100 games a season: Gare Joyce's puck blog

Just like being in the scouts' & press' lounge, without the bad coffee and day-old Timbits

Location: Toronto

I've written for ESPN The Magazine and espn.com the last five years. My work has made the "notable" list of the Best American Sports Writing seven times and won four Canadian National Magazine Awards. My most recent book is Future Greats and Heartbreaks: A Year Undercover in the Secret World of NHL Scouts. I've written three other sports books: When the Lights Went Out: How One Brawl Ended Hockey's Cold War and Changed the Game; Sidney Crosby: Taking the Game by Storm; and The Only Ticket Off the Island: Baseball in the Dominican Republic.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Very Short Takes / Ian White, Conroy-Lundmark

Travel day today. Have to keep things brief.

Saw Ian White back in the Leafs line-up the other night. Talked to some of his former junior team-mates. Ripped, right across the board. His recent problems in Toronto (a charge of driving while his license was under suspension, sneers when the media asked him about it) didn’t come as a surprise to those who knew him best. Nor did he get much in the way of sympathy or best wishes. The way they paint the picture, White was the epitome of entitlement culture that junior hockey too often fosters. Maybe a couple of cold doses of reality will knock him straight.

Craig Conroy scoring a couple of goals on his return to the Calgary Flames was the story of the day. Backstory: As noted a couple of places, Conroy wasn’t a favorite of Darryl Sutter but don’t read the wrong thing into that. Usually it’s a sour hard-ass or angry troublemaker or lazy malingerer or career malcontent who rubs a GM the wrong way. Conroy, though, is one of the sunniest characters in the league. He was a little chatty for Sutter who believes players should be seen and not heard and should hail from the WHL rather than Clarkson-NCAA. He was also the guy who Sutter’s predecessor Craig Button traded for (Corey Stillman going the other way). When Button traded for Conroy, the criticism was that the Flames had acquired a checking-line forward, an unnecessary part. Hardly. Sutter’s re-acquiring him is billed as a way to juice the offence (and get Jarome onside). I think that's a little shaky given the way his production curve is pointing. If nothing else, though, a great depth acquisition, especially when you saw Daymond Langkow limping the other night.


As for the other side of that deal … I gotta say that I always thought that Jamie Lundmark was going to be a player. I remember him getting drafted—the Lundmarks looked like the family in the Golden Grahams commercials. He was excellent at the world juniors in Moscow (better, I thought, than linemate Dany Heatley). Another prospect mangled when drafted by the New York Rangers. If it was gonna happen, Calgary I’m sure was his last best chance.


Monday, January 29, 2007

They Honestly Believed He’d Still Be There: Draft Story

Caught the game at St Mike’s yesterday afternoon, Plymouth beating the Majors 5-3.


Went because I wanted to eyeball one player, Tommy Sestito. Why I wanted to catch him requires a little explaining. Humour me.

The backstory: Last spring I asked the Columbus Blue Jackets if I could sit in their war room prior to the NHL combine and draft. Nobody had ever been given that type of access over the long haul—Sportsnet shot in Columbus’ room for a bit a while back and Carolina had given a camera crew a glimpse years back, but on the print side … nothing. I asked politely. The Jackets’ GM and I had always gotten along. I explained that I wanted to show readers how a scouting operation made up its list. At an entry draft you see the guy with the microphone in front of him at every team’s table scoping out a working list of 100 names, maybe more. I always wondered what went behind that list—how a team put together something with that many moving pieces. And when I say “many moving pieces” I don’t just mean the 100+ names on the list. No, you have to factor in the dozens of names left off the list and the hundreds of conflicting and competing opinions in a roomful of scouts. The Jackets gave me the green light. And that’s how I ended up spending, well, a conservative estimate would be about 80 hours behind closed doors with the Jackets.

You can find the story that came out of it in ESPN The Magazine last July. The story focused on the Blue Jackets’ selection of Derick Brassard of Drummondville with the No. 6 pick. It also focused on the Jackets’ interviews with Phil Kessel, which were rocky, to say the least. Kessel would have gone No. 2 in the draft the year before but his stock had taken a dive because of some disappointing play and some bad buzz. Some of that buzz was deserved (caught up in a Minneapolis television station’s sting of a bar that was serving under-age students, including U Minn players) and some perhaps not.

It’s a tough story to write—like I say, there’s hundreds, even thousands of moving parts in that war room and I have to focus on just a small number of players just because I have limited space in the magazine. The story that I didn’t write was Tommy Sestito. Maybe in time it will turn out that his story was the one I should have wrote.

Columbus' draft last spring:


Sestito's lines:


(that's rich: Suspended 5 games for situation vs. Windsor (1/13) .)

Sestito wasn’t invited to the NHL combine, which is a way of saying that NHL Central Scouting didn’t have him in the top 100 prospects eligible for the 2006 draft. I can assure that he was in Columbus’ top 100—without giving away too much of the Jackets’ list I can tell you that they had him in their top 50. (Which only starts to hint at the disconnect between Central’s list and those of teams around the league.) More than that, though, Sestito had pockets of strong support in the room—they got excited every time his name came up. Some players in the top 30 were ho-hummed in the room … they were respected but nothing to get enthusiastic about. Sestito, though, another story. ‘Twas a puzzle to your embedded reporter. Especially when I saw his numbers for the 05-06 season, 10 goals & 10 assists in 57 games. What to get excited about? Especially when they clearly liked him more than guys who played in the OHL all-star game or CHL Prospects game.

Day of the draft: I’m sure that they’re going to find a way to take him. Columbus’ second pick comes ‘round, I write Sestito’s name and hand it to one of my cronies on press row. “This is the guy,” I say. Then Columbus passes over him. I uttered a profanity and was the butt of a joke. Until the Jackets took Sestito in the next round. You know how teams say: “We can’t believe our luck. We never thought he’d be there.” Well, flip that on its head. The Jackets got the player they wanted and got him a full round later: They were counting on him still being there.

I got to see what the fuss was about at St Mike’s yesterday. This kid Sestito is a load, a freakin’ giant. James Neal, Sestito’s Plymouth team-mate, was the muscle up front for the Canadian team at the world under-20s this year—the biggest forward, easily the biggest hitter. Neal (a goal, two assists and a decision over Rob Kwiet in the second period) was the best player on the ice for Plymouth yesterday, a team that might make some noise in the post-season. Well, when Sestito scored the insurance goal in the third period, Neal came over to slap him on the back … and had to reach up. Neal is a helmet shorter than Sestito and Neal is listed at six-three.


The increased production notwithstanding (he's on pace for 40 goals) Hard to say where Sestito’s game is. Really it’s sort of shift-to-shift. A big guy who hasn’t figured out how to use his size—or at least not on every shift. He shows flashes out there. He’s not a great skater (he’s a bit bolt upright) but you can see that might come around a bit with some work. His read of play isn’t a strength either. But he’s massive and he’s plays hard. The fact that he was the Whalers’ first choice to be on the ice for a 5-on-3 PK probably says something about the coach’s confidence in him.

The doors of the NHL are now supposed to be open to the little man, thanks to the rules changes. But NHL guys love size—always have, always will. Okay, I’ll say it: Size matters. Classic story about the Flyers, famously the most size-obsessed franchise. One Flyer exec once said his definition of a prospect was “a guy who can stand flat-footed and shit in a pick-up truck.” And when you look at the breakthrough of a guy like Dustin Penner in Anaheim you have to presume that size is never going to be held against you. Fact is, with giants like Penner and Sestito size buys them time. A team will be more patient with the big player, presuming it takes him more time to get his act together.

Funny thing, the bygone days didn’t have the likes of Chara, Hal Gill, Penner and other contemporary giants of the game. Auriel Joliet wouldn’t have just put the puck between their skates, he’d have stick-handled through. I remember when Bob Dailey was a giant with the Marlies. Now at 6’4”, maybe 6’5”, he’d be a big guy but no giant, not out of the box. I’m going to have to find one of the scouting elders who can tell me what prevailing opinion was back in the day. I’m sure that in days of yore guys like Sestito and these others would have been considered too big to play the game—some sort of bunkum about bad backs, like the old NFL teams that thought weight-lifting made players muscle-bound.

