Archive for the ‘National Hockey League’ Category

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It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which losing six games in a row could be positive, but with the Toronto Maple Leafs currently stuck in a four-way tie for the two Wild Card playoff entries, the half dozen straight defeats that led the team to this point seem especially horrific.

On Tuesday night, Toronto suffered its most recent failure, losing 5-3 to the St. Louis Blues. Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf struggled mightily throughout the game, not unfairly tagged as a primary accomplice to his team being outshot 49-25.

It was a bad day at the office, and as a result, the defenseman opted out of his obligation to speak to the media following the loss. This, to the many pundits who weighed in following Phaneuf’s no-show, represented an atrocious lack of leadership, and partly explained Toronto’s recent struggles.

Things came to a head on Wednesday when Phaneuf phoned in to a local sports talk radio show to explain himself, after one of the hosts ranted about the player’s notable absence following his poor performance.

To be completely honest with you, I was emotional about the game. I didn’t want to let my emotions get the best of me. I feel bad about not being available. At that point in time, I was disappointed in the way that I played and I was emotional after the game. That’s why I did not talk.

As sports fans, we grow to accept the flawed “conventional wisdom” force fed to us by years of following our favorite players and teams through newspapers, television and radio.

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hockeyfight

I love baseball. The way that talent mixes with randomness to consistently deliver exciting outcomes is almost perfect to me. It’s a social sport, with a slow pace that lends itself to conversation. It’s my favorite by a good measure.

I really like soccer, too. There are few vicarious moments that allow me to lose myself as completely as the build up to a potential goal in soccer. Football is fun to watch on Sundays, but if I’m honest with myself I’m just as likely to use it as an excuse for afternoon beers and unhealthy food as I am to thoroughly enjoy a contest. Basketball is like a people aquarium to me. It’s something I’ll keep on in the background and check into from time to time, but it doesn’t grab me the way that other sports do.

I’m too old to argue that my order of preference to sports is better than anyone else’s, and I only bring this bit of self-indulgence up as a means of comparing my relationship with other sports to hockey. I’m a casual fan. I’ll follow from the periphery during the regular season, spending the odd Saturday night – when there’s nothing better to do – in front of the television to watch a game. During the playoffs, I’m a bit more active. I’ll follow along with late night highlight packages in the early rounds, watch elimination games and pay close attention during the Stanley Cup Finals.

On Tuesday night, the 2013/2014 NHL season opened, and in the marquee matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens, a fight – the second of the night between Colton Orr and George Parros – broke out.

This is nothing new. These two players are employed by their respective teams in the unofficial role of enforcer. They’re both in the business of ice hockey fighting. What is new, or at least rare (a similar incident happened last year to Orr, who at the time, was once again performing a duet with Parros), is that the fight concluded with Parros missing a punch, falling, and landing chin first on the ice.

The Canadiens tough guy was eventually stretchered off the ice and taken to hospital, where he was unsurprisingly diagnosed with a concussion. There are few ways of better understanding the term blood curdling than to see a grown man attempt to pick himself up and fail after suffering a significant blow. Reduced to a fumbling fawn by violence, Parros was without pride, recumbent on the ice.

This was the lasting image for many who shared their outrage the next day. The first wave of which questioned the role of fighting in hockey, the second questioned those questioning it. Claims that hockey fighting was absurd were countered with arguments ranging from exaggerations on the importance of momentum to claims that the removal of fighting would lessen the entertainment of the game. And on and on it went throughout the week, and it continues even now.

The arguments are largely futile, only serving to further entrench two sides in a fruitless debate. I’m typically hesitant to express much when it comes to hockey, specifically because I don’t know it as well as most. I’m a casual fan of the game. I understand its virtues and I comprehend its challenges, but I’m not too interested in investigating either. I’m a Canadian who prefers the pastime of my Southern neighbor, not a general columnist attempting to feign expertise on a subject about which he knows little.

I’m even less eager to enter a fray in which both sides have reduced opposing viewpoints to the most base stereotypes. Anyone in favor of hockey fighting is an underdeveloped Australopithecus. Those who despise punch-fights on ice are presumed to house a collection of Baby Butterscotch Magical Show Ponies in a prominent position at their abode – they’re only taken out of the case above the mantle to be brushed, and then they’re returned.

Nonetheless, I began to wonder if both sides in the debate weren’t a bit too dependent on group think in their analysis, sheltered by their own social media feeds and failing to consider how it all seems to an outsider. For once, I thought, maybe the voice of the non-expert might provide some value.

I’m not trying to convince anyone or make someone see things my way. I have no scorer in this shootout. I merely want to share my thought process in coming to the conclusion that I have in the hopes that it provides something of value to the discussion. I don’t like fighting in hockey, but the last thing I want is for someone else who doesn’t like it to point to this, and use it against someone who does. That’s not the purpose of this. I’m not a hockey expert by any means. I’m a casual fan of the sport, and this is how I feel.

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2013 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game SixImagine how frustrating it would be for a knowledgeable general medical practitioner to pick up a copy of his or her favorite medical journal and read an article extolling the virtues of the humoral theory. Put yourself in a lab coat and pretend there’s a stethoscope resting around your neck as you peruse text proposing that when the four humors – blood, phlegm, black and yellow bile – are in balance, good health is guaranteed. It would be absolutely maddening to read claims that an imbalance in the humors is at the root of sickness.

