April 24, 2019

Who was William M Jennings?

When last we talked we discussed the evolution of the Vezina Trophy, which included the creation of the William M. Jennings Trophy for the goalies on the team with the fewest goals against.

The obvious next question on this tangent would have to be who was William M. Jennings? Now good hockey fans know Georges Vezina was an early goaltending legend. But you'd be hard pressed to find any hockey fan who knows who William M. Jennings was.

Jennings was an Ivy League lawyer from New York, who despite never playing hockey as a youth became an important player in the history of the New York Rangers. It started was a key lawyer in the acquisition of Madison Square Gardens followed by, starting at the age of just 41, becoming president of the Rangers in 1962.  Under his watch he brought in Emile Francis as his key hockey man and the two returned the Rangers the relevancy over the coming years.

Jennings also worked closely with the NHL on the 1967 expansion and helped spearhead the NHL's first US television deal (with CBS). For his efforts, he was given the Lester Patrick Trophy for outstanding contributions to hockey in the US in 1971. He was enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame the next year.

"I don't think he knew the first thing about hockey when the Rangers thing fell in his lap," Francis said many years later. "But it wasn't long before he was pulling a lot of strings behind the scenes in the league. He was the driving force behind expansion."

Jennings died in 1981 as the 60 year old voracious smoker lost a short battle with throat cancer. When the new goaltending trophy was created shortly thereafter, Jennings was honored by the league in the naming ceremony.

Game Seven For The Ages

There are few things more magical than game seven in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

And one of the most amazing game sevens in the history of the game occurred on Tuesday.

The Vegas Golden Knights seemingly had a solid 3-0 lead in the second half of the third period. Cody Eakin takes a five minute major penalty, and the San Jose Sharks attack, scoring four times in less than four minutes to take the lead on home ice!

But hold off the victory party. Vegas scores the tying goal in the final minute with their goalie pulled. The only thing better than game seven is overtime in game seven!

The extra stanza was played at a blistering pace, but the Sharks seemed more energized. Barclay Goodrow scored to end an epic comeback both in the game and in the bitter seven game series.

We have seen a lot of great hockey this spring. But no game was better than that!

April 21, 2019

Bunny Larocque And The Controversy That Changed The Vezina Trophy

The Vezina trophy is one of the most heralded trophies in all of hockey. Named after early goaltending great Georges Vezina of the Montreal Canadiens, the trophy is given annually to the goalie who was deemed to have had the best season.

When the trophy was first awarded in the 1926-27 season, a year after Vezina died of tuberculosis. How they determined the top goaltender has changed over time, however. Nowadays the general manager of each NHL team votes as to who they believe is the best goalkeeper that season. Originally the trophy was supposed to the goalie with the lowest goals against average. But from 1947-1982 it was awarded to the goaltender of the team who allowed the fewest goals in the regular season.

Now in 1947 that formula could work, given that each team only really used one goalie. But it was still a sore point for some. Jacques Plante won the Vezina time and time again when he played for the powerhouse Montreal Canadiens, totalling seven in his career. Goalies on weaker teams never stood a chance. Look at poor Al Rollins, winner of the Hart Trophy as the league MVP in 1954 with the sad-sack Chicago Blackhawks. Rollins only won 12 of the 66 games he played that season, but played so spectacularly that he was given the Hart. Of course, he did not win the Vezina because he was hung out to dry by his teammates.

Using a more famous Chicago goalie as an example, let's look at the interesting case of "Mr. Goalie" Glenn Hall. When it comes to determining the greatest goaltender of all time, the debate usually circles around three goalies from two different eras - Patrick Roy, Dominik Hasek and Martin Brodeur in more modern times, and Terry Sawchuk, Jacques Plante and Glenn Hall in Original Six times. It's tough to compare Vezina trophy wins, isn't it? A more telling metric back in hockey's golden era would have been First All Star Team nominations. Only three times was Plante given top All Star billing. Hall was named the best seven times!

While this made for good debate points back then, it was not until the late 1970s that the clamor for change finally resulted in the Vezina Trophy being a voted-upon award. The William M. Jennings Award was created to replace the award for the goalie that allowed the fewest goals. No one really cares about the Jennings trophy though. Everyone knows, now anyway, that the top goalie gets the Vezina.

The problem in the 1960s and 1970s was it was now common practice for every team to use two goalies in a season. And many teams were using their back up goalies for significant portions of the season. Foreseeing this, the NHL changed the rules in 1965 so that in goalies must have played in at least 25 games in a season if they were to share the trophy with the starter. From 1965 through 1982 goalies shared the Vezina most years.

At first it wasn't a huge issue because legends were winning. Johnny Bower and Terry Sawchuk shared it one year. Plante and Hall even shared it one year. But once lesser known goalies like Denis Dejordy and Gilles Villemure were winning the Vezina, people started questioning the process. And the discussion began really roaring in the late 1970s when Bunny Larocque, playing the shadows of the great Ken Dryden in Montreal, became a four time Vezina trophy winner.

Oddly enough, the controversy that finally changed the Vezina trophy involved Larocque in the year after Ken Dryden retired. Montreal had another dominant season, and allowed the fewest goals. But they could not settle on a goaltender. Larocque was given the torch initially, playing in 28 games. But a slice on his hand prevented him from continuing on, and then he lost his starter job to rookies Denis Herron and Richard Sevigny. Larocque complained to the press, and was traded to Toronto.

