Sunday, February 23, 2014

Welcome .... To The Machine




 Have not seen a game or tournament like this in over twenty years really. Best on bests are never a cakewalk. 2004 was pretty close to it but the semifinal saw Roberto Luongo's first true star turn as the Czechs badly out shot a Canadian team which had until that time not been seriously challenged. It took an overtime goal by Lecavalier to put them into the final against (who else) the Finns. That game had the look of many of this tournament. Canada was in control the entire way and the 3-2 score flattered the Finns but the danger was always present. The one mistake loomed.

 No you have to go back to 1991 to see such a dominant performance. No Ray Bourque or Patrick Roy or Mario Lemieux (though there was an 18 year old Eric Lindros) and no real challenge despite two ties, I was lucky enough to witness a few of those games live, including the semifinal. There was tension, of course, but when it came down to it there was no doubt.

 And this year, these Olympics, the same.

 Surely there were nervous moments early in the final and a 1-0 lead is not the most dangerous lead in hockey but its certainly unsettling, even more so when the opponent's roster includes Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel.

 The reality though is that if this team had lost it would have been due to a serious miscarriage of hockey justice.

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 In 2010 we watched the gold medal game at the home of very good friends, really very dear friends who I have known for (gulp) over twenty five years. We suffered through the tension of a game in which Canada was the better team, were devastated by the Parise goal and then elated at Crosby's overtime winner, jumping up and down and hugging and roaring our approval, standing and singing the anthem with that great team after the gold medals were presented.

 After the win over Latvia we exchanged texts and I wondered if Canada were to beat the Americans on Friday whether we should reconvene and the answer was 'FUCK YEAH' and so on Sunday morning at 6:25 am I dragged the kids from their beds (though honestly the boy was up and ready when he heard me stir), put on our Canada Best shirts (The boy and I wore ours for every game from Finland on) and we drove across town ahead of the sun's rise. As we drove down the Danforth we saw people in jerseys making their way to bars and out of Tim Hortons in preparation. Seriously. We arrived in the Annex with time to spare and sat us down. While last time around it was the dads and moms who sat and watched this time all of the kids did as well with the exception of our youngest who made mischief elsewhere.

 The Swedes had their moments early and at first it seemed that this game might be a battle. Bergeron missed his early chance and then Hagelin hit the post and the game was even steven and then, well, then Canada rolled over Sweden just as they had rolled over everybody. Lundqvist and his posts were all that came between the Canadians reaching double figures. Toews' goal gave them the dreaded 1-0 lead but the dreaded Swedish power play was nullified and the Swedes never got a sniff really. When Crosby scored it was over. There was little tension and so we ate our pancakes and drank our coffee cheerfully and while my nerves kicked in briefly before the third started (it was for the gold medal for Christ Sakes!!) it became clear that the Swedes could not keep up. Lacking Zetterberg and Sedin and Backstrom did them in but then again Canada was missing Tavares and Stamkos and Subban was in the pressbox and Hall and Thornton and Seguin and Neal were all at home.

 But of course as we know that is the depth that Canada has, its the advantage we have over everyone, the odd time a country will have a golden generation such as the Americans in the 90s or the Swedes in the oughts and then maybe we will see a team that can match the talent that Canada can run out there but decade after decade we do the same thing. We produce hockey players.

 The only lull in my lifetime was the late nineties between the 'Oilers' generation and what followed when the offence seemed to dry up and even then, even then, it was Mike Richter in 1996 and Dominick Hasek in 1998 and without these two even that lull would have produced champions.

 Watching this team and its perfection, for that was what it was, perfect, I began to muse, is this the greatest generation of players? For a moment I thought there is no doubt. I think of '87 and Crossman and Rochefort on the blue line and look at '91 with Corson, Dirk Graham, Tinordi and Russ Courtnall and I think that other than 1976 there may not be a better collection of talent than what we saw this time around. 76 will always be the gold standard for a team but they were a one off really.

 Of course the tale is yet to be written. There is no doubt that we produce elite hockey players like no other country but the Gretzkys did win three of these tourneys in a row. I don't doubt that if the NHL goes to Korea or if its a World Cup that comes next that we will see Crosby and Toews and Doughty make it three in a row but until that time we must reserve judgement.

