Yuletide magic

Happy holidays to all!

I'm pumped about the World Juniors and really hope that Ballzov can post from the WJC in Sweden. He's one lucky bastard.

In the meantime, check out 13-year-old Kevin Roy from Québec City. This young man is unbelievable.


Going for Gold!

Peace from Russia.

I hope that despite my low level of dedication to the whole blogging thing that this will not be my last post on this topic. I'm headed off on vacation after Christmas and bound for Sweden (among other places) during the time of the 2007 World Junior tournament taking place in Leksand, Sweden. Today I have been able to confirm my purchase of tickets for the playoff round of the tournament. Needless to say, I'm pumped.

Remarkably (if you're a Canadian) it was very easy to get tickets. (Well, I should say that there were plenty of good seats available, it wasn't actually easy trying to coordinate with a country six hours ahead whose version of Ticketmaster won't let you purchase on-line if you're outside the country.) Nevertheless, tickets to one quarterfinal game, both semis, the bronze medal and gold medal games cost me approximately $140 CDN.

I'm excited. This is one of my favourite hockey events every year. I have vivid memories from past tourneys - John Slaney's game winner and my first distinct impression of Jerome Iginla being a transcendent player skilled in every facet of the game. Canada should stand a good chance of winning gold again this year and I would never, ever be able to see it back home. (Incidentally, the 2009 WJC are in Ottawa and there are ads in the Ottawa Citizen for tickets right now...advertising some packages of tickets for more than $1,000.) I'll do my best to blog this sucker regularly from over there. It will be contingent on having a place to stay with internet access - my next mission in time zones!

Talk to you from Sweden...


Gretzky family: Not a hockey culture

I had a good chuckle when my Dad sent me the link to an article on Ty Gretzky and how he's adjusting to life at his new digs. The eldest son of the Great one and the Gambler is currently enjoying life at Shattuck St. Mary's School, the small boarding school in rural Minnesota that is now famous for its most famous alumn, a kid named Sid.

Gretzky (the young one), who had previously only played two seasons of organized hockey, is playing as a third line centre and is "learning" the game at one of the best schools in the land. According to J.P. Parise, the father of Zach Parise of the New Jersey Devils, Ty has come a longway since he "almost died" after being skated into the ground during training camp.

The funniest bit, however, comes from Tom Ward, the school's director of hockey, who says that "if he had been in more of a hockey culture, he would be further along." I pretty much burst our laughing at this point.

More of a hockey culture? Although I do understand what Ward means (Ty has seen more surfboards than left wing locks in his life), the phrase comes out all crooked. He is, after all, the son of the most prolific hockey player of all-time.

If we can take anything away from the article, it's that Ty's hockey career might resemble more that of his uncles Keith and Brent rather than that of his famous father.

Who knows, he may become a lacrosse star.


The Crosby Show

Pardon the overused pun in the title, but what I watched tonight was quite a show. Or, rather, a display of skill at a level that is very rarely matched.

Tonight, Sidney Crosby tallied 6 points (1g, 5a) and led his Penguins to an 8 – 4 victory over their rivals from Philly. Darryl was on fire. This was a treat for me for two reasons. First, I am a great fan of dominating athletes. For some reason, I am fascinated by what drives someone to surpass themselves night in and night out. Second, I really hate the Flyers.

In order to eliminate profanity from this post, I’ll stick to my first point (I still can’t believe Bob F**king Clarke still has anything to do with hockey).

In all the years I’ve watched hockey, I have always focused on the players that excel and I’ve tried to figure out why. The obvious answer is skill, but, to me, that’s only part of the equation. Apart from Mario Lemieux, Alex Kovalev is probably the most skilled player to lace up skates (I’m talking pure skill here folks, not hockey sense). He is a great skater and has the hands of a God. He can shoot as hard and as accurately as anyone I’ve ever seen and he can make great feather passes and deflections. He’s the full package. Why then, can’t he put up “star” numbers? The simple answer is lack of “desire” or “passion”.

So, in essence, the perfect combination of skill and passion should create the optimal player. With players like Crosby, their skill and passion ratings are off the charts. I’ve watched Sid play many games and I have yet to see him take even part of a shift “off”. It doesn’t matter that he’s surrounded, mostly, by guys who would have trouble making it to the 4th line on most teams, he is driven to win and will pull no punches.