Cue the problem. For a period of time it looked like neither Herron or Sevigny were going to get to the minimum 25 game threshold. Herron broke his collarbone, and Sevigny did not start playing until midway through the season. Somehow there was a real possibility that the Vezina trophy would go to a goalie who no longer played with the team that allowed the fewest goals!

Ultimately Herron and Sevigny both got into 25 games, and all three shared the trophy, even though Larocque was in Toronto. Still, with all due respect to this trio, they never should have won a trophy for the best goaltender. That season that should have gone to Mike Liut who was so good he normally would have won the Hart Trophy as league MVP if it was not for some young hot shot named Wayne Gretzky.

The next season the trophy was reworked so that the managers vote on the top goalies. Controversies still pop up now and again, but at least the winner now truly is worthy of being called the top goalie in hockey.

April 17, 2019

Pucks On The 'Net: Leafs vs Bruins

Through the first two games the Toronto/Boston series has been a nasty war at times, climaxing with Nazem Kadri's awful cross-check to the head of Jake DeBrusk.

But there was a noticeable difference in game three. And it was a direct result of the Kadri incident, though not necessarily what we expected.

Many would expect Toronto would struggle without the suspended Kadri, who, before his boneheaded hit, was a key player in game two. But instead of resorting to Boston's style of play - which Kadri is excellent at - Toronto found a way to play a speedier, skill game and take the win in game 3 and take a 2-1 series lead. They played their game and Boston couldn't match on that night.

In calming down Boston's chaotic game plan, the Leafs got a big assist from the NHL and the officials.

It seems the NHL has cracked down on the officiating. It started the night before game 3 in Toronto. It is noticeable in all series.

The officials had been fairly lenient at the beginning of the post-season, leading to a lot of emotional blow ups. There have been incidents in nearly all series, most notably in Boston/Toronto and Vegas/San Jose. But the NHL has seemingly issued a mid-round-one mandate to make more calls and managing the games better. They want to keep a lid on the boiling-over pot of emotional hockey playoffs before it leads to more incidents like we are seeing.

That is good news for the Toronto Maple Leafs. And as enjoyable as the wars of the first round have been, it is good news for hockey fans.

Pucks On The 'Net: Tampa Bay Lightning

With 62 wins in the regular season, the Tampa Bay Lightning had a historic season and faced high expectations in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Needless to say, losing four straight games to the eighth seed Columbus Blue Jackets certainly did not meet those expectations.

Of course now the hockey world will label the Lightning as soft and chokers, which is just silly. And there will be calls for change in Tampa Bay, which is fair comment.

The nature of the salary cap will for the Lightning to change regardless if they went 0-4 or 16-0 in this post season. They have three veteran unrestricted free agents on the blue line - Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi and Braydon Coburn - who, unless they take a discount, are unlikely to return. The Lightning have to sign Brayden Point and that won't be cheap, and they have a few too many no-movement clauses restricting their ability to move out some salary.

So there will be change in Tampa, but there is no need to blow things up. This is a very good team that fell behind the eight ball early in the series and could never go on track. The parity in the NHL these days is unreal.

All the talk is of the Lightning's shortcomings, but not enough credit is being given to the Columbus Blue Jackets. They are a loaded team that underwhelmed at times during the regular season. They finished down the stretch red-hot and have carried it into the playoffs. At this point they have as good a chance as anyone to make it to the Stanley Cup Final. They will face the winner of the Boston/Toronto series in the next round.

April 15, 2019

What A Weekend of Hockey

There are no shortage of story lines to explore right now.

What has gone wrong for the Tampa Bay Lightning, now down 3-0 to the Columbus Blue Jackets? The Winnipeg Jets have gotten back into their series with the St. Louis Blues. Sidney Crosby continues be blanketed by the New York Islanders, who lead the Penguins 3-0 as well. And the Leafs and Bruins are getting nasty. Too bad the referees are keeping their whistle in their pocket a little too long in that one.

Speaking of refereeing, the biggest story this weekend comes from outside of the Stanley Cup playoffs entirely.

Somehow the Finnish women's hockey team got screwed royally in the gold medal game of the Women's World Hockey Championships. The host nation upset Canada for their first appearance in the gold medal game, and then clearly scored a good goal against USA in overtime to win the championship.

Wait a second. Actually wait a long while. After a lengthy deliberation, the officials decided the goal should not count. The Americans then won the world title in the dreaded shoot-out.

Congratulations to the Americans. They are clearly the world power in women's hockey for a while now. But the best story in women's hockey would have been Finland winning. It's got to sting to lose like that. Because they clearly should have won.

Another note on the the Stanley Cup playoffs - what a difference a week makes. The intensity of the play in the opening few games is at such a higher level than most games in the regular season. It truly is every hockey fan's dream.

April 13, 2019

Canada Finnished At Women's Worlds

Hockey history was made in Espoo, Finland this weekend.

The Finnish women's hockey team beat Canada for the first time ever in an IIHF playoff game. Finland now will play the heavily favored American's in the gold medal game.

This marks the first time in the 19 year history of women's World Championships that Canada has not played for gold. Canada has not won gold since 2012.

Canada has fallen behind America as the world hockey power on the women's side of the game. That may be inevitable given their population advantage. And it is good to see European women's teams continuing to improve.

But clearly Hockey Canada has some work to do with the women's game.