December 06, 2019

Grapes on Spotify

Say whatever you want about Don Cherry. But "you people" (which is now Canadian for "everyone") need to listen to his podcast on Spotify.

Don Cherry's Grapevine revives his old tv show from the 1980s. Back then he talked with ol' time hockey greats like King Clancy and Rocket Richard, sharing stories about the likes of Eddie Shore and Larry Cahan.

Some of that footage is used again now to tell more stories. Son Tim asks Cherry the questions but basically just winds him up and lets him go. Where he goes nobody knows. And those are often the best parts of the show. Such as his story of his dog Blue getting into it with a skunk!

I have not been a big fan of Coaches Corner for some time by any means. But I like this new show. In fact I say this is Don Cherry at his best for the first time in years.

December 01, 2019

Alex Burrows Improbable NHL Career

I know the rest of the league hates Alex Burrows. But I truly believe if you knew the long odds he has over come, knew the quality person he is off the ice, and were able to watch him objectively over a period of time, that every hockey fan could only have the highest respect for Alex Burrows.

Sure he's an agitator. But his play is clutch and his hockey sense is elite. Don't believe me? Is it a coincidence that the Sedin twins rise to superstardom occurred with Burrows on their wing? Or that the Vancouver Canucks arrival as a true Stanley Cup contender has followed Burrows rise as a top NHL player?

He does not get a lot of respect outside of Vancouver, as he is a victim of perception that he has definitely outgrown. He has become far more than an agitator. No one can question his tireless work ethic and passion for the game, Now he is one of the league's top players. Heck, even when he established himself as a regular NHL player, no one ever predicted he would be playing right wing on the best line in all of hockey. But with his skating and hockey sense he excels at both ends of the ice, be it as a clutch scorer or as a top penalty killer. There was some talk he was on Steve Yzerman's radar for the 2010 Canadian Olympic team even.

It has been an amazing ride for Alex Burrows, a ride he has reflected upon recently as his plays his 500th NHL game against Nashville on Tuesday. There was a time when even Burrows never dreamed this was possible. He was never drafted by a NHL team, never much of a pro prospect coming out of junior. He was playing hockey outposts such as Greenville, South Carolina and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was very much a player who was never supposed to make it. But somehow he overcame long odds to not only make it, but to become one of the NHL's best players.

From Brad Ziemer of the Vancouver Sun recently caught up with Burrows to discuss the unlikeliest of success stories:
He remembers long bus rides, punctuated by stops at places like McDonald's and Subway to help the players stretch their paltry per diems. And he remembers that all anyone seemed to care about in those places was college football and basketball. A hockey puck was a foreign object.

It was a tough environment in which to chase your NHL dream, especially for a player like Burrows who had been passed up in the NHL draft.

"It was always a dream to play in the NHL and it was really a big dream sometimes with those long bus rides," Burrows said before the Canucks departed Monday for Nashville. "You are going to games where there are no scouts and no one really cares about hockey. It's all about college football, college basketball, that's all people really care about. It's tough to get out of there."
Here's the full story.

November 28, 2019

Garry Unger

It may be hard to believe nowadays, but there was a time when the Detroit Red Wings were the weakest of the weak in hockey. Head back to the late 1960s and especially the 1970s. They were ridiculously outpaced by their Original Six counterparts. Even most NHL expansion teams and even some of the WHA teams were stronger than the Red Wings.

The Red Wings made some real bonehead moves back then. Most notably they alienated a young Marcel Dionne and later let him get away. Another young star they chased out of town was Garry Unger, all because of his hair.

In 1971 the Wings had an old school coach named Ned Harkness. In some ways he was the epitome of the later day Mike Keenan, a strict authoritarian who would make unreasonable demands, but without Keenan's success.

Harkness and Unger clashed almost immediately. Unger, who scored 42 goals as a sophomore in 1969-70, had a somewhat misplaced reputation as a playboy. He was good looking with rosy cheeks, and he wore colorful clothes. His signature had to be his shoulder length blonde hair. He was known to use a hair dryer as much as a hockey blade torch. And hey it must have worked, as he was dating Miss America in 1970.