 There have been thirteen of these best on best tournaments and Canada has now won nine of them. Since the Olympics became best on best Canada has won three of five and with this victory, in Europe and on the big ice, the last dragon has been slain. Results are results and its hard to argue with them. The Czechs are no longer the Czechs. The Russians haven't won since 1991. The Swedes have seen Sundin and Forsberg and Lidstrom go and soon the Sedins and Alfredsson and Lundqvist will follow. The Americans are coming but they lack the talent up the middle and on the blue line to be a serious threat right now.

Yzerman is done and his successor will have a tough act to follow. One could quibble with Yzerman's selections and with Babcock's deployment of these selections (Subban being the major question) and while the lazy amongst the media might say that a gold medal means there should be no questions I prefer to look to the process and think could this team have been better? I believe that probably the answer is yes. Chris Kunitz had a very good tournament from the Finland game on and good for him. He's an excellent player of course and he proved his worth but even with all of that said I think a better player might have been chosen over him. And I think Subban over Bouwmeester is a no brainer although I've always liked Bouwmeester who now has two golds in best on best. He's a guy who can play.

 Canada's greatest strength is its depth of talent. Happily we are beyond bringing Rob Zamuner and Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby to these tournaments as we have learned (remembered) that if you bring Dale Hawerchuk and tell him to check that indeed he can check and on top of that he can provide offence as well and so Nash and Carter and Sharp and Marleau were brought along and played the roles that those who run the junior selection process still like to slot with actual junior role players.

 It was a wonderful day today, one to celebrate. Its just a game of course, a distraction, but a wonderful one all the same. I'm a proud Canadian, I'm not afraid to say so. I think this is a great country. Some of this is due to luck and some is due to good policy and much of it is plain old geography which provides us with great wealth and a history of peace. Like all nations much of our history and national mythology is littered with shameful acts and lies. This is true. But it is a great country all the same and its wonderful to have a game which we do well at and which can bring us together on days like today.

 Go Canada. Until next time!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Shock and Awe

 For both the Latvia and American games I was at work, got on the surprisingly excellent CBC feed and suffered through two outstanding Canadian performances.

 I've referred to Nick Hornby's outstanding book 'Fever Pitch' here many times. He makes the point that attending Arsenal matches was nothing enjoyable in any way, save the result when they triumphed. The gut wrenching tension, the stress, the frustration, all eating at you. Are you not entertained?

 When Jenn and I were in London in 2006 we went to a Tottenham match at White Hart Lane. They were playing Portsmouth, an also ran, and as usual Spurs, while not a great side, were quite good. They tallied twice early on and controlled the match entirely from that point. It was fairly dull for quite a while though the spectacle itself was very enjoyable. I highly recommend it. It was a lovely autumn afternoon and the crowd was in full voice, cheering and singing and chanting. And then late in the first half a long ball against the run of play, a quick pass, a defensive blunder and the lead cut in half.

 As the second half progressed the tension in the stadium mounted. The singing was no more and the fans worried as Portsmouth began to come on.

 In the row in front of us was a man of about my age. His leather jacket was worth more than my entire wardrobe, his haircut certainly worth a decade worth of haircut's at Sam's Nice Haircuts. As the game wore on I noted that he became angrier and angrier, his face a knot of tense disappointment and worry. He muttered curses under his breath as Portsmouth slowly pushed and pushed and pushed into Tottenham's end. His fists clenched, his jaw spasmed, his face a mask of terrified disgust and finally with about ten minutes left, unable to take it anymore, he got up and tore out of there.

 Spurs held on and when the final whistle blew the crowd exhaled as one and then sang with joy as we streamed out into the gloomy high road, back to the pubs and the tube station, flooding by the mounted riot police.

 For us it was an exhilarating experience. I'm a Spurs' fan but a casual one. It was fun. For the hardcore supporters it was more of a relief. They were happy of course but there weren't a lot of smiles after Portsmouth drew within reach. It was agonizing.

