Structure, style and chaos

Ryerson in blue, Queen's in gold

After a few minutes of watching an Ontario University Athletics game Friday night, I got the sense of why the players involved never did make the pros. The quality of hockey was exceptional, much better than I’d been used to watching my own university team in British Columbia, in a rink so small that the penalty boxes lacked any barrier from the rowdy bleacher creatures.

Maple Leaf Gardens, or whatever they’re calling it, is a good place to watch a hockey game. It’s a very modern facility, and good for visiting players taking a penalty, who won’t have beer cans thrown at them like one unlucky player at our home rink in BC. There aren’t enough sloping seats to make the rink feel desolate if nobody showed up, and with two student sections, one on either side of the ice, it was a very rowdy atmosphere.

The major difference between this level, and watching a Major Junior or National League game, is that each player is so well-tuned into the system. These weren’t the stars of Junior A or Major Junior teams, but grinders and fourth liners, the players who need to adhere perfectly to the system, work out daily in the offseason and provide all the intangible qualities that coaches love. Without the hard work they put in, they probably wouldn’t have had a roster spot on their junior teams.

There couldn’t have been more than two or three chances in the first two period that were created from an actual offensive play or a defensive breakdown. They came off lucky breaks—one 2-on-1 was created off a blind bank pass that ended up right on the forward’s stick—and rebounds.

Again, the quality of hockey was excellent. I don’t think I saw either team try a dump-and-chase. It was an endless sequence of 3-on-2s and extended offensive possessions. There was some good physical play, and, oddly, the biggest guys were also the offensive threats. There wasn’t that small talented guy on the ice who could deke through a couple of players and get a shot away. He’s gone on to play pro somewhere, leaving the Canadian university circuit with the disciplined, strong characters who know structure over style.

***

Anyway, it was 4-1 for Queen’s at the second break. The Ryerson Rams’ starting goalie, Troy Passingham, was pulled after the first intermission, allowing three goals on 14 shots. The Rams have heavily outshot the Queen’s Golden Gaels 34-19 through the first 40. Despite the home team being down by three, a majority of the students stayed rather than head out to get drunk on a Friday night at one of the many, many popular establishments around the Yonge and College intersection in Toronto.

The modernized Maple Leaf Gardens kept the old outside facade.

The first thing I noticed about the third period, whether it was Ryerson fighting back or just the players’ commitment to endurance not as strong as I had thought, was more breakdowns. The strong, physical defence, conservative forechecking and timid forward play inside the circles was replaced by a more desperate, or tired, style.

But these players aren’t used to this type of game, where the puck can turn on a dime and there’s a little bit more space out there. You’ll never seen a junior player take risks unless he’s sure that his roster spot is secure next season. Junior players have more traditionally defined roles than professional players. It doesn’t just vary by the type of game a player has, whether he’s a checker, scorer or grinder, but also by age. Need a 1993-born checker? There’s a team in your league that has a surplus. Depth players on junior squads are shuttled in and out of town before they can really grow accustomed to the nightlife of the small town they’ve come to represent.

So when Ryerson’s Dustin Alcock strips Stephane Chabot of the puck to come in on a clean shorthanded break just three minutes into the third period, whatever was going through his mind wasn’t “I’ve done this 100 times before.” Alcock is listed at 6’2″ and 225 lbs by the Rams. A quick search of Hockey DB shows that he played for the Hamilton Red Wings and the Oakville Blades of the OJHL. He scored 24 goals and 25 goals in his last two seasons of Junior A, but just 14 times in his two years of university hockey coming into this game.

Nevertheless, his shot was sloppy, but it was effective. No deke, no head-fake, just a smooth short-side effort which looked to go under the glove of Golden Gael goaltender Riley Whitlock. It was the first clean offensive opportunity of the night for Ryerson, the first clean break in the otherwise impregnable Queen’s structure. A sloppy giveaway, and Chabot head back to the bench as slowly as he could. Chabot is currently in his fourth year in the OUA after playing three seasons in Major Junior with Brampton and Kingston, but couldn’t find a place in the OHL for his overage season, so went down a level to Junior A.

Right after, the mistakes pick up. Michael Fine, another big Ram, listed at 5’11″-200, although this doesn’t qualify as “big” in hockey circles anymore, deked around one man and feathered a soft pass to an open side. Fine was lucky to be good enough to play his overage season in the OHL with Saginaw after seasons with Sault Ste. Marie and Kingston, scoring just 22 goals that year. The recipient of the pass, however, Andrew Buck, was never much of a scorer with Newmarket in Junior A. Buck’s re-direct off the pass found a shin pad.

