Category Archives: Hockey

In which I admit to myself who I really am


It’s time for me to come clean and admit it. I’ve been fighting this for years, but it’s getting harder and harder to hide it and pretend that I’m something I’m not. I just can’t go on living this lie. The irony is that I’ve become that which I have been making fun of for years. I suppose the easiest way would be just to come out and say it.

I am a fair-weather fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Whew, I feel better already, just having gotten that off my chest.

I was never one to watch EVERY SINGLE Leafs game on TV, but I would watch as often as I could. I paid attention to where they were in the standings. I knew most of the players’ names, where they played, and how they were doing. If they made a trade, I at least had some clue whether it was a good one or a bad one. But none of these things are true anymore. I know they’re having a terrible season and have decided to begin the rebuilding process, but not much more than that. I hang my head in shame.

Way to go Dion! And, um, #42!I blame lacrosse. I started watching the National Lacrosse League in 2001 and have gotten deeper and deeper into it every year since. I started blogging about it in 2005, and have since written for three lacrosse blogs (including what are probably the two most popular indoor lacrosse blogs anywhere) and started my own. I wouldn’t call myself a lacrosse expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I am reasonably knowledgeable about the NLL teams and players. But paying that much attention to lacrosse has taken up all of my sports-related free time in the winter, and hasn’t left me much time for hockey. The rest of my free time is spent with my family and none of them are hockey fans. If I have to choose between watching the Leafs lose play and watching Elementary with my wife, well, the Leafs lose (pun intended). But if there’s a Rock game on, sorry honey.

It’s also easy to blame the fact that the team has been anywhere from not very good to terrible for the last decade.

I still pay some attention to the Leafs. Though I may not know all the players, I know Dion Kessel and Phil van Reimsdyk and such, the big names. And I have watched bits of games here and there, just not as much as, say, 10 years ago. But I know that if the Leafs were to go on some crazy winning streak, I’d be right back there, watching the games, talking about them on social media, and maybe even blogging about them.

Don’t get me wrong: I have been a Leafs fan all my life, and that will not change. When they win the Cup in 2021, I will watch every game of the playoffs and I’ll be as excited as everyone else. I know there are people who lose their passion and are all “I used to be a Leafs fan, but now I don’t care if they win or lose” and I can’t imagine saying that, especially if the team starts doing really well. I do still care, I just don’t have the time to pay as much attention as I used to. But given the way the team has been playing this season (so I hear) and the fact that they’re rebuilding, I imagine I’ve got several more years of suckage before they have a chance of really contending. And that’s assuming the rebuild is actually successful. So it seems unlikely that I’ll be watching much hockey until then but when they’re good again, boy, I’ll be right there. As long as the weather remains fair.

Not a word of a lie: There’s a Leafs game on right now, and I’m going to watch it.

Update: Watched it. They lost. Sigh.

The Leafs and Raptors need a Terry


A little over three years ago, I wrote an article about the General Managers of the Leafs, Raptors, and Rock. The Leafs had just hired Brian Burke as their new GM, and it seemed that the Toronto media had already decided that he was going to save the team; in fact, I facetiously referred to him as Our Saviour for a while after that. Bryan Colangelo had been the Raptors’ GM for a year or two, and had done a pretty good job of turning around the mess that Rob Babcock had left behind. The Rock still had Mike Kloepfer as GM, and the team sucked.

My article suggested that the Rock needed to get rid of Kloepfer and hire themselves a “Brian” who would overhaul the team and make them not suck, which Burke and Colangelo were obviously about to do with the Leafs and Raptors. One of the suggestions I gave for who could take over was Terry Sanderson, and another was Jamie Batley. Ironically, less then four hours after I posted that article, the Rock did fire coach Glenn Clark, who was at least part of the problem, and Batley was hired as coach. The rest of the problem was solved at the end of the season when Mike Kloepfer resigned. A month later Sanderson was re-hired as GM. The next season (2010), the Rock went to the Championship game and in 2011, they won it all. We’re now midway through the 2012 season, and the Rock are tied for first place in the Eastern division. I’d call that mission accomplished.

I could pat myself on the back for predicting the Rock’s next course of action (kind of – I suggested Sanderson though I said it was unlikely), but the original point of my article was lost. It wasn’t so much that the Rock needed a new GM,  it was that the Rock needed to do what the Leafs and Raptors did and replace their rookie GM who screwed the team up with a proven veteran who could turn it around. The Rock did that, but the Leafs and Raptors haven’t had nearly the success that we all envisioned when Our Saviours came to power.

