Hockey History Proof Time Doesn’t Stop

November 26, 2011

From left to right: former NHL stars Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Steve Yzerman, and Patrick Roy

It’s a Canadian tradition…one that may be a bit frayed these days.

Hockey Night in Canada.  Names like Bob Cole.  Harry Neale.  Dick Irvin.  Ron MacLean.  Chris Cuthburt, Don Wittman, and Foster Hewitt filled our Saturday evenings, either by radio or by television.  We watched the greats of the past, listened to the images that the radio announcers painted…and for many of us, we dreamed.

Dreamed of clean ice.  Dreamed of crisp winter days and frozen ponds.  For many of us, 6:30am practices at the local arena were the norm.  Our breath could be seen in the cold early morning air.  Layers of snow would coat the landscapes around us, and the sparkles could be seen as the light of the moon would reflect off the snow.  Sometimes, light snow would fall, and for any of us who can remember these moments, added a sense of surrealism to the scene.  Anyone who has laced on a pair of skates knows what I am referring to.

Hockey has its own set of memories.  Names like Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Patrick Roy filled my childhood hockey memories.  I can hear the calls of the likes of Bob Cole and Chris Cuthburt calling the plays of these amazing players.  I can still remember the two Stanley Cup championships the Penguins won in 1991 and 1992 like it was yesterday.  Today, I picked up a stats book published by the NHL and thumbed through the names.  It was a review of the 2009-10 season, and suddenly, it hit me like a ton of bricks.

The NHL has been in existence since 1917.  Many names have come and gone.  We hear of the great names of the 1950s and 1960s.  Those my age have never had the privilege of watching those names play hockey…but we watch the replays and marvel at the way the game was played then.  We also see the sadness of those who have watched these names, and I realize now that not only do these names represent a more innocent age for these people…it also reminds them of the passage of time.

As I thumbed through the book of stats, the lack of names I recognized shocked me.  When I was a child, it never once occurred to me that the players I was watching would one day not be playing.  The likes of Lemieux and Gretzky dazzled their fans in so many ways, for so long, that it never crossed my mind that like every NHL generation, age would catch up to even these immortal players.  It never once registered that retirement would claim even these players.

Now the names of Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, and Carey Price grace the covers of NHL game programs.  And they are very deserving.  They are amazing players, and I hope the younger generation who watched these players debut in the NHL cling to every memory these athletes give them.  Especially with the concussion problems Crosby has recently overcome; don’t take these players’ gifts for granted.  They are fleeting.

In 1997, Mario Lemieux announced his retirement from the NHL.  I wrote a column in the local newspaper about what players like Lemieux meant to the NHL.  Of course, I could never know at the time that Lemieux would come back in 2000 to thrill his fans once again.  At the time, the reality of time became a poignant intrusion into my 19 year old life.  It was then I realized fully that time moves on, with or without these players I cherished for so long.

It can be said that the sports world is a universe, and each pro league is a galaxy in this broad universe.  Every galaxy has their stars…the athletes who comprise the teams.  But superstars are the shooting stars…athletes that come along and light up the galaxy (and sometimes the universe) with their skills and gifts.  But like shooting stars, their journey is brief when compared to the passage of time.

Wayne Gretzky.  Gordie Howe.  Bobby Orr.  Guy LaFleur.  Jacques Plante.  Mario Lemieux.  Patrick Roy.  Steve Yzerman.  Grant Fuhr.  Paul Coffey.  Ray Bourque.  All these names lit up the NHL galaxy during their playing days…and they could be joined by so many more.  But like shooting stars, their careers are brief and fleeting.  Enjoy these players while they play…the time for retirement draws too near too soon…and in every retirement of a superstar, another shooting star fades away, leaving behind memories of their skills…and the lament of time lost too soon.

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Penguins Have a Flair for Dramatic Returns

November 21, 2011

Pittsburgh, oh Pittsburgh…how you have spoiled us with dramatic NHL returns!

January 26, 1991…after spending over half the season sidelined by back surgery and a subsequent infection, Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Mario Lemieux stepped onto Quebec Colisee ice and notched three assists in a 6-5 Pens win over the Quebec Nordiques.  As any Penguins diehard will tell you, that sparked a run that eventually resulted in Pittsburgh claiming their first ever Stanley Cup championship that May.

March 2, 1993…the same Mario Lemieux returned from cancer treatments to record a goal and assist against the Philadelphia Flyers in a 4-3 Flyers win.  The normally hostile Flyers fans give Lemieux a standing ovation.  Although the Penguins fell in the second round of the 1993 playoffs, Lemieux took home the Hart, Art Ross, Masterton, and Lester Pearson awards while averaging 2.67 points per game.  Had Lemieux remained healthy at that production, he was on pace to record 224 points in 84 games, easily surpassing Wayne Gretzky’s record of 215 points in a season.

