Sunday, May 29, 2016

2016 Fin.



 Here we are!!!

 10 and 4 after three rounds and it's the Pens and Sharks in a final that I like very much, yes I do. I would prefer a Sharks' victory, with Thornton and Marleau and Burns and James Reimer and Joel Ward who played hockey at UPEI and who I have never heard a bad word about from any Islander. That said a Cup for Phil Kessel just to shove it up that idiot at the Toronto Sun's ass ... oh that would be sweet. And maybe that would shut up the dummies who question Sidney Crosby's character every time he goes a game without scoring.

 Your regular reminder - the use of 'character and leadership' as reasons for a sports' team's success or failure is what lazy writers or broadcasters who cannot actually provide useful analysis fall back on because they are bad at what they do for a living.

 A hockey game is not a morality play. It is a game between two teams. Over seven games the better team usually wins but the outcome is determined not only by talent but by luck, injuries and often, a hot goaltender. It is not determined by who has the better character. Full stop.

 Joe Thornton has not suddenly learned how to win because he made the finals. He is by almost any measure, a winner. He is one of the best hockey players who has ever lived, a surefire Hall of Famer. He has won individual awards. He has won gold medals at the World Juniors, World Cup and Olympic Games. He has made literal boatloads of money playing hockey. So remember all of that when, if the Sharks lose, some fat hack journalist or idiot coworker says that Joe Thornton lacks character or is not a winner.

 So ... what do I think happens in the next two weeks? Well ... the Pens are fast but the Sharks aren't plodders at all so I am pretty sure they can stick with them. The big advantage for the Pens is they have three lines that can score and at some point they should be able to make hay from that. That said the Sharks are almost as deep up front. The Crosbies have Crosby, Malkin and Kessel with Hornqvist, Rust, Bonino, Hagelin and a rejuvenated Chris Kunitz but the Sharks counter with Thornton, Pavelski and Couture and a supporting cast of Marleau, Hertl, Donskoi, Ward and Tierney. Slight advantage to the Pens, sure, but their problem is that blueline. The Sharks have two excellent pairs but for the Pens after Letang there is a real dropoff and I think that is where the series is lost for them. I can't see Lovejoy, Maatta, Cole and Norris Schultz handling the Sharks' game down low and while Matt Murray has had a nice run he has tailed off - I can't see him being the difference maker he needs to be.

 Everyone is calling this to be too close to call and I could see it going seven but really unless Martin Jones completely melts down I could see it going six or even less. Seriously. The Sharks have handled a murderers' row of opponents pretty handily and each of those clubs were deep up front and had bluelines way deeper than the Pens. We'll split the difference and say Sharks in six.


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Those Melodies Come Back To Me



We hung around till the final band
Called "Escape Is At Hand For The Travelling Man"
You yelled in my ear this music speaks to me


 Absolutely gutted this morning, just shattered by the news about Gord Downie. It's been an awfiil year for musicians in general but for the Canadian music community and people of a certain age it has been especially horrible. First the devastating news about John Mann and now Downie. Both so young.

 Beware of nostalgia and sentimentality coming, even more so than usual.

 I remember a number of years back having an online conversation about music and the soundtrack of your life and how that nearly always goes back to your youth, not so much when you are in high school but when you are in your early twenties, fancy free, having fun before the responsibilities start coming on. So it is for me, when it comes to music I am a real Philistine (to which those people who sneer at the Hip will say here's the perfect example) and while I know some newer music and enjoy it, thanks to my kids, for the most part I listen to music and bands that I listened to 25 years ago. What can I say, I am a simple man.

 And The Hip ... well the Hip have always been there. I was nineteen or so when we were talking about this new Kingston band and my friend Sharon, still a dear friend all of these years later, commented on their name and how she loved it and that was when it began. Within a few years they had gone from playing University pubs to headlining a show called Another Roadside Attraction. I was 23 I guess, or thereabouts. This was a two day festival up at Markham Fairgrounds, fifty thousand people, an absolute bacchanal, the show starting at noon and running until midnight, the sun blazing, stumbling about dusty and grinning. They were different times back then for sure, no security lineup. We had beer on ice in our car (we had a DD) and if we wanted a beer we'd walk out of the grounds and drink a few, the wandering cops turning a blind eye.

 Maybe four or five years later I went to the second tour by the same name. One show only. This time I was with the Girl From Rawlins Cross. There was no beer in the parking lot, once you were in past the security you were in and if you wanted a beer it was the beer garden for you. It was a tremendous show once again, I never attended an average Hip show, they always brought terrific energy and Downie was a rambling madman on stage, an outstanding showman. But times were changing, at 29 I looked around at the drunken kids and thought to myself 'what is wrong with these people'. Lol.

