HOCKEY - IT AIN'T FOR THE FAINT OF HEART

 

OK Ė now before all you Montreal Canadiens and casual hockey fans out there bombard me with insults and hate mail Ė listen up. 

You all need to relax. 

Now, letís be clear on something Ė I feel just as bad about Max Paciorettyís back, neck and head injury as the next person.  But, come on people.  Hockey is a dangerous sport.  Players know what theyíre getting themselves into when they sign up.  The faint of heart need not apply.

Just in case you havenít seen the hit, YouTube it.  As Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins was racing with Pacioretty for the puck, he angled him into the boards, and next thing you knew they were calling for the stretcher.  Pacioretty went head first into one of those metal stanchions that hold the glass in place at the end of the bench, resulting in a broken vertebra and a concussion.  In all seriousness, though, it could have been way worse.  Chara Ė as big and tall as he is Ė is not that kind of player. He angled him and gave him a legal check into the shoulder pads.  If this play happened a foot further down the ice, no problem.  Chara would maybe at worst get an interference penalty, and Pacioretty wouldnít be resting comfortably in hospital.  In all fairness, what was he supposed to do, let Pacioretty win the foot race, breakaway with the puck and score?  Thereís a reason theyíre called ďdefensemenĒ, folks.

It just kills me how, with all the debate this year over head shots and with all the what to do about how do we make the game safer, how just because this game was in Montreal, all of a sudden everybody whoís anybody has an opinion.  The hit has made headlines from coast to coast, and has incensed even those who barely follow hockey, citing events like this as the reason why.  Big name sponsors are threatening to pull out if the NHL doesnít do something.  Give me a break!  For those die hard viewers like myself, these sorts of plays, as unfortunate their outcomes, are part of the game.  News flash Ė hockey is played on skates that are razor sharp, on ice which is hard as a rock, surrounded by wooden boards and panes of Plexiglas that donít move when hit.  To keep those panes in place, metal stanchions are needed.  Therein lies the problem.  No matter how you position the glass and their various intersections, itís inevitable.  People are going to get hurt.  Some have suggested change the landscape of the NHL arena and put extra padding in the most vulnerable locations.  OK, so instead of a broken neck, you end up with a real big headache Ė is that better?  Come on - during last year's Olympics there was a Luge athlete who lost his life on the only game on ice faster than hockey.  Tragic for sure, but you don't hear the International Olympic Committee looking to change anything.

On occasion, as critical as Iíve been towards NHL officiating, as much as people are crying for the league to do something, the fact of the matter is they are doing something.  In case anybody missed it, the NHL this season instituted a new blindside head shots rule.  While not perfect (rule changes never are at first), itís designed to allow the official to use his better judgment on what constitutes a direct head shot and a five minute major.  The beauty of the rule, to me, is you can ask 10 people their take on it, and youíre bound to get 10 different responses.  Just like any other rule change, an adjustment period is needed.

Nevertheless, there are still those calling for action, right down to His Honorable, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.  Two major sponsors, Air Canada and Via Rail, both sent letters to the NHL threatening to end their arrangement if something didnít happen.  The irony here is both companies are based in Montreal.  While Commissioner Gary Bettman was quick witted enough to tell them both nonchalantly to mind their own collective bargaining businesses, heís also not stupid.  This week during the annual General Managersí meetings, a five step plan was unveiled; with a promise the league will do everything within its power to lower the impact head shots and ugly plays like this have on its players.  Heavier fines and stiffer penalties/suspensions are part of the plan.  It remains to be seen how it all plays out.  Iíll be interested to see the outcry, however, if and when a prominent player gets a stiff suspension for a questionable play (especially if this happens during the playoffs).  You canít have your cake and eat it too folks.

Itís not just a mere coincidence this all is going down on the anniversary of the Todd Bertuzzi-Steve Moore incident, is it?  As much as I want to let bygones be bygones, the fact of the matter is Bertuzzi still is afforded the privilege of playing in the NHL even after what he did.  To this day, Moore cannot so much as bend over and tie a shoelace without being reminded of it.  So, if the NHL didnít banish Todd, do you really expect them to suspend a potential Norris Trophy finalist for a defensive play gone wrong?  If you want, next time youíre on YouTube, do a search for hockey hits, and youíll very easily ascertain this sort of thing is not new to hockey.  Hockey is a dangerous sport.  You can bet the NHL and various other leagues will do their part to make sure nobody gets killed out there, but serious injuries will happen, and they will be dealt with on a case by case basis.  Perhaps not how weíd like, but weíre going to have to live with it and let the professionals do their jobs.  Sadly, itís probably going to take a fatality before anything really changes, and even then, what do you change in a sport every bit as dangerous today as it was 100 years ago?  Just sayin'.

 

TO HOT DOG OR NOT TO HOT DOG

Now hereís something which has been brewing inside me since before Christmas.  Itís another of those ongoing debates where if you put a panel of 10 people together, all of them will have a different take.

Now either Iím just not paying enough attention, or maybe itís just Iím an overly sensitive die hard Edmonton Oilers fan (there I said it), but it seems to me weíve taken a complete 180 degree turn when it comes to shootouts.

After the dreadful lockout of 2004-05, the shootout was brought in to give every game a definitive winner, make the game more competitive, make the end of season races more exciting, and most importantly, give something back to the fans.  Iíve been fortunate enough to have seen enough games live to be able to appreciate the atmosphere during one of these shootouts.  Itís fantastic.  Let a player become the star of the show, especially a player from the home side and pandemonium sets in, in a good way.

