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.

November 11, 2019

Welcome To HHOF: Vaclav Nedomansky

When Vaclav Nedomansky defected to Canada in 1974 to play for the Toronto Toros in the WHA, not many people in North America realized what a great star he was back in Europe. Vaclav was 30-years old at the time and had a marvellous career behind him in the European rinks.

Young hockey players around Europe cherished his number 14 in the same way as North American kids cherished Gordie Howe's number 9, Guy Lafleur's number 10 or Bobby Orr's number 4. Vaclav was the ultimate hero for thousands of fans who loved the way he dominated games.

Vaclav was born in Hodonin, in what would now be the Czech Republic, but his parents were Slovaks.

Vaclav's talent was obvious very early on and he soon came to the Slovak club Slovan Bratislava where he played from 1962 until he left for North America 1974. During the 12 seasons in the Czechoslovakian league he scored a stunning 369 goals in 419 games. He led the league in scoring four times (1967, 71, 72 and 74).

He was not just a dominant force in the Czechoslovakian league but he was also super when he played for the Czechoslovakian national team. He scored 163 goals in 220 games and played in 10 World Championship tournaments between 1965-74 as well as two Olympic tournaments in 1968 and 1972.

In 1972 he was the offensive catalyst who led Czechoslovakia to a gold medal, breaking the Soviet dominance. He scored 15 points, including 9 goals, in the 10 games. The same year as he defected he led all goal scorers during the 1974 world championship tournament and was selected as the best forward of the tournament. He had also been a first All-Star three times (1969, 70 and 74) on the right wing.

Scouts and managers in the NHL were drooling over the 6'2" and 210 Ibs Slovak. He had all the tools necessary to become a star in the NHL. He not only had the size but he also possessed the best wrist shot in the world at that time. On a couple of occasions his wrist shot was reportedly clocked at 90 miles per hour which was harder than most players slap shots at that time.

When Vaclav came to the Toros he was teamed up with future Hall of Famer Frank Mahovlich. Even though Vaclav didn't set the league on fire upon his arrival, he nevertheless scored a very respectable 81 points (41 goals) in 78 games. The next season (1975-76) he had adapted a little more to the smaller rinks and showed his marvellous skills. He scored 56 goals and 98 points for the Toros. He won the Paul Deneau Trophy that season awarded to WHA's most gentlemanly player.

As the Toros moved to Birmingham in 1976 Vaclav continued to score goals, even though his production fell to "only" 36 goals during the 1976-77 season. He was then signed as a free agent by Detroit Red Wings on November 18, 1977. He was finally playing in the NHL, almost 10 years after NY Rangers GM Emile Francis had tried to lure him over to New York.

His first season in Detroit wasn't all that great and he scored only 28 points (11 goals) in 64 games, not exactly the numbers one would expect from a World class player. But as soon as Vaclav settled down in the Motor City, he came back and showed flashes of his brilliance. Although clearly past his prime he scored 38 and 35 goals the following two seasons (78-79 and 79-80). His 73 and 74 points was a really good result considering the fact that he was 35-36 years old playing for one of the worst teams in the league. Although not as fast as he used to be he still had that deadly wrist shot as well as great touch around the net. As his speed deteriorated he became more and more of a power forward who thrived in the slot. He was hard to move away from the slot in the same fashion as Phil Esposito was and became something of a power play specialist.

He played a couple of more seasons in Detroit before he was signed by NY Rangers as a free agent on September 30, 1982. He scored a goal in his first game with the Rangers before getting claimed off waivers by St.Louis on October 6, 1982.

Ironically enough it was Emile Francis who was behind the deal, the former Rangers' GM who had his eyes on Vaclav back in the 1960's was now a St. Louis GM. He finally got Vaclav on his team, ok so "Big Ned" was almost 39, but it didn't matter to Francis.

The New York management weren't happy about losing Vaclav. They never figured that anybody would be interested in a 38-year old player with a million dollar contract, but they had forgot about Francis. They were determined to get "Nedo" back and traded young prospect Andre Dore to St. Louis in exchange for Vaclav and Glen Hanlon on January 4, 1983. "Big Ned's" stint with St. Louis only lasted for 22 games before he came back to the "Big Apple". Upon his return to NY Rangers he scored 11 goals in 34 games, 8 of them coming on the power play. He finished that 1982-83 season with 31 points (14 goals) in 57 games before calling it quits, almost 40-years old.

A marvelous career that had spanned for over three decades came to an end which saw "Big Ned" score close to 800 goals. Had he been able to play in North America during his prime then he could very well have challenged Esposito's then record 76 goals in a season.