In the 3 seasons prior to Burke’s being hired, the Leafs had 91, 83, and 81 points and missed the playoffs every year. In the two full seasons since, they had 74 and 85 points and missed the playoffs every year. This year they’re on pace for 83 points and missing the playoffs. They don’t have any first-round draft picks for a couple of years because of the Kessel trade, so the rebuilding process will be continuing for a long while.

Update: My timing was off. The picks involved in the Kessel deal were for the last two drafts, so that’s done now. Thanks Faisal for the clarification!

Bryan Colangelo was hired by the Raptors in February 2006, six years and a week ago. In the first couple of years, Colangelo looked brilliant. The Raptors finished first in the Atlantic division the very next year, and Sam Mitchell was named Coach of the Year and Colangelo Executive of the Year. The Raptors lost in the first round of the playoffs, but made the playoffs again the next year. They lost again in the first round, and then things went south quickly. They haven’t made the playoffs since and haven’t really been much of a threat at all. Last season they were a hopeless 22-60 and this year they’re not much better at 11-25.

Barring miracles, the Leafs and Raptors are not likely to win championships during the Burke / Colangelo eras. I’m not suggesting firing them now, though I think the Colangelo era has run its course and unless the Raptors start turning things around on the floor very soon, Colangelo should be done at the end of the year. I don’t think Burke has done a terrible job; he’s acquired some players who have been great like Phaneuf and Lupul. The fact that the goaltenders play like Turk Broda one week and a turkey sandwich the next isn’t entirely Burke’s fault. I’d give him another year or two to right the ship but unless obvious improvement is made, he’s gone too.

Three years ago, I said that the Rock needed to find their Brian, and they did. Now the Leafs and Raptors need to find their Terry Sanderson.

The Hockey Hall of Fmae


Considering I’ve lived in or near Toronto almost my entire life, and have been a hockey fan for that entire time as well, it’s somewhat surprising that I have only been to the Hockey Hall of Fame twice. The first time was in the summer of 1991, and I have a short story about that visit. The second time was this past weekend, and I have a few things to say about that as well.

Overall, if you’re a hockey fan the HHOF is a must-see, though I’m sure that statement surprises nobody. There are hundreds of pieces of memorabilia from over 100 years of the NHL and from around the world. Here’s a picture of the stick and gloves Sidney Crosby used to score the “Golden Goal” in the Vancouver Olympics, as well as the puck itself:

The Golden Gloves

There’s also this thing:

The Cup

Back in 1991, I visited the Hockey Hall of Fame when it was still located at the old Exhibition grounds. My friend Beth and I were at the CNE and decided to check out the Hall while we were there. When we got into the trophy room, the Stanley Cup was sitting in the middle of the room on a table similar to this one. There was no security anywhere to be seen; the closest thing was another table nearby where there were two teenaged girls siting. They had a Polaroid camera and would take your picture with the Cup for $10. I assume they worked for the Hall, but maybe they were just resourceful.

Beth and I walked around the Cup looking at the inscriptions, when one of the other visitors said aloud “I wonder how heavy it is”. He put his arms around the Cup and lifted it. Beth and I took a step back to let the security guys through, and put our hands over our ears to protect ourselves from the wail of the sirens, except… nothing. No security guards, no alarms, nothing. The girls with the Polaroid didn’t even look around. The guy who lifted it said something like “Huh! Not that heavy” and put it down again. Of course, I took the opportunity to do the same thing, something every Canadian kid dreams of doing: I hoisted the Stanley Cup. It’s not that heavy.

When we were there last weekend, I did not attempt to lift it, as there was a security guard there. I asked the security guard how many replicas there were, and if this was one of them or if this was the real Cup. He gave me an interesting answer: there are two Cups and neither one is a replica. There’s the “presentation Cup”, which is the one the winning players raise on the ice, and the one they take back to their home town. And then there’s the one in the Hall (he had a name for it other than “replica” but I don’t remember it), which is an almost-exact, well, replica of the presentation Cup, though there are a few names spelled differently on each one. To me, this sounds like there’s “The Cup” and “the replica”, but the guy at the Hall said that both are officially “The Stanley Cup”.