The existence of more effective measures doesn’t always guarantee the use of more effective measures. While the specific example of a doctor practicing humoral medicine in the 21st Century would likely result in several malpractice lawsuits, our predilection for doing things not by the best means but rather the most familiar continues on a smaller scale that seldom ends up a matter for a court of law, or of life and death.

Consider the relatively unimportant endeavor of sports. When we talk about athletes, our conversations often lead toward opinions on their ranking. Player A is better than Player B because Player A does this. No, you’re an idiot for thinking Player A is better than Player B because Player B has this number of whatevers, and Player A only has that many. And so the world of sports “discussion” turns.

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Toronto Maple Leafs Head Coach Randy Carlyle Gives Press ConferenceSomething happened when the Toronto Maple Leafs hired Brian Burke on November 29, 2008, that went beyond the change in organizational philosophy that typically accompanies a new front-office regime in professional sports. Burke, whose abilities to articulate are well matched with his impulse to express himself, became the fabled face of the franchise.

The face of the franchise. It’s a funny phrase that’s probably more frequently used by sports talk radio shows than anyone with anything to do with a professional team, but it suggests that fans are prone to assigning someone from the ranks with the role as the representative of the entire club. This isn’t usually a conscious decision, and it’s exceedingly rare for a fan base to anoint a general manager with such a potentially hazardous oil. We’re far more likely to pick a player – someone on the field, court or rink of play – as the person through whom we live out our sports-based fantasies.

However, Burke’s justified extroverted tendencies combined with an exceedingly engaged group of supporters and a roster that – let’s be honest – didn’t have a lot of players with whom fans would naturally choose to identify, placed the head of the Maple Leafs front office in a position which few professional sports executives find themselves. Even after making notable acquisitions to that roster, it was largely thought of as Burke’s team. Even as fans mocked terms like truculence, there was an implicit understanding that Burke was the figurehead most closely identified with the organization that they supported through so many years in the wilderness.

After four more, even as a version of the promised land appeared on the horizon, Burke’s status as president, general manager and face of the franchise ceased to be.

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ricochetSpending all day – every day – immersed in sports is a bit like working at Pizza Hut and eating nothing but pizza. If one is unburdened by such matters as personal health and waistline size, pizza is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, too much of a wonderful thing is likely to leave one no longer believing the wonderful thing to be all that wonderful.

Sports are really, really great. However, the more time you spend reading and writing about a topic, the greater the chance its ugly little cracks and cobwebs will begin to emerge. This is why, over time, the focus of writers and fans alike becomes embittered by the more negative aspects of sports. The cheating. The discrimination. The exploitation. The inequality. It becomes overwhelming. We forget why sports are so great, and why they fascinated us long before we grew caustic to what they could offer. And so, that’s where The Week In Sports Happiness enters.

Every week, I’ll present the ten things that are making me happy from the world of sports. It might be an inspiring story, it could be a winning streak, it may even be an animated GIF. No matter what, it’s from sports, it made me feel good inside, and I hope it does the same for you.

So, without further ado, sports the good:

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If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away.

- Henry David Thoreau

There is an eleven-year-old girl to whom I look up. Her name is Keila Penner, and she lives in Lachine, Quebec, a fifteen minute drive from Montreal. Penner is a fan of the Ottawa Senators, which is somewhat uncommon, considering that the franchise has only been around since 1992, and she lives near Montreal where the Canadiens play hockey. Les Habitants have been a professional hockey franchise since 1909, and have won the Stanley Cup 24 times, which is more than any other team.

Outsiders often compare Montreal’s devotion to Le Bleu-Blanc-Rouge to a religion, but there is no denomination of followers so fervently aligned, while simultaneously critical and suspicious of every edict that comes to be promoted as truth. La Sainte-Flanelle are more like a sometimes-benevolent dictatorship of culture. After all, there is no blind faith in the team, fans demand to see evidence instead of trusting in the unseen. However, there is uniformity in the following.

Or, at least assumed uniformity.

With the Canadiens and Senators set to battle in a first round playoff battle, Penner’s school decided to hold a “Habs Day” event in which students were encouraged to dress in the local hockey team’s gear. Not only did Penner wear a Senators jersey to school that day, she refused to take it off when confronted by teachers. She was, in turn, sent home by the school.

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portlandtimberSpending all day – every day – immersed in sports is a bit like working at Pizza Hut and eating nothing but pizza. If one is unburdened by such matters as personal health and waistline size, pizza is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, too much of a wonderful thing is likely to leave one no longer believing the wonderful thing to be all that wonderful.

Sports are really, really great. However, the more time you spend reading and writing about a topic, the greater the chance its ugly little cracks and cobwebs will begin to emerge. This is why, over time, the focus of writers and fans alike becomes embittered by the more negative aspects of sports. The cheating. The discrimination. The exploitation. The inequality. It all becomes overwhelming. We forget why sports are so great, and why they fascinated us long before we grew caustic to what they could offer. And so, that’s where The Week In Sports Happiness comes into play.

Every week, I’ll present the ten things that are making me happy from the world of sports. It might be a particular article, it could be a winning streak, it may even be an animated GIF. No matter what, it’s from sports, it made me feel good inside, and I hope it does the same for you.

Without further ado, sports the good:

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