Vaclav later went on to scout for the Los Angeles Kings.

November 10, 2019

Welcome to HHOF: Guy Carbonneau

Guy Carbonneau became the standard of defensive excellence in the post Bob Gainey/Doug Jarvis era. The premier defensive shadow in the age of high scoring stars such as Gretzky, Yzerman and Lemieux, Carbonneau was a masterful face-off specialist and a superb shot blocker. And he excelled while his team was shorthanded. An incredible penalty killer, Carbonneau was always out against the other team's power plays, especially in the dreaded 5-on-3 penalty kills.

Born in Sept-Iles, Quebec, Guy played junior hockey with the Chicoutimi Sagueneens. At that time players from the "Q" were rarely noted for the defensive play. High scoring games were the norm in the "Q" in the 70s and 80s, and Carbonneau sure did his share of scoring. Guy had a mind boggling 171 goals and 435 points in 273 career games with Chicoutimi. While he was definitely an offensive threat, in his own zone he wasn't exactly the Guy Carbonneau that he would later become.

The Montreal Canadiens did Guy and themselves a big favor when they didn't rush Guy into the NHL. The 44th overall pick by the Habs in the 1979 Entry Draft, Guy spent two full seasons apprenticing in the AHL where he scored 88 and 94 points respectively. However Guy's apprenticeship in the minors wasn't about offense, but defense.

“You didn’t play in Montreal until you learned how to play offensively and defensively, not even Guy Lafleur,” said Ron Low, a former NHL goalie and coach. “Teams don’t teach the right way to play the way the Canadiens once did."

Montreal brought Guy, along with so many other fine players prior to the late 1980s, in slowly to the NHL. Under the guidance of such Montreal greats as Bob Gainey, Larry Robinson and Mario Tremblay, Guy was raised in the mystique of the Montreal Canadiens, something he would later pass on to the next generation of Canadiens.

While Guy learned a lot from his coaches and teammates, he also had the help of some special Habs alumni.

"Just to be able to sit around and talk with Maurice and Henri Richard, Jean Beliveau, Toe Blake. . . . When you’re a young guy, that means a lot," Carbonneau said. "When they tell you a story, it’s from the heart. Those guys, they played for the love of the game."

So did Carbonneau.

Carbonneau had the instinct and ability to be a better scorer in the National Hockey League. His hockey sense, soft hands and good wheels should have seen him score more than he did. But Guy was so team oriented that he sacrificed his own point totals for the good of the team. Instead of becoming the next Guy Lafleur, he became the next Bob Gainey

Guy was a consistent offensive contributor, though not prolific. He never scored more than 57 points in a season, but scored at least 50 points in 5 years. He scored at least 18 goals in 9 of his seasons, including a career high 26 in 1988-89.

In total Carbonneau scored 221 goals in 12 seasons with the Montreal Canadiens. He was in the prime of his career when the Habs won the Stanley Cup in 1986. For Guy it was his first taste of Stanley Cup champagne. He played a huge role in those playoffs too. In addition to his usual defensive work, Guy contributed 7 goals and 12 points in 20 post season games.

Carbonneau won the Frank J. Selke Trophy three times in his career - 1988, 1989, and 1992 - and was the runner up twice more. Because of his zestful love of the game it came as no surprise that Guy was named as captain of the Montreal Canadiens. In 1989-90 he shared that duty with Chris Chelios and by 1990-91 he assumed the full captaincy role.

After the completion of the regular season in 1992-93, it looked as though Guy Carbonneau's days were numbered. He finished with career lows (at that point) in games (61), goals (4), assists (13) and points (17). It was certainly a season to forget for the aging veteran and speculation was that the 1993 playoffs would be Carbo's last hurrah in a Habs jersey.

However something funny happened that post season. Led by the heroics of Patrick Roy and some timely scoring by the Habs forwards, the Habs unexpectedly advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals where they faced off against Wayne Gretzky's Los Angeles Kings. Guy's re-energized youthful play against the Great One rejuvenated his career. Carbonneau shadowed Gretzky all series long and played an important role in the Habs 1993 Stanley Cup championship.

Carbonneau returned the following season and rebounded with 14 goals and 38 points in 79 games. However Guy's advancing age and salary convinced Montreal management to trade the veteran center to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for prospect Jim Montgomery.

Guy played one season in St. Louis, where he played an important role under head coach Mike Keenan. Keenan loved defensive forwards and Carbonneau was a natural fit in Keenan's system. Carbonneau also was teamed up in St. Louis with Esa Tikkanen, another top defensive forward in the late 1980s/early 1990s.

