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.

Gusev Set To Bolster Vegas' Odds

In 2018 the Vegas Golden Knights shocked the hockey world by making it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals in their inaugural season.

Many believe the 2019 edition of the boys from the desert is an even better team than last year.

And they are about to get even better. The Knights are on the verge of signing perhaps the best player outside of the National Hockey League.

26 year old forward Nikita Gusev's contract with KHL SKA St. Petersburg has expired after the team was knocked out of the conference finals of the playoffs. This season Gusev scored 82 points in 62 games, the second most points in the league this season. Last season Gusev was named as the KHL's Most Valuable Player and led the Russians to the Olympic gold medal.

It will be interesting to see how Gusev fits in. The Knights are a team that thrives on their unshakable chemistry. Injecting a new player into the mix could be a bit dangerous. Gusev is clearly good, but it is still a jump from the KHL to the NHL, and an even bigger jump yet to Stanley Cup playoffs. The difference in intensity between the NHL regular season last week and the Stanley Cup playoffs this week is amazing.

It is in the Knights' best interest to sign Gusev regardless. Due to the rules, he can only sign a one year contract and becomes a restricted free agent this summer and they can presumably sign him long term. If they don't sign him until this summer, he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2020

April 11, 2019

How A Hockey Sweater Saved A World War II Prisoner Of War

Note the jerseys of the 1939 World Champion Trail Smoke Eaters. That jersey may have saved the life of the Canadian prisoner of war in World War II.

Prior to the start of World War II the Smokies went on a barnstorming tour of Europe and then represented Canada at the World Championships. Upon their successful return to British Columbia, Smoke Eater Mickey Brennan gave his well worn sweater to fan Steve Saprunoff as a souvenir.

Saprunoff later enrolled in the Canadian Air Force, and was called into action in Europe in World War II. He always wore his trusty Smoke Eaters jersey on missions. Even on the day in 1944 his plane was shot down in German territory and he became prisoner of war.

Obviously, being a POW is not an envious position to be in. But Saprunoff was fortunate to have the Smoke Eaters jersey with him, as it earned him a German friend.

The prison guard recognized Saprunoff's Smoke Eaters' jersey. It seems that the guard had seen the Smoke Eaters play in Berlin on Christmas Day, 1938. The guard held the Smokies in high regard, and took pity on his prisoner. The guard would provide extra food for Saprunoff until he and the other prisoners were transferred to another internment camp.

Somehow Saprunoff was returned to Canada with the jersey in tow. It is said he continued to wear the jersey until it literally fell apart.

April 06, 2019

The Kid Who Was Better Than Gretzky

The World Juniors are always great entertainment for hockey fans. At least here in Canada the Christmas-time tourney is the most anticipated event on the hockey schedule outside of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

These kids are some impressive in the way they handle the immense pressures they face. The media and fan exposure, especially when the tournament is held in Canada, is unlike anything most of these kids have ever encountered. Then there is pressures from coaches and national federations. And, oh yeah! NHL and other scouts are judging their every move, and therefore greatly impacting their lifelong hockey dreams.

Not often enough are the pressures of youth and junior hockey stars face brought to the forefront. Even midget level kids and below are often targets of on ice bullies, hazing teammates and unrelenting parents, sometimes their own. Teenagers are pressured into leaving their home, often move 100s of miles away, to pursue an unrealistic NHL dream or at least a US college scholarship. If they are really good, they have to deal with growing distractions from NHL scouts and agents, pressuring coaches and physical trainers, pesky media, and outside interests.

And all this before they graduate high school. Oh yeah, education, that all-too-often forgotten about demand.

When you think about it, it is amazing as many of these kids make it as far as they do. For many, the game ceases to be fun.

You have to wonder for every Wayne Gretzky who thrived in these conditions, how many other great hockey players quit early or burned out.

The answer is many. Take for example Bob Goodish.

Goodish was a superstar youngster who played against Gretzky from ages 8 through 16, from peewee hockey to the OHA. Goodish was a 6'0" 195 lb defenseman at age 14, a can't miss prospect that Gretzky will tell you was the best youth player he ever played against.

In an interview with Mike Brophy for the book Total Gretzky, Gretzky said this of Goodish:
"I can always remember my dad saying, 'Play like (Goodish) and you'll play in the NHL. He had everything; he had speed, he had hockey sense, he had size. In peewee he was probably a better player than me."
Now that is saying something. He later called Goodish the best minor hockey player he had ever seen, with Paul Reinhart a close second.

Goodish would join the OHA's London Knights, but would soon fizzle out. His undistinguished junior career got him no interest from the NHL draft, only a training camp tryout offer from the Colorado Rockies. He turned it down, heading off to university instead. He got a degree in business, and became a stock broker and mutual fund salesman.

In the same Brophy article, Goodish said:
"I was a victim of junior hockey. A lot of people took the fun out of the game for me, the way they treated people. The coaches, the managers, the owners, they're in it to make money. I understand that. The thing is, (we were) just kids."
There is no doubt in my mind that some kid, somewhere quit the game as a teenager because it no longer was fun for him. I have no idea who that player was, but his unfulfilled destiny was to become the greatest player in the history of hockey.