Of course, Iím referring to the whole debate over whether or not players should ďhot dogĒ in the shootout, or try special moves, dekes, anything to score the crucial goal and gain the crucial bonus point.  Rewind back to December, a game between the Edmonton Oilers and Tampa Bay Lightning.  Swedish sensation and Oilers prospect Linus Omark was playing his first ever NHL game.  Hereís another YouTube assignment Ė look up his name and youíre bound to come across several of his shootout plays from the Swedish Elite League.  Some of his moves will make your head spin.  Lo and behold, this game was tied after regulation.  Overtime solved nothing.  Tied shootout, Tampa exhausts their 3rd shooter, no goal.  The stage was set for Omark.  What happened next had to be seen to be believed.  Omark skated down the ice, did a spin-o-rama at the blue line, handcuffed the Tampa netminder (who hasnít been the same since) and scored short side for the win.  The entire Tampa team led by Martin St. Louis was incensed, sparking yet another national debate on whether or not players should try special moves in the shootout.

Excuse me?  Did I miss something here?  Isnít this the whole point behind the shootout, stir up some excitement?! 

Who was complaining on November 26, 2005 after Marek Malik ended the dental surgery during what is still to this date the longest NHL shootout ever (30 shooters), with a thru the legs deke nonetheless?

Who was complaining when Jussi Jokinen went a perfect 9 for 9 in his first 10 attempts in the 2005-06 season, still an NHL record to this day?

Who in Canada was complaining when Jonathan Toews went a perfect 3 for 3 in the World Junior Semi-Final in 2007 to secure a Gold Medal matchup?

And better yet, who was complaining when Sidney Crosby scored a spectacular shootout goal against Buffalo in the 2008 NHL Winter Classic outdoor game?

Iíll tell you who Ė nobody!

This year, however, seems every time somebody tries something new, thereís a problem.  It seemed relatively OK, though, for Torontoís Mikhail Grabovsky to try a similar move against these same Tampa Bay Lightning.  And it was definitely OK for Martin St Louis to score on a spin-o-rama play against Montreal, adding insult to injury.  How soon we forget.

"It's hard to be on the other end when you watch something like that. You battle hard it's tough to take. I don't know if disrespectful is the right word, but it caught us off guard and now we have to answer questions about it. He's a young kid, whatever he did, it worked. Do we need that? I don't know. It's kind of a slap in the face a little bit. Maybe it's a little too much. We battle hard tonight, 17-1 in the third, and to get beat in the shootout and to get beat with something like that it's tough to take. He did it, it worked. Some guys find a way to create these questions and the attention."  This was St. Louisí take on the Omark goal.  When asked if Omark was his teammate how he would handle the situation, take him aside and have a conversation? "I'd probably have a little conversation. Sometimes less is more."

Are you kidding me?

Guy Boucher, Tampa Bay Lightning Head Coach (via Lightning Strikes): "You know what? That's the type of stuff I won't comment on but I know the players will remember."

Linus Omark: "That's my game. I do stuff like that. So why should I stop on this level?"

Ryan O'Marra, Edmonton Oilers Forward and fellow team mate: "That is just the epitome of Linus Omark.  The guy just has a lot of swagger.  A guy like that who plays that kind of creative style, why not? It worked out well for us, and all joking aside, it was a huge goal, and that move he pulled when he got the shot off for the (Tom) Gilbert goal, I've seen that 100 times and that's his bread and butter. Everyone else here was surprised and I was telling everyone in the room, you're all first-timers, I've been seeing this all year." (prior to this Omark and OíMarra were playing together in the AHL).

Tom Renney, Edmonton Oilers Head Coach: "The shootout is there for a reason, and if anybody has a problem with that, then take the shootout out of the game.  It's that simple.  I've had some wins in shootouts and I've had some extraordinary losses because of the shootout so I can stand up here and [expletive] and complain about the shootout as much as anybody quite honestly, it's in the game for a reason and if you don't want to accept the way the puck crosses the goal line or how a guy comes in, then deal with it.Ē

"I can appreciate my opponentís disappointment but I don't really care.  They're completely capable of doing anything they want.  They have some highly talented people on the other side there.  They chose not to do that, that's fine.  Is there an advantage to that?  Probably.  If he gets in another one I'm sure the goalie is going to think what's this little bugger going to do next?  I think that's an advantage.  We're a young team trying to find our way here.  We're trying to be credible.  We're trying to gain respect.  We're trying to get wins.  We're trying to do things that our fans will embrace and appreciate for a long time.  So I'm going to defend anything our team does to try to win a hockey game."

Paul Bisonnette, Phoenix Coyotes Forward, via Twitter: "Just watched Linus Omarkís shootout goal..... Just bought a Linus Omark jersey on NHL.com.... but with spelt his last name GOD on the back."  Later on, another tweet: "Would I have gotten mad at Omark? No I would have gotten off our bench and joined in the celebration."

So why is there the double standard, Mr. St. Louis?  Since when has it become customary for the game to become boring again?  Just like the game of hockey is a dangerous sport, itís also measured in wins and losses Ė as they used to say Ė canít take the heat, get out of the kitchen.  In other words, get over it.  The penalty shot, which is essentially what the shootout is, an abundance of penalty shots, is supposed to be the most exciting play in hockey.  Letís not lose sight of this fact.  Hereís a thought for the entire Tampa Bay team: instead of complaining about opposing players who make you look bad, why not work on your defensive game?  Youíre going to need it.  As of this writing, of the eight teams holding down a playoff position in the Eastern Conference, the Lightning is the only one with a goal differential in the minus.

Not too sure what I accomplished from this rant, given St. Louis must have been over this months ago, but I feel much better now with that off my chest.

Hard to believe weíre already talking about playoff hockey, but here we are.  Stay tuned in the coming weeks as Iíll pick who to watch and who should win it all, which will probably amount to nothing by the time they hang up the skates on another season, but picking and predicting is half the fun!  And donít forget, once we kick into high playoff gear, I blog every night until the Cup is won.

 

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