29 January 2007

Can people please stop bitching about the schedule?

to be posted at SportsBlurb.com and SportingNews.com

Enough already about the schedule.

Perhaps the biggest off-ice story in the NHL over the past week (besides the $450 price tag for a new official NHL robot-jersey) was that after a year of pillow-talk, the NHL finally decided to not alter the schedule for next year with the vote falling one short of official approval. There was everything short of absolute promises from the league to alter the schedule next year to insure that every team faced each other at least once, which would alleviate apparent concerns that not every fan had the opportunity to see every other team.

So now it’s my turn to moan about the NHL and their schedule but I'm apparently in the minority in that I don’t mind that the present schedule stays as is. I've never understood the outcry about the schedule in the first place. As a frequent critic of the regular season for other reasons (unnecessary length, best teams not rewarded come playoff time), anything that legitimizes the regular season and the (artificially created) divisions is a good thing. A good schedule is one that encourages and develops rivalries – therefore seeing a roughly balanced schedule with 30 teams in six divisions where each team plays every other team two or three times just doesn’t make sense. Why not just lump all 30 teams together, take the top 16 at the end of the regular season and have a standard bracket where the top team plays the worst? (…and no, I wouldn't endorse that either...)

Yes, some or most of the criticism involves the apparent desire of fans in the Western Conference cities to see
Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Washington's Alexander Ovechkin, but that's a convenient way to summarize the position using high-profile examples. If an unbalanced schedule means a Montreal Canadiens fan never gets to see their team play against Jarome Iginla or Joe Thornton – I say that’s just too bad. In that specific case I’d like to think there would be more interest in both the short and long term in seeing them battle the Bruins six or seven times and foster some good old hatred again.

But here’s the rub – why is it so difficult to find a compromise that works for everyone? There are 30 teams evenly distributed among six divisions. The present playoff format rewards you for winning your division, so to make it meaningful you need to play a bulk of games against the four other teams in your division. How about six games against each team in your division (24 total), three against each of the others in your conference (30), and two against each in the other conference (30). That would give you 84 games total. Everyone gets a home and home against every team in the other conference to see how the other half lives. And you still play nearly 65% of your games within your own conference, (which to me is necessary because that's who you're battling for playoff position with), including six games against each divisional opponent. To make it even better, make it only two against your other conference foes, dropping the schedule to a much more palatable 74. There - was that so hard?

Another frustrating (and somewhat controversial in some corners) aspect to the argument of schedule restructuring is the fact that, frankly, just not that many people are interested in a lot of the newer NHL markets. And to be clear, it’s not just crusty old-time hockey fans or diehard traditionalists (guilty-as-charged, somewhat…). For instance, last month during a Detroit/Columbus telecast the network posted the upcoming schedule for the Red Wings. They'd played Columbus twice in a row, and were about to play Minnesota three consecutive games and then Columbus again. The announcer himself said that no Wings fan wants to see Columbus three times and something about "that's not a way to sell tickets." Which begs the question…why did the NHL expand again?

And in the end, there's the hard truth: this entire debate about the schedule is – as always in the NHL – masking a deeper problem. I understand how 32 games against divisional opponents that aren't really rivals could feel oppressive and repetitive. But can't anyone see the inherent answer here? There are too many teams. You've heard it time and time again, but the fact remains: there are too many teams, and in too many markets that don’t draw interest either locally or nationally. With 30 teams it is impossible to satisfy all angles - you can't have a meaningful schedule that emphasizes rivalries because for every Montreal-Boston, Buffalo-Toronto, or Calgary-Edmonton series of games you have
Columbus-Nashville, Florida-Washington, or Anaheim-Phoenix. I apologize to diehard fans of those teams, because I personally know they exist. There just aren't many of them, and certainly not enough to make this entire grand "let's make the NHL all things to all people" experiment anything but a horrible waste of nearly 15 years. Amazing how the suits can't see the logic (or lack thereof) here, and only have cared about the initial franchise fees they get to divvy up. The NHL expanded into far too many markets that not only nobody else cares about, but can't even generate interest locally (Nashville, Phoenix, Florida, Atlanta, Carolina - before you jump down my throat at the Carolina reference, they had to give tickets away during last year’s playoffs and tried restricting sales to out-of-town fans). So now there are so-called "schedule problems" because teams want to see more rivals.

My compromise schedule idea above shows how to emphasize (or force) rivalries while still seeing every team in the league using the present 30 team league. I know I'm not alone in thinking this, but if the league were to contract (and strengthen) itself to 24 markets (hint: not all present markets) I can't see how it wouldn't be stronger.

Since I’ve completely moved into fantasy-land here, just for fun take a look at this hypothetical divisional setup, under a more reasonable expansion over the past 15 years and see if you can’t see some great rivalries. Each team plays each divisional rival six times, each other team three times, giving you 84 games. I'd prefer less, so you can toy with the scheduling a bit (divisonal rivals eight times, other teams play a home and home and you have a nice 76 game schedule). Again, this is one person's (me) idea of a potentially streamlined NHL (and i'm not referring to the Reebok 9% faster uniform) that could have had excitement and rivalries every night:


NY Rangers
NY Islanders
NJ Devils

St. Louis

Winnipeg (franchise move - take your pick)
San Jose
Los Angeles


UPDATE: that was my "kind" article. here's how i really feel, as posted on SportsFrog:

fuck. i tried to be nice (not really, but i say it anyways). fuck Bettman and his NHL. fuck it all. we need a fucking revolution. 30 teams? fuck you Gary - get lost. you win the Cup and you're giving away tickets during the final two rounds?? WHAT?? gone - sorry Carolina. First place in your division and you're in the bottom third of attendance? sorry Anaheim and Atlanta (we gave you your chance in the 70s, you had Dan Bouchard, and you fucked up then too.). Alexander Ofuckingvechkin is one of the most talented and exciting players to come around in anyone's lifetime and you're packing 'em in to 71% capacity? damn you Washington, damn you straight to hell. Best team in the NHL and you have a HIGHLY questionable 22nd-best attendance in Nashville, as you're giving away literally thousands of tickets every night? get. out.