Carbonneau's stay in St. Louis was short however, likely due to his age - 36. The Blues moved him to Dallas in exchange for Paul Broten in 1995.

Going to Dallas was like a Montreal Canadiens reunion for Guy. The Dallas GM who traded for Guy was none other than Bob Gainey, Guy's one time mentor. Behind the bench was Doug Jarvis. On the ice he eventually was once again teaming up with some great Montreal defensive players from the past - Brian Skrudland, Mike Keane and Craig Ludwig.

Don't underestimate the importance of the ex-Hab factor in the Stars 1999 championship.

“There’s a lasting effect on people who learned how to play the game for the old Montreal Canadiens. There’s the tradition, the winning attitude they had. It carries over wherever they go. It gets in your blood, and it trickles down to everybody around them.” says Mike Modano. “The experience, the values they’ve learned rub off on you. How to be unselfish, to be patient, to play with passion has rubbed off on me.”

While many criticized the Stars for acquiring older veterans, the Stars knew exactly what they were doing. They wanted winners to come into their dressing room and teach their team how to win. Winners who would help the Stars win a championship of their own.

Winners like Guy Carbonneau.

"Players like him love the game for all the right reasons," said coach Ken Hitchcock "I don’t care if these games were played in an outdoor rink, it doesn’t matter to Guy. He just loves the game. He absolutely loves it. And he never picks his spots. He just plays. He's a competitive person. Money and the amount he gets paid is irrelevant to Guy Carbonneau. That's why he's an older player who can survive in a young man's game."

Carbonneau and the Stars returned to the Stanley Cup finals the following season, but fell short the New Jersey Devils. At the conclusion of the season, Carbonneau retired.

All told, Guy Carbonneau finished his career with 1318 games played, 260 goals, 403 assists and 663 points. He added 231 post season games where he scored 38 times and assisted on 55 others.

While he was not in the same class as the superstars of his era, Guy Carbonneau will always be mentioned in the same sentence as the Gretzkys, Lemieuxs, Yzermans and Hulls - as the man who shut them down.

November 09, 2019

Who Was Better? Montreal's Big 3

Serge Savard, Larry Robinson and Guy Lapointe comprised arguably the best blue line group any team has ever had.

In the 1970s the Montreal Canadiens were blessed with arguably the three best defenseman ever on the same team. Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe were all Hall of Fame defenders, and aside from Bobby Orr and Brad Park, all three were considered to be the best in the game.

No wonder why Montreal won all those Stanley Cups in the 1970s.

But how does history rank these three great teammates? Who was the best?

My personal impression always had Robinson as the best. Savard was a fantastic defensive dman whose overall contribution was underrated albeit hampered by early career serious leg injuries. Guy Lapointe was a wonderful offensive defenseman with an overlooked defensive game. But Robinson was a combination of the two with a commanding, intimidating presence about him to go with it. Robinson, who was the only of the three to win a Norris Trophy (he won it twice), ranks as the best of the three in my opinion.

But I wanted to ask a few Montreal Canadiens experts as to their thoughts.

Robert Lefebvre of Eyes On The Prize also went with Robinson, although it was far from a decisive decision. He put so much thought into it he has a whole post over at his website. Here's a quote:
Back during their prime years, I recall being asked by a fellow fan, which of the three was the best.

It was tough to answer then, as it is now.

The way the question was put to me was in hypothetical terms, such as a draft scenario with Canadiens holding the first overall pick and all of The Big Three being available prospects at that imaginary time.

Without the benefit of hindsight, who would you choose between the lanky and raw Robinson, the wild but promising Lapointe, or the composed Savard?

It's tough to call isn't it?
Dennis Kane had some great commentary on the issue.
I can picture like it was yesterday those three and the way they played and how how great they were on great teams.

They were different players for sure. Savard was big and smooth, skated with poise, and pulled off that spinerama move with grace and style. He was smart, confident, and a leader.

Lapointe was a great skater and playmaker, and we hear about his antics in the dressing room as a practical joker, but he was all business on the ice and loved to carry the puck, often end to end. He had a low, hard shot like Orr, and was a real danger. He was a beauty.

Robinson wasn't quite as good a skater as either Savard and Lapointe, but got from A to B and the way he did it would raise fans out of their seats. He liked to go with the puck, and it was a beautiful thing when he would blast one home from the blue line.

They were all different, and all great. But you asked me who I thought was best, and I'm choosing Robinson because he not only had great skills, but was also strong as an ox, and it was a sorry fellow who decided to drop his gloves with him. Robinson commanded respect all around the league.