October 7, 1995…once again, defying the odds, Mario Lemieux, after sitting out the entire 1994-95 season, stepped onto NHL ice again.  Always one with a dramatic flair, Lemieux notched four assists as the Penguins outscored the Toronto Maple Leafs 8-4.  The Penguins would advance to the 1996 Conference Finals before falling to the Florida Panthers.  Lemieux would record the NHL’s last 150+ point season with 161 points.

The comeback trail for the Penguins would remain quiet until December 27, 2000.  After he retired in 1997, Mario Lemieux shocked the hockey world by announcing he would suit up again for the Pens.  He made his return two days after Christmas 2000, scoring a goal and recording two assists in a 5-0 Pens win over the Maple Leafs.  He would finish with 76 points in 43 games.

Now, we have yet another comeback for Pens Nation to cheer for.  After suffering twin blows to the head, receiving a severe concussion in the process, Sidney Crosby returned to the Penguins lineup on November 21, 2011.  The location:  Console Energy Center in Pittsburgh.  The opponent:  the New York Islanders.  The result:  a 5-0 victory for the Penguins.  Crosby’s result:  two goals and two assists for a four point night.

There’s something special about a star athlete making a comeback and performing at a level none expected.  No one…not even Sid himself…expected a four point output.  After ten months, questions arose about Crosby’s health, his drive, and his timing.  He put them all to rest.  Time will tell if his concussion is healed, if he can withstand the constant punishment of an NHL season.  But for now, the NHL universe is as it should be, with its brightest star shining bright on this cold November evening.  True hockey fans will admire his artistry, even if they aren’t Sidney Crosby fans.  And for Penguin fans…let’s enjoy this evening, as we got to witness yet another amazing return…as if the numerous returns of #66 weren’t enough, we are grateful and privileged to watch #87 shine bright in the Pittsburgh night.

Welcome back, Sidney Crosby.


Fans Owed Excitement?

November 11, 2011

 

 

 

 

 

So can a hockey game grind to a halt?

Apparently, in Tampa Bay, when the Flyers come to town, it can.

In a game this week between the Flyers and Lightning, it was the immovable object meeting the irresistable force.  The Lightning deployed their traditional 1-3-1 formation, a system of play that proved to be very effective in their Cinderella playoff run last season.  Some might argue the system is boring, but it is effective, and it got results.  The Flyers countered by…well, by not moving.

The two Flyer defensemen sat back in their own end, one with the puck, not moving, as the Lightning forechecker sat waiting for their first move.  None came.  Seconds literally ticked away as neither team acted on the puck.  Eventually the play was whistled dead, as even the officials didn’t know what to do.

Some are blaming the Tampa Bay coach for making the game boring, and not appealing to fans.  Some are blaming the Lightning system of play.

Are you kidding me?

It’s the coach’s mandate to win hockey games.  To devise a strategy to best lead their team to victory.  Have we ever seen a coach keep their job for long by being entertaining losers?  The losses pile up…but hey, they lost a “close” game 6-3 by being entertaining.  Give me a break.

It is the coach’s job to devise strategies to win.  It is the opposing coach’s job to develop a system to counter that strategy.  Say what you want about the Flyers’ “strategy”, they still lost.  So what is the real moral of the story?

Mock the Lightning trap all we want…applaud the Flyers as much as you want for “exposing” this strategy as “boring”…the bottom line still remains:

Lightning 2, Flyers 1.  In the cutthroat profession of coaching, results are what matters, and on this night, it was the Lightning and their boring system that got the results.

The Lightning coaches owe no one an exciting brand of hockey.  A true fan of the Lightning will look at the end result…a Lightning victory…as the source of true entertainment.  True hockey fans appreciate the wins, and the beauty of the systems that lead to that win…victories don’t always go to the most entertaining team.  They go to the team that has more goals than the other team.  If it comes as a result of a trap system, so be it.

 


Proving the Critics Wrong…Even the Critic in Me

November 6, 2011

Marc-Andre Fleury, goalie for the Pittsburgh Penguins, is pictured here moments after the final buzzer of Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup finals.

Marc-Andre Fleury has emerged as a star goalie in the National Hockey League.  To many critics, this statement would have never seemed possible.

When he was drafted first overall in the 2003 Entry Draft, many predicted that Fleury would be an average goalie in the NHL.  And for the first few years, his play proved the critics right.  He could be downright spectacular one night, brutally awful the next.  The biggest worry was consistency; a flashy glove save could be followed by a harmless long shot that found the back of the net.  There was no doubt the talent was there; the big questions surrounded his mental game.

I was one of the Penguin fans calling for an upgrade in goal.  Like many, I was frustrated by the sheer amount of talent not matching the on-ice performance.  Fleury seemed destined to join Rick DiPietro as a goalie picked first overall, and never living up to their billing.  Let’s face it, Islander friends, DiPietro has fallen victim to the injury plague, and may never finish an entire season healthy.