I don't even care about league popularity - i don't. in fact, i much preferred it when the NHL was a select club - nobody knew about it except the diehards. oh, we'd gladly welcome any new members, no question. except you had to do it on our terms, our teams, our game. The problem is that in trying to win casual sports/entertainment fan respectability you sold US out. the diehards. the ones that thought nothing of avoiding all human contact during a Nordiques-Canadiens series. Stayed up late for the second half of a playoff doubleheader to see the white out under the Queen in Winnipeg. ORGAN music. no exploding scoreboards. no robotic uniforms. no commissioner to speak of.

ok, it's not 100% bad - some (a few) of the new markets can be legit. fine. 16 of 21 teams making the playoffs was pretty ridiculous, i grant you. So here's how my league looks after some contraction and movement. i thought about going easy and not putting a team in Quebec yet due to no new arena...but that's one of the traps, isn't it? Le Colisee was an ATMOSPHERE. something no new arena has that i've seen. Hello La Belle Province. Winnipeg gets it no questions asked since they do have an arena.


NY Rangers
NY Islanders
NJ Devils

St. Louis

Winnipeg (franchise move - take your pick from the missing)
San Jose
Los Angeles

Top 6 in each conference make the playoffs, with the 2 division winners getting 1st round byes.

We chop salaries in the first year by 25%, go fuck yourself if you don't like it Goodenow. Salaries for premier players will soon rise due to the market but overall they'll stay lower than present day simply because there are less (idiots) teams vying for services.

dammit. this league is gonna drive me to drink. it's all fucking marketing.

26 January 2007

Oshawa vs. Saginaw

Tonight's the night of the big Colbert bet:

meanwhile some guy named Tavares had seven points last night and scored his 50th goal in just his 44th game. Hopefully more to come tonight.

UPDATE: Saginaw wins 5-4. Toronto Star story:

The ice was littered in Saginaw, Mich., last night. The first projectiles were loose pages of the General Motors annual report. They were followed by a flurry of teddy bears. One account told of a plastic fish being tossed.

There was a hockey game last night between the Saginaw Spirit and Oshawa Generals. But the bizarre antics were the result of a bet, viewed by millions across North America.

The wager was between Stephen Colbert, the satirical host of The Colbert Report, and Oshawa mayor John Gray.

The terms were simple: If the Generals won, Colbert would wear a Generals jersey. If they lost, Oshawa would declare March 20, Gray's birthday, `Stephen Colbert Day.'

Colbert accepted the challenge on his show Thursday night.

With their 5-4 win over the Generals last night, the Spirit have ensured the American host will have his party in Oshawa.

"I'm always disappointed when the Gens lose," said Gray last night from a fan bus heading home. The mayor said he hoped to talk with Colbert's people on Monday to honour the bargain.

"We'll give him an open invitation," Gray added.

The Colbert Report's obsession with the OHL team began in September, when the Saginaw named their mini-mascot Steagle Colbeagle the Eagle, after the show launched an aggressive Internet campaign asking fans to vote for the name. Since then, the show has featured regular updates on the team's progress.

When Oshawa held their Teddy Bear Toss last month against Mississauga, Colbert feigned offence since his show contends bears are the "number one threat to America." In retaliation, Colbert posted a link to GM's annual report on his website and asked fans to toss it at the Generals, who are named after the car manufacturer.

25 January 2007

Guest Post: "And Then Sidney Crosby Met Reality"

Today's guest post comes courtesy of SportsFrog.com Hall Of Famer Scottie, who put his unique and highly intelligent spin on Crosby's "shutout" in last night's All-Star Game. Reposted (cribbed) here from the original at The Swamp:

When Wayne Gretzky was a kid playing in his first NHL All-Star game, the NHL's best did the exact same thing to him. They shut him out, shunned him.

Make no mistake . . . this was a loud and clear message. No points.

Make no mistake.

At any level of hockey there are men who have paid the price and devoted their lives to this game. There are people who have spilled their blood and broken their bones in the name of winning. Some have won, some have not. Few hoist Lord Stanley's metal. Many attacked the very idea of even making it to the NHL with every bone in their body only to be told they never had a chance. Anguish is a dream denied.

And then a 19-year old kid who has never won any NHL hardware comes along and, no fault of his own, the NHL hypes him beyond far too much. He becomes suddenly the poster kid for the very All Star shirts they are wearing. Golden Boy. Unproven assumed savior. You can safely blame Bettman, Reebok, and the Love Of Money.

Did you really expect a vet like (oh, let's say) Brendan Shanahan to set him up for easy goals so the game can be all about The Boy Wonder? So Sid can go out and get 4 goals and 5 assists and be All-Star MVP at the age of 19 making the NHL even more Crosby-centric? No way. Not in our game. No. That doesn't happen in hockey. Hockey does not give away legacies on the cheap.

The message was clear. You must know your place. Wanna be in the Pantheon? Earn it. You're good. You're damned good. We even like you. But there are guys out here that are damned good, too. And you just haven't earned it yet, baby.

Don't get me wrong. At the end of the day Sidney Crosby is one of those guys that NHL players consider to be good people; exceptionally good people in fact. He's almost impossible to dislike as a person. Yet perceived flawlessness inevitably conceives contempt; some will hate him just because he is who he is. Consider Dany Heatley, who killed his best friend and has fought through that personal hell to become one of the best living players. Heatley was never going to play supporting role for the hype, not after all of his own battles. Heatley is viciously scarred, and therefore not flawless. You see it in his face every night. But he has earned NHL respect. And over the All Star Celebration nights in Dallas, Heatley did not say a single word to Crosby. Nothing. This is experience glaring at possibility. This is one person forced to be matured beyond their years sizing up another person forced to be matured beyond their years. In an announcers' booth far enough above the ice surface Mark Messier and Brett Hull brazenly pronounce Crosby as The Next. Down on the ice, this message is unheard by many who are far from finished the writing of their own personal epics.

There was no way they were going to turn this into the Crosby Show. No way.

Not yet. Not until you win a few.

The NHL's best did this to Gretzky in his first All-Star game, too. But he worked out to be a half decent player. Being brilliant, he saw the lesson and learned.

The message will not be lost on Sid. In fact, I'd wager it was clear to him early in the first period. And he'll learn. And he'll understand much deeper just how ephemeral and tenuous being larger than life actually is. He's as close as a 19-year old can get to understanding. But he's not there. No. The lesson is that you are an individual. You are alone. You are vulnerable. And rising to the greatest heights is one helluva long and hard-fought road. And no matter what industry you are in, if you have better skills than most people in that industry, they will try to bring you down. Or at least make you prove undoubtedly worthy of your build up. That's life. Ovechkin got the cold shoulder, too. And Malkin the night before.

He hasn't earned it yet. No. But he will. Count on it.

Briere drives away a new truck

...but this quote from the impending unrestricted free agent has to worry Sabre fans (and get the ears of John Muckler):

''It's really hard to explain but whenever we've played together we always have a real nice connection'' Briere said of his chemistry with Heatley.