Making things more conclusive, Kevin from Ya! The Habs Rule! also ranked Robinson on top.
With Robinson, you got it all. Defense, offense, and a reputation as an extremely solid hitter to go with his "finger pointing" intimidation of opponents.

I always felt his presence in the lineup was the backbone for the '70s Habs teams when facing the Bruins and the Flyers.

His longevity as an effective player (including 20 straight post-season appearances) and two Norris Trophies solidify his spot as the top of this group.

GHL friend Jennifer Conway, an University of North Dakota student writing her MA on the 1972 Summit Series, campaigned for Savard:
Out of the three, statistically speaking, Larry Robinson is the winner. Personality wise Guy Lapointe is the winner. But I really enjoyed Serge Savard. He was one of those guys, just heart and soul. He would play injured, he would play however you needed him to, whenever you needed him to.
What really sticks out with me is Savard's unmeasurable contributions. Yes, all three were very good, and stats verify that especially in Lapointe's and Robinson's case. But Savard was the one guy who really stirred the drink in Montreal. If you took one of the Big 3 out of Montreal's 1970s dynasty picture, who would the Habs have missed the most? I think the answer very well may have been the steady Serge Savard.

When you breakdown all three players' games I still think Robinson had all the tools to be the prototypical defenseman every general manager would die to have on their team. His legacy is of higher profile and higher stature. He is generally considered to be the best of the Big 3 and I tend to agree with it.

But I think Serge Savard may have been the most important blue liner in Montreal in the 1970s.

On The 'Net - Earlier this summer Jennifer Conway wrote an interesting story of how Montreal Canadiens players, particularly Serge Savard, saved several people including Scotty Bowman from a hotel fire in St. Louis. Read the article here.

October 23, 2019

New Hockey Books for 2019

I hate to say it, but 2019 does not look like a great year for hockey books.

Maybe I've just seen too many hockey books over the years. I have something like 1400 in my personal library. No joking. 1400. That's a lot of books. So sometimes it takes something really special to get my interest going in project. And, as much as I hate to say it, I'm not too excited by what I see coming down the pipeline so far.

Let's take a look at three books I've read so far.

I have no idea what the word summareliquary means, but Mr. Tidman gives us a good idea once we crack the spine on his new book. He collects the box scores and rosters of every major victory in Canadian hockey history. So that means every Canadian based team winning the Stanley Cup both in NHL history and before the NHL existed. WHA Championships are included, too. And of course international tourneys, both men and women, such as the Olympics, World Championships, World Juniors, Canada Cup/World Cup and the 1972 Summit Series. 

That's it. Its a neat collection of the box score and the roster of the championship game. No real context, or text of any kind for that matter. The book is what it is, and does not pretend to be anything else. So if you're looking for this information, Andrew Tidman's WINS: Canadian Hockey Summareliquary has it all in one place for you. 

Eddie Olczyk: Beating the Odds In Hockey and in Life by Eddie Olczyk with Perry Lefko.

Being Canadian, I do not watch a much of NBC hockey broadcasts. To me Eddie O will always be the former star player. But to many, especially in America, Eddie has become much more as his broadcasting career has helped to cement a very special place in American hockey history. He is much beloved and understandably so.

News of cancer and his valiant fight to overcome it has taken all of that to another level. He is no longer a hockey player or a hockey broadcaster (I should mention he is one heck of a horse racing broadcaster too), but a real person we can connect with.

Like most hockey autobiographies, this offering is typical sports jock literature. It's pretty pedestrian, with a few good stories along the way. But where it gets real is his chapter on cancer and what he had to go through. It's heart wrenching. After reading it it gives you a whole new appreciation for Eddie and for life. 

Nicklas Lidstrom: The Pursuit of Perfection by Nicklas Lidstrom with Bob Duff and Gunnar Nordstrom

I was a little surprise to see Lidstrom come out with a book, especially so quickly after retirement. Lots of Hall of Fame players deserve a book on the, be it biographical or autobiographical, but don't. Lidstrom always struck me as the kind of personality that wouldn't pursue the book option.

Shows you what I know!

If I complained about Olczyk's book being typical jock literature, I have to re-emphasize that with Lidstrom. Obviously this is a must read for any Red Wings or Lidstrom fan, but otherwise this a typical recounting of a career with not a whole lot of profound offerings in it. I always enjoy reading about the player's youth and upbringing, but find that is as personal as they often get in these books. 

I think that's why I prefer biographical texts rather than autobiographical. It allows the author to explore certain themes in a players life. Think Steven Brunt on Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky. Autobiographies are just a little too cookie cutter for me these days.