It may have been the 70s, but Harkness would have none of this. He ordered all of his players to get crew-cuts. Unger refused, and on February 6th, 1971 he, Tim Ecclestone and Wayne Connelly were traded to St. Louis in exchange for expansion scoring star Red Berenson. It turned out to be a terrible trade for the Wings.

Berenson had a couple of solid seasons in Detroit, but he was near the end. Connelly and Ecclestone would go on to become solid NHL players, while Unger erupted in St. Louis. In each of his 8 seasons as Mr. Blue he scored at least 30 goals. Year-in and year-out he would lead the Blues in most offensive categories.

Of course Unger also became known as Mr. Ironman. Unger never missed a game until December 22, 1979, then playing with the Atlanta Flames. He participated in 914 consecutive NHL games, breaking Andy Hebenton's record of 630 games in the process. The ironman record has since been upped to 964 games by Doug Jarvis.

Unger said :...back then it was difficult for me to complain about a sore ankle or leg when I knew that in two weeks it was going to fine, yet my sister was never going to be able to walk again.” His sister suffered from polio, but despite that she “could be so peaceful and happy with her life despite the fact that she couldn’t walk.”

Unger also tamed his playboy image while in St. Louis, too. Unger moved into the guest house of the Blue's owner's ranch some 40 miles from downtown St. Louis. Unger loved the horses and the outdoors. Instead of partying in the city for a night on the town, he spent more of his free time dirt biking, mountain climbing and water skiing.

Unger always remained a free spirit. One off-season he decided to drive cross-country in a convertible with the top down. Even when he hit heavy rains he would keep the rag top collapsed, claiming "it gave me a sense of accomplishment."

Unger accomplished a lot in life, thanks to hockey. But he was never the most likely candidate to become a hockey star. His father, a member of the Canadian Army, build a rink in the backyard of the family home in Edmonton. Garry was given a pair of skates, but they were girl's figure skates. Undaunted, Garry painted them back and taught himself to skate.

Much of Garry's formal hockey development occurred in Calgary, where his father was transferred. The Toronto Maple Leafs signed Unger to a C-form in the days before the creation of a entry draft. He would move to southern Ontario and play with the London Nationals.

Garry barely had a chance to play for the Leafs. He got into just 15 NHL games with the Leafs before he was included in the big Frank Mahovlich trade to Detroit. Unger, Mahovlich and Pete Stemkowski headed to the Motor City in exchange for a package including Carl Brewer, Norm Ullman, and Paul Henderson.

Garry Unger moved to Detroit where his famous battle over his hair would be waged. Towards the end of his career he came to realize that perhaps success came too early in Detroit, and that the best thing that ever happened to him was the trade to St. Louis where he would escape the limelight somewhat and mature as a person and a player.

Late in his career Unger would be able pass these lessons on to budding NHL superstars Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Paul Coffey. Unger finished his career with parts of three seasons in his hometown of Edmonton.

Unger retired from the NHL in 1983. He played in 1105 games, scored 413 goals, 391 assists and 804 total points.

He would briefly come out of retirement and play in Great Britain later in the 1980s. His playboy lifestyle well behind him, he became quite religious while spending much of his post-playing days riding buses and coaching the low minor leagues.

November 20, 2019

Babcock Gone

Even though it was not a surprise, somehow it still comes in as a shocker. The Toronto Maple Leafs fired Mike Babcock on Wednesday.

Two important numbers to note: 50 million, and 2.

50 million some odd bucks is what the Leafs paid Babcock to come to Toronto to lead them to the promise land. That's a lot of money even for the filthy rich Leafs.

2 as in the number of regulation time wins the Leafs have had in the last 16 games under Babcock. Hockey is a results oriented business. Bottom line, the results were not there.