His average salary for next year just jumped at least $1 million.

23 January 2007

Stephen Colbert vs. the Oshawa Generals

Colbert has been giving unprecedented publicity to the OHL this year, with the Saginaw Spirit naming their mascot after Colbert. Colbert has given frequent updates on the Spirit (while slagging on the rest of the teams) and last week was no exception:

from hfboards.com:
In December Oshawa was playing Saginaw and a bunch of people threw stuffed bears on the ice following a Generals' goal (Stephen hates bears). Stephen went on the Colbert Report and asked all fans that the next time they play Oshawa to throw the General Motors annual earnings report on the ice:

In response, mayor John Gray has proposed a challenge, which Colbert accepted. The Gens and Spirits play on Jan. 26th. If the Spirits win, John Gray will announce May 13th, Colbert's birthday, 'Stephen Colbert Day' in Oshawa. If the Generals win, Colbert will wear an Oshawa Generals jersey for an entire show.

Go Gens.

UPDATE: Here's a clip from Colbert back in October. "I guess Frontenac is French for: 'Bend over and take it, bitch!'" - I hope the OHL has taken note of this, they quite literally couldn't buy this kind of press.

22 January 2007

Buffalo possible site host for 2010 WJCs???

In Sunday's Buffalo News Bucky Gleason writes that Buffalo is on the radar for the World Juniors three years from now:

Buffalo on the map in 2010 for World Junior tournament


It would be premature for fans to get excited now, but the World Junior Championships could be coming to a town near you. USA Hockey confirmed last week that Buffalo would be on the list of cities as possible sites for 2010 if the tournament is held in the United States.

The possibility of having the most prestigious junior tournament here has been rumored for weeks in Western New York and beyond. It appears the U.S. hockey governing body will take a serious look at Buffalo because it's a very good hockey community that borders Canada.

USA Hockey spokesman Dave Fischer said last week that the International Ice Hockey Federation, which oversees the tournament, would first need to decide whether the 40-team tournament should shift to the United States in three or four years. That decision was expected during the world championships in late April and early May.

"I'm not surprised you've heard banter about the potential of the World Juniors coming to Buffalo," Fischer said by telephone last week. "Certainly, if we're able to secure the World Juniors from the IIHF, Buffalo would be in the running, but we're a long way from that happening."

USA Hockey called the Sabres, who immediately expressed interest in bringing the tournament to Buffalo. Managing partner Larry Quinn acknowledged any talk now would be preliminary. Still, Western New York has a way of rallying around events that become a focal point. It was held in Sweden this year.

"The next step would be putting together a good package and identifying potential locations across the U.S.," Fischer said. "Certainly, Buffalo is one that would be considered for many reasons, obviously [being] the great hockey community that it is and certainly its proximity to Canada."

The World Junior Championships have evolved into a 10-day festival in Canada. Games involving Canada are televised across the country. It received more local attention than usual this season because South Buffalo native Patrick Kane, expected to be a top five pick in the NHL draft, was among the best players in the tournament.

Grand Forks, N.D., was the last U.S. city to stage the World Junior Championships, which it did in 2005. They were mostly swallowed in Boston in 1996. Buffalo would seem a better fit. Detroit would be another good site for many of the same reasons.

One question about Buffalo would be where the games would be played. Obviously, HSBC Arena is capable of staging any hockey event. Several games would be suited for Rochester. Games of less interest could be moved to smaller venues, such as Niagara University, Buffalo State or perhaps Jamestown.

If the University at Buffalo had a Division I hockey program, as it should, there might already be an adequate arena in place. Yes, UB, that was a hint.

19 January 2007

All-Star Break - most disappointing players

Rather than come up with a list of midseason award-winners like everyone does, how about a mid-season shit list? This is hardly scientific - any/all suggestions welcome - here's my list of players from complete busts to merely disappointing...

Mark Bell - San Jose Sharks. Could this year be any worse for him? I have no sympathy for this so-called Man of the Year. Schmuck. He ruined me in my "experts" league (of course I'm in last place SOLELY because of him. yeah.). Seriously though, his trade to SJ looked to be the perfect move for him to ascend to star status - having buried 25 goals on a crappy Chicago team last year, putting him on a line with either Patrick Marleau or Joe Thornton should have placed him in 30 goal plus territory. Instead a terrible off-season incident followed by a thus-far six-goal output that has found him stuck in more of a plugger-role (whereas whizkid Ryane Clowe has become the new hot Sharks winger).

Dan Cloutier - Los Angeles Kings. Coming off a lucrative off-season deal that brought him to Los Angeles, Cloutier perhaps singlehandedly put the Kings out of playoff contention in the first half. With an .860 save percentage and 3.98 goals-against (40th and worst among all qualifying goaltenders in the entire league), it looks even worse when put up against teammate Matthew Garon's numbers (.904, 2.80), showing that it's not just the team in front of him. With merely league-average goaltending the Kings could be in the thick of the playoff hunt rather than a likely seller by the trade deadline; Cloutier's hip surgery which will likely keep him out for the season is a merciful ending to a year he'd rather forget.

Kyle Calder - Philadelphia Flyers. On paper this looked like it could be a good move for the Flyers; while giving up the reliable Michael Handzus, Calder had been trapped in a bad organization yet managed 26 goals last year and is two years younger than Handzus. Instead it took him until December 13th to score his first goal and is currently 788th in the league (dead last) in +/- at a horrible -27.

Joni Pitkanen - Philadelphia Flyers. Only a year ago he was in the mix of those ready to join the elite class of 2-way defencemen in the league. Instead this year with only 1 goal and a -23 rating (second-worst of 788 players) he is yet another Flyer having a season to forget.

Joffrey Lupul - The Oilers' primary take from the Chris Pronger deal, he was supposed to be a perfect addition to the Oilers stable of young fast snipers. 13 goals has to be a bit of a disappointment off the 28 last year and his -16 is rough.

Paul Mara - I thought this was going to be a great move by Boston, jettisoning the overmatched and sluggish Nick Boynton for the quicker 2-way play of Mara. Boynton has been plodding for the 'Yotes but Mara has not been the big improvement hoped for. 16 points and a terrible -12 rating sound more like Boynton numbers.

Petr Nedved - Philadelphia/Edmonton. Why there was an apparent controversy in trying to claim the once-dangerous sniper is beyond me; Nedved compiled a -20 rating in only 21 games for the Flyers this season, which was too much even for them. At least the Senators and Oilers were competing for his services, which Edmonton "won" to the tune of four points in eight games thus far. It has been at least four years since he was anything approaching an offensive threat, and barring a surprising turnaround his career appears on its last legs.