A few more Ryerson passes miss the mark, and what kept Queen’s from conceding another goal at this point was that the ice is not only giving in some places, but that they’ve changed their defensive strategy to protect the net instead of stopping men upon zone entry. They were either worn down physically by the disproportionate amount of time spent in their own zone, or the strain of a long hockey game shows another advantage pro players have over university players: Endurance.

***

4-2, and the onslaught continued. Jamie Haines, who played with Fine in the Soo alongside future NHLers Wayne Simmonds and Dustin Jeffrey, is showing that he can play a good game of keep away when he isn’t facing constant defensive pressure. With a little bit of give from the Golden Gaels, Haines kept a puck in at the right point and took it past two defenders to bring the play—and two more defenders—far to the left wing. His shot on goal hit the mark, but Fine can’t convert the rebound on the doorstep. Was this a display of Fine’s own lack of finishing ability, or just single-game variance? To my count, six goals had been scored in this game, and just one off of a rebound, despite several opportunities and pucks over sticks close to the crease.

Haines again created a 2-on-1, taking advantage of a slow Queen’s defender on a back check. But Buck couldn’t convert on the play. Luckily for Ryerson, they draw a penalty on the play. On the ensuing powerplay, it’s Fine showing off his passing ability, with a beautiful cross-ice pass from the top of the right circle to the left goal-mouth. Mark Corbett, a defenceman who scored just six goals in 107 games of Junior A, activated himself and went to the net with no Gael defender seeming to care. He isn’t tapped it home. Again, Queen’s is used to focusing on the forwards, not the defencemen who had stayed home in the first 50 minutes.

That goal pulled Ryerson to within one, with the shots were wildly in their favour. With still 10 minutes to go in the third period, the Rams pulled off a little bit, no doubt expecting that if “we just stick our game”, the chances will come.

It took about five more minutes for the Rams to get another scoring chance. It was Michael Fine again, and the shots were 42-22 at that point, but Fine couldn’t get the tying goal. Him, and a line mate on the same shift, fell over from minimal stick contact. Either at that point they were trying to draw a penalty, or their legs just weren’t used to the extra ice-time from playing so much due to the team’s deficit. In Junior, in university, you’ll still play your designated scorers when you need them, regardless of how talented they really are, it’s the roles they’ve been afforded. Fine was on the ice every second shift, it seemed, while Jason McDonough, Andrew Buck and Greg Payne were the other three Rams forwards to see significant ice when the team had a two-goal deficit.

At 4-3, it’s less urgent, but when the clock hit five minutes, the game descended into chaos. Slow developing, sloppy chances resulted on both sides, none were considered reasonably dangerous until Queen’s captain Patrick McGillis took a feed from his line mate Joey Derochie. Ryerson got the save from their backup they didn’t get from their starter, as Steve Gleeson dove across with his right pad to rob McGillis of a sure goal. With the puck again, the Rams get a 4-on-2. Haines, Fine, Alcock and another former OHL defenceman named Brian Birkhoff. Though the game was chaotic, it was better aesthetically when the game played to the strengths of the players. With the open 4-on-2, you’d expect a goal, a scoring chance, at least an attempt at net. But Haines’ pass ruffles into the corner. The closest the Rams got on the play is a weak Birkhoff shot from the left point that hit a shin pad and bounced inches wide of the net.

Queen’s began to block harder shots. The Rams instinctively stopped trying to stickhandle or pass the puck into the scoring chance area. Now they’d try to shoot. The first victim is Tyler Moore, a 22-year old from Manitoba who never played in the Western League, despite the best fundamental blocked shot on the night. As he limped to the bench, the Rams regrouped, former Guelph defenceman David Searle, one junior goal to his name, tried another shot. That one bounces out again off a shin pad, and Andrew Buck took Ryerson’s 47th shot on the night. Whitlock misplayed the puck, but the rebound didn’t find any Rams sticks and harmlessly bounced over two of them and out of the danger area.

***

That would be Ryerson’s last chance to tie it up. Queen’s scored an empty net goal with 1:07 to play, and despite the third period comeback falling short, it was a thoroughly entertaining game. When the game broke down and got desperate, there wasn’t a natural goal-scorer there to grab a hold of the game, there were elements in this game that made it unlike any other I’d seen. There were elements of perfection in the execution of the basic fundamentals and Xs and Os, but there can’t be a game, hockey, baseball, chess, where both players are perfect. Chaos is necessary for the game to progress.