Babcock was the much ballyhooed best coach in hockey when he came to Toronto. He got that reputation largely with his Team Canada Olympic success, as well as the Stanley Cup with Anaheim back in 2008 with Detroit. He has also won at the World Juniors, World Championships and World Cup - the only coach in history with all of these titles on his resume. The guy is a winner.

But clearly there was dissension in Toronto. Perhaps there dislike between coach and players. That's okay. Winning teams don't necessarily have to like their coach as long as they respect him. Most likely there was discord between coach and GM. It's long been rumored that new school GM Kyle Dubas and old school Babcock did not get along.

It's a ballsy move by Dubas. I don't care how rich the Maple Leafs are. The owners have to raise an eyebrow when they look at how much they are now going to pay Babcock not to coach. But Sheldon Keefe was always Dubas' coach in waiting.

Interesting that this move happens while on the road. That will help shelter Dubas and Keefe from the media onslaught. All they have to do is win some games on the road and they can home to a much friendlier confine.

After all, it is a results oriented business.

November 17, 2019

Welcome to HHOF: Hayley Wickenheiser

Did you know that Hayley Wickenheiser is the only the first year eligible player entering the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2019?

That says about all you need to know about Wickenheiser's importance to the game. The Hall of Fame has unintentionally created two classes of Hall of Famers - those who get in right away, and those who have to wait a while.

Those who get in right away are the true legends of the game. And Wickenheiser most certainly is that.

Here's more from the CBC:

Hayley Wickenheiser 'Changed The Game' On Way To Hockey Hall of Fame: CBC

Not bad for a girl who used to slink into the arena, hoping to go unnoticed, to play a game that belonged, at the time, to boys and men.

"I remember having a lot of anxiety going to the rink," says Wickenheiser, 41. "I didn't want to deal with people going, 'Oh, there's the girl.'"

Wickenheiser after receiving her Hall of Fame ring on Friday in Toronto. (Getty Images) In terms of getting into her hockey gear, she said, "I was a home-changer, or I would change in a bathroom stall or wherever they would put me. I had a lot of stress." With her hair cut short to avoid detection, she routinely hustled to the dressing room to join the boys on her team — pretending to not hear the verbal barbs along the way.

"When I got on the ice, I felt free, because no one could touch me there," she says. "It was my safe place. I felt like I was good. I belonged."

Did she ever — much to the chagrin of some parents of kids on the opposing teams.

"I think it was a lot of abuse because I was a good player from a young age," she says. "So I did attract a lot of attention to myself. I heard and saw a lot of stuff that I would hope today a little girl playing with boys wouldn't have to go through."

Read the full CBC story 

Welcome to HHOF: Sergei Zubov

Sergei Zubov was an amazing hockey player who somehow always escaped the limelight and accolades that were always present for peers like Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Nicklas Lidstrom and one time teammate Brian Leetch.

Yet make no mistake - Sergei Zubov was in their class of excellence.

Sergei Zubov played in 16 NHL seasons, putting up impressive totals: 1068 games played, 152 goals, 619 assists and 771 points. In doing so Zubov became the third European defenseman (Nicklas Lidstrom and Borje Salming) and the first Russian defenseman to record 700 career NHL points

He is also the only defenseman in NHL history to lead a first overall place team in scoring. Bobby Orr didn't even do that.

Zubov did that in 1994, the same year he played an instrumental role in helping the Rangers capture the Stanley Cup, giving Conn Smythe Trophy winner Brian Leetch a serious challenge for best defenseman on the team.

Right from Zubov's debut in the NHL he was recognized as one of hockey's smoothest and most intelligent defensemen. He was a brilliant skater, both in terms of speed and lateral ability, and puck handler. The right handed defenseman was a great power play quarterback, seeing the ice incredibly well. He had a good and accurate shot, when he was not reluctant to use it. Where he would get himself into trouble was when he would overhandle the puck at the point. Instead of just putting the puck on net or dumping the puck into the corner when he was pressured, Zubov often tried to make a play out of nothing, making for dangerous turnovers.

