanek and should get rid of them.  He need not worry about Vanek, who performed during the playoffs like he was already in Minnesota, which is his expected destination via unrestricted free agency.  Pacioretty, however, figures prominently in the Canadiens' future plans.  He's only one season into a six year contract and led the team in regular season points for the third year in a row and in goals for the second time in the last three seasons, with a career-high 39.
     What puts a bee in Lafleur's bonnet is Pacioretty's playoff showing, which le Demon Blond found wanting.  Pacioretty wasn't invisible in the post-season, but he delivered his 11 points in 17 games in fits and starts, as is his custom.  According to La Presse, Lafleur has made up his mind that Pacioretty doesn't have the stuff of a champion and should be dispatched posthaste.  That assessment, in turn, rankled Pacioretty's many fans and media supporters - to the point where some of them started nitpicking at the Flower's career in an attempt to discredit his opinion about Pacioretty: Lafleur's career started slowly, he "only" had five phenomenal playoff years, and he was spoiled by playing alongside so many Hall of Famers.  (Some of those Hall of Famers presumably feel the same way about playing alongside Lafleur.)
     For the record, I don't agree with Lafleur that the Canadiens should unload Pacioretty,  He's not wrong that Pacioretty is unproven as a clutch playoff performer, but I think he's premature in writing Pacioretty off.   That said, I respect his opinion.  He's Guy Lafleur, for crissakes.  You don't have to agree with what he says, but if anyone has earned the right to an opinion on hockey and knows what it takes to be a champion, it's Lafleur, and trying to tear him down to defend Pacioretty is not a credible exercise. 
     Everything doesn't have to be black or white, right or wrong, or left or right.  You can disagree with someone and still respect their opinion.  The two are not mutually exclusive.
     Except, of course, on Twitter, where everyone thinks everyone else is an asshole.