10 January 2007

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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fantastic report.....not only a great look at potential NHL stars, but as a sidelight, a little history on each of the cities you visited.
I think a documentary is in the works.