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 And so it was Wednesday and Thursday and Friday. Canada triumphed three times but there was no 'gorillas from a cage' game, no blowout that allowed us to sit back, crack a beer and fully enjoy the spectacle. The hockey was great on Friday, the best game of these Games by far but despite Canada's dominant performance it was still one shot away from being a tie and despite Glenn Healy's assertion that a two goal lead would be insurmountable (Healy says a lot of things that are dumb but oh boy) it wasn't until the final whistle went that we could exhale and relax, at least until Sunday.

 More thoughts on the men's team but first, Thursday's game.

 I thought I saw it all four years ago when Parise tied it and then Crosby won it all and then the Bruins came back last spring from three down (and two down with barely a minute left) and I thought wow ok now that will never be topped and then just weeks after that Chicago turned the tables on Boston and tied it and then won it just like that. Won the Cup. Now I had seen it all.

 And then Thursday. I expected the Americans to win. They were quicker. They had beaten the Canadian women handily in the leadup to the Games. Wickenheiser is no longer Wickenheiser and the new hope, Poulin, had been mostly invisible. The Americans were up by two as the game wound down it looked like a valiant effort was going to fall short.

 Then a lucky break (its nearly always a lucky break) and it was a one goal game and then the linesman bumped Ward and the puck skittered down and thudded against the post and then another break and it was Poulin and it was overtime.

 There were two keys. The goaltending of Szabados in the first two minutes of overtime saved the Canadians. And then with the Americans on a powerplay the slashing call on Lamoureux. Dreadful call? Yes. Except if you play hockey you know that if the ref gives your team a warning, as had happened earlier, then you heed that warning. And Lamoureux, being Lamoureux, couldn't help herself and gave Szabados a whack.

 Dumb.

 And then it was almost inevitable. Knight clipping Wickenheiser, taking her down on the break, the ensuing powerplay, the goal by Poulin. I'd say it will never be matched but we know that on Sunday it could be.

 That's hockey.

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 I don't think I've ever seen a 1-0 game that was a bigger blowout than the game on Friday. Now you can argue player selection and deployment even with the results. I'm always of the mind that you should push to be better and Hockey Canada's conservative approach has cost us, especially at the world juniors these past few years where there seems to be an obsession with pedigree (winning programs) and bringing role players. At the Olympic level we have such an embarrassment of riches its hard to believe. I've been around forever ;) and really since 76 I don't think I can remember so many great Canadian players. The teams that ran the table in 84, 87 and 91 had the most successful run in best on best play but in 87, for example, you had Doug Crossman and Normand Rochfort on defence. On this team PK Subban can't get into the lineup and Martin St Louis doesn't play a shift and Joe Thornton, Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin and James Neal (to mention a few) are at home, along with the injured Stamkos and Tavares.

 Take those latter six players. No country can match that as a top six. Maybe the Swedes.

 Crazy.

  You could argue for different player selection for sure I think, even with the team where its at but I do appreciate Babcock's choices and gameplan. They have dominated and the fact is they have beaten two good teams and handily (despite the scores). I'd love to see what Babcock could do with this team given a month, find out if they can find a way to break out on the big ice. Watching the game on Friday you will note that when the Canadians had possession the Americans had all five players below the hashmarks. That's a difficult nut to crack regardless of how much skill you have on the ice And yet they had multiple chances in close. Benn's one timer. Sharp and Crosby and Kunitz all in close. In the other games Perry twice had the puck on the doorstep all alone and could not stuff it in.

 The gold medal game could go one of three ways. I respect the Swedes but this is not the 2002 or 2006 team. They can be had and I could see a 'gorillas out of the cage' game for Canada. Unlikely but a bit of puck luck will make it happen. More likely it will be more of what we have seen. It will be close, Canada will deserve it but as we all know that means not a thing. The team has done well though and worse case I see a deal like 96 or 98 where we deserved it and got beaten by the better goaltender. It happens but I'm thinking a gold medal is in the offing. Canada is too loaded front to back. They're going to run the Swedes into the ice.

 Go Canada.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Fear and Loathing

 So its the Americans again and you'd think Canada was oh and four based on the panic in the streets (or at least on talk radio and social media).