Petr Prucha - New York Rangers. Coming off a 30-goal rookie season, Prucha needs to do a lot to prove he wasn't a first-season wonder, only tallying ten goals to date for a .500 club in desparate need of depth scoring.

Jose Theodore - Colorado Avalanche. File this under two-time bust, as over the past year he has lost his starting job on not one but two NHL clubs - first to Cristobal Huet in Montreal and now apparently to Peter Budaj in Colorado. The "we-must-rebuild-him" experiment should be over in Denver, $5 million contract or not.

Sergei SamsonovMontreal Canadiens. Seven goals in 48 games isn’t anywhere near what Habs fans envisioned. As both a recent recipient of third-line and press box duties, Samsonov seems done in Montreal and at a career crossroads.

The next list of players can't necessarily be considered as busts, but based on last year's output they've definitely taken a step backwards rather than ascending to - or remaining at - star status.

Simon Gagne - Philadelphia Flyers. All-Star my ass. Was +31 last year and -15 this year. +/- is unfair and deceptive, particularly on the defence-and-goaltending-challenged Flyers, but that's one big swing. Gagne has yet to prove he's anything more than a good winger who appears great when a wingman to a superstar.

Eric Staal - Carolina Hurricanes. See also Gagne. Staal is still very young (22) but last year's breakout gave the impression that he was here to stay. With 20 goals he is on pace for a decent output, but just four of those have come in the past 21 games. He's not a superstar yet.

Jonathan Cheechoo - San Jose Sharks. Yet another undeserving All-Star, Cheechoo hasn't come close to his Rocket Richard Trophy winning pace of last season, with only 16 goals thus far and is one of a small handful of minus players on a team winning at a 68% clip and giving up the second-least goals in the league.

Henrik Zetterberg - Detroit Red Wings. At first glance, he's way off his production from a year ago. However since reuniting with Pavel Datsyuk and Tomas Holmstrom his productivity is up and with 12 points in his last six games and points in 14 of his last 15 games, Zetterberg could end up approaching last year's numbers come April.

Anson Carter - Columbus Blue Jackets. He needs to prove that he can produce reliably on his own - playing with the Sedin brothers last year he potted 33. This year's seven goals - after his agent demanding he be paid like a 30-goal scorer should - are a hit to whatever offensive reputation he may have had.

Marek Svatos - Colorado Avalanche. With 32 goals in just 61 games last year, his middling output this year (ten goals) needs to improve for Colorado to even make the playoffs.

Rick Nash - Columbus Blue Jackets. Even though the numbers say he's way off (13 goals), new head coach Ken Hitchcock has been implementing a long-range plan to make Nash a more complete two-way player, putting him on the PK. A solid idea considering his offensive totals are far below expectations for the former first-overall pick.

Mike Comrie - Phoenix/Ottawa. Comrie has gone from 30 goals on a below-average team to a giveaway in a mid-season deal for a player who may never set foot in North America. Comrie has a reputation to repair and if it's not done in Ottawa he may find himself playing out his days bouncing from club to club. Bobby Clarke will take a chance on him some day.

Gilbert Brule - Columbus Blue Jackets. It is completely unfair to label the 20-year old rookie a "bust" but it seems clear he wasn't ready for the NHL this year, as evidenced by his eight points and -20. He may have been better off playing one more season with the Vancouver Giants (WHL) trying to help them win the Memorial Cup.

18 January 2007

...they are better than the N.A vs. The World sweaters

i'll admit it: this isn't nearly as bad as i'd feared.

i still prefer these:

16 January 2007

Fans Can Hardly Wait: New Uniform Styles!

I must be blocking it out because I prefer to live within the darkest recesses of my own memory - next week's All-Star game isn't just your standard corporate schmooze-fest: the world will be introduced to the brand new revolutionary form-fitting uniforms for EVERY team! Yes, you heard it right - every team has been forced to redesign their uniforms to all follow the same pattern:

I can't vouch for the integrity here, but it sure fuels Sabres' fans fires - from http://www.gopetition.com/online/10455.html comes this:

Furthermore, Buffalo tried to bring back their original emblem into their new look, but Reebok told them "That it was impossible to do on their new form-fitting uniforms and went with the slug because it was smaller and viewable."
Here's an interesting article on how much the Sharks' players loved the new uniforms.


UPDATE: the pics above are old, and not necessarily official. Turns out some of the players like the latest version of the jerseys:
NHL’s new duds get thumbs up from players

people: "All-Star" does not mean "best"

i've been out of commission for a while (still recovering from the Ontario weekend apparently) but the all star rosters were finally announced this week, and predictably what followed was my usual two-headed response of "what a sham" and "it doesn't mean a damn thing"

just as in recent years i've sadly cared less and less about things like the Hall of Fame (edwzipper over at SportsFrog had a brilliant writeup on the latest Baseball Hall of Fame lunacy - some day when i'm really bored i'll write a nice treatise on the ignorant process on voting for Hall induction), the All-Star game has also lost any charm it once had for me. It also falls under the enormous umbrella of "human fallibility" - anytime you allow people to be subjective about something you're going to see mistakes.

Fortunately, in any scheme a hockey allstar game means jack shit so the fact that Eric Staal and Simon Gagne get in while Marc Savard, Rod Brind'Amour, Thomas Vanek, and Max Afinogenov sit home is fine. I guess.

it's just that even the terms "star" and "superstar" at their core don't have true attachment to quality or talent. it has always had far more to do with popularity and/or notoriety than actual on-the-field/ice talent.

update: my treatise is unnecessary when others have done my work already - my bad on not mentioning the brilliance that is and has been the people at Fire Joe Morgan with regards to the Hall voting.

another update: the YoungStars game appears to be a far more palatable option than the actual All-Star game. A four-on-four contest pitting only players on their entry-level contracts, by definition the rosters would be less slanted towards the well-known and more results-driven. Thanks to HP for the link.

10 January 2007

OHL update - IceDogs to Niagara Falls?

"The Mississauga IceDogs junior A hockey team could call Niagara Falls their new home as early as this September, if the team’s owners and city council can make a deal to build a new 5,000-seat arena. "

full story from Niagara Falls Review in comments

SOHO XI weekend - OHL report

as published at SportsBlurb and Sporting News:

SOHO XI weekend - OHL report

Eleven years ago I started a trip with friends of mine who are lifelong hockey nuts to see Canadian Hockey League games in Canada. None of us were satisfied with the coverage of or attention to amateur levels of hockey in the United States so we decided to immerse ourselves in the top junior league in the world: the CHL, and specifically the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). What started as not much more than a lark has turned into a serious obsession, one filled with involved discussions over which players are legitimate underdogs, which are surefire NHL All-stars, and of course which prospects have been overrated and over-hyped. The amount of time spent arguing who makes the end-of-trip All-Star teams (alas, some positions or "awards" aren't suitable for national publication) and MVP would doubtless seem like a colossal waste of time to most. For us though, it is a glorious time of year when we first cross the border for the start of our annual pilgrimage.

