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 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?