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December 11, 2018

Elias Pettersson: The Greatest Canuck?

The kid is good. But, just 26 games into his career, is he really that good?

The highly respected Vancouver journalist Iain MacIntyre raised eyebrows this week when he penned a column suggesting Elias Pettersson might just be the greatest Vancouver Canucks player in history.

Now that claim might just say as much about the lack of great players Vancouver has had over the years, but I for one am glad he said it.

Of course Pettersson is not the greatest. Longevity and team success must be large parts of such a claim and only time will tell that story. And he has a long ways to go to match the legacies of Trevor Linden or the Sedin twins in that regard. But based on his hockey ability and excitement level, is there anyone who does not foresee a day in the not so distant future where we declare Pettersson to be the better player than Linden or the Sedins, at least on an individual basis?

Linden was heart and soul, while the Sedins were just so unique as hockey's most dynamic duo though they were always better together than alone. Then there was Pavel Bure, unquestionably Vancouver's most electrifying player in history. Will Pettersson be that good?

I think a lot of Vancouver fans believe so, and it is more than just the out of control hype machine creating this stir. And I'm one of them. So much so that I've been thinking exactly what MacIntyre has said since about the 10 game mark of the season.

I even made the comment to a long time fan a month or so ago, and instantly regretted it. He looked at me like I was out of my mind. The kid is good, but he's only a few games into his career! But I really believe we may be seeing the rise of the greatest Canucks player ever.

Why do I believe that? I don't really know. Part of it is because of the way he has taken the league by storm like so few players - on any team - have done before him. Part of it is his clicking with triggerman Brock Boeser as the team's new dynamic duo. Part of it is knowing that the Canucks have a number of top prospects - Quinn Hughes most notably - set to join him in the next season or two.

There is hope and optimism in Vancouver again, and that's what sports is all about. Sure, there's lots of work ahead, namely finding a goalie and improving the defense. But maybe, just maybe, the already anointed greatest Canuck will be leading the greatest Canucks team.

December 09, 2018

Denis Potvin: Dynamic Defender

Denis Potvin was the anchor of the New York Islanders franchise and dynasty.

His unbelievable strength, his fearless hitting and offensive awareness won him the Calder trophy, three Norris trophies, seven all star nods, and four consecutive Stanley Cups. One of the last great hip-checkers, he was a hard-hitting defensive stalwart. His intelligence and patience quarterbacked the power play and the offense. He was a natural leader, captaining the Isles during their great dynasty.

"There were a couple of key elements to my game. I worked on passing the puck. That was as important to me as developing my shot and probably became my most valuable asset. I had a good wrist shot, and I was taught that shooting and passing were the same. But the most fun I had was hitting. I enjoyed the contact, and hockey provided me with a lot of opportunities," he said.

He came across as extremely self confident, some would say arrogant which hurts him in talks of all time greats. In the 1976 Canada Cup he was outspoken about Bobby Orr getting all the attention when he felt he was playing just as well. And when he prematurely retired in 1988 he said he had "nothing left to prove" after 15 seasons.

"The confidence that I displayed was a security blanket. There were a lot of nights when I was scared to death that I wouldn't be able to do what I was supposed to."

Critics also questioned Potvin's dedication to the game.

"I hated practicing, and I didn't like waiting between games. I was most happy when the puck was dropped and the game started. I only felt comfortable and confident that I'd make the right decisions when I was on the ice."

When he was a junior hockey star, he was already being labeled as the game's next Bobby Orr. The comparisons were justifiable, as Potvin bettered many of Orr's OHL records.

"I didn't like being compared with Orr," he admitted, "because we were different personalities with different playing styles, skating for different teams. The only thing we had in common was that we both played defense. What these statements about me and Orr do is make my job that much harder, but I accept that as part of the business."

Potvin justified the comparisons though. He broke all of Bobby Orr's goal and point records, although has since been passed by the likes of Paul Coffey and Ray Bourque. He finished with 310 goals, 742 assists and 1052 points. He was the first defenseman to record 1,000 career points.

Potvin retired early in the minds of many. He still had a number of good years ahead of him, but he wanted to go out on top.