The beginning of this year's SOHO (Southern Ontario Hockey Outing....SOHO sounds infinitely better), our eleventh, fell on a fortuitous day for us - the gold medal game at the World Junior Championships was being played at 1:30 EST (in Sweden) between classic rivals Canada and Russia. As I've written in the past, the World Junior tournament is woefully under-publicized in much of the world, including here in the States. For all hockey and sports fans who may rue the day the Olympics allowed professionals to compete, the WJCs are in essence what the Olympics used to be, and still should be. Take the top hockey players in the world between the ages of 16-20, divide by country, and set them loose for two weeks over the holidays – that’s the WJC. In Canada, the World Junior gold medal is viewed annually as Canada's to lose, and this year proved no different as the national team was going for their third straight gold, coming off two straight undefeated tournaments.

There was no other option than to begin the weekend by watching the game alongside the highly partisan and passionate Canadian fanbase. With many thanks to the excellent people at Moose Winooski's in Kitchener, Ontario we were shown an excellent time. Most of the staff were dressed in full hockey garb and every television in the place (including those in the men's room) was tuned to TSN and the big game. Our presence was noticed by many, including a Rogers television camera crew who interviewed us on why we would travel such a long distance to watch this game on television in Kitchener, and to those reading now the answer is self-evident: to be a hockey fan rooting alongside and amongst the most passionate and knowledgeable fans on earth is to enjoy the game at its most enjoyable level. In the end, Team Canada completed their trifecta of undefeated tournaments, beating an underrated Russian squad 4-2 after taking a relatively easy 4-0 lead, led offensively by University of North Dakota forward and Chicago Blackhawks prospect Jonathan Toews. Yet it was goaltender Carey Price (WHL's Tri-City Americans and Montreal Canadiens' property) who was the true star (and eventual tournament MVP) as he withstood a Russian comeback that brought them to within two, and had Price not made a breakaway stop while Canada was on a 5-on-3 power play the momentum shift could have been enough to change the outcome.

After Canada clinched, we celebrated alongside our new friends and left for downtown where we were about to take in our first in-person game of the trip. Highway 8 into the city was bumper-to-bumper following the game as thousands of hockey fans were either headed home after the big win or back to the office to sneak back in to punch out after a long lunch hour. Sadly I’m guessing the USA’s bronze medal finish in the morning didn’t have quite the same following back home. The Kitchener/Waterloo area has been on the rise in recent years due in no small part to the local folks from Research In Motion, makers of the ubiquitous BlackBerry product (upon which three members of our group were getting constant OHL/NHL scores throughout the trip). At any rate, we eventually made it to The Aud as part of a standing-room-only crowd who packed in to see the Kitchener Rangers face the visiting and underdog Brampton Battalion, 20 points the Rangers' inferior in the standings. The Rangers' franchise is one of the most historic in all of Canada, having exhibited an uncommon degree of stability for junior standards: remaining in place for over 40 years and being a community-owned franchise. Kitchener loves their junior hockey and their fans were rewarded with their second Memorial Cup in 2003, led by future Buffalo Sabre Derek Roy.

On this night the crowd was buzzing from the start, likely buoyed (along with the rest of the country) by the earlier events of the day, and their excitement was rewarded early with the Rangers going up by a 2-0 score midway through the second period, with only Brampton goalie Bryan Pitton (Edmonton Oilers, fifth round - 2006 draft) keeping the game close. Pitton's work proved not to be in vain, as the game turned completely around at the midway point and Brampton answered with four straight goals on their way to a 4-3 upset of the heavily favoured Rangers. Pitton was the story on this day as his defence finally learned to move the puck out of their zone, putting the Rangers on the defensive for most of the second and third periods. Brampton hasn't had many big nights this year, but this could be a big stepping stone for the team with a tough road win.

The next day our second game brought us to the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, where the IceDogs are on pace for the best season in their less-than-glowing nine year history. Their first four seasons were historically inept, with legendary Canadian mouth Don Cherry owning and then coaching the team for a brief spell. Even with such talents as Jason Spezza and Patrick O'Sullivan the team averaged less than seven wins per season over their first four. Perhaps because of the franchise’s rough beginnings and also due to the sheer amount of teams in the greater Toronto area, support for the IceDogs has mostly been lukewarm to this team over the years, as we've yet to see anywhere near a full barn at the Hershey Centre. This year’s results are shaping up to be different, as the team is currently occupying a strong third place in the Eastern Conference, led by a balanced offence with the highest goal total in the league - seven players have double-digit goal totals. As seems to be evident of this franchise, however, the future is extremely cloudy - new owner Eugene Melnyk (owner of the Ottawa Senators) also owns the rival Toronto St. Michael's Majors, and at the end of the season must sell one team according to league bylaws. Seeing that Melnyk is a St. Mike's alumnus, it's the IceDogs that will go, to owners - and destinations - unknown.

Today the Dogs hosted the Oshawa Generals and teenage sensation John Tavares. Tavares is a unique talent, enough that the OHL bent (and created) a number of rules to draft him at the absurdly young age of 14. This year at 16 he is still among the youngest players in the league and is currently leading the OHL in goals with 39. As such, our expectations were extremely high for him. Yet this Saturday was the Dogs' day. Led by the aptly named Michael Swift (NHL: free agent), the Dogs impressed with their speed and offensive skills. After 20 minutes, their shots started getting through the Generals, who looked spent this afternoon. Tavares in particular showed flashes of the talent that is making him a well-known name throughout Canada but looked a bit sluggish and almost disinterested away from the puck. The fact that his entire team looked the same gave us some restraint in labeling him too quickly. Jadran Beljo (free agent) and Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Chris Lawrence each contributed three points en route to a 4-2 victory for the home squad.