Fine print … there was a considerable ruffling of feathers in the Kessel camp over the ESPN story … fact is, if Kessel had been available at No. 6 the Jackets would have taken and the execs with Columbus noted in the story that they weren’t sure all the negative buzz was deserved … Brassard’s season has been pretty well written off by an elbow injury … absolutely packed at StMike’s for Latvia Day … joint was jumping … St Mike’s has a Latvian kid in their line-up and his countrymen pour out (“pour” being the operative word) every game … the Majors have had a hard time making a go of it on operations … looks like nothing more Latvians wouldn’t cure … Latvian national team sweaters = Peterborugh Petes' marroon ... on giants, they always used to talk hoop guy Ron Crevier playing in Q junior at six-nine …

Sunday, January 28, 2007

When Do You Pull the Plug? A Question for JFJ and MLSE

David Shoalts poses this question in a voice as loud as one of his shirts.


Right now, the Leafs (those being the GM and the guys who sign his cheques) are in No Man's Land. They don't know if they'll be in the post-season and they're not presuming they're out of the race. Buyers or sellers? Evidently too early to make the call. Two losses in a row--fold. A win over the Habs--all in. Options are limited down the line. Cap room? With big-ticket contracts like McCabe's and Kubina's it's like they're trying on a size 7 with a 7 and 3/4 noggin.

All you need to know about the state of the franchise: Expectations have been lowered to the point that the Leafs' season will be considered a success if the team makes the playoffs but doesn't win a game in the post-season. Anything that could be interpreted as a hint of the turn-around will be good enough, a mind-set that extends, one presumes, from sportbar to MLSE boardroom. That any team should be in this thing to win a Cup is a point lost on the brass. Keeping up appearances (and justifying another ticket-price increase) would be enough.

Re: Selling ... Back in the day, I asked Cliff Fletcher about the Leafs' "rebuilding." To this he replied that Leaf fans "would stand for rebuilding" in the classic tear-it-all-down, go-with-youth mode. Though he was talking about fans, I'm sure media was a significant part of the proposition, just unspoken. I had my doubts about that then, but the paradigms have shifted a lot in a decade. In the age of 24/7 news churn, Leaf TV, sports-network "insiders" and sports-radio bloviators, rhetoric is amped and insight doesn't necessarily keep pace. I think CF would be more right today than back then. It's a matter of self-preservation. JFJ didn't go wholesale into the market last spring when the dye was pretty well cast and I suppose part of this was political: You are going to be ripped as a failure if you admit to failures. Up to his lower lip in quagmire, Bush finally says that to the extent that "mistakes were made," he has to accept responsiblity. Selling hard (say moving Sundin and McCabe last year) would be like an admission that "mistakes were made" ... and the shouting heads would pin all the mistakes on JFJ though this wouldn't have been entirely fair or deserved.

Another thing Fletcher said does ring true. I once asked him who the most valuable player in the league was and his answer was sort of cryptic but entirely useful: "A player on your top two lines or top two D who's on his first contract." Which is to say that meaningful contributions from entry-level players allow teams to spend on roster upgrades and project costs (up to their arb eligibility)--it was true ten years ago and it was more true in the payroll-cap era. Hey, if Coliaicovo or White or Bell had emerged as real top 4 defencemen while on entry contracts would the Leafs have had to overpay on Kubina and/or McCabe? That's the unadvertised upside of the likes of Crosby, Ovechkin, Phaneuf, Malkin and other young stars: They're so good that we tend to forget they're so cheap. The Leaf puzzle is missing pieces--entry-level pieces, which traces back to the era before JFJ (though he didn't set the world on fire trying to acquire them).

The fine print ... I heard Bill Berg say on the Fan that Paul Maurice deserves an A as Leaf coach ... the rumbles I hear around the rink from veteran executives (who know) is that he's "average" or at best near the front of the second rank ... must be getting bonus marks for one-liners

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Catch a Falling Star: Logan Couture, Luckless Prospect

I saw that Patrick O’Sullivan scored for the Los Angeles Kings the other night. That got me thinking about the prospect whose stock crashes. Every NHL draft has one. The stories of these kids are often the most compelling stuff on draft day.

I wrote about Patrick O’Sullivan prior to the 2003 draft in ESPN The Magazine, a talented kid who was perceived to be a risk. Teams were scared off him, in part, because of a father who physically and emotionally abused him. A CHL Rookie of the Year, he might have had first-round talent but some scouts told me prior to the draft that their clubs wouldn’t take him with their sixth-round picks. Some teams didn’t have him on their lists at all. Minnesota ended up taking him in the middle of the second-round and that pick looks pretty good right now. Yeah, he’s in LA but he turned into an asset that the Wild converted into Pavol Demitra. The O’Sullivan pick looks pretty good when you see some of those tapped in the selections ahead of him. (Weird coincidence: I actually worked with his father at the Coca-Cola plant in Toronto when we were teenagers, didn’t realize it until the son showed me family photos.)


(If you go over to my story archive blog http://garejoyce.blogspot.com/ you can read the O'Sullivan story. It was the first time he talked about "the issues" and I think he's not going there anymore.)

Another guy whose stock was ticking down was Wojtek Wolski. He got into some tussle at a party on the eve of the draft and suddenly he was regarded as Mr Bad Attitude. That seemed a strange one to me. I’d talked to him a bunch of times. Wolski was no blockhead. He was pretty quick on the uptake, way smarter than your run-of-the-mill junior, a little more worldy. Hockey Canada soured on him and wrote him out of the world-junior plans. (Hard for me to figure after he played gamely for the summer 18s in 2003 even though he had a bum wheel that had him on crutches away from the rink.) I think Colorado did pretty well nabbing him late in the first round.


It’s an interesting draft phenomenon. I don’t think it’s unique to the NHL, not with stories like Aaron Rodgers plunge in the NFL draft a couple of years back. (Watching him fall from No. 2 or 3 or whatever to No. 24 was like watching LZ 129 Hindenburg.) So who’s falling and why? A quick look at the pre-season prospect previews and the mid-term NHL Central Scouting would tell you that no one has fallen harder than Logan Couture, a centre with the Ottawa 67’s. Not that he brought any of this on himself. This poor kid can’t catch a break.

How much has he fallen? Depends where you had him slotted originally. One scout told me last summer that he liked Couture for the top slot, No. 1 overall. That leaves a lot of room to drop. According to the NHL mid-terms, Logan is the 11th ranked North American skater. Project that out and you’d have a mid to late first-rounder. As the English Beat once asked: Wh’appen?

I’ve caught a couple of his games, one in Mississauga in late November, the other the OHL all-stars vs the Russian touring team last month. I asked him about the slide.

Couture was first knocked out of the summer 18s by injury. Freakish. He was a lock to be on the team, a shot to be the captain or at least a first-liner. Then on the last shift of the last game prior to the team selection, he suffered a cut around his knee from a skate blade. “I was playing the best hockey I think I ever played,” he told me. “Set up a goal and scored a goal on the two shifts before. Last shift, there was maybe five seconds left when I got cut. They sewed me up right on the bench. I was thinking that they might still take me but really there was no way they could. I was limping around for a few days.”

Couture showed me the cut. Not for the faint of heart—it had to go deep. Jeez, it still looked fresh four months later.

Missing the 18s was an opportunity lost but it wouldn’t have hurt Couture if he hadn’t contracted mono and missed a good chunk of the first half of Ottawa’s sked. I’m sure that he came back too soon and his performance suffered for it. I sat behind the Ottawa bench in Mississauga and Couture looked more than gassed—he looked nauseous on the ice. It was pretty plain that he couldn’t do the things he was used to doing. A situation like that doesn’t help a prospect—fact is, if the kid is really game he’ll likely expose himself to injury. A step behind where he’s used to being—that’s when a kid gets clocked.

The Ice Dogs smoked Ottawa that day ...

Ottawa 67's 1 vs. Mississauga IceDogs 6
The Mississauga IceDogs defeated the Ottawa 67's 6 - 1 in an OHL hockey game played on Sunday, November 19, 2006.
SHOTS Ottawa 67's - 20 Mississauga IceDogs - 47
1. MISS Lawrence, (12) (Schiestel, Santini), 2:42
1. MISS Owens, (16) (Pietrangelo, Legein), 5:24
1. MISS Beljo, (11) (Lawrence, Swift), 15:06
1. MISS Lawrence, (13) (Beljo, Swift), 15:52
1. MISS Swift, (11) (Schiestel), 18:48
2. OTT Lindsay, (3) (Biduke, Lahey), 1:40 (PP)
3. MISS Swift, (12) (Beljo, Santini), 16:06

and would have with or without a healthy Couture. Brian Kilrea (the 67’s coach for those of you who haven’t toured the Hall of Fame) told me that he didn’t think Couture should have been playing. Nice sentiment, but then again, as coach, Killer filled out the line-up, right? And he was still sending Couture out in the death throes of the blow-out--when he came off the ice from his last shift in the last minute Couture looked like he was going to black out.