 In 2002 we were married for a year and had just bought a house and Jenn and I went to Ontario Place with friends and sat on the lawn ('That night in Toronto ....') and in the cool summer evening we sat back and revelled in it all.

 And then just over a year ago we were at the ACC, my birthday present, three kids and over a decade after the last show. It was great, as great as ever. Gord (to me he was always simply Gord) was a bit shouty, or shoutier lol, it was a February show so maybe he was battling something or maybe all of the years were taking his toll on his vocal cords. But it was a terrific show all the same and the best birthday present I ever received.

 What is it about the Hip and Gord himself that spoke to me? I don't know. Their sound is simple driving rock and roll, which I enjoy, but what separated them for me were the lyrics, referencing obscure Canadiana, often digressing and wandering here and there, I can't explain it but I can sing along to dozens of their songs without missing a beat. ('There is nothing uglier than a man hitting his stride' except maybe me trying to carry a tune but man oh man I know them all.)

 Maybe it's because for all the fame and wealth Downie still remains the hoser, with the hoserest name, the hockey fan, the beer drinker, the guy I saw at The Dora Keough one afternoon having a few pints at the bar or who came into the Famous one day to pick up his takeout Indian, waiting with us and then hopping on his bike and pedalling off with his dinner. He's one of those guys, like my boyhood hero, Stan Mikita, who is sadly also having health issues, who I have never heard a bad thing about. Just a simple guy, a good guy, and I think for a lot of Canadians we look at the Hip and see ourselves in them, just a bunch of regular dudes who happened to make it big. Maybe that's it? I don't know and I will leave it to someone smarter than me to explain how they became the biggest Canadian band ever.

 It's hit me hard and let's be honest, a lot of this has to do with the fact that he is only a few years older than me. His wife battled cancer herself and they have four children and really that is the most heartbreaking thing and the thing that terrifies me the most, leaving my children behind, so I cannot imagine what they are going through right now.

 All the best to Gord and his family in this toughest of times. With great sadness but also with thanks for the joy he has brought me over all of these years.





Sunday, May 15, 2016

All The Marbles



The Western Conference has pretty well dominated the NHL now for almost two decades. Thirteen Cups in nineteen years, seven of the last ten, if it weren't for New Jersey the gap would be even more ridiculous, never mind the blown Gelinas call, Roloson's knee, Chris Osgood and myriad Detroit injuries and Tim Thomas having a season for the ages (and Dan Hamhuis getting hurt).

 It's not just that the West wins every year it's that every spring you could pick six or seven or even eight or more western clubs that could beat anyone in the east while the eastern talent pool runs one or two or three teams deep. When those teams go down, as they often do, then the Western final essentially becomes the Cup final.

 Now the gap has begun to close, thanks to Gary's cap. LA and the Hawks have been pulled back to the mushy middle and will continue to lose players this summer. The window for success has become one or two years, then the kids on entry level deals need to get paid and teams need to pay the price. For a team to continue to have success they need to, well they need to do a lot of things right. They need to bring in a steady stream of young (cheap) guys who can play. They need to be ruthless with vets coming into UFA, regardless of tenure or past contributions. They need to find useful vets on value contracts. And on top of that they need to have luck of all sorts - injuries, the right draw come playoff time, simple bounces.

 It's not an easy path to navigate. You look at Tampa who just last year probably gave the Chicago/LA combo the toughest test in the final either team has had. With a break here or there and a healthy Tyler Johnson and Ben Bishop they may have carried the day. They fell short but it seemed that this could be their year. A slow start and then Stralman and Stamkos knocked out of the lineup (and now Bishop besides) and it seemed that their chances were doomed. And now Stamkos possibly out the door.

 The window closes quickly.

 Back to the original point, why is it that the West has been so good for so long? Well my theory is this, I call it the Norris theory. (Actually I don't call it anything but let's call it something.))

 Back in the 80s the NHL has 21 teams. 16 of these made the playoffs and the setup was similar to today. You had four teams in each division make it, they played off against each other and then whoever came out faced the other division winner in the conference final.

 So out West you had the Smythe and there you had the Oilers, one of the best, if not the best, teams ever. You had the Flames, who were probably the second best team in the league over a five or six year span. And you had the Jets who were very good for a year or two but who never could get past either Alberta team. So every year you had two teams with 90 or more points and while the third and fourth place teams were up the track they also had to play Edmonton and Calgary 16 times.

 And you had the Norris - Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Minnesota, Toronto. In the early 80s Detroit was finishing up a stretch of nearly twenty years of being terrible (yes Oiler fans it could get worse). Toronto and Chicago had probably the two worst owners in hockey history. And St. Louis and Minnesota were relentlessly mediocre. Only once from 84 to 90 did a division winner top 90 points and this was playing a large number of games against other terrible teams. There were years that Norris teams made the playoffs while barely cracking 50 points!