"Before I retired, I wondered, 'What can motivate me? Is there another record, another Stanley Cup?' It looked as if the 1988 New York Islanders were not going to get a lot better quickly and compete with the Oilers for the Cup, and I was 35 years old. I thought of playing somewhere else, but that didn't feel right. I looked for something new and different instead."

That something different proved to be broadcasting. He now works on the Florida Panthers broadcast team.

Potvin epitomized the NY Islanders. He, like his team, could play any way you wanted. Rough, physical defensive hockey; fast paced, finesse skills match; or a combination of both. This makes Denis Potvin one of the greatest and most complete players to ever grace a sheet of ice

December 02, 2018

Pucks On The 'Net

Some thoughts on recent happenings in the hockey world:

The Toronto Maple Leafs and William Nylander finally ended their standoff, with Nylander landing a contract with just shy of $7 million cap hit for the next six years. Now market dynamics meant Nylander was going to get paid this amount. And the Leafs can live with the cap hit, especially after next season when Patrick Marleau and Nikita Zaitsev come off the books. Until then they may have to make some tough decisions, but its not so bad. What might be bad for the Leafs is the fact that they just paid $7 million for the sixth best - at best - player on their team. Tavares, Matthews, Marner, Reilly and Andersen, the goaltender. Come playoff time Kadri's grit may rank him above Nylander too.

Ron Hextall lost his job for being too patient. Meanwhile Kevin Cheveldayoff in Winnipeg is lauded time and time again for his patience. Like so many Flyers managers over the years Hextall needed a goalie to mask his problems, though I do think his biggest problem was the very impatient Paul Holmgren. Hextall cleaned up the Flyers salary cap mess that Holmgren created, but needed more wins.

The Oilers coaching change has paid off with a 4-1-1 record under coach Ken Hitchcock. That is good, as I absolutely hate to see Connor McDavid's talented wasted. I still believe he's the best talent to arrive in the league since the days of Gretzky and Lemieux - and that is saying something. But he will likely never have the career of Sidney Crosby only because of the ineptitude of the Oilers management and their failure to surround McDavid with worthy talent. This is a case where Hitchcock can come in and mask some problems, but that might not be what is really needed in Edmonton.

How about Winnipeg's Patrik Laine scoring 18 goals in the month of November, including five in one game. That is the most goals scored in a calendar month since March 1994 when Vancouver's Pavel Bure scored 19 times.

November 29, 2018

Brad Park: In Bobby's Shadow

Brad Park was a highly efficient defender, combining size and clean but dogged tenacity with an uncanny awareness of the game. A noted hip-checker, Park was brash and unintimidated. But with the puck he became a natural chessmaster on the ice. more-than-likely make a perfect pinpoint pass to clear the puck out of the zone and start the attack. With a short burst of speed he would often jump to join the rush as a fourth attacker, and was a true power play quarterback. Park, not unlike Ray Bourque years later, was a consistently steady defender with often brilliant offensive instincts.

In almost any other time period Brad Park would have been considered the best defenseman of his time. But Park played in the enormous shadows of Bobby Orr in Boston and Denis Potvin on Long Island. The only thing that kept the spotlight on them as opposed to Park was their team success and a combined 6 Stanley Cup championships to Park's zero.

That's right, Brad Park never had the chance to sip champagne from the Stanley Cup, despite participating in the playoffs each of his 17 NHL seasons. Along with the likes of Marcel Dionne, Gilbert Perreault, and Mike Gartner, Park may be the best player ever not to have tasted Stanley Cup victory.

Park went from unbridled prodigy to popular sensation in New York, ranking him as perhaps the greatest defenseman in the long history of the Blueshirts.

"Park reminds me of Pierre Pilote," once said Chicago coach Bill Reay. "Both were relatively compact men who could accelerate better than most forwards."

Though it was popular with Manhattan fans, Park was brash off the ice as well. He penned the book Play The Man in 1971 where he was very forthcoming in his thoughts, notably badmouthing Boston fans, calling them animals and players, calling them thugs.