That was a 4 p.m. game at the Hershey Centre--the place was lousy with NHL scouts, at least 30, who doubled up, Brampton vs Petes at 2 pm, Ott vs Miss on the back half. From the deep corner seats they saw how Couture played--I doubt that they could tell how beat up he was.

Couture told me he was about 85 or 90 percent at the O vs Russia all-star game. Probably the over-optimism of youth. I can’t give you any useful dope on him—it’s hard to tell what type of player he is based on a couple of views, both of them with big asterisks beside them. Word is, though, he’s on the rebound. Season's numbers to date 15-30-45 in 34 games. I’m going to try to catch him in the next little stretch.

The fine print: The ten North American skaters ahead of Couture:

-- LONDON -- 5' 10.75" 191 C
KANE, PATRICK -- LONDON -- 5' 9.5" 160 RW
TURRIS, KYLE -- BCHL -- BURNABY -- 6' 0.5" 170 C
ELLERBY, KEATON -- KAMLOOPS -- 6' 4.25" 186 D
-- VANCOUVER -- 6' 0.25" 160 D
ALZNER, KARL -- CALGARY -- 6' 2" 206 D
SUTTER, BRANDON -- RED DEER -- 6' 2.75" 170 C,RW

pithy observations: six-four-and-a-quarter and 186, pretty scrawny for ellerby ... should way something closer to Linda Ellerbie ... it's funny talking to scouts about Angelo Esposito ... it seems like everyone who has seen him wasn't blown away in Rempart games that they caught but heard he was good in the next game after they left ... saw the cross kid at summer 18s ... easily the best US defenceman at the tournament tho' he started the season below the radar somewhat, way behind another US d-man Nick Petrecki from USHL Omaha ... Petrecki is another guy who has seen the ass drop out of his stock based on NHL Central's mid-terms (preseason top 10 guy, now No. 31 among North American skaters) ... Brandon Sutter musta had lead socks on when they weighed him ... doesn't look 160 to me ... Kane is out there as a first liner with the US u-20s and Van Riemsdyk watches the whole freakin' tournament, dumb, dumb, dumb ...

On further review: Took a look at the 2003 draft and those who passed over O'Sullivan


Some pretty good 2nd-rounders (Bergeron, Carle, Fritsche) but a lot who are a way behind O'Sullivan and several who don't look like they'll ever catch up. Just to pluck a few:

Ryan Stone http://www.hockeydb.com/ihdb/stats/pdisplay.php3?pid=00072677

Mike Egener seems as like to hit the ECHL as the NHL http://www.hockeydb.com/ihdb/stats/pdisplay.php3?pid=00055357

Cory Urquhart is hitting his third ECHL season http://www.hockeydb.com/ihdb/stats/pdisplay.php3?pid=00055112

Stefan Meyer isn't exactly lighting it up with Rochester http://www.hockeydb.com/ihdb/stats/pdisplay.php3?pid=00055397

Crombeen off the radar http://www.hockeydb.com/ihdb/stats/pdisplay.php3?pid=00059628\

Tunik = zero http://www.hockeydb.com/ihdb/stats/pdisplay.php3?pid=00072677

Friday, January 26, 2007

Vindication: I Know More than A Career Minor-Leaguer

How sweet. I appeared on Off The Record last year with some bulldog-faced goon who is a career AHL journeyman and, I guess, the toast of Hamilton. I was appearing, in part, to talk about Sidney Crosby, then in his rookie season. Eventually the topic of debate turned to, Crosby vs Ovechkin: Who'd you take? I said Crosby, whereupon the knuckledragger launched into a you-don't-play-the-game-you-can't-know-my-buddies-all-say-AO rant.

Results of espn.com's survey of NHLers:

"If you could pick on player to start a team ..."

TOP VOTE-GETTER: Sidney Crosby (45%).•
OTHER MENTIONS: Martin Brodeur, Devils (11%); Alexander Ovechkin, Capitals (10%); Joe Thornton, Sharks (9%); Nicklas Lidstrom, Red Wings (5%); Scott Niedermayer, Ducks (5%); Chris Pronger, Ducks (2%); Jarome Iginla, Flames (2%); Peter Forsberg, Flyers (2%); Joe Sakic, Avalanche (2%); Miikka Kiprusoff, Flames (2%); Roberto Luongo, Canucks (2%): Ryan Miller, Sabres (2%).

For more see:


Literary Criticism of 100 Games: Joycean, Sez He ...

Many thanks to James Mirtle who gave this blog a nice little shout-out today.


It's all rather stream-of-consciousness at this point, and not really at all like the at-a-distance sermonizing you often see when mainstream-media types take up the medium. One thing I can say for sure is that it doesn't quite read like any other hockey blog out there, as evidenced by this bit of wisdom from earlier this week:
European pro league games are like European art-house films. If you can say that you've seen them, you might get points for a broad world view--but you wonder if it was really worth it.

Stream of consciousness ... well I hope it's closer to Ulysses than Finnegans Wake. Personally, I've always thought that Dubliners was JJ's best and that what followed was his descent into madness or a cruel joke on the literary dilettanti ... I've never been able to get past 15 or 20 pages of FW.

I've always been more of a fan of Flann O'Brien than Joyce. And in tribute to F O'B (whose act has been shamelessly [Sheamusly?] stolen by John Doyle in the Globe), a regular entry on this blog will be set in a draughty den that I frequent.

The Hopes of Leaf Nation Weighs Heavily On ...

... the shoulder pads of Justin Pogge.

Damo has a nice piece--yes, Mr Cox, to the surprise of all but his closest friends is capable of playing nice when not kicking hockey executives out to the curb and scaring children--about Justin Pogge.


It should be a cold shower to the phone-in fans who badger talk-radio hosts with demands that Pogge be raced to the big club.

You'd think that grabbing the No. 1 slot on the world junior team would be an excellent predictor of NHL success. You'd think that, but it's a little less conclusive than you'd imagine. The best ever for Canada at the u-20s, Jimmy Waite, never made it as a No. 1 (his story is one of many in my book When the Lights Went Out).


Yeah, Jose Theodore and Roberto Luongo worked out but has Pascal Leclaire? I'd say the jury is still out. Mathieu Garon? No big whoop. Marc Denis hasn't made the impact expected of him (or even carved out a rep as large as Marty Biron who looked to be far behind him as a back-up on the Canadian team that won in Switzerland in '97). What can you say about Stephane Fiset, good enough to be the man in two tournaments? If Pogge turned out to be Fiset redux, that Stanley Cup parade is on hold indefinitely. Manny Legace and Jamie Storr were good enough for gold for Canada, just like Pogge, yet not good enough at the next level to be elite netminders. 2000 and 2001: Maxime Ouellet. Twice good enough for Canada, last sighted ...


I think that installing the Leafs' farm team in Toronto is just about the worst thing for Pogge. He has no chance to play under the radar. More like under the microscope. He had a great backstory--humble background, closer to hard-scrabble really--as Donna Spencer told back when:

Goaltender Justin Pogge living his dreams at world junior tournament 4 January 2006
VANCOUVER (CP) _ Justin Pogge was named to the Canadian junior men's hockey team, earned the starter's job, and signed a contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the span of two weeks.
``It's been a good Christmas,'' Pogge said with a grin.
The 19-year-old from Penticton, B.C., has a relaxed and confident temperament that serves him well in a high-pressure tournament like the world junior.
``I just like his mindset, his attitude,''' says head coach Brent Sutter. ``Nothing seems to bother him and he's a got a little strut that goes with it.''
Pogge (POH-gee) earned his second shutout of the tournament in Canada's 4-0 semifinal win over Finland on Tuesday as Canada advanced to the Thursday final (TSN, 7 p.m. ET) against Russia, which beat the United States 5-1 in the other semifinal contest.
Pogge made 19 saves, including a key stop in the second period when Canada led by only one goal, and assisted on Canada's fourth goal by Andrew Cogliano.
GM Place was chanting his name during the game and one spectator held up a sign, Pogge for Prime Minister.
Pogge was up against another Leafs prospect in Finland's Tuuka Rask, who was drafted in the first round this year. Rask saw far more shots at 43, but Pogge made the saves when it counted.
Pogge has a 1.20 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage so far in the tournament.
He wasn't invited to the team's summer development camp, but earned an invitation to December's selection camp based on the best major junior numbers in the country this season for the Calgary Hitmen, with a 22-5 record, 1.52 goals-against average, .929 save percentage and six shutouts.
``He's won some games for us,'' Hitmen coach Kelly Kisio said. ``He gives us a chance to win every night.''
The Hitmen acquired Pogge in a six-player deal from the Prince George Cougars on Jan. 10 of last year, which was the Western Hockey League's trade deadline.
It was a pivotal moment for Pogge. He hadn't been a clear-cut starter with the Cougars and it ate at the edges of his confidence.
The knock on him was that he as inconsistent and would let in the odd soft goal, but Kisio said Pogge was solid from the get-go in Calgary.
``What happened was, he knew he'd be in the next game,'' Kisio said. ``It probably had a bit of a calming effect.
``If he lost, he'd be back in the next game. He doesn't worry about a goal. It's water off a duck's back. He gets ready to stop the next shot.''
The six-foot-three, 205-pound netminder has excellent technique as he gets square to the puck and in the right position.
Pogge arrived in the Hitmen's locker-room at the same time forwards Ryan Getzlaf and Andrew Ladd returned from Grand Forks, N.D., after helping Canada win gold at the 2005 world junior championship.
``They were really pumped,'' Pogge recalled. ``I was starting to get to know all the guys so I was kind of shy at first.
``They were really excited to win and they didn't get too big-headed either. Knowing what they went through makes you want to be there a little bit more. I always wanted to be here. It's always been a big dream of mine to make it and it's actually coming true.'' Pogge didn't start playing hockey until he was 10.
``My mom couldn't afford it up until then and she finally had enough money to put me through,'' he explained.
Pogge started played baseball much younger and as an outfielder won a provincial baseball championship in 1997 with a team from Sundre, Alta. But he found he was having more fun in hockey and stuck with it.
The Leafs drafted him 90th overall in 2004 and signed him to a three-year entry-level contract the weekend after Canadian team roster was announced on Dec. 16.
Pogge had spent a week in August this summer training with Leafs goaltender Ed Belfour in London, Ont.
``You can't help but not learn from him,'' Pogge said. ``I was just like a sponge being there.
``He's got everything figured out. He's just so calm in net and I'd love to be that way.''
After signing their first contract, players are known to go out and buy the car of their dreams, but Pogge feels his mother Annet deserves some payback.
``I've got to go buy my mom a car first,'' he said. ``Our van died.''

Backstory notwithstanding, I wouldn't have given up Tukka Rask banking on Pogge. (Based mostly on catching Rask's 50-shot shutout of Sweden at the world juniors in Vancouver in the bronze-medal game.) That's not to say Rask will make it either. (He was somewhat less impressive at this year's under-20s in Sweden.) But having the pair of them seems a decent way to hedge your bet. Bottom line: With the No. 1 guy from a Canadian team at the world juniors you have (at best) a 50-50 prop on coming away with a significant player. Putting him in the mix with the guy who was the under-20 all-star from that tournament would reduce the gamble ... but it would still be a gamble.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Red-Headed Stepchild Gets Respect At Last

The one player who grabbed my attention at the All-Star Game was Brian Campbell. For those needing a primer, nhl.com has a nice one.


The hockeydb.com line:


I've taken an interest in Brian Campbell since first grabbing his act back in the fall of '98. That just happened to be the season when he went from the Ottawa 67's No. 2 defenceman (behind Nick Boynton, then a first-round pick of the Washington Capitals) to Canadian Hockey League Player of the Year and a world junior all-star.

I find him a fascinating player. I've seen defencemen with a higher gear in junior (Orr, obviously, and you'd put Coffey in there), but I had never seen any skate more than he did in the average game. He was absolutely all over the place in that final of year of junior. Brian Kilrea, Ottawa's venerable coach, never said that it was anything strategic--not that he told Campbell to freelance or take chances or dance when he heard the music. Kilrea said he was as surprised as the next guy that Campbell's game took off.

How many players have two big leaps in their level of play? I can't think of any. One breakthrough is rare enough. Campbell though paired up.

1. Going into his last year of junior he looked to have a limited pro future. Then he makes Canada's under-20 (after not being invited to the summer camp) and isn't on for a goal against (and scored maybe Canada's sweetest goal of the tournament).

2. Before the NHL lock-out, he struggled to catch on with the Buffalo Sabres. For his first three pro seasons he divided time between Rochester and the big club. He looked like he might end up a Red-Headed Stepchild. (The Sabres, to their credit, had drafted Campbell in the sixth round but ended up paying him second-round money, about a half-mil, when he was well-positioned to re-enter.) In season four, the last load of Ye Olde NHL, Campbell spent the whole season with the Sabres, but player and team struggled. He certainly looked like he wasn't big enough and strong enough to play in your father's NHL. (I call BS on the listed 5-foot-11 and I've stood next to him plenty over the years.) Less than two seasons later, he's the lead D on arguably the NHL's best team, an All-Star Game starter.

Kilrea spotted Campbell in Strathroy, Ont (Pat Stapleton's hometown) on a brief sabbatical from coaching. If nothing else, he desrved an all-star bid for the highlight hit of last year's playoffs, which I wrote about for Maclean's last spring (below).

The biggest hit in this year’s NHL playoffs was delivered by a defenceman widely considered too small and—let’s be frank—too soft to play regularly until this season, a guy who has heard that he doesn’t play “physical” enough. And that wasn’t hecklers or coaches getting on him, but his own father.

Buffalo Sabres defenceman Brian Campbell might be the most unlikely big hitter in the game—just think of Newfoundland starting an enriched-uranium program. Asked what it feels like to be up there with the league heavyweights, Campbell admits he’s “not even a middleweight.”

But in the first game of the first round, Campbell delivered an open-ice bodycheck for the ages, a hit on Philadelphia rookie R.J. Umberger. In their run up to the Eastern Conference final the Sabres frequently replayed the video of Campbell’s hit on the HSBC Arena jumbotron, and it inevitably gets a louder ovation than their overtime goals or goaltender Ryan Miller’s most spectacular saves. And it’s far from the only big hit of this year’s playoffs: recall the knock-out blow Ottawa’s Peter Schaefer delivered on Campbell’s team-mate Tim Connolly, and Edmonton’s Raffi Torres giving San Jose’s Milan Michalek a solid bell-ringing.

File it under that ever-expanding folder titled “Things we had all wrong about the new NHL.”

Many commentators and more than a few players have lamented the stringent enforcement of new rules all season long, claiming that the NHL was turning into a non-contact league. But the open-ice bodychecks in this year’s playoffs fly in the face of accepted wisdom. They aren’t just big hits—they are perfectly legal big hits, often delivered by diminutive guys who’ve never been mistaken for Scott Stevens.

The hits aren’t happening in spite of the new enforcement but — strange as it may sound — because of it. It’s simple first-year physics: the hits are bigger because players are moving at higher speeds.

“Players don’t have to skate through hooks and holds,” Campbell says. “They’re carrying more speed up the ice. And in the playoffs, with the intensity and shorter shifts, the pace is just that much faster.” He adds of his hit on Umberger: “It’s not like the guy throwing the check has to be skating faster—I wasn’t really moving at all.”

It sounds cruel to say — especially with the talented Connolly on the sidelines again after he lost a previous season to a concussion — but replays of this year’s big hits evoke video of what happens to crash-test dummies sans air bags. Without speed limits, players are at even greater danger when driving recklessly into the open ice.

Campbell caught Umberger reaching for a loose puck. Connolly was living more dangerously. Schaefer caught him cutting from the wing into middle of the ice at the Ottawa blueline, the no-man’s-land where Scott Stevens stamped Eric Lindros’s passport during the 2000 playoffs. “Players are more exposed to injury when they go low to the ice, which both Umberger and Connolly did when they got checked,” Buffalo general manager Darcy Regier says.

Regier believes players will make adjustments and learn about what they can do and where they can go on the ice—even if these lessons are learned through brutal, synapse-rattling experience. But he also believes the league must protect players. Because in the new NHL, speed might not kill, but it sure does hurt.

“Clean hits are dangerous in a faster game,” Regier says. “I think we might not see more injuries but more serious ones—what used to be bruises and sprains become breaks and tears with more force. What we have to ensure with the rules is any sort of head shots—elbows and the like. We have to see stiffer penalties in games, and for repeat offenders on dirty hits.”