The Cup and the rest of the trophies are usually kept in a place called the Great Hall, but it’s closed for the next couple of months for renovation. They moved the trophies elsewhere so we could see them, but it means we didn’t see the complete list of Hall inductees. There were a number of displays for individual inductees like this one for Mario:

IMAG0220

There were stats and facts and a signature and jerseys and a stick and even a box of Corn Flakes with Mario on the front. There were similar displays for Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Denis Potvin, Luc Robitaille, Roger Neilson, Ace Bailey (which included one of his golf clubs (?)), Borje Salming, and a bunch of others. There was a computer listing just about every town in Canada; you could select a town and find out what NHL players were born there. Guess who’s from Waterdown? Well, nobody. But I grew up in Pickering, Ontario, home of both Glenn Healy and… um, nobody else. OK, I guess I can admit it. I am from the same town as everyone’s favourite hockey douchebag, Sean Avery. We even went to the same high school, though he would have started at least five years after I graduated.

There is also a large section of the Hall for international hockey, including the Canada Cup, the Summit Series, various IIHF tournaments, and the Olympics. There are jerseys from just about every country – did you know Ireland had a team? Greece? Mexico? South Africa? Canada won four hockey gold medals in a row at the Olympics from 1920 to 1932, but would you believe their streak was broken by none other than Great Britain in 1936 – the most recent of only two hockey medals Britain has ever won?

One thing that surprised me about my visit to the Hall is the number of mistakes I found. Canada didn’t win any hockey gold medals from 1952 until 2002? That can’t be right. Seriously though, thinking back to all the places I’ve visited including castles in the UK, various chateaux in France, museums and other touristy things in London, Edinburgh, Paris, New York City, Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Vancouver, Toronto, and others, the number of mistakes I found was zero just about everywhere. I’m sure I’ve seen errors but I can’t think of any offhand, and I’m sure I’d have remembered if there were more than one in the same place. At the HHOF, I found at least four in the couple of hours I was there.

In the same room as the Stanley Cup was a big timeline, listing all kinds of events relating to the NHL. The timeline included not only dates of NHL events, but birthdates of future NHL stars, like this one:

Ken Dryden error

Winning the Cup first and the Calder second is a pretty impressive feat, but doing them 55 years apart is even better. This next one contains two mistakes:

FoxTrax

The first mistake is not so much a factual error as one of punctuation (“it’s” should be “its”). The second mistake was FoxTrax itself.

There was a display of the “lucky loonie” from the Salt Lake City Olympics, although in the middle of the description they spelled the word “looine”. I’m sure my dad pointed another one out to me but I forget what it was.

On a somewhat related note, there are also the misspellings on the Stanley Cup itself – a number of players have their names spelled wrong, and there’s even one team spelled wrong (Leafs is spelled “Leaes” in one place). Former Oilers owner Peter Pocklington famously put his father in the list of people to have their names engraved on the Cup, and when this was discovered his father’s name was X’ed out.

Anyway, as I said the HHOF is a must-see for any hockey fan. There are the trophies and memorabilia and lots of information and stats, a couple of short movies, and some simulation games for the kids – two where you are taking shots on a net, one where you are standing in a net where real pucks are flying at you (similar to the commercial below), and one where you’re standing in front of a virtual net trying to react to virtual pucks. There’s even a section on collectibles and NHL branded products – hockey cards, toys, lunchboxes, bobbleheads, cereal boxes, stuff like that.

My dad and I spent two or three hours in the Hall. QA issues aside, it’s quite the interesting place, and when combined with dinner at the Marché upstairs and a Rock game after that, made for a fun day.

HHOF TV commercial

All Things Being Equal


When fans discuss a league for a period of time, something that inevitably comes up is parity. This seems to be the goal of any league – the idea that all of the teams in the league are similar enough talent-wise that it’s highly possible for any team to beat any other team on any given night. This also implies that any team has a reasonable shot at winning a championship. The idea certainly has merit. If you’re a fan, you know that the chances of your team winning it all or at least being competitive are pretty good.

But if you listen to Bob McCown, one of Canada’s most knowledgeable sports broadcasters (both loved and despised by many), he’ll tell you point blank that parity is the worst thing that could possibly happen to a league. When you look back over the history of pro sports in North America, what kinds of team-related things do you remember? The Yankees’ dominance in the 50’s, the Islanders in the early 80’s and the Oilers immediately after that, the Red Wings in the late 90’s, and the Rock of the late 90’s/early 2000’s. Do you look back fondly on the years of parity? Do you even know when they occurred? No, you don’t. You remember the dynasties.

With the dynasties come the, well, anti-dynasties, I suppose. We also remember the teams that were really bad for long periods of time – the Senators of the mid-90s, the lowly Nordiques before Eric Lindros turned them into the powerhouse Avalanche, the Maple Leafs for most of the last 40 years, and the Clippers, Pirates, and Cubs seemingly forever. Again, do you remember the years when all the teams were pretty good, but nobody was awesome and nobody was terrible?