The Bruins fans hated Park and their natural rivals from New York, which made the feud all the more ironic when Park would be part of a blockbuster trade with the Boston Bruins. Perhaps the biggest the trade to that date, Park was the centerpiece of a Ranger/Bruin swap that saw the legendary Phil Esposito leave Beantown. Looking to find a fill-in for the often injured Orr, the Bruins also sent Carol Vadnais to New York and also received veteran Ranger Jean Ratelle.

The trade was uncomfortable for Park, who openly cried and considered not reporting. The two teams were bitter rivals. The only thing that could have been worse is if the Red Sox traded for a Yankee's starting pitcher.

But Park's cerebral play would quickly win over the fans. But the Bruins got a different, more mature Park than the one who so often dominated games against them. Park's play in Boston tamed down somewhat, mostly due to necessity. By the time he was 28 he had undergone five major knee surgeries and four arthroscopic surgeries. But his play remained sterling, in some ways better than ever under the Bruins tight checking system.

"My wheels aren't as good, but my brain is better," Park said at the time. "When I was younger and quicker I was capable of controlling a whole game over the whole rink. Now I've got to be content to control our zone. Basically I'm prepared to do less and do it well rather than try doing what I used to do and do it badly."

Park served another seven and a half seasons with the Bruins. He would finish his career in 1985 after 2 seasons in Detroit.

In a total of 1,113 NHL games, Park netted 213 goals and assisted on another 683 for 896 points, while accumulating 1,429 penalty minutes. He also posted 125 points (35 goals, 90 assists) in 161 playoff contests.

Park was a First Team All-Star in 1970, 1972, 1974, 1976 and 1978 and second team in 1971 and 1973. He would be shutout from Norris trophy nods as the game's best defenseman, but finished 2nd place a heartbreaking six times. He was awarded the Bill Masterton Trophy in 1984 and was also a valuable member of the Team Canada defense corps in the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviets.

November 28, 2018

Mario Lemieux: The Best Ever?

Many people celebrate Mario Lemieux as the greatest player ever to play the game of hockey. He is almost universally on everyone's "top five" list if not "top three." Based on pure talent, it is hard to argue that he is not number one.

Notwithstanding his many awards and championships, and his mindbogglingly impressive statistics, perhaps the most amazing thing about Mario is he did this while battling a chronic back and hip injuries and Hodgkin's Disease.

Mario was the complete package. He was a pure scorer and the ultimate playmaker fused into the body of giant. Often compared to Jean Beliveau,

Lemieux was big and strong but he rarely had to rely on brute strength to fend off defenders. Instead he left them baffled with an incredible series of fakes and dekes. With a few long strides he was seemingly untouchable in effortless end to end rushes. Rarely has a sport's dominant player made the game look so easy and natural.

Mario played in only 915 games as he missed many games due to his health problems. In fact, he retired three times due to injury. Despite this he has one of the most impressive resumes in history of sport:

* Six Art Ross Trophies
* Three Hart Trophies
* Two Conn Smythe Trophies
* Two Stanley Cups
* Eight All-Star games (3 MVP's)

Mario Lemieux was drafted in 1984 by the Pittsburgh Penguins, first overall. Mario had just come off of an amazing Junior year, scoring 133 goals and 149 assists, giving him the highest point total in Quebec Junior hockey ever, bettering his boyhood idol Guy Lafleur's legendary goal record.

The Pittsburgh Penguins were the worst team in the league. An awful product on the ice led to empty seats in the Igloo, and serious concerns if the franchise could survive much longer in the city of Pittsburgh. Mario was seen as their savior. Little did we know then that Mario would save the franchise not once but twice.

In his very first game, on his very first shift, Mario put the puck behind the goalie. He would go on to win the Calder trophy that season after becoming just the third rookie to post 100 points in a season.

The following two years Mario ranked among the NHL scoring leaders but it wasn't until the 1987 Canada Cup that Mario took his game to the superstar level. Playing with and learning from Wayne Gretzky, Mario had an incredible tournament, scoring a tournament record 11 goals in 9 games. His 18 points were only bettered by Gretzky's 21. Four of his goals were game winners, including the dramatic series clincher. In a scene that unthinkably rivaled the heroics of Paul Henderson in 1972, Mario took a drop pass from Gretzky and fired a shot past Soviet goalie Sergei Mylnikov at 18:34 of the third period in the final game of the tournament.