 The adaptation of Swiss tactics by nearly every team Canada has played so far has made it difficult. Luckily unless Canada meets the Finns in the final (a real possibility of course) they likely won't see this strategy again.

 I heard that some dummy was on Toronto radio yesterday proclaiming that the Canadians were a disgrace and of course such talk is the sign of a weak mind or looking for ratings, most likely the former I would think.

 Spoiled by a stretch of world junior results where Canada blew out everyone, including the Russians twice in consecutive finals, and with memories of the quarter final victory over Russia still fresh in everybody's mind Canadians think that this is the way hockey works. This idea is bolstered by video games where a team of all stars can score at will and by the dumbing down of the national discussion of hockey at all levels, a good part of which can be blamed on the CBC and its embrace of the fourth line thug as a more important part of a team than a skilled player, especially if the latter is European or French Canadian. The Cherryfication of hockey we'll call it, its gospel spread by its disciples, dummies like Healy and Stock and Spector, Doug MacLean and Kypreos and the rest of that lot, shouting and posturing and mocking all reason and intelligence, a collection of feces throwing, hooting, moronic apes.

 We not only expect to win but we expect to win in a landslide, leaving our opponents bloodied, broken and humiliated, and if we do not then it is because we are not tough enough or aren't passionate enough and so the same mouth breathers who claim that the Edmonton Oilers would be better off if they waived Ales Hemsky right off the team, replacing him with nothing to maybe top sixer Ben Eager, are the ones who say that the biggest issue with Team Canada is Sid Crosby because best on best hockey is a video game and he should score five goals a game.

 Now if you've played the game, even at a lower level like myself, and you have even a modicum of sense then you know that in hockey anything can happen. If the teams in this tournament formed a league and played an eighty two game schedule Canada would beat Latvia every time most likely and probably plenty of those games would be blowouts but Latvia might squeak a game out here or there, much like the perennial doormat Oilers did to Chicago a couple of times in past years. As a matter of fact the Oilers whipped Chicago. Anything can happen.

 And in a tournament one game and your out format with teams thrown together ten days ago? Well take that 'anything can happen' and ramp it up a few notches and even more so when the opponents throw tactics at you that are almost impossible to unlock (so far).

 Should Canadians be worried? Well their team has pretty well dominated every game in terms of possession, shots, scoring chances. Not much else can be done. If Kunitz beats Rask and Toews doesn't stumble and Carter pots that backhand then they blow the Finns out.

 Now of course they didn't and while its nice to think that 'the goals will start to come' the reality is that they may not come at all. I would guess that playing a team that does not collapse around its net will help the Canadians open up their offence and most likely we will see a lot of goals tomorrow for the good guys but of course as we saw in Vancouver there is no guarantee. We were the better team there in both games and the end result was a loss and an overtime win.

 My main concern Friday afternoon is that the Americans come out like the proverbial gorillas out of a cage and the Canadians end up on their heels, unused to the speed and quality of their opponent. Kessel and Kane are no longer callow kids but at the height of their powers but then again the same can be said about Toews and Doughty, amongst others on the Canadian side.

 On paper the Canadians should win, their defence is especially superior, but the games aren't played on paper ARE THEY?

 lol

 Here is what I wrote four years ago.

 And specifically note this:

These are two good teams but if you were a betting man you would lay money on Canada who have outplayed and outchanced every opponent by a wide margin. Its likely that they will do so again tonight and that the only way that they will lose is if Ryan Miller is outstanding and the Americans are a little lucky.

And based on what has happened in this tournament before today and what we know about the game of hockey we know that this is entirely possible.


Four years later and not a thing has changed basically.

Go Canada!


Monday, February 17, 2014

Pressure

 The boy starts his playoffs this weekend, its a round robin format with the best two teams advancing.

 Both his winter league and spring league clubs won it all last year, making him two for two as a hockey player in seasons played and championships won and he has a really good chance of making it three for three in a few weeks which would give him three times as many hockey championships as a player as I have won in approximately thirty five attempts.

 The little jerk.