Now, watching the game on TSN, it was made very clear that Pierre Maguire has a huge man crush for Crosby (maybe because of this). He declared, unequivocally, that Crosby is the best player in the league.

It’s hard to argue with him. Crosby just took over the scoring lead and he has at least three games in hand on most of the guys in the top 5.

That being said, Maguire’s broadcast partner, Gord Miller, brought Pierre back to earth when he said that some people in the west might claim that Jarome Iginla is considered by many to be the best in the business right now.

Now, there’s a debate for the ages (well, not really, but an interesting one nonetheless). Both players are currently carrying the team on their backs and both are amazing players. Iggy is the most complete player and Crosby is the most offensively gifted player.

I guess it comes down to the age old question: If you were to build a team around one of these two players, which one would you pick?

To tell you the truth, I don’t have a clue. The only thing I want to think of right now is when those two represent Canada on the international stage (2008 World Cup of Hockey?). Iggy as Captain and Crosby as the offensive dynamo. Now that will be a show worth seeing.


Home is where the heart is

The Teal have slipped under the radar as the Niederpronger juggernaut in Anaheim has run away from the Western Conference pack so far this season. The Sharks (21-9-0, 30 GP, 42 pts) trail the Ducks (23-3-0, 32 GP, 52 pts) for the lead in both the conference and the Pacific Division but are far from being left behind.

One factor may be that Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo have been performing as mere mortals a season removed from winning major individual titles, but another factor is the team's schedule which has forced them to play more games on the road (17) than they have at the Tank (10). Their 11-6-0 road record is satisfactory enough for most teams and is nothing to sneeze at, but considering their proficiency at home (10-3-0), the next month or so has certainly been circled on the calendars of the Brothers-from-a-different-mother Wilson for some time now. Look for the Sharks, who will play 10 of their next 11 on the friendly surface of HP Pavilion, to make some gains against Anaheim.

But San Jose isn't the only city which has blessed its ice icons with a better record in its presence than when its heroes invade a foreign power: Most of the teams in either conference who are currently playoff-bound have a significantly better record in front of friendly crowds than on the road, at least when one does not consider losses in OT or shoot-outs. The only exceptions are Atlanta (10-4-3 on the road, 8-4-2 away); Ottawa (9-8-1 vs 6-7-0); and the Rangers (9-5-1 vs 7-5-3).

The Calgary Flames, as it has been noted ad nauseam in the local media, have been on a 9 game winning streak at home and, as a result, have all but caught up to the Northwest Division leaders in the standings. The team, however, is about to embark on a tough 6 game road trip -- with stops in Vancouver, Phoenix, Anaheim, LA, Colorado and San Jose -- following tomorrow's home tilt against the Wild, and will need to improve their road record considerably if they wish to stick around the playoff hunt (not to mention save us all from dismal commentary from the weathervane sports'perts in the aforementioned media). However, it is clear that a successful home record is absolutely essential for a team's elegibility for playing in late April, and if the Flames, for one, can come out with a .500+ road record this month, they'll be laughing their way for a Chance to Dance with Stan's.

(Er, I mean, " with the Stanley Cup".)

The question remains, however, why a team in this day and age is able to compete better at home than abroad. The playing dimensions are now all equal: Boston Garden have been replaced with a facility which inexplicably chose to replicate the same colouring for its seats as Montreal's Big Owe; the Aud and its tiny surface in Buffalo have been razed to the ground; and a trip to Chicago is no longer a colder version of a Battle Royale, though considering the brutal play of the Blackhawks, you wouldn't know it. The hometown crowd might be a factor in possessing an excellent home record, but this certainly isn't the case in Anaheim, Phoenix, Nashville or New Jersey. Ditto for the ice conditions, which only matters when one team has appreciably more speed than the other and that has more to do with player development than choosing between an Olympia or Zamboni.

The only factor left which might have any difference is real-time coaching decisions. A coach can devise strategies and systems all they want but once the puck drops, they have to rely on the players themselves to enact the game plan. At that moment, the coach is limited essentally to matching lines.

Still, this situation gives the home team the overwhelming advantage in any given home game. As I noted earlier, a top line can often be rendered impotent if he uses the right combination successfully.

Not that I'm complaining. I'm a regular attendee at Flames games and nothing gets me in a pissy mood faster than seeing them lose after spending a hundred bucks in fees and beer and 50/50s. I appreciate the unfair advantage.