But there was nothing dirty about Campbell’s hit on Umberger or Schaefer’s on Connolly. Neither was penalized and neither deserved to be. Those who gripe about the game turning into non-contact shinny shouldn’t skate too fast up the ice making those complaints—and they should keep their heads up.

Sidney Crosby & the All-Star Game: Both Pointless

Add this to the many virtues of No. 87: He didn't try (too hard) to make the All-Star Game his personal showcase in his debut.

As bad as the game might be, let me say that it could worse. To borrow from other sports:

1. Crosby didn't register a point but at least he wasn't frozen out by his All-Star team-mates like MJ was in his NBA first all-star game back in '85. Just more proof of the character of the freeze-out's envy-drenched mastermind, Isiah Thomas.

2. Crosby didn't suffer a career-threatening injury like Robert Edwards did at the Pro Bowl years back.


Come to think of it, is the NHL all-star game no better than flag football? A good case to be made.

I was listening to Bill Berg on Sportsnet a few minutes ago talk about a fight at an All-Star game in days of yore--a scrap between Gordie Howe and Gus Mortson (playing for the Leafs when the game pitted the Stanley Cup champs vs the stars). Bill, a good friend, had it right when he said that a junior prospects game, might bring more intensity to the table than the Young Stars game (an unmitigated joke this year).

I've seen two intense moments at exhibitions like this. One of them was celebrated in junior hockey circles. The other, I've come to believe, was missed by practically everybody (and I've always wanted to ask the principals about.

The first was a fight, a great scrap, at the CHL All-Star Game in Kitchener back in the '94-95 season. Bryan Berard, then with the Detroit Jr Red Wings, and Terry Ryan of the Tri-City Americans. Terry Ryan is remembered for two things: being one of Montreal's least memorable first-round draft picks and instigating this scrap with the kid who was going to be selected first overall the next June. It was an absolute panic--and all the more so because Mike Barnett, then of IMG, was sitting between the fathers of the two combatants.

The second occurred at an oldtimers' exhibition. Yes, you've got it right. Old-timers. Back in the 80s. In fact, it was a game between an alumni team made up of Team Canada '72 players and a pick-up team of retired NHL players. God, this sticks in my mind. Rene Robert went into the corner carrying his stick a tad high. He ran into Serge Savard, who took exception. I saw a spear, but the ref called a high-stick on Savard (the charitable call, I guess, in a charity game). They both got minors but I sensed there was a backstory I was missing. Savard is not media-friendly, no hope of getting him on this. I once heard Robert was a beer rep--maybe he tells the story bar-side. I've never heard anything about any hard feelings between the two. If anyone has a clue, let me know.

This is the set up from the game.

Team Canada relives glory of 1972 tonight
Canadian Press
25 January 1985

Paul Henderson works for Christ, Stan Mikita is a golf pro, Ron Ellis is an insurance broker, Gary Bergman is a contractor and Dennis Hull is an athletic director.
Times change for everyone, including those who played for Team Canada during hockey's 1972 Summit Series.
The eight-game showdown was the one of the most memorable events in Canadian sports history.
Tonight, the 1972 team is being reunited for the first time in an exhibition contest at Maple Leaf Gardens against a team of former NHL stars, with proceeds going to the Phil Esposito Foundation, which aids former NHL players who have seen better times.
Henderson scored three game-winning goals in the 1972 series, including the winner in the decisive eighth game, which gave Canada the series, 4-3 with one game tied.
Yesterday, he and other 1972 team members worked out the kinks in a 60- minute scrimmage. Now he is an employee of Campus Crusade for Christ and recently resettled in Mississauga.
After finishing his hockey career in Birmingham, he entered a seminary and devoted his life to Christian pursuits.
''It didn't come easily,'' Henderson says of his commitment to Christ. ''The Lord has given me a platform."
In 1975, he says, ''I gave my life to the Lord and it changed everything.''
Henderson retired from pro hockey in 1975 after a 17-year career that included time with the National Hockey League's Detroit Red Wings, Toronto Maple Leafs and Atlanta Flames and the World Hockey Associaton's Birmingham Bulls.
With Campus Crusade for Christ, he now splits his time between Athletes in Action and Here's Life, working as a consultant to churches.
''The camaradarie we developed as a team will always stick in my mind,'' Henderson said. ''Just the opportunity to play with some of the best players in the world was a thrill.
''Getting it all together and coming from behind to win is something I'll never forget.''
Mikita, who retired in 1978 after a 20- year career with Chicago Black Hawks, is a golf pro at the Kemper Lakes course just outside Chicago.
''The guys that were asked to play on that team were all fighting against one another (in the NHL) to make a living but to get together for three or four weeks and to show the kind of emotion . . . we all felt, 'This is for our country,' that's what I remember,'' Mikita said.
Ellis retired in 1980 after 11 years with the Maple Leafs. Today, he's an insurance broker in Orangeville. In the 1972 series, he played on a line with Henderson and the Philadelphia Flyers' Bobby Clarke.
He recalls the dressing room scene prior to the third period in the decisive eighth game, with Team Canada trailing 5-3.
''You might think there would be a lot of panic,'' he said. ''But it was quiet in the dressing room.
''Nobody was berating anybody. It was very calm. There was a feeling in the room that we were going to go out and win the game.
''As soon as we got the first goal in the third period, we really felt as if we'd win.''
Canada scored three unanswered third- period goals to win the series.
''When it was all over, there was a subdued feeling,'' he said. ''We were an emotionally drained bunch.
''I remember sitting there at my cubicle for at least a half an hour. It was unbelievable.''
Bergman, who spent most of his NHL career with the Red Wings before retiring shortly after the 1972 triumph, showed up at the Maple Leaf Gardens workout without having seen most of his teammates in the 12-year interim.
''It's great to get back and reminisce with the guys,'' Bergman said. ''The whole experience was so big that you can't really pin it down to one particular thing.
''It was one of the greatest sporting events this country has ever seen. I'm glad I was a part of it.''
Dennis Hull retired in 1978. The former Chicago Black Hawk now is athletic director at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.
''Like everyone else, my greatest remembrance from 1972 is the winning goal in the final game by Paul,'' Hull said. ''The team had been through a lot and had grown very close.
''We all wanted to win so badly. We didn't want to come back to Canada as losers. This game (tonight) wouldn't be happening if we hadn't won that final game.''
A sellout crowd of 16,182 will be in attendance tonight to provide a fitting tribute, 12 1/2 years after the fact, to Team Canada 1972. - CP

And this was one report that appeared.

GORDIE HOWE STILL knows how to win hockey games.
Howe, the National Hockey League's leading career goal scorer, showed some of the old magic last night at Maple Leaf Gardens when he scored with just 54 seconds remaining to lead Team All-Star to a 6-5 victory over Team Canada '72.
The game raised about $130,000 for the Phil Esposito Foundation - a charity organization that aids former NHL players in need.
However, there was nothing charitable about Howe's attitude last night toward his Team Canada '72 opponents - a group composed of members of the club that faced the Soviets in the famous 1972 series. Whenever he plays a game, Howe said, he wants to win.
"I was a little weary out there, but I work out with the (Hartford) Whalers once in a while," Howe said. "And I just finished a three- game swing out in Western Canada.
"I think I'm playing more hockey now than the year I quit."
Howe, who scored many winning goals during his professional career, converted a pass from Henri Richard for the clincher last night. He said he thought about holding onto the puck after getting it from Richard, but saw daylight and instead decided to put it in the net.
When he scored the winner, Howe may have received the biggest ovation of the night from the enthusiastic capacity Gardens crowd.
And that's really saying something, because it was a night full of cheering and, perhaps, a record number of standing ovations. All- Star coach Bobby Orr, whose team was composed of former NHL standouts, received the first standing reception of the night - then Howe, then Henri Richard. Eddie (The Entertainer) Shack, a former Toronto Maple Leaf who came onto the ice with a hop, skip and jump, got a huge ovation from the sellout crowd of 16,183 fans.
The standing ovations for Team Canada went to Frank Mahovlich, Paul Henderson and Esposito.
Orr said he enjoyed his time behind the All-Star bench, but added that he was glad it was a one-shot affair. He had hoped to play in the game, but the gimpy knees that ended his NHL career just wouldn't co-operate.
"It was great fun and I think the guys really put on a good show," Orr said. "It was a great night.
"Wasn't Gordie's goal great, wasn't it fantastic? I don't know how old Howe is - he won't tell us - but he still moves around pretty well."
Howe was just one of the All- Stars who showed he still had it. Sure, the old pros are a little older, showing a little more grey and moving a bit slower, but they still want to win and still know how to set up a goal and take a wrist shot.
Jim McKenny, Walt Tkaczuk, Dick Duff, John McKenzie and Bobby Lalonde scored the other All- Star goals.
Scoring for Team Canada were Dennis Hull, Paul Henderson, J.P. Parise, Ron Ellis and Stan Mikita.
However, the game was a lot more a goal-scoring exhibition for the fans. It was a night of fun and oddities. There were three Team All-Star players wearing No. 9 on their jerseys - Howe, Duff and Andy Bathgate. And the game featured two 15-minute periods along with a single typical 20- minute stanza.
However, other than that, the players still wanted to show what they had.
Team Canada goaltender Tony Esposito, who has only been out of pro hockey for one season, said he has always been a competitive person.
"When I go out there, I want to win," Esposito said. "I want to give a good effort. Naturally, the skating isn't as good as it once was, but I think it was entertaining.
"I thought it was exciting. I'm afraid I want to win and the few distractions at the start of the game bothered me. I don't know if that's a good trait or not, but when I get out there, man, I turn it on.
"I haven't skated since last year, but the adrenalin got flowing."

