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.

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.