However, if the NHL owners (who also enjoy victories at home, for obvious reasons) wanted to make the game more interesting, perhaps they would change the home-team-last-change rule such that the team who causes the previous stoppage of play would lose the advantage of changing last: If your team goes offside, the other team benefits; If you get a penalty, the other team gets even more advantage; Icings, shooting the puck in the stands, the goaltender covering the puck -- the consequences of these stoppages could actually mean more than they do now.

And if there is ambiguity as to which team caused the stoppage, then the home team gets the benefit of the doubt.

Would this have a significant impact on the game? Perhaps, perhaps not. It would make things a little more interesting, however, and you'll soon discover which coaches are earning their paycheques and which ones should stick to selling Fords.

Until then, however, I'll just bask in the glow of the Flames' streak and enjoy it while it lasts.


Canes battered, Flames flattered


Miikka Kiprusoff had yet another fantastic game last night for the Flames. He won the opening face-off, he put pressure on the defense, he caused a turnover and sniped a big-time goal, all within 30 seconds. He later slammed a bullet for another goal, not before he laid Eric Staal to the ice with a hard-ass body check, and he ended it off with an empty-netter for his 14th tally of the season. Indeed, it was all Kipper, all the time.

(Sorry. I spent most of the third period in the Saddledome Whisky lounge making fun of an Oiler fan who insists of making that oh-so-original argument that the Flames would be nothing without the Kipper between the pipes. What a maroon.)

I wanted to see first-hand how a Selke Trophy winner takes on one of the hottest lines in the NHL and was treated to just that as I witnessed Rod Brind'Amour led his Carolina Hurricanes visiting Jarome Igina and his Calgary Flames.

Clearly, it was a match-up that was underwhelming from the get-go. Iginla won the first face-off, the Flames got the puck in the Carolina end, Rhett Warrener forced a turnover, and Daymond Langkow dribbled a loose puck past a inexplicably awful, sprawling John Grahame. And it got worse for the Hurricanes, who limped into the first intermission with a 16-5 shot deficit and down two goals. Iginla sniped an empty-netter and the Flames beat the defending Stanley Cup champs in fine form.

But you can read about that here or here.

What you won't read about elsewhere is that the game featured arguably the two most complete hockey players in the game, the aforementioned Brinds and Iggy, and the latter certainly proved his mettle over the former. Jim Playfair kept Iginla & co. on the ice whenever last year's proclaimed best defensive forward was on the ice, and it was no contest. Alex Tanguay, Langkow and Iginla did whatever they wanted, moving the puck around, keeping the pressure on, getting near-perfect breakouts from their own zone. As with most of the season already, the only thing wrong with that line was the attempt to make the pretty play, though plenty a pretty play went performed, to be sure.

Meanwhile, Brind'Amour, skating between Ray Whitney and Justin Williams, couldn't get anything going. The veteran centre who is known for his prowress in the face-off circle, couldn't even win most of his draws, at least not the ones which mattered. He looked flustered and without poise. In contrast, Iggy and friends looked as if they designed the Saddledome ice surface for their legs only.

Not that I'm down on Rod the Bod; I've been following his career since he was drafted #9 overall to St Louis after winning a national Junior A championship with the Notre Dame Hounds, and think he's the bee's knees. He's always been one of my favorite players and I have nothing of respect for him. Having said that, if that performance was even minutely indicative of how a prototypical defensive forward plays, then I take back my recommendation of Stephane Yelle as a perennial candidate of the Selke (though, due to a devastating ankle injury, not this year).

Until last night, I had always thought that a good defensive forward is someone who is able, game in and game out, to frustrate the opponents' top lines. Apparently, I was wong. That being said, if anything, Iginla has shown that he is far more deserving of that award than almost anyone else in the league; last night, he dominated his own zone, he kept control of the puck, and, most importantly, he kept the top line off the scoresheet.

Maybe this explains the stellar home record for the Flames, especially as of late. While on the road, it is much more difficult for Playfair to get the match-ups he wants, that being Iginla's line paired against the opposing #1; at home, Iginla gets against the top line and because of his excellent two-way play, the opposing superstars rarely get an opportunty to break out in multiple point games.

In other words, the Flames are more than a nice set of limbs between the pipes.