Fleury came into the NHL with both high hopes and many questions.  His performances in Cape Breton were magical.  But there was also the mental lapse in the World Juniors, banking the winning goal in off his own defenseman in an attempt to clear the puck.  With players such as Dion Phaneuf and Eric Staal available, the Pens raised a lot of eyebrows with the Fleury selection in 2003.  The years that followed only raised more questions, as his stats were among the worst in the NHL.  In his defense, playing for the worst team in the NHL didn’t do much to help him.

Now, I’m happy to see that I was wrong about Marc-Andre Fleury.  I don’t know what happened.  He went down with an injury in 2007-08, and when he returned, he sported a new set of white pads and displayed a level of play I had never seen.  He took the Pens to the 2008 Finals, and even there, the questions lingered.

The Red Wings defeated the Penguins in six games, and in the four losses, Fleury allowed at least one soft goal a game.  Questions still ran rampant about Fleury’s ability to win the big game.  Could he return the Pens to the Finals?

In 2009, he did indeed lead the Penguins to the Finals again.  And again, they faced the Red Wings.  And again, the Wings won the first two games.  History seemed destined to repeat itself, until Fleury and the rest of the Pens showed something they hadn’t shown in the previous Finals…mental fortitude.

They went on to defeat the Wings in seven games, with Fleury holding the fort during a last minute rush by the Red Wings.  He made a last second save on Nicklas Lidstrom that preserved the win, and Fleury…the goalie whom the critics said could never win the big game, was a Stanley Cup champion.

Fleury has averaged 30 wins a season in the last few years, and has been a huge part of the Penguins rising to the upper echelon of the NHL.  If anyone wants to doubt the value of Marc-Andre Fleury these days, they are not looking at the game through the right eyes.

And happily, he has made a believer out of me.  I can admit when I’m wrong.


Scrivens Leafs’ New “Save-ior”?

November 4, 2011

Ben Scrivens (shown in preseason play) made his debut for the Leafs with a 4-1 win over Columbus. Is he the real deal?

Whenever a rookie goalie makes a debut in the National Hockey League, expectations can often be overwhelming.  This is especially true in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs are one of the most watched and observed teams in the world.  Every action is scrutinized, analyzed, and criticized.  Leafs Nation wants a winner; it has been a long time since 1967.  It is this date that lives in infamous fashion, as it marks the last time the Leafs made it to the Stanley Cup Finals.  It was also the last year the Leafs won the Cup.

Since then, Leaf Nation has struggled through some hard times.  Goalies have come and gone.  Toronto developed a reputation of being a goalie graveyard, burying the likes of Jeff Reese, Andrew Raycroft, and Peter Ing.  It also gave birth to goaltending careers, with names like Felix Potvin and Justin Pogge starting their careers wearing the white and blue.

Names like Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour are forever linked with the Leafs legends, as these two stars made the Leafs instant contenders.  Joseph led the Leafs to the Conference Finals twice in 1999 and 2002.

Since Ed Belfour’s departure, the Leafs have struggled to find any consistency between the pipes.  Andrew Raycroft came from Boston as a Rookie of the Year winner…and crumbled under the pressure.  Vesa Toskala came from San Jose and quickly became a target of the Leafs Nation with his inferior play.  With no strength in goal, the Leafs fell into mediocrity and missed the playoffs every season since the lockout.  Until the emergence of James Reimer, Leafs fans have had no reason to believe their goaltending woes would end.  Reimer injected some life into Toronto, and almost singlehandedly led the Buds into the postseason last season, falling just short.

Entering this season, Leafs fans had lots of optimism with Reimer as their starter.  The kid can play; there’s no doubting that.  He is calm and focused, and rarely gets rattled.  He handles the pressure of Toronto well.  As Leafs luck would have it, Reimer went down with an “upper body injury” (apparently, Toronto players don’t suffer from concussions, just concussion-like symptoms), leaving Jonas Gustavsson as the starter, and rookie Ben Scrivens as a backup.

Ben Scrivens got his first start against Columbus on November 3, making 38 saves as the Maple Leafs won 4-1.  Scrivens played an exceptional game, riding the wave the Leafs are currently on.  As of November 3rd, the Leafs actually sit in first place in the National Hockey League.  The fans have erupted with the debut of Scrivens, some going as far as to suggest that the Leafs trade Gustavsson and go with Scrivens as Reimer’s backup.

Too much, too soon!  Perspective…the kid has played one game…count it, ONE game…in the NHL.  Adrenalin carries a person a long way, and one game does not a career make.  Scrivens is good…and has shown he has the tools to play at the NHL level.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Play the kid some more…put him in the hot seat when the Leafs play host to the Boston Bruins.  Give him a start against a league powerhouse.  One of two things will happen; he’ll prove to be the real deal, and challenge Gustavsson for the backup role, or prove he needs a little more AHL experience, and he’ll benefit from some more development with the Marlies.  Either way, the Leafs have a good problem, but they need to make sure they don’t expect too much, too soon, from this talented youngster.

Patience is a virtue, Leafs fans…let’s not forget that good things come to those who wait.