Sounds a lot better than the game in Dallas, that's for sure. Maybe a Prospects Game and an Old-timers Classic is the way to go.

Re: Old-timers.

1. The Pittsburgh Steelers can't consider an Old-Timers Game. Check out the Black Curtain.

By Sam Farmer Los Angeles Times
25 July 2006
One was lifting weights at home. Another was training for a triathlon. A third was watching a game at a friend's house.
Regular guys doing regular things.
Then there were the others.
One drank antifreeze. Another was in a high-speed chase.
Two things in common among them all: They were Pittsburgh Steelers; and they died in the past six years.
Fresh off their first Super Bowl victory in 26 years, the Steelers have experienced the emotional gamut. The franchise has lost 18 former players -- ages 35 to 58 -- since 2000, including seven in the past 16 months.
"There is no explanation," said Joe Gordon, a Steelers executive from 1969-98. "We just shake our heads and ask why."
The numbers are startling. Of the NFL players from the 1970s and '80s who have died since 2000, more than one in five -- 16 of 77 -- were Steelers.

2. In hoops, it's an orthopedic surgeon's delight: Who'll be the first to limp off with an Achilles tendon torn, like Rick Barry did years back?

Hockey works for Old-Timers--just think of the Oilers-Habs old-timers outdoors in Edmonton. It's a way the NHL should go for All-Star Weekend. Celebrate the former greats while they're still with us. Mine history for all its worth (especially when the present often looks bleak).

Baseball is the only other game where it might work. The all-time greatest old-timer moment:

July 19, 1982: In the first annual Cracker Jack Oldtimers Classic at Washington's Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, 75-year-old Luke Appling hits a 250-foot homer off Warren Spahn to help the AL to a 7–2 win over the NL in a 5-inning battle.

H ow can a 75-year-old man hit a home run in a major league stadium? And hit it 320 feet, over a fence, with Warren Spahn pitching?
The only one who has done it is Luke Appling, and he explains with flawless logic: ''It was a good pitch, it was right there, and I just swung away.''
It was a neat trick, though, and not just because of Appling's age. After all, Spahn is 61. But during his 20 years as a shortstop with the Chicago White Sox between 1930 and 1950, Appling was known as a singles hitter. He had 2,749 hits in his career, and only 45 were home runs. He also was known as a hypochondriac, or maybe a sly pretender. His nickname was ''Old Aches and Pains.''
But ''Old Luke'' made the Hall of Fame in 1964. And, 11 years later, so did Warren Spahn, who had won 363 games as one of the best left-handers in baseball history.
They were reunited Monday night in Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, once the home of the Washington Senators. Appling was the leadoff batter for the American League in the Cracker Jack Old-Timers Baseball Classic, and Spahn was the starting pitcher for the National League. In the stands, despite the rain, sat 29,196 sentimentalists who had paid as much as $12 each for the memory.
Nobody doubted that Appling knew more about the art of batting than most people. Even now, 32 years after he retired, he is working as the traveling minor league hitting instructor for the Atlanta Braves. His boss is Henry Aaron, vice president of the Braves, who hit 755 home runs. But, even for an old-timers' game, 75 years old is exceptional.
''I had a game plan,'' Spahn said. ''I was going to pitch around the young guys and work on the old guys. I could see guys like Al Kaline and Bobby Richardson hitting one out, but not an old man like Appling. I didn't figure he could even hit a ball that far.
''The first pitch of the game was a ball, outside. I was just trying to get the ball over the plate, no great stuff on it, you know. My second pitch was a hummer, but a low-keyed hummer, right across the plate.''
Appling, a right-handed batter, stood at the plate and waited. The stadium, which has not been used for major league baseball for 11 years, was laid out for football, with the left-field bleachers only 320 feet from the plate. Later in the five-inning game, Jim Fregosi and Bill Mazeroski hit authentic home runs, and Willie McCovey hit a 440-footer foul off the mezzanine. But this was ''Old Aches and Pains.''
''I think Spahn took pity on me,'' Appling said. ''I swung, and the ball happened to be there. I just took my Luke Appling swing. Most of my career, I hit to right field, but somehow I pulled this one to left. I hit it, but I didn't even look at it. I just started to run around the bases. Slowly.''
The ball kept rising, cleared the railing and fell into the bleachers. On the mound, Spahn rubbed his eyes. ''It just proves,'' he said, ''that I still throw hard. He's too weak to hit it out by himself. Luke will be talking about that one for years. Someday he'll be telling people he hit it 420 feet, and they'll mark the seat where it fell.''
''You know,'' Joe DiMaggio said, ''that guy's really remarkable.'' ''Baseball,'' Luke Appling said, ''is a game to keep old people young.''

There are a lot of Luke Applings for the NHL to tap for an old-timer classic. And if the NHLPA got its act together it could tap a lot of names who are still better known than most on the ice in Dallas. Sponsors? Cracker Jack might not do it. Cold FX? How about Viagra? Anybody but Steelhead or Cheetah.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Djurgardens Prison Blues: Worst Game of the Season

The other day a friend asked me if I was going to the All-Star Game in Dallas. My reply: I didn't go to it when it was at the Air Canada Centre, a subway ride away, so why would I go to Dallas?

I have friends who are obliged to the game as beat writers. This, of course, is one of the more significant downsides to being a beat writer. Red Fisher is one friend who won't be attending. In typical Fisherian style he cuts to the heart of the matter.

It has no credibility now. What it’s become is nothing more than a schmooze between the NHL biggies and their corporate sponsors. The game no longer is what hockey is all about. No hitting. No shot-blocking. Not even a hard stare.

Pity the poor All-Star Game. Its charms are lost on the dean of beat writers, a guy who went to 30 purportedly All Stellar affairs. (Question: Did the NHL award the 2009 All-Star Game to Montreal as a gift to the Canadiens in their centennial year or as a shot across Mr Fisher's bow? He'd bail if they played it in his backyard.)

I'm going to try to watch a couple of minutes of the game on the tube just to test a theory. I suspect that the All-Star Game isn't the worst game in hockey. You might have to go far afield to find worse but they're out there.

So here is the worst game I saw this season.

January 6
Djurgardens 3 Frolunda 2 (shoot-out)

European pro league games are like European art-house films. If you can say that you've seen them, you might get points for a broad world view--but you wonder if it was really worth it. Strictly Starkist tune: Yeah, you took in an Elite League game, you have good taste but did it taste good?

What a freakin' downer this game was!

I sorta expected it but went nonetheless on what I considered a cultural-architectural excursion. Djurgarden usually plays at the Globen, a hockey arena that looks something like a beach-ball, the sort of geodesic puckhalle that Buckminster Fuller would have dreamed up. Saw a game there about ten years ago and sat in my seat, looking up, marvelling at the ceiling, enjoying the ice cream. I figured that if the game sucked, well, I could take in the atmospherics once more.

Get to the door. Bad news. The Globen is booked for an ice-ballet show. The hockey game was shuttled to Djurgarden's dark and cavernous practice rink (its old home prior to the construction of the Globen). Shoulda taken that as a sign. Architecturally, it reminded me of Kilmainham Gaol, where they shot In the Name of the Father. When I went with a couple of scouts through the revolving barred doors (which allowed you to enter but not exit) and when another door apparently lifted from a bank vault snapped shut behind us, it had all the feeling of a lock-up. At Folsom Prison, they got Johnny Cash--here, Frolunda and the home team.