 Its been a great year for him. Last year on both of his clubs he was a spare part, one of the youngest and smallest players in a two year age division. This year his team has a trio of very strong players and then a handful more who form a good supporting cast and he is in that group. He's found his niche in two ways, first as a solid defensive defenceman who can move the puck decently and secondly as a pretty decent goalie.

 His coach is a very good friend of mine. He's a terrific coach. He never loses sight of the fact that these are young kids and that fun and being fair is what its all about. With that said he wants to give his little guys and girls a chance to win everything and so, after a lot of thought, he has asked if my guy will be the goalie for the playoffs.

 It was a while back that my son actually asked his coach for this chance. They have rotated goalies through the year and while there are two or three who are probably a bit better than him they are also more important to the team as skaters. The boy looked at this, thought about it (he's a thinker) and told me that it was best for the team if he was in net. He told his coach he wanted it and after some thought his coach agreed.

 It is best for the team. They have lost two games and both had major extenuating circumstances. In other words if they have their team out they should run the table here. Should being the operative word. Its hockey. Anything can happen.

 And this is the killer for Jenn and I. The boy is embracing what he is about to face. He has played in net a few times and is undefeated and he likes it to be honest. He's not a goal scorer and the team has players who will take care of that and while he knows that he is contributing doing what he does best back on the blueline he also likes the team coming out to congratulate him after a win and the hip hip hoorays in the dressing room. So he wants it and most likely the team will cruise through the round robin, there are three teams they are facing and they should handle two just fine.

 But the third is a good team for sure and so if they face them in the big game his play is going to matter and mistakes he makes will end up behind him and man oh man its going to be awful. We won't be able to take it although he is fine with it and win or lose it will be a great experience for him.

 But oh boy I'd start drinking now if I could.

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 As usual we've been following the Olympics here in the McLean household. Its not the same as Vancouver of course, I don't know if there will ever be another one like Vancouver, and the time difference means its a different deal altogether too. You wake up with a good part of the events past already and by early afternoon everything is finished. So its not as all consuming which is probably a good thing.

 Its been a good Olympics for Canada. I have talked before how this is strange to me, I grew up when we would win two or three medals and call it a day and most Canadians finished in the fifties and sixties in cross country skiing and biathlon and would get slaughtered in the bobsled and the luge. Those days are long gone of course, we're a powerhouse now. Quite a bit of this is that there are so many more sports and we tend to do well in them but even in the traditional sports this time around we have medals in long track and the Super G and figure skating and we were oh so close in luge which I cannot get over at all. Its just weird is all as a relative oldtimer :) - as Canadians we expect to do well and generally we do and while there are the usual disappointments where favourites fail (the short track relay team and  Hamelin in the 1000 come to mind) there are also the unexpected successes such as Hudec and Morrison and Dufour Lapointe beating an almost unbeatable American in the moguls.

 Its a lot of fun except of course when these kids (and most of them are kids of course) crash or fail spectacularly and this is not made any easier when 'fans' come out of the woodwork and tear into them before heading to the kitchen for another coke and bowl of cheetos.

 Anyone who knows me knows that I am not afraid to criticize folks, the idea that someone is beyond rebuke because they are an NHL GM has been made to me a number of times over the last eight years because I am an Oilers' fan and there are a lot of dumb Oilers' fans out there who thought Lowe and then Tambo knew what they were doing. If you know anything then you know that history is littered with incompetent presidents and prime ministers who have destroyed economies and led their countries to ruin, CEOs who have destroyed companies, generals who have lost their armies and so on and so forth. The same principle applies to something as silly as your favourite sports team, for that matter it most likely applies in the place that you work.

I just have a hard time getting on these kids. I remember Steve Simmons in one Olympics tearing Joanne Malar to shreds because, well, because he's an awful person I guess. She didn't meet expectations and so it went and it made me wonder what people think sometimes, that of all the people in the world who felt worse than Patrick Chan the other night. Its one thing to get beat like Kingsbury got beat by Bilodeau or Virtue and Moir got beat by the two muppets, its another to have it in your grasp and then to let yourself down. Its something he will remember all of his life. Literally.