And four of these clubs made the playoffs evey year.

 It's hard to explain how bad these teams were but let me tell a little anecdote to illustrate, if I may. In the spring of 87 we were winding up our first year of university. I lived on campus at St Mike's College at U of T on a floor with eight other dudes, seven if whom were also freshmen. We were a tight lot, they were all terrific guys, we had ourselves some good times. It was in April that one of the guys had a birthday, he would have been turning twenty and so we decided to get out and celebrate. The playoffs had just started and the Blues and Leafs were slugging it out in the first round, the Blues having ripped up the division to win it with 79 points and a -12 GD and the Leafs way down the track with, um, 70 points and a -33 GD. Two quality clubs.

 So we went to the Morrissey, the Mo as it was called, a classic Toronto watering hole, long gone now alas, and we ordered pitchers at whatever ridiculously cheap price they were (this was when the Mo was slightly divey, it had a rebirth soon after as a preppy hotspot and prices responded accordingly) and got to drinking. Wanting to bring some sport into the equation we agreed to fire back an extra beer (they had those little draft glasses, you know the ones) everytime there was a shot on net.

 Ten minutes into the game no word of a lie and we hadn't had a drink yet. It was typical Norris garbage, sloppy, terrible hockey. Finally, fed up, I announced that we would drink every time someone touched the puck. Five minutes passed with no luck at all ...

 I kid. But barely.

 The thing was that there was no incentive to improve. I am sure these GMs would say they were trying their best to win but the reality is you could be mediocre or worse and you were guaranteed playoff dates and with a break or two you could easily get to the third round. Remember St Louis had money troubles at the time and again there was Ballard and Wirtz. These guys weren't spending money on players or scouting or anything.

 And then Mike Keenan came to Chicago. His first year the Hawks struggled but as the fourth seed they managed to make the Conference final. The next year the club improved by 22 points and again made it to the Conference Final, where they fell to the Oilers, in six games.

 And that was the end of the old Norris. It took one team to break from the pack, to see that the division was easy pickings and invest in taking the next step. And then the others followed. In 90/91 Chicago and St Louis both had over 100 points. The Wings won the division the next year with 98 points and began to become the team that dominated the NHL for decades. The Leafs hired Cliff Fletcher and Pat Burns and in 92/93 Chicago had 106 points, Detroit had 103 and Toronto had 99.

 Keenan started an arms race, for lack of a better term, and that was it for the old sad sack Norris.

 And so I believe that in many ways the Western Conference is the same. In the late nineties the big money Eastern teams, the Rangers and Leafs and Flyers, spent their money poorly, they didn't fail for lack of trying but they had no Cup appearances between them after 96 (!). Meanwhile Detroit, Dallas and Colorado developed a ton of young talent, paid it and augmented it with smart free agent buys. Come the introduction of the salary cap the Stars and Avs regressed but the Wings remained the standard and so we saw Anaheim and San Jose, first of all, making their moves and then Vancouver, Chicago, LA, the Blues, the Stars and so on. The West became a war zone, so brutal that even a quality club like Nashville has found it impossible to get past the second round and annually quality clubs found themselves on the outside of the playoffs entirely. Basically unless you are the Oilers and are run by the worst owner and management team in hockey, a group that has spit in the face of their fans for a decade, all the while reaping massive profit and grifting the city of Edmonton for hundreds of millions of dollars, well if you are anyone else then you need to do everything and anything to get better because it iis almost impossible just to make the playoffs, never mind get by Chicago or LA to get a shot at the Cup.

 And so here we are.

 This year was different I thought. I figured the Ducks and Tampa at the beginning of the year and then coming into April this is what I had to say:

To me there are five real heavyweights this year - Anaheim, LA, St Louis, Washington and Pittsburgh. If Tampa were healthy I would throw them in that mix as well. After that I see Dallas, Chicago and San Jose as good but flawed teams and then everyone else. (I can't take Tampa seriously unless Stralman and Stamkos were able to return.)

 So you can see how things have changed, if Tampa were healthy, three of the six teams I rated were eastern teams and that has not happened ... ever? Not as long as I remember anyhow.

 That all said, I think it is the West again this year, barring calamity striking the winner of the Blues/Sharks series. After watching Pittsburgh and Washington I cannot take the Pens that seriously, I really can't. Not with that D. Same would have gone for the Caps if they had won. So your Cup winner will be .....

 The Sharks. Oh man, I literally just changed my mind there. Which is what I did for Caps and Pens, which did not work out well. It's a coin flip, it really is, but when I think about it .... this is what tips it in San Jose's favour, in my opinion.