Day three was a doubleheader special for SOHO - an afternoon game at St. Michael's in Toronto where the visiting Sarnia Sting were in town, followed by an early evening tilt out in Oshawa to see a divisional battle against the Belleville Bulls. This is the final year that the Majors will be playing in the venerable St. Michael’s College School Arena, where it is no longer profitable to host the team. Next season the team will move out to nearby Mississauga to take over the Hershey Centre from the IceDogs, who will have to move elsewhere. The cozy confines on Bathurst St. in uptown Toronto are clearly a relic of a time long past: the arena is a Quonset hut that is always under heated (is it heated?) and has roughly six rows of benches rising from each side of the rink. In total it holds just over 1600 fans if you shoehorn them in, which you’d have to do considering the hobbit-sized lobby is the only entrance in. The actual sheet of ice is also a throwback, measuring at a tight 180’ by 80’. Over the years we’ve seen many a game in this old barn and there has never been a shortage of hitting and fighting, no doubt in part due to the unavoidable physical play in such a small rink (and true to form, at 4:40 of the first period, we had our first brawl). Yet despite the cold benches, the elementary-school sized bathrooms, and the worst coffee in the O, the arena will be truly missed by the SOHO scouts. There really is a charm in this old arena; with no modern distractions such as replay or ringed multicolour lighting systems. You’re there for one thing only: hockey. And to some of us, that’s the way it should be.

A look at the list of Majors who have graduated on to the NHL over the past century is beyond impressive (with over 150 to date, including luminaries such as Gerry Cheevers, Davey Keon, Frank Mahovlich, and Tim Horton.), and this with the program discontinued from the early 1960s until ten years ago. St. Michael’s is a well-known prep school and the hockey program was discontinued in the 60s due to concerns that athletics were overshadowing academics. The Majors were revived in 1997 in a slightly modified form, where the players were not required to actually be students at the school, yet the franchise still retained a home at the school; a unique situation indeed. The team itself is having a rather down year, currently mired in last place in the Eastern Conference with a below-average offence and a goals-against that is third-worst in the 20 team league. Their deficiencies were well on display early, as they simply could not deal with Sarnia’s forechecking – the puck remained in the Toronto zone for nearly the entire period. Sarnia’s top talent is Steve Stamkos, the first overall pick in last summer’s OHL draft. At the Minor Midget level last year with the Markham Waxers, Stamkos scored an absurd 105 goals and 197 points in 67 games while leading his powerhouse squad to the league championship. Sarnia has thus far seen their fortunes turn around dramatically, thanks in part to Stamkos, having already won seven more games to date this season than all of last and currently sitting just three points out of first place in the Western Conference. Stamkos (eligible for the NHL draft in 2008) is third in rookie scoring with 61 points in 40 games (just behind London’s dynamic duo of Patrick Kane and Sam Gagner) and was terrific this day – showing an innate hockey sense as to where the puck would be, as well as a well-placed aggression in getting the puck on his own - even as a rookie he already appears to be the complete package. Stamkos will undoubtedly and deservedly be a very high draft pick in the NHL come 2008. On this afternoon Stamkos tallied two goals but was exceeded in performance by right winger Harrison Reed (Carolina’s third pick in 2006) who tallied four points. The Majors made a game of it late in the second when they were finally able to break out of their zone and provide a bit of pressure in the offensive zone. Centers Matt Caria (NHL eligible: 2007) and Michael Pelech (NHL eligible: 2008) showed some offensive flair in dishing the puck, perhaps a sign of things to come for the previously light-scoring Pelech (22 points). Caria is 13th in league scoring, and based on what he showed Sunday would probably have even more impressive stats with more talent on his wings. In the end, the talent of the Sting overpowered the Majors in the third, and three more goals made this an 8-3 rout, and we were on to Oshawa.

Drive 45 minutes east of uptown Toronto along the shores of Lake Ontario and you will find the city of Oshawa, Ontario. Much of Oshawa’s economic and industrial history lies with auto manufacturing, specifically General Motors, for which the local junior team is named. If the history of historic Canadian junior franchises is written down and ranked, you won’t have far to scroll down to find the Oshawa Generals. With an amazing 12 OHL championships and four Memorial Cups to their credit, as well as alumni including such OHL (and NHL) legends as Eric Lindros and Bobby Orr, this is one of the solid rocks of the Canadian Hockey League. This past November saw the Generals close down the old Civic Auditorium, another of the great old barns of the OHL to close their doors in recent years. Many a puck bounced off the low-hanging scoreboard in that 4000 seat capacity rink known for noise and horrible pizza, but now they’ve moved downtown into the new GM Centre, which seats nearly 5500 and fits in line with the new standard (and sadly, sterile) OHL rink (incidentally, Pizza Pizza’s virtual corner on the OHL concession market is nothing to be proud of. Advice to SOHO-type rookies: pack a lunch.).

As referenced above, for at least the next three seasons the Generals are completely geared around young John Tavares. Tavares has the makeup to be one of those players – the player that may only come around once a decade and creates an advance buzz wherever he plays. He won’t be eligible for the NHL draft until 2009 and already the expectations thrust upon him have been enormous, yet by nearly all standards he has delivered. Tavares was the one player we geared this weekend around (no doubt he felt the enormous pressure of a SOHO nation on Saturday afternoon) so we made no bones about our lack of objectivity this night – we wanted Tavares to impress. In the past we’d targeted highly touted players such as Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza, Rick Nash, and Sidney Crosby, and the risk there is obvious: in such an absurdly small sample size of a game or two there’s a significant likelihood of the player either being ill or simply in a slump. For example, it took us four years to finally witness the exceptional skills of Spezza. In contrast, Nash won us over in nearly every game we saw. Crosby had only one chance two years ago in Lewiston, Maine, and he was beyond sensational – scoring five points and ringing another handful of posts – utter and complete domination. Fairly or not, we had lumped Tavares in with these previous teenage talents and were hoping to be dazzled.

Meanwhile, the Belleville Bulls came in on a hot streak, winners of seven of their previous nine and leading the East division over the host Generals. Tyler Donati, leading the OHL in scoring with 77 points, left us frustrated and perhaps with some insight as to why he has not been drafted or signed by an NHL team. Despite three points (two goals) on the night, he was a -3 which after watching the game was far more indicative of his play than the offensive totals he rang up. Donati appears to play the role of the consummate selfish hockey star, slapping his stick anytime he gets open anywhere in the offensive zone, while conversely he rarely looked for the open man himself while carrying the puck. Upon losing possession, his efforts to regain control of the play are minimal, to be kind. Donati’s negative energy would not be the story however…

Hype is a difficult concept to contend with, both for the player himself or the general public’s ability to filter it through an objective lens. We all bought into the John Tavares hype and by the midway point of period one, we were all on the verge of allowing ourselves to be overcome by unfair expectations – Tavares had one middling goal in game one and still looked out of sorts (and frankly, unimpressive) in the first ten minutes of game two. As if to remind us that he was still on the ice, Tavares scored a power play goal at the 12 minute mark. The goal itself was easy but Tavares earned full marks for working hard on the power play and putting himself in position for the goal. The first period ended with us needing more.