I don't get the piling on. Oh well.

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The hockey tournament has been great so far, hasn't it? Now the real shit begins for sure though.

The reaction to the first week has been typically over the top especially here in Canada. Before I talk about our hometown heroes though I wanted to think a few thoughts out loud and here they are.

- I think that the funny thing about these tournaments is that every time they occur nearly everyone forgets what has happened in the past. We forget Belarus beating Sweden. We forget barely beating Germany in 2002 and getting shut out by the Swiss in 2006 and barely squeaking by the Swiss and Slovaks in 2010 and all of the other upsets and near upsets that happen in every tournament. What will happen in the qualifying knockout games? Well the Russians will win and other than that who knows. We know who should win (other than the Austria/Slovenia matchup) but while we worry about the Swiss in the quarters the reality is we may never face them.

 Single game knockout. Anything can happen. Everyone thinking Canada/US and Sweden/Russia for sure in the semis hasn't been paying attention for the last twenty years or so.

- You know who has more medals in the last five best on bests than anyone? The Finns. They have four. Two silvers and two bronze.

- the quarters will be really interesting. The Russians have also struggled to score and they will face the Finns. The Americans will probably face the Czechs who have been hampered by some terrible lineup choices so far. I wonder if they're just playing possum because while they're nowhere near the quality of the Czech teams of old they still have a lot of good hockey players and if they put it together with some goaltending they could surprise. To me the USA is one of the top two teams (I figured them for top three but rate them higher than the Swedes now due to the latter's injuries) and they should go through to the semis but again ... single knockout

 As for the Canadians well it will likely be the Swiss and so we will see a repeat of Sunday's game. The thing with a game like that is that if shit falls your way it can turn into a blowout. If Kunitz beats Rask, if Toews doesn't stumble on the wrap, if Carter tucks that backhand in then its no contest. They didn't, sometimes you don't but I really had little problem with how Canada played. The Finns are a decent club even with their injury issues and Canada totally controlled the game. Sure it would have been nice to have more finish but Rask is excellent and the Finns played a tactically perfect game. When it went to OT I turned to the boy and said Canada will end it now and they did, that extra bit of ice was all they needed.

 So against the Swiss as I noted we will see more of the same and Canada will need to either create that extra ice somehow or get a little bit more luck. Maybe they fail in both respects and lose because hockey but my guess is they will go through. The team is too good I think, its so deep up front, they are fast and they own the puck and while it would be nice for a forward other than Carter to score I honestly can't see what more they can do but to keep at it. The good news is that if they get by the Swiss then unless they see the Finns again they should see a lot more open ice and I think that is a game that plays to the team's strengths.

 Would I change anything? I thought Bergeron and Benn with Crosby were just fine. Carter has been one of their best forwards (did you see him catch Grabner? Amazing.) but he and Toews and Marleau have been very good so while part of me says move him to Crosby's flank another part of me says why bother? Crosby has been excellent and his line has generated chances and what more can you want? Other than goals of course lol. But really there is no magic bullet here. All four lines generated chances against the Finns and will do the same on Wednesday and they just need to cash some of them in.

 Kunitz had his best game against the Finns and this is pretty funny because he is there because of Sid and yet he was terrible in the first two games and as soon as he got demoted he had a strong game. And the Swiss game is going to need a mule who can tap one in from the corner of the crease. That said he probably should come out for St. Louis. Honestly though while I love St Louis he did nothing in Torino and he did nothing against the Austrians either. That said if the big issue is scoring you want to have your best scorers in the lineup so to me its a no brainer.

 And for the same reason I'd slot Subban in in Hamhuis' place. I understand why Hamhuis was the seventh man against the Finns, as Jon Willis noted, all of the question marks are on the left side and if Vlasic or Bouwmeester faltered you wanted an alternative. They were fine so you slot in PK. He adds that creativity and offensive acumen.

 That's all I'd do. Canada has the best team I think. Its what I thought before the tournament and what I still believe. So they have probably a forty to fifty percent chance of winning it, maybe less, which is also what I thought before it got underway. Its not easy to win these things. That's just the way it is.