Zubov matured into a fantastic two way player, outgrowing rookie over-indulgance for offense at the expense of defense. Because of his skating he was tough to beat one-on-one. He had good size and did not shy away in physical games, although he would never himself play a mean game. He relied more on his reach and agility.

Forget about mean. Some people actually criticized Zubov for not showing enough emotion in games. This notion was rediculous, an absolute sign of misunderstanding hockey greatness. Zubov was raised in the old Soviet Union, and was trained to be a coldly analytical defenseman like Viacheslav Fetisov or Alexander Ragulin. Hockey was like chess to these guys. They dissected the game into mathematics and probabilities. They played the game with a computer's mindset rather than by raw instinct.

For all his obvious brilliance and his consistently impressive campaigns, only once was he a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenseman. That was in 2005-06, an amazing thirteen years into his impressive career. The same year he made his only post-season All Star team.

At the height of his game was a masterful blue line catalyst, not unlike Mark Howe or boyhood idol Viacheslav Fetisov.

Part of the reason why he was never recognized as a truly elite defenseman was the fact that it took him a long time to shake his reputation as a high-risk defenseman. True, he made his fair share of bad breakout passes and pinches, but that has to be expected with offensive defensemen. He matured into less of a gambler upon his arrival in Dallas. Not everyone knew that though, because aside from the 1999 Stanley Cup championship run, the Stars were rarely in the national focus.

Another reason may have been his unceremonious departure from Pittsburgh. A year after the Rangers' Stanley Cup victory Zubov was moved with Petr Nedved to Pittsburgh in a blockbuster deal for Ulf Sameulsson and Luc Robitaille. Despite putting up 66 points in 64 regular season games and 15 points in a long 18 game playoff run, Zubov would be moved once again at the end of the season, this time Dallas where he is best remembered. A popular theory out there has Mario Lemieux chasing Zubov out of town because he was not happy with Zubov on the power play. Both players needed to be in control of the puck. Problem was there was only one puck on the ice!

Over the next decade in Dallas Zubov matured into a consistent defenseman at both ends of the ice. Zubov's point totals may have settled just a touch in Dallas, but he was every bit a key Dallas component towards success as Brett Hull or Mike Modano or Derian Hatcher were.

In the summer of 2009 Sergei Zubov returned home to Russia, signing with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL for a final season.

November 12, 2019

Sour Grapes

The inevitable happened over the past weekend. The most shocking thing probably is that it took so long.

Don Cherry was fired from Hockey Night In Canada for making controversial statements. The possibility of firing him has probably happened more than a few times over his 30 years with CBC/Rogers. He has said a lot worse.

I suspect Rogers was thrilled that "Grapes" finally tripped up this season. The network has been cutting great talent because of the enormous weight of their budget due to the NHL contract. Bob McCown, John Shannon, Nick Kypreos, Darren Millard are but a few who have been let go recently. Long time mainstays who were good at their job, but were casualties of the budget.

It is presumed that Cherry made more than all of them. Probably significantly more.The problem was Rogers couldn't cut Cherry. His Coach's Corner segment was the biggest draw for the network. Even at his price tag, he made them money. For all that is wrong with Cherry, people watched and he made his network a lot of money.

Rogers couldn't justify cutting Cherry until he screwed up. Perhaps it was the Coach's Corner sponsor, Budweiser, that made the final call? Perhaps it was Roger's convenient out? We may never know.

Now he is 85 years old. He could just call it quits and not care anymore. Or he could reappear, likely next season, and be a force. Does TSN give him a spot somewhere, knowing it would be a ratings killer? Or does Cherry hire someone to help him become a social media star. He could be very popular on YouTube.

Many people are gleefully dumping on Cherry this week. For what happened on the weekend is rightful. But his many enemies are dumping on him mostly just for being Don Cherry, the only man who became bigger than Hockey Night in Canada.

Somehow I think we have not heard the last from Don Cherry yet.