"Speaking specifically of the Canada Cup in 1987," Lemieux pondered with HHOF.com, "I learned so much about how the great players work and conduct themselves. Remember, I was only 21 years old at the time. To be around guys like Wayne and Mark Messier and Paul Coffey, guys who'd already had so much success and had won Stanley Cups, was a tremendous learning experience."

Mario never looked back after that tournament. Not only had he arrived in a hockey stratosphere occupied only by names like Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe and a very few others, but he made a serious challenge to push the stratosphere even higher.

Following the tournament he had the first unbelievable season of what would become unbelievable season after unbelievable season. He wrestled away the NHL scoring championship from Gretzky, with 70 goals and 98 points for 168 points. He also won the Hart Trophy as league MVP, a trophy that was annually given to Gretzky almost by default.

"The Canada Cup was very intense, but it was a great springboard for the NHL season," he admitted. "I was fortunate enough to win my first scoring title that season [with 168 points]. The learning experience and the momentum of the Canada Cup were definitely factors in that," Lemieux said.

1988-89 was Lemieux's finest offensive season. He scored 85 goals and 114 assists for 199 points. He fell just one point shy of joining Gretzky as the only player to score 200 points in a single season. Perhaps his greatest individual performance was on New Year's Eve, 1988. In that game against the New Jersey Devils, Lemieux scored five goals five different ways. He scored an even-strength goal, a power play goal, a short-handed goal, a penalty shot goal, and an empty net goal. No one had ever done this before, and no one has done it since.

The first of several seasons shortened by his degenerative back problems was 1989-90. Despite this set back, he returned late in the 1990-91 season to lead the Penguins to its first Stanley Cup championship. You can bet Mario's back felt a whole lot better as he drank champagne from that Cup. In fact it helped so much the doctor's prescribed the same medicine the next year. So Mario made it two in a row in 1992.

1992-93 proved to be a damning year. He was the League's most dominant player, the crown jewel. But hockey took a back seat in Lemieux's life as Lemieux made it publicly known that he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, a form of cancer. Lemieux had to take time off as he underwent radiation treatment from February through early March. Then, in one of the greatest feats in all of sports, Lemieux immediately returned to the NHL and went on late season scoring rampage to capture the Art Ross Trophy. He was also named as the MVP.

Due to the many injuries and the cancer, Mario took the 1994-95 lock-out shortened season off. He returned in 1995-96, winning yet again the Art Ross and Hart Trophies. He repeated the Art Ross win in 1996-97 as well.

There is little doubt that Mario is the greatest one-on-one player. He was unstoppable. "Oh Oh! It's Mario!" was a common call when he was in the open on a breakaway. He scored more often than not on those breakaways. The only way many opponents could stop "Super Mario" was to literally tackle him, and even that didn't stop him from scoring. Lemieux could almost score goals at will.

Fed up with the constant physical abuse and the chronic back injuries, Lemieux opted to retire following the 1997 playoffs. But a couple of years after his retirement the Penguins were in financial ruins. Bad management had the team on the verge of bankruptcy and once again the future of NHL hockey in Pittsburgh was in serious trouble. So who came to the rescue? Mario! Mario, who stood to lose millions if the team had gone bankrupt, gathered together an ownership group and purchased the Pens, keeping them in Pittsburgh. It also marked the first time in modern history that a player became the owner of a team.

Already elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, Lemieux made even bigger waves when he announced he would come out of retirement for the 2000-01 season. On December 27, 2000, Lemieux returned to the ice as if he never missed a step. He scored one goal and added two assists in that first game back, against the Toronto Maple leafs. Lemieux continued his scoring exploits, finishing the season with 43 games played, 35 goals and 76 points. He led the Pens far into the playoffs, playing 18 games before bowing out.

"I learned how much I loved this game," he said. "Sometimes you don't appreciate something fully until you're away from it."