After a short time I wondered if the Swedish elite league depended on captive audiences for its numbers--that it didn't need to paper the crowd but rather detain it. The game was awful. There was likely more hard hitting over at Stars on Ice than there was in this Swedish Elite League game. No forechecking whatsoever. In fact, when a defenceman would take the puck behind the net, the other team would leave the ice en masse and substitute five players, one of them actually skating as far forward as the opponents' blueline. A few times a defenceman wouldn't even bother to go behind the net to leave the puck for a forward circling back--he'd leave it in front of the net, about ten feet in front of the crease. Not like there was any danger that someone might chase it down--trap is not just the default mode, more like a matter of genetic coding. The build-up for plays was glacial.

Funny thing is, you can see guys who can play--or at least should be able to play. Tomi Kallio was playing for Frolunda. I always thought he'd turn out to be more of a player than he has--that he'd hang around the NHL for a good stretch. Saw him for the first time at the world juniors in Switzerland in 97. Was a mid-round pick of Colorado. I figured that at the very least he'd be a very serviceable role player--a fundamentally sound, defensively responsible winger and maybe something more. (That sounds like the soft prejudice of low expectations but I was looking at something that might just qualify him into the league. Not how he could be one of the top 100 players in the NHL, just how he might be better than the 100 worst ones. Anything above that is gravy.)

Here's the player he has turned out to be.

Tomi Kallio
Left Wing Born Jan 27 1977 Height 6.00 -- Weight 185 -- Shoots L

Selected by Colorado Avalanche round 4 #81 overall 1995 NHL Entry Draft

2000-01 Atlanta Thrashers 56-14-13-27-22
2001-02 Atlanta 60-8-14-22-12
2002-03 Atlanta 5-0-2-2-4
2002-03 Columbus 12-1-2-3-8
2002-03 Philadelphia 7-1-0-2

Not a playoff game in his brief career. That first season indicated some promise (right around 20 goals if he hung around the whole year), but everything ground to a halt. Bottom line: 24 goals in 140 NHL games--two less than he racked up with Frolunda in 46 games last season.

Kallio scored the opening goal against Djurgardens and was one of the more dynamic players--which is to say that he had a pulse. That a player who struggled to hang in the NHL is the designated sniper on a Swedish elite league team--what do you need to know? Maybe he could still play in the NHL--just rattle off the names of a dozen lame-assed guys starting with Wade Belak (the NHL Mendoza line) who will never be a threat to score 20 NHL goals in a season--but the fact is that Kallio's in the top 10 percent of Swedish league players. All you need to know about the relative merits of the game. That, abd Tommy Salo is playing for Frolunda too. (I suppose Mudville would end being the only place Casey could play.)

Some aspects of the Swedish league I love--fans standing on the terraces, singing all game long, banging drums. But as I sat there nodding off I wondered if they just did that to stay awake.

Note to self: How many guys are only ever as good as their first season in the NHL, like Kallio?

Monday, January 22, 2007

What Passes For A Scandal In The Invisible League

There is no Bad News if you're the NHL. It can only be Good News if you're in the US sports-news cycle at all. The NHL is now the Invisible League as far as the major US sports media goes. Submitted for your consideration, Rory Fitzpatrick, a blueline grunt of no special distinction who through no fault of his own became the favored all-star write-in candidate of NHL fans of every stripe.

The NHL All-Star voting might not be up there with Florida 2000 or Ohio 2004. To my mind, for screwball voting, it's not even up there with Marisa Tomei's Oscar for My Cousin Vinny. But there were irregularities in this year's voting. And didn't Slate.com get on the case.


Good News for the NHL. The All-Star candidacy of Rory Fitzpatrick gets another day in the news cycle--albeit with the high foreheads who read Slate.com. The league comes off looking pretty humourless in all this--the suits in Manhattan didn't take this to a focus group or else they'd have realized that playing along with the protest vote would have been a winning strategy (and garnered even more pub). But Good News. At least they're talking about a game that no one outside of hockey ever notices and no one inside the game cares about even remotely.

The Rory Fitzpatrick vote brings to mind this item.

Time Magazine's 'Person of the Century' Poll Dateline: 03/15/99

Jesus Christ holds a commanding lead over the Prophet Mohammed, Howard Stern, and Optimus Prime

Time Magazine should have thought twice before inviting the entire population of the Internet to vote in its online Person of the Century Poll.
Current stats (subject to change minutely) show Jesus Christ in the lead with 42% of the tally (almost 900,000 votes) and pro wrestler Ric Flair running a distant second with 15%. Battling Adolf Hitler for third place is the Prophet Mohammed. Also currently in the Top 20 are Howard Stern, Kurt Cobain, and Gordon B. Hinckley, President of the Mormon Church.
Conspicuously further down the list are names like Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, and Gandhi.

Truly, to be the best you have to beat the best.

Anyway, those who love the NHL and want to see it prosper would be wise to write in Rory Fitzpatrick on their ballots--Norris, Conn Smythe, Lou Marsh, whatever. And in life, you could do worse than ask yourself: What would Rory do?

Hockey's Big Men on Campus: Who stays in the NCAA

Yesterday I got an email from a guy who blogs on NCAA hockey, focusing on the Golden Gophers of Minnesota. (Hence, the blog's title, 10,000 Takes.) He took a small issue with a piece I have in ESPN The Magazine, a report from the world juniors. I suggested that Kyle Okposo, a Minnesota frosh, is NHL-ready and likely to sign with the Islanders rather than return for a second year of school. He said that he has it on good authority that Okposo will be back with the Gophers next season. Never say never: Negotiations might bog down and maybe Okposo will bide his time. But right now he's a dominant player at the NCAA level--at the same stage Phil Kessel was a third-liner for the Gophers. Things are better on the Island. KO'll make the jump.

Thing is, I wonder if Jack Johnson will. Talked to Mr Johnson, the father, at the world juniors. Rumours were JJ was ready to bail out of Michigan in mid-season--but that was all gas, nothing to it. Hard to imagine that JJ would stay another year in Ann Arbor, but the fact is, he was ready to play in the NHL this season and probably even last year (when he had a chance to jump on with a Carolina team that wins the Stanley Cup). JJ's trade to LA was a hard one to figure--but maybe less so if the Hurricanes figured that it was going to be a fight to get him on board for the 2007-08 season. School means a lot to Johnson pere, a collegiate hockey and football player in his day. (Videos of him dancing at games pop up on YouTube.)


Jack isn't the bad actor that the Canadian puck media might have you believe--a wild card, yes, a bad kid, no. That JJ might stick around in school next season ... well, he'd leave a lot of money on the table, but he has already done that once. And would they want his father to dance at Kings' games?

Other observations off the world juniors:

Two very different stories from the University of North Dakota. Jonathan Toews, Chicago's first-rounder in 2006, third overall, was Canada's and the tournament's best player, a small surprise given that he had been playing subpar and that his season was nothing special prior to the under-20s. If Chicago is in the hunt for a playoff spot, he might be useful to have around. On the flipside, UND defenceman Brian Lee, the Senators' first-rounder (9th overall) in 2005, did little to impress with the US team and, by a lot of scouts' reckoning, played scared against Canada in the semi-final. Hard to see how he cracks Ottawa's line-up anytime soon.


The US team was as good as any at the under-20s, but in a column for espn.com I made the case that it wasn't as good as it could have and should have been.


I had a note from one former US u-20 player who said the criticisms were right on. He wrote that he hopes "changes will be made and the selections will be made fairer." USA Hockey got it right when Mike Eaves and some other first-rate folks were involved. But short of some major personnel and attitude changes, I just see more of the same.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Pink-slipped scouts and their Whack-job owners

A few things fly under the NHL media radar. Things that are significant in the operation of the franchises but aren't as sexy as a trade rumour. Things that don't even show up under "Transactions" in the agate copy. So here's a bit of news that was either un- or under-reported this last few weeks.

Hours (or maybe an hour) before the world under-20 final between Canada and Russia most members of the LA Kings scouting staff (including those on-site in Sweden) were pink-slipped, effective immediately. Personnel changes in scouting departments aren't up there with solar eclipses--they happen pretty routinely and last off-season there was more movement than usual. But in-season--and particularly in-the-middle-of-the-season--personnel changes are out of the box. Granted, Dean Lombardi took over the GM's job prior to the season and every new GM likes to bring in his own crew for scouting. But changes are made usually in the first week in July. (Scouts sign contracts that go draft to draft, July 1 to June 30 the year following and few have terms longer than 52 weeks.) This move one came out of the blue. I was having breakfast with one of their scouts a couple of days before and there were no intimations that he was dancing on the edge of Lombardi's razor. It's not like the Anze Kopitar isn't working out. Far from it.