The SOHO gods then decided it was time to grant us a gift.

The second period was a clinic in supreme talent taking over a game. Three minutes in, Tavares grabbed the puck on a power play, skated to the top of the faceoff circle and with a wicked wrister stunned Belleville goalie Mike Murphy (NHL draft eligible: 2007). We were starting to learn his game – Tavares can appear almost lazy at times without the puck, but early in the game we saw his work on the penalty kill when he grabbed the puck and immediately shifted into a higher gear. This proves to be an effective weapon as during that second period Belleville defencemen would be playing Tavares apparently by the book, only to see him get the puck and shock them into a pylon state, leaving them in his wake. Just six minutes later Tavares was the recipient of a Bulls giveaway, and he answered by cutting in alone on the net and burying an impressive shot to put the home team up 3-1. Belleville answered two minutes later but just 12 seconds after that Tavares – while shorthanded – made another impressive rush to beat Murphy for his fourth goal of the game. He should have had his fifth on his next shift but was robbed on a sprawling Dominik Hasek-like save by Murphy.

The third period was hotly contested, with Belleville knotting the game at five (and Tavares picking up another assist, his fifth point of the night, earning him a +3). Overtime came and went, and we were presented with our first-ever shootout in the eleven years of SOHO. It was only natural to hope for one specific outcome, but such an ending couldn’t possibly happen... Belleville missed on their first attempt, as did Oshawa. Same results in the second round. Belleville missed their third shot…and the crowd of 4000 plus rose in unison to cheer on John Tavares for the potential game winner. With everyone in attendance on their feet, Tavares skated in alone down the right side and made no mistake – ending the game in storybook fashion by drilling a snap shot into the twine and sending the crowd into a frenzy.

A poll wasn’t necessary – John Tavares had clinched our annual MVP award.

SOHO All-Stars over the past decade have included such standouts as Joe Thornton, Rick Nash, Jason Spezza, and Alexander Radulov. SOHO MVPs have also included flameouts like Rico Fata, Ivan Novoseltsev, and Gene Chiarello. This year will add names such as Steven Stamkos and defenceman Ryan Wilson (NHL free agent) of Sarnia, forwards Michael Swift, Jadran Beljo, Stefan Legein and goaltender Lucas Lobsinger (NHL draft eligible: 2007) of Mississauga, Bryan Pitton of Brampton, defenceman P.K. Subban (NHL draft eligible: 2007) of Belleville, and St. Mike’s Matt Caria. I would like to have seen more of Oshawa defenceman Michael Del Zotto, teammate of Steve Stamkos last year in Markham and the second pick in last year's OHL draft (behind Stamkos). Del Zotto may have just had a rough weekend but he seemed to have difficulty in the defensive zone when transitioning from the attack, a role he clearly enjoys.

John Tavares simply stood out among everyone (and now has a shot at being only the second multiple-SOHO MVP next to Brampton’s Adam Henrich, now in the Tampa Bay Lightning system). In retrospect, it was (and is) easy to nitpick and focus on negative aspects of a highly regarded player’s game. Tavares isn’t yet superb in his play away from the puck, nor is his shot selection always wise. He is guilty of the occasional long shift. He could be more aggressive in terms of making a play happen rather than waiting for the game come to him. Yet in the end, John Tavares is 16 years old and still learning (and growing). These are aspects of the game that he can – and will – still learn. The offensive talents he has are extremely unique, and although June of 2009 is a long ways away, it would be a major upset to not see Tavares near or at the top of the NHL draft order.

Our trip then being essentially over, we all returned immediately to our hotel rooms and turned out the lights, ending yet another successful sojourn into the home of hockey. There exists a particular perception of Canada, one that has persisted for years: that the country lives and breathes hockey. As with any generic statement like this, it bears inspection, and this past weekend we took it upon ourselves once again to prove it firsthand. The Canadian Hockey League provides a highly entertaining brand of hockey, the admission prices cannot be compared to NHL prices, and you’re nearly guaranteed in any random game to be watching future NHL players, if not stars.

Before signing off, we need to give infinite thanks to our true SOHO All-stars, the Friends of SOHO: Lany, Jen, Mike, Scott, and Camsie - for making us feel at home in Kitchener/Waterloo all day Friday - pitchers are on us again upon our return.

09 January 2007

Congrats to Canada

i'm a little late on the posting having just returned from Canada last night, but a hearty congrats to Team Canada for their third straight gold at the WJCs - third straight UNDEFEATED run at the WJCs. Amazing. Goalie Carey Price took MVP honours - i'll have much more tonight on the WJCs and the OHL weekend in Ontario.

03 January 2007

Shootouts suck

Yes, today's Canada-USA shootout was - in and of itself - riveting. It may sound hypocritical...but having a shootout in an elimination game? Hideous.

Sincere congratulations to Canada - Carey Price was fantastic in the Canadian net (as was American goalie Jeff Frazee). I'm looking forward to Friday's final - and hope the result is settled before 70 minutes are up...

02 January 2007

Happy New Year Pittsburgh!

(will be published at http://www.sportsblurb.com/hockey/penalty.asp on January 3rd. A "cleaned up" version of my last few posts...)

Happy New Year to everyone! There’s been no shortage of hockey news over the past few weeks – Rory Fitzpatrick and the All-Star controversy, the ongoing World Junior Championships (with this morning’s USA vs. Canada semifinal game at 9:30EST live on Center Ice) – but probably the biggest news item over my break was the never-ending franchise instability in Pittsburgh, and I have more than a few thoughts about this mess:

The notion that a traditional hockey market - Pittsburgh - could get shafted with a move of the Penguins frosts me. Yes, I'm cynical: I'm taking NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's supposed grand attempts to keep the franchise in Pittsburgh with a grain of salt - I don't buy it. The newly-rumoured destinations are also shocking to me - Kansas City??? Didn't we go through this once before back in the 1970s? Wonderful - another corporate outpost that will have invested little hockey time but will buy a preformed entertainment package all ready to market and sell to potential fans. Hey, here's an alternative for Kansas City sports fans: how about someone finding a replacement for David Glass and restoring a once-proud franchise? He and I might, perhaps, define our love of sports differently.