 They can roll four lines, the Blues can only roll three pretty well, depth matters. I always say it and I can't go back on that now. And they have three good D pairs and quality goaltending. They have it all and the Blues had a tough time getting by a Stars' team missing Seguin and having a D that is nowhere near the quality of the Sharks and that Dallas goaltending.

 I may regret this. Well I mean not really, I don't have money on this or anything.

 Sharks in 6 or 7. Joe gets his Cup.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Hot Dog!



Three and one in an entertaining second round, the only loss being the Caps. Hilariously enough I was going to go with the Pens and then changed my mind at the last minute, going with my gut. Stupid gut. Anyhow, now at 8 and 4 for the year and all time I am 63-25 in the first round and 25-19 in the second. On to the conference finals where I am 14-6.

 The Penguins really look good huh? I mean really good. Not that this is a huge surprise. When Phil Kessel is on your third line (!) it means you're a damn good team and you survive Crosby and Malkin scoring 1 goal between them.

(By the way remember the time Toews scored no goals in three rounds and Chicago still winning the Cup? That's right, even the best players go cold and it has nothing to do with character or wanting it more or knowing how to win.)

This of course leads into my rant (redux) about the media and in this case Rogers in particular. It is hard to believe how bad Rogers is. I mean they are terrible. Only ten years more! Shoot me right fucking now, as Daffy Duck used to say.

 I don't mind Strombo to be honest and of course Elliotte is Elliotte but the rest of the crew is ... well just awful. They've carried on with the Cherryification of hockey coverage that HNIC started. The talented players get insulted, their character questioned, their play sneered at. The grunts are deified  (Never forget that without Shawn Thornton the Bruins never win that Cup!) and in place of real analysis we are provided with a morality play. How did Pittsburgh beat Washington, in particular how did they shut down so many of the Caps' stars (though not Ovechkin)? I mean literally how did they do it? What did Mike Sullivan do when he came in that turned their season around?

 Who knows? We don't know or at least none of these guys paid a lot of money to analyze the sport have told us. Instead we get cliches about a fresh voice in the room and a team that knows how to win beating a team that does not have the character or leadership or 'winning knowledge'. You know, like the Blues and the Sharks who didn't know how to win until they suddenly ... did. Of course if the Pens end up winning it all, or Tampa, then I guess both San Jose and St Louis will not have learned to win.

 My head hurts.

 And can you not afford to send your own crews to cover each series? How bush can you be, streaming another network feed? Unreal.

 And what of Phil Kessel? His career playoff stats (like Marleau and Thornton, two other guys with terrible playoff reps) are very good and yet we all know his reputation. Frankly it's disgusting to see the media members who delighted in running him out of Toronto now saying that he wasn't a cancer at all but rather a very good player who was stuck on a terrible team. Much like Mats Sundin dragging Jonas Hogland around the ice with him for years so was Kessel burdened with plugs and also rans and all he did all of his time in Toronto was score goals, the hardest thing to do in the sport. And when he was in Toronto well, he got shit on, to put it mildly, because like Ales Hemsky, to name another, he did not play the game (ie he was not a good quote/wasn't chummy with the old boys in the media).

The media ran him down and the Leafs, in one of their rare missteps recently, took a page from the Oilers' management playbook and let it happen. The end result is that their best player was devalued to the point where the return was abysmal. If Kessel did not fit into the rebuild (and his age and contract and for that matter his personality may not have, in their view, which is fine, if that is their belief) then that's okay - trade him. But don't stand by and let a hack, the hackiest of hacks, Steve Simmons, assassinate the character of your top player. You may not like the guy yourself but business and asset management demands that you go in front of the mics and defend your man strongly and with conviction. But instead there was silence.

 I want the Sharks to win it all but if it ends up being they and the Pens in the Final I do hope that Kessel goes off in a big way, albeit in a losing cause.

 Anyhow on to the Pens and the Lightning ... if Tampa had both Stralman and Stamkos I would like their chances a lot better than I do. I mean, they're good and they have a shot, of course. Bishop is capable of winning a couple of games himself and I am still not sold on the Pens' goaltending and D (I know I know, what will it take, I guess if they win the Cup I will become a believer). Murray has been good but Greiss had a great first round and then pfft and we've seen Lundqvist and Holtby and Quick and Crawford all go down already. Goaltending is ... impossible to predict. And if Murray does go poof do you really trust that grinning buck toothed bastard to carry the day? I don't.

 But without Stralman ... well the Tampa D is pretty solid and they are nice and deep up front as well but the Pens have that edge at forward and their D is proving better than advertised and well, I can see them losing, sure anyone can be beaten, but Tampa hasn't faced anyone like the Caps and the Pens handled them pretty well.

Pens in 6, maybe even 5. And then all things being equal, I think the west wins again. These eastern D corps are just terrible, aren't they? Taylor Chorney killing a third period penalty in an elimination game? REALLY!