I keep wondering if the league is going to see an overhaul in the scouting operations of teams. One of the bigger and thoroughly under-reported stories of the season went down last summer. Even harder to figure than the Kings' purge. To the amazement of every scout in the biz the Buffalo Sabres gutted their scouting department last July. Out went Jim Benning, their head amateur guy. Out went Don Luce, who had drawn a paycheque from the Sabres for 30 plus years, just about the most loyal employee they had. Others were let go as well. Remarkable stuff because the Sabres' draft record has been arguably the best in the NHL and their amateur scouting has been a crucial--if not the crucial factor--in the team's climb to the league's top echelon. Remarkable because this team made it to within a game of the Stanley Cup final and provided the most entertaining brand of the game extant. No need to worry about the principals Benning landed in Boston and could have found work almost anywhere, such is his respect around the loop. Luce for his part landed with Philly. But what does it say about the management principals if these pros were axed--and, moreover, essentially not replaced.

Thje story gained almost no notice, not even in Buffalo. (It went down just as Briere's arb ruling was being handed down.)

Backstory: Tom Golisano, the supposed white knight who bailed the Sabres out of bankruptcy and pulled the franchise out of the shadow of an owner last seen doing the perp walk, ordered massive cuts in the scouting budget. Tough for Darcy Regier to pull off seeing as the Sabres' scouting department had been chipped away at for several years and, compared to other organizations, was already being run on a shoestring. Golisano decided that he'd like to save the cost of the Sabres' scouting department, 1-mil to 1.5-mil (the going price for a pretty mediocre journeyman these days, a decent fraction of a playoff gate). This from a guy who blew eight figures of his own wad financing two NY gubernatorial bids that didn't net a vote--he was working with a lousy candidate though, that being his own self.

The word from on high: Do everything you were doing before (finding good players, making shrewd picks) but now with no money. So the Sabres--who had already cut travel to the nubbins--are going to ride on a skeleton staff, scouting from video, NHL Central Scouting dope and the power of prayer. Can't imagine that Darcy Regier likes the idea (but there was probably no hope of taking a stand against Golisano). Telling line from one scout who talked to the other day: "We better hope that Buffalo [screws] up and fast or we're all gonna be out of jobs."

Late, incoming footnote: A few hours after I posted this, the Sabres announced a hike in ticket prices for next season, citing increased operating costs.


I recently wrote a piece for espn.com about a famous old baseball scout who was pink-slipped late in life. I've had some nice feedback about it and it was probably the most soul-testing piece I ever had to report and write.


Saturday, January 20, 2007

Prisoner of Oshawa: Tavares's four-year sentence to junior

No sooner than I post this media-ignores-junior-hockey post than I see the Toronto Star with a sports-front-page story on John Tavares, the Oshawa Generals phenom.


Interesting that the Star has JT up high on the day of the Leafs tripping in to Pittsburgh for a clash with Baby Jesus and the Fuzzy-Cheeked Acolytes. Praise be to The Star.

A couple of interesting points.

The Star's Dave Feschuk wrote: There are those who will tell you he's got the skating ability of Joe Schmoe, that he's average on his blades at best. ("If he's slow," scoffs [Oshawa coach Brad] Selwood, "I hate to see him when he's fast.")

The skating knock: It's a reasonable observation but with qualification. His skating is not a strength at this point--but at 16 he's not close to physical maturity. It will surely improve when he fills out and gets stronger. Right now, it's a little early for him to be hitting the weight room, working on plyometrics and doing stuff that will yield a more explosive first stride. A comparable case would be Jason Spezza, also an early entrant to junior, though more play-maker than finisher and much bigger than Tavares at 15. JS and his skating had knockers as his (long) junior career played out--Jacques Martin and the "men's league" come on down--but it's not an issue at the next level. No reason to think it will be with Tavares.

I spoke with one coach who worked with Tavares (not in the OHL). Said the coach: "Best natural, pure finisher I've seen." This coach, who has worked with a few guys who've gone to the NHL and who is used to working with 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds, was saying this about a guy who hadn't turned 16 yet.

I think that with Tavares and others in their brackets, you should look at "qualifiers" not "disqualifiers." Finishing is a skill that's hard to improve on, skating much less so. In fact, it's reasonable to presume that his skating will improve if nature just unfolds--that is, even if he has only an average work ethic (and by the testimony of those who know, he works pretty damn hard).

I saw Tavares and the Generals against Sarnia a few weeks back. Sarnia's rookie, Steven Stamkos, was the first pick in last spring's O entry draft (the draft Tavares would have been in had the league not offered him early entry). Sarnia smoked the Gens (probably the low point of their season). Stamkos had a great game with better support around him--you could see this bugged Tavares to no end. NHL scouts just light up when you mention Stamkos's name. They do for Tavares as well, don't get me wrong. Though Stamkos might be less of a pure scorer than Tavares (might, I repeat) he's a much more fluid skater. Stamkos breaks out of jail (i.e., is NHL draft eligible) a year ahead of Tavares, who has to wait until 2009, cruel and inhuman punishment.

A year begins ... in the middle of the season

First, an apology. I fully intended to start this blog January 1. But hardware problems pushed back the launch. (On January 1 my old unit melted down and seeing I was in Tallberg, small-town Sweden, there was no hope of support beyond Divine Intervention, a program I opted out of years back.) So this calendar year starts not quite three weeks in but I've spent my time wisely, gathering thoughts and keeping my eyes and ears open.

I write about many things but mostly sports and of the sports I write I focus mainly on hockey. This blog will mainly be about hockey. I'll grant myself the license to branch out every now and then, but if you bookmark this, expect stuff from cold, dumpy arenas.

It's always been my belief that editors of magazines and newspapers and television producers concentrate on the NHL to the absolute exclusion of the feeder systems to the highest level of the game. Look at the arrival of Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin in the NHL--a majority of puck scribes had not laid an eye on either of them beyond, say, highlights of the world juniors during the NHL shut-down. That has nothing to do with public tastes--when Crosby was 17 I was on of about 15,000 watching him against the Remparts one night in Quebec City. And that certainly has nothing to do with what passes for a professional interest in the game--by the time Crosby and Ovechkin played (as under-agers) in IIHF under-18 tournaments every scout, general manager and agent knew exactly who they were and wanted to dope out their games.

The way the major media cover hockey reflects the taste of sportswriters of a certain vintage and certain tastes. They like the NHL because they can stay on the well-beaten track and collect Mariott Points and airmiles with maximum creature comforts. To me that's like covering the PM (or, for our American brothers, POTUS) and wilfully ignoring Parliament, the Supreme Court, provincial legislatures and regional governments (or, for our neighbours, both houses of Congress, SCOTUS, state houses and mayors and the like).

In politics and in the arts, in business and the sciences, the grass-roots get their due. Even in other sports the grass-roots get play. Fact is, maybe the grass-roots get more play than ever before in other sports. Look at high-school basketball in the US--it's blowing up in the media, getting feature treatment in major outlets, US national rankings, national preview issues, the take-off of scouts.com and other recruiting sites, the works. And yet in hockey--in Canada, the self-proclaimed heartland of the game--you're hard-pressed to find a hockey beat writer or columnist who has gone to to a junior game this season. Or in many seasons. And if you to the US you'll cross hockey writers who've never been to a junior game or a NCAA contest. (Fact is, in the US, you'll cross hockey writers who cover Joe Sakic yet couldn't tell you which province the Swift Current Broncos play in.)

By the time of my computer-glitchridden trip to Sweden I had taken in two dozen junior contests this winter, just as a work-up for the world juniors. Not a burden, mind you. Lots of them were entertainment that made the NHL version (especially down at the foot of Bay Street) pale by comparison. And in the space of 10 days at the under-20s I saw more high-entertainment games than a NHL beat guy would eyeball in a month (or likely more). So the best thing I can do for you the reader is to give you a heads-up on who's coming--you know, just so you know when another Crosby or Ovechkin is in the chute even if the media puck-arounds are completely clueless. You can be in the loop even if the experts are in the dark (with eye shades on and ear plugs in).

So in coming days, some observations on a few incoming, including Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Bobby Ryan, John Tavares and others. Of course, it won't be all sunshine. It's going to take me a couple of days to come up with something nice about some WHL games I caught last month ("dreary" doesn't start to cover it).