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.

Friday, January 26, 2007

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.