The fragility that ruined Mario's career returned in 2002. Able to play in only 24 games, Lemieux scored just 6 goals but managed 31 points. In spite of his injury woes, Lemieux was named captain of Canada's Winter Olympic entry for the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. His poise and production led Canada to Olympic Gold. Unfortunately the rigors of the Olympic schedule ended Lemieux's 2001-02 NHL season.

He returned in 2002-03 and held a clear lead in points by the mid-way mark of the season. Once again injuries curtailed his games played and mobility. To make matters worse, Lemieux was forced to trade away his high-priced teammates, and any chance of winning the Art Ross Trophy, to preserve the financial stability of Pittsburgh Penguin hockey.

With injuries plaguing his once-brilliant career, and with the burden of the Penguins' financial woes preying on his mind, and newly discovered heart ailment known as atrial fibrillation, Lemieux was mid-way through the 2005-06 season when he decided to retire on January 24, 2006. Mario had played 26 games, scoring 7 times and assisting on 15 more at the time of his retirement.

There always has been and likely always will be constant debate as to who is better: Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux. Here's my view on it. Who cares? We should just consider ourselves extremely lucky to watch perhaps the greatest and second greatest players of all time, no matter who you rank ahead of the other.

If you were to break down each of their games, you would have to give Mario a huge edge in terms of god given physical talents. Mario was bigger and stronger, with a heavier shot. He was perhaps the best one-on-one player ever. He could do things that Gretzky could never dream of. The only other player who could be mentioned in the same talent level as Mario would be Bobby Orr.

November 20, 2018

Cassie Campbell and the Hockey Hall of Fame

Hockey Hall of Fame Induction Weekend always creates a lot of headlines. Sometimes some of the smaller stories get glanced over, even when they are of great significance. Such is the case with the news that Cassie Campbell-Pascall has been named to the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee.

The honour is about as high as one can get in hockey. One of the few higher honours would be to be named as an enshrined member of the Hall. Sadly, this may ensure Campbell-Pascall will not be inducted as a player.

Campbell-Pascall and Mark Chipman, chairman of True North which owns the Winnipeg Jets, were added to the committee. They replace columnist Eric Duhatschek, who reached his maximum 15 year term limit, and former New York Islanders and Florida Panthers manager Bill Torrey, who passed away earlier this year.

Campbell-Pascall becomes the first woman to be named to the committee. This corrects a glaring oversight, as the Hall has been debating female inductees since 2010 but without any strong voice from the female game. Just six female players and zero builders have been inducted in that time. Campbell-Pascall was on the ice with most of the worthy candidates and can provide insight no one else on the committee can. Through her broadcast role at Sportsnet and Hockey Night in Canada she has earned the right to comment on the men's game, too.

But does this preclude Campbell-Pascall from her own rightful induction as a player? The selection committee is generally reluctant to include one of their own for fears of charges of cronyism. Why do you think Pat Quinn, who served as chairman of the HHOF board, didn't get rightfully enshrined until after his death?

Campbell-Pascall was asked the question about what would happen if her name was before the committee, and of course she said she would have to excuse herself from any such discussion.

Campbell is the only Canadian hockey player, male or female, to captain a national team to two Olympic gold medals, winning in 2002 in Salt Lake City and 2006 in Nagano. The team also won an Olympic silver medal in Nagano in 1998. She was captain of the national women’s team since 2001. During her tenure with the Canadian team, Campbell captured six world titles and won a total of 21 international tournament medals- 17 gold and 4 silver. She retired with 32 goals and 68 assists in 157 career games for the national team, though her numbers are misleading as she spent a significant part of her career on defense before finishing as a forward. Much like a Mark Messier or Steve Yzerman, she is universally recognized as one of hockey's great leaders.

If she never gets in as a player, Campbell-Pascall will likely one day be inducted in the Hall of Fame as a builder. This selection committee nomination only adds to a resume that includes a pioneering playing and broadcasting career and significant contributions to the grassroots game. She is also known to be pushing for a merger of the two professional women's leagues. Previously a governor with the Canadian Women's Hockey League, it would be no surprise to see Campbell-Pascall heavily involved with a proper women's pro hockey league one day.