So parity isn’t so good for the history books, but is it good for the fans? That depends. I’ve been a Maple Leafs fan all my life, and apart from a few good years in the 80’s and a few more in the 90’s, they’ve been mediocre at best for the majority of that time, and downright awful for quite a bit of it. A little parity sounds like a pretty damned good idea there. The Jays were terrible from 1977 until about 1984, then good for the rest of the 80’s, awesome in the early 90’s, then dropped off and have been no better than pretty good for the last fifteen years. The Raptors were terrible for a while, then pretty good for a few years, and now they’re terrible again. The aforementioned Cup-winning Islanders and Oilers are both pretty bad these days. It’s a terrible feeling watching your favourite team lose, and know that they’re going to have a lousy season and are not likely to improve for at least a couple of years. That feeling is made even worse knowing that some other teams are likely to be awesome for that entire period. I’m sure parity would be welcome to fans of those teams as well.

But I’ve also lived the other side of the equation, thanks to the NLL. I became a Rock fan in 2001, when they had already won two championships. The total number of home games they lost was in single digits for several years. In their first seven seasons, they won five championships and lost a total of two playoff games. The Wings stole the 2001 championship away (don’t get me wrong, they earned that victory), but the Rock stormed back and won the next three of the next four. I can tell you that parity in the NLL was the last thing that Rock fans wanted around 2005.

So for the fans the conclusion is hardly surprising – when your team is winning, parity is something you want to avoid. When your team is losing, parity is something to strive for. How about for the league as a whole?

Obviously most leagues think that parity is ideal. They want fans from all of their teams to continue to pay money to come out to the games as much as possible. This is easier when all the games are meaningful because each team still has a chance to make the playoffs and win it all. This is at least part of the reason we have salary caps and luxury taxes and such, so that some teams can’t outspend the rest of the teams by 200% and buy themselves a stacked team. Of course that wouldn’t happen in a league without a salary cap, would it? Well, the pre-cap Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers tried it for a number of years, but just ended up with some very expensive losing teams. But this strategy has worked very well for the New York Yankees, and has made the Yankees one of the most hated teams in all of North American sports, outside of New York anyway. It has also turned the Yankees into one of the biggest draws at MLB stadiums all over North America, and has made them one of the most valuable sports franchises in the world. And at the same time, MLB is doing very well financially, thank you very much, with no salary cap. Parity shmarity. How’s that salary cap working for your owners, Mr. Bettman?

The NLL east has been pretty even for a couple of years. Only 2 games separated 2nd from 5th last year. In 2009, the top 3 teams had the same record 10-6 record, and in 2008, the top four were 10-6. The west has been kind of weird for a few years. Minnesota’s 5-11 regular season record (.313) in 2010 is the second worst ever to make the playoffs in the NLL, and the third worst ever in any sport*. Calgary ran away with the west in 2009, and in 2008 San Jose and Colorado tied for the division lead with records just above .500.

In 2011, you’ve got a couple of strong teams (Washington and Boston) but nobody that’s unbeatable. You’ve got some weak teams (Philly, Colorado, Minnesota), but nobody who’s really terrible. And everybody else could easily find themselves in the playoffs or fighting for a spot. Could Washington repeat? Sure they could. It’s way too early to say “dynasty”, but they could easily be in the running again this year. But could I predict a Rush championship without looking like an idiot? Sure I could. Or the Blazers. Or the Rock. Or the Bandits. Could the Roughnecks win without Sanderson or Kelusky? Well, the Oilers won without Gretzky, so anything’s possible.

* In the 1993 and 1994 NLL (called the MILL at the time) seasons, three different teams made the playoffs with 2-6 (.250) records. In the other major sports, only the 1952-53 Baltimore Bullets of the NBA were worse: 16-54 (.229). No NFL team has ever made the playoffs with a record under .500. In baseball, the 1981 KC Royals made the playoffs at 50-53 (.485), though that was a strike-shortened season. And my beloved Leafs made the playoffs in 1987-88 with a 21-49-10 record, which is .263 in wins (21 wins in 80 games) but ties screw things up. They got 52 out of a maximum of 160 points, which is .325.