Pittsburgh was a member of the 1967 NHL expansion - the league's first in nearly 30 years - and was a solid and longtime member of the AHL when that league was not far below the NHL in terms of talent. Moving them and treating them like a fly-by-night outfit when they are potentially on the precipice of years of greatness is sickly reminiscent of the Quebec Nordiques’ move in 1995. This is not to say Denver wasn't/isn't a good market for hockey - it has been. But that entire soap opera reeked for many reasons, including:

1) Moving the team from Quebec was not due to lack of support - Le Colisee in Quebec packed in fans to well over 90% capacity in their final season, and the natural rivalry they had with the Canadiens was both ugly and beautiful and made the NHL a better place. The NHL wanted out of a so-called "smaller" market and wanted rich American owners to improve their “footprint” in the United States (see also erstwhile Hall of Famer Gil Stein and his offensive courting of Wayne Huizenga (Panthers) and Michael Eisner (Ducks)).

2) Nearly any city will support a great team (Panthers, Florida circa 1996). A true test would be moving a rotten team like the Phoenix Coyotes and seeing if a new city or market would support them (although I know one in Southeastern Manitoba that would with no qualms).

Forgive the bitterness - and sincerely, I mean no offence to Kansas City. My ire and offence is aimed squarely at the money-hungry non-fans that run the NHL. As much as I would personally love to see more teams in Canada (but PLEASE: no more teams in the league - move some of the failed experiments back up north), moving out of Pittsburgh would just be wrong, very wrong. If Mr. Bettman had been commissioner in 1978 who's to say he wouldn't have assisted in moving the Red Wings to Houston? Detroit had been a league punching bag for ages and was playing in an old stadium (read: NO LUXURY BOXES!!). Must be time to move the franchise!

Team success is cyclical - you can't uproot decades of tradition for the quick dollar. You will lose millions of fans (who will as a result hang you in effigy), you might gain a few fans in the new city but when that team inevitably stinks - as all teams eventually do - you have no generational backing or love of hockey, so they'll spend their entertainment dollars elsewhere. It’s not hard to find an example or two from the latest pool(s) of expansion that fits this description.

Admittedly, I feel like a curmudgeon railing against the last decade-plus of poorly considered expansion, but it is absurd to create franchise after franchise in cities where a professional hockey game is just another night out rather than a borderline obsession. One or two experiments would have been acceptable, but we’ve already gone past lunacy – why consider it again? Relocation seems to boost franchise values in the short-term causing salaries to go up league-wide, thereby making the smaller (often also home to the more diehard fans) market clubs struggle to make ends meet. Meanwhile the “novelty act” teams are lousy for a few years and the shine is off, leaving an empty house in a brand new arena. Capitalism at work? Yes, perhaps, but not a valid excuse for me – to me it is short term gain (debatable) for long-term alienation.

It was fantastic and heartbreaking last year for me to attend QMJHL games at Le Colisee in Quebec – a great old arena the likes of which will never be built again because there aren't luxury suites. The sightlines are excellent and steep (like its deceased brethren Boston Garden, Buffalo Memorial Aud, Maple Leaf Gardens), and Nordiques banners still hang from the rafters above. Marc Tardif. Peter Stastny. Jimmy Mann (kidding). A beautiful thing. I'll add one more fact: there were 9500 people there - for junior hockey.

The Jim Balsillie in-then-out saga was distasteful as well (assuming that it actually is over...). With the NHL having a history of looking for exactly the kind of franchise owner that Jim Balsillie is/would be (outrageously loaded with cash, head of a company with strong branding and inventors of a wildly popular product), why is he suddenly persona-non-grata to Mario Lemieux and Gary Bettman? On the surface there seemed to be no reason to shut him out and if it were anyone else but Balsillie I'd like to think the NHL would be begging him back and altering the deal to his liking.

While I've come to believe that Mr. Bettman really is protecting the existing Canadian teams (if not a little late), if he can help it there is no way in hell he will allow a team to relocate to Canada. Why all the stipulations in place right now for a troubled franchise? Where was he a decade ago when the Nordiques were on the rise after years of bad play? Even more puzzling is this: where was he when Winnipeg moved to the questionable hockey destination of Phoenix, Arizona? The same Winnipeg that actually voted and passed a plan to build a new arena. Bettman let the Whalers leave Hartford for parts unknown in the south, letting the Hurricanes play in an "alternate" site (Greensboro, NC) for over two years while they built a new arena in Raleigh.

Yet today, when a team could be owned by one of the wealthiest men in North America he is essentially pushed aside because of the possibility that the team could move to Canada.

Yet another chapter in the hypocritically run NHL - once again the recipe could be to try to force hockey upon unsuspecting fans. And then other fans around the league, as well as announcers and players will - for years to come - complain about the schedule and how "nobody wants to see our team play Kansas City/Las Vegas/Nashville/Columbus" eight times a year. Jets, Nordiques, Whalers...are the Penguins soon to follow in their footsteps? Think long-term, Mr. Bettman. Pittsburgh needs the Penguins. And the NHL needs Pittsburgh.

I think I miss the John Ziegler days.

Other brief thoughts: All-Star game balloting ended last night and I for one still hope that Fitzpatrick made the top two, although it seems likely he’d decline the invitation, (no) thanks in part to the backlash from such NHL celebrities as Wayne Gretzky and Don Cherry…get off your pedestals – we’re talking about one starting position for a completely meaningless game (I seem to remember how little you enjoyed Mike Ramsey’s hipcheck in the All-Star game, Wayne…it’s an exhibition, right?) that happens to be giving the NHL a lot of press. Actually at this point, most of the fun has been taken out of the Vote For Rory campaign…

[edit: the ever-bitter Tyler at mc79hockey.com captures my feelings about the formerly-great-one very nicely. Load it up and search for "Wayne"]

Those of you with the Center Ice package should be tuning into this week’s World Junior Championship games. Sadly, they’ve only been telecasting USA games which prevents diehards from seeing other great international talents but this USA squad is their most talented in years, led by London Knights’ rookie sniper Patrick Kane. Kane has been phenomenal with ten points in five games while likely improving his draft position for the upcoming NHL draft in June. NHL’s Central Scouting had him ranked third in the OHL before the season and 11th overall but his strong showing in this tournament could push him into the top five. This morning’s semifinal pits the USA vs. Canada at 9:30am EST with the winner playing for the gold on Friday afternoon.

This weekend I’ll be scouting a few Ontario Hockey League games including taking an up-close look at 16-year old wunderkind John Tavares of the Oshawa Generals – although he won’t be NHL draft-eligible until 2009, he’s leading the OHL in goals with 32 in just 34 games. I’ll have the weekend report next Wednesday.