It will be interesting to see if Campbell-Pascall's inclusion on the selection committee sees any immediate increase in female inductees in the next few years. I am hopeful this will see the inclusion of some female builders as well, most notably Fran Rider.

November 14, 2018

World Cup of Hockey

It seems there is interest by the National Hockey League to return to the World Cup of Hockey in 2020. However it will only happen if there is labour peace.

The current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the NHLPA goes through to 2022, though either side can engage reopener clauses as soon as 2019. The NHL does not want the disastrous repeat of 2004 where the tournament was staged with little interest thanks to the looming work stoppage.

The NHL, who have been bragging about how happy they are with the current CBA, simply wants the NHLPA to forgo reopening until the following year. Status quo guaranteed.

That may be their public stance at this point, but they know the players won't bypass an opportunity to hold some degree of leverage in negotiations. If the owners want to host the World Cup - and perhaps more importantly welcome new market Seattle to the league around the same time - then they will insist renegotiating at least parts of the CBA right now. Labour peace comes at a cost.

There are two serious issues from the player's side - the Olympics and escrow.

Though I agree with the owners that the crooked IOC's terms are not worth going, the fact that these games are in Beijing interests the owners. They likely would be even more receptive if Calgary won the Olympic bid in 2026, however municipal voters there just voted not to support the Olympics, albeit in a non-binding plebiscite. That still leaves Stockholm as the new frontrunner and that would still make a return to the Olympics a part of the league's ultimate international strategy.

The players hate escrow, the other key hot-button issue, but it only makes sense that some sort of safe-measure exists to ensure that the salary cap works properly. So far the players have not come up with a viable alternative.

Can the NHL offer some concessions to guarantee labour peace? If they can't, the always maligned World Cup of Hockey is very much in jeopardy.

November 12, 2018

European Expansion

Billy Daly, vice president of the NHL, has admitted that one day - no time soon, mind you - the NHL will expand into Europe. It makes sense. There is far too much hockey interest and history in Europe.

A major roadblock from the past is becoming less of an issue. European arenas tend to have smaller seating capacity. Given that the NHL has always been heavily dependent on ticket sales, that is a big problem for the viability of potential European franchises. New buildings are being built larger, but the real key to survival will be subsidizing franchises with significant television and new media deals. In the coming years the NHL is eyeing up a new American TV deal, and it should be a significant boost to NHL teams. A significant European deal may be the key European expansion.

That being said, time zones would be a drawback for any bidding company. After all, it's hard to support a team that is playing in the Pacific Division at 3am.

Further to that point, of course travel will always be a problem. There's not much anyone can do to get around that except to have a mass expansion. Do not expect a team or two to be added. The NHL will have to have an entire European division. It is the only way it makes any sense for any existing team to travel that far is to play a number of games while they're over there. That being said, the real travel disadvantages will fall upon the European teams coming over here.

So that means a European expansion would see six or even eight new teams. Is there enough talent to stock that many more teams? The knee-jerk reaction is no-way. But perhaps there is, or one day will be. When the NHL expanded from 21-24 teams a major criticism was talent dilution. But it seems the NHL is as healthy as it ever has been now at 31 teams and another, Seattle, on the way. Growth of the American, European and even non-traditional player base has met the demand. Perhaps it - particularly the emerging American base - can meet such an aggressive expansion.

That being said, a European division is likely still many years away. And I've seen historical musings of people in the hockey business dreaming of European expansion since the 1960s. But I have to agree with Bill Daly when he says the NHL in Europe is inevitable. That means the league has gone from beyond musings to serious exploration and game planning.

As someone with an interest in European hockey history, I think it would be fantastic if, somehow, the most historically important European franchises were granted entry into the league, if in name only. CSKA Moscow and/or Dynamo Moscow, Jokerit (Helsinki), HC Davos, HC Sparta Praha (Prague) or Djurgardens IF (Stockholm) taking on the Montreal Canadiens or New York Rangers just seems right.

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