The Lucky Loonie


At the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, the guy setting up the ice for the hockey finals was a Canadian. As most Canadians know by now, he planted a Canadian loonie directly under centre ice, and Canada won two hockey gold medals. Of course we all know that there is no causal relationship between these events (the loonie didn’t cause or even help the hockey teams to win), but it makes for a pretty cool story. Since then, the whole “lucky loonie” thing has been used at the 2003 IIHF World Championships, the 2006 Winter Olympics (though not for hockey, only for curling), and even the 2006 Stanley Cup finals between Edmonton and Carolina.

While watching the women’s snowboard cross last week, I heard the announcers mention that the course builders had planted a Canadian loonie under the course somewhere, hoping to give the Canadians a bit of an advantage.

Note to those Canadians involved with setting up events at the Olympics, whether at Vancouver or other future games: It’s been done. Let’s just drop it now, OK?

Our Saviour comes through big


This past weekend, in a nutshell, is why the Leafs hired Brian Burke. When he was hired, the masses rejoiced. Our Saviour had arrived and was going to transform the team from a laughing stock to a Cup contender. For a while, he didn’t do much of significance, and then he traded two first round draft choices for Phil Kessel. There were mixed emotions about that one – many thought it was a great move, bringing in a young stud goal scorer and giving up nothing. Others said “Nothing? You call giving up two first round draft picks (and a second!) nothing?” When the Leafs started the season with 3 wins in their first 20 games, the possibility of giving a first overall draft pick for Kessel became very real. People started questioning whether Burke was indeed the right guy. And then came January 31, 2010 – the day everything changed.

The biggest complaint about the Leafs this year has been goaltending – in particular, Vesa Toskala. Ever since the day the Leafs acquired Toskala, there has been talk that he’s a good backup but wasn’t starting goalie material, and he seems to have proven that in his time with the Leafs. Jason Blake, meanwhile, scored 40 goals in 82 games the season before being signed by the Leafs, and 50 goals in 216 games as a Leaf. He was eating up a ton of cap space for not much production. If Burke managed to get rid of the two of them for nothing, I think it would have made the team better – addition by subtraction. Yet Burkie managed to convince Anaheim to take a struggling goalie and an overpaid non-scoring forward for a quality starting goaltender. Of course, Giguère would have been a very high-priced backup in Anaheim anyway, so maybe it’s a push for them.

Then there’s the Calgary deal. They sent four players to Calgary and got three back. Let’s say for the sake of argument that the Leafs are a contending team in, say, four years. What are the odds that all four of Stajan, Mayers, Hagman, and White are on that contending team? Not very high. So the Leafs gave up a bunch of players that don’t likely fit into their long-term plans (well, maybe White) for a former Norris trophy nominee (not even two years ago) and two prospects. Is it possible that Phaneuf was a flash-in-the-pan and his best days are behind him? Well, sure it’s possible, but he’s only 24, so it’s not likely. I heard an interview with a Calgary sports report the other day saying that Phaneuf was no longer “fitting in” with his teammates or coaching staff in Calgary, so perhaps a change of scenery is what he needs to turn his game around. Then again, I can think of a number of players who were sent packing from Toronto only to find success elsewhere (happens a lot in baseball – Jeff Kent, Woody Williams, Chris Carpenter…), and not that many who did it the other way. As Bob McCown wrote, “The list of players who have regressed after landing in The Big Smoke is very, very, very long.” But even if Phaneuf never wins a Norris, he’s still a very good defenseman.

Now, I’m not saying that the Leafs will make the playoffs this year or win the Cup next year because of this deal. But now the Leafs have a stud front-line scorer (age 22), two top-tier defensemen (ages 24 and 31), a goaltender who’s been a Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe trophy winner, and a highly-touted young goalie backing him up. That sounds like a pretty good nucleus to build around, and it’s a helluva lot better than they had when Mr. Burke was hired.

Amazing stats of the day


Before their win over Anaheim on Monday, i.e. over the first eight games of the season, covering almost 485 minutes, the Toronto Maple Leafs had played with a lead for a grand total of six minutes.


The last time Mariano Rivera gave up runs in different innings in the same game was June 1999, and he has never done it in the post-season (ref: Ed Price). His career postseason stats are unbelievable:

Division Series: 34 games, 51.1 IP, 0.35 ERA, 0.58 WHIP
League Championship Series: 30 games, 45.2 IP, 0.99 ERA, 0.83 WHIP
World Series: 20 games, 31 IP, 1.16 ERA, 0.97 WHIP.

Sure, he gets worse as the post-season goes on, but his “bad” is everyone else’s “amazing”. It’s people like him, Andy Pettitte, and Derek Jeter that make it harder and harder to hate the Yankees. But I’m doing my best.