STRANGE SPRING

 

I think Hayden Christensen, the star of the new Star Wars movie, said it best.

“I think it has something to do with the fact that it’s the best sport, ever.”

This was in response to the NHL season being cancelled.  Christensen, a self proclaimed Toronto Maple Leafs fan, born and raised in Thornhill, Ontario, hasn’t yet gotten over the notion the past year has unfolded the way it has.  In a Star Wars Episode III kind of irony, he’d like to believe the past year was just a dream (and he’s not the only one). 

He’s right though, this has been a strange year, and an even stranger spring.  Of course, the strangest part of all (aside from the weather) has been the absence of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  Oddly enough, though, just as we’re about to hit the yearly Victoria Day/Memorial Day holiday weekend, hockey is still in the spotlight, just not on as grand a scale.

Many of you have already been watching hockey as the 2005 IIHF World Championships just finished with the Czech Republic grabbing Gold against the defending champions from Canada.   Russia rounded out the medals with a Bronze win over Sweden.  This is good news for New York Rangers and Washington fans, bad news if the NHL and PA can’t get a deal done before the summer is done, even worse news for Team Canada if the bulk of the players can’t get any playing time.  Rick Nash and Joe Thornton weren’t the best players in the tournament in a losing cause by accident.  They both got to play in Switzerland.  And don’t even get me started on Sidney Crosby.

However, as they say, life goes on, even without the NHL.  This weekend, the most prominent of all the hockey tournaments gets underway.  Of course I’m talking about the Canadian Hockey League’s Memorial Cup, aptly named as a tribute to Canada’s war veterans.  Having said that, I ask all media types everywhere to please stop referring to this as the “Mem Cup” and show our veterans the respect they deserve.

This year the tournament is being held in London, Ontario, home of the recently crowned OHL Champion London Knights.

Of course the league championship is just the icing on the cake for what has been a very special season for the Knights.  They would have played in this tournament even if they had finished in last place overall as they are hosting the event.  But when you boast a lineup with players like Corey Perry, Danny Svret, Robbie Schremp and Adam Dennis, just to name a few, there’s no reason why the Knights couldn’t win the whole thing with their eyes closed.  Add the coaching of former NHL heavyweight Dale Hunter, and you have a recipe for success.  The Knights certainly proved it this year, with only two losses on home ice all season, including the playoffs, the second one not coming until the OHL finals against Ottawa.

With London already in as host team, the choice for OHL representation was simple.  The Ottawa 67s made it all the way to the OHL finals on the strength of hot goaltending by Danny Battocchio, timely scoring by Mark Mancari, Julian Talbot and Chris Hulit, and a solid defensive brick wall headed by Elgin Reid, Brad Staubitz and Will Colbert.  The 67s weren’t even expected to make it out of the first round of the OHL playoffs, but came on strong down the stretch and into the playoffs.  Had they been able to keep up the intensity that brought them as far as the finals, London may have been in for a surprise.  Of course, coaching plays a role as well, and Ottawa has none better than “the killer”, Hall of Fame coach Brian Kilrea.  Out of the four teams here, they may be ranked last on paper, but as we know at this time of year anything can happen (and usually does).

Aside from London, the Kelowna Rockets have something to prove.  They are the defending Memorial Cup champions, and are making their third appearance in a row in the tournament.  Like London, the Rockets finished off the Brandon Wheat Kings, in five games to claim the WHL crown.  The biggest question mark for the Rockets will be in goal.  Regular starter Derek Yeomans was injured during the finals, which meant backup Kristopher Westblom was the guy.  Although he was reportedly a little shaky, he got the job done for the league championship, and he’ll have to get it done the rest of the way.  The team has received permission from the CHL to add an emergency backup goaltender to their roster, but he will only be allowed to play should Westblom suffer an injury.  In any event, Mike Wall of the Everett Silvertips is available on loan and will be ready if called upon.  Shea Weber, WHL playoff MVP, will be expected to lead the charge on defense as he has all season long against the likes of Brandon’s Eric Fehr, Kootenay’s Nigel Dawes, and Seattle’s Aaron Gagnon.  Now he’ll be up against the likes of Corey Perry, Mark Mancari, and Sidney Crosby.  Defenseman and team captain Brett Palin says the key will be for the team to stick to their own system.  If they have anything going for them, it’s the fact they have fourteen players returning from last year’s championship team.  This experience should speak volumes.

London, Kelowna and Ottawa are three teams worthy of being here, but this year all eyes will be on Sidney Crosby and the Rimouski Oceanic.  “The Crosby Kid”, as they affectionately call him, was top scorer in the entire CHL again, in only his second season playing junior.  Just how good is this kid?  Over 62 games played (regular season and playoffs); he racked up 168 overall points, most of them assists (102), and 66 goals.  The strategy for all teams will be simple, keep Crosby from scoring.  Easier said than done.  Yes, Crosby is a one man wrecking crew all by himself, but the rest of the team feeds off of his skill and are all better players because of it.  Equally as impressive have been Marc-Antoine Pouliot, Francis Charette, and Jean-Sebastien Cote.  The team’s tough guy Danny Stewart has been suspended two games for spearing Alexandre Picard of the Halifax Mooseheads during the QMJHL final.  His physical presence will be missed.  The Oceanic will need him for the quarterfinals, and will need him to keep his stick on the ice.  Now I don’t care if you have Wayne Gretzky in his prime, Mario Lemieux, and Crosby all on your team, you’ll really only go as far as your goalie will take you, and Jean-Michel Filiatrault has certainly proven equal to the task, with Cedrik Desjardins proving he is a capable backup if needed.

The tournament itself will play out similar to a World or Olympic tournament, only more intense.  All four teams will play each other in a Round Robin.  The top team gets a bye to the final, then seeding determines whether or not there is a tie-breaker game (more often than not there is – there’s no such thing as goal differential here).  Then, a semi-final and a final will determine the champion.  Here’s something to consider – the last four teams to earn a bye (not to mention an extra day of rest) have won the tournament every single time.  Bottom line, every game is a must win.  Insert any sports cliché you can think of right here, as they all apply.

It’s being billed as the most anticipated Memorial Cup ever, and this was even before Sidney Crosby made his way into the mix, not just because of the absence of the NHL, but because of the quality of current and future draft picks being showcased.  Usually there are less than 150 media covering the event due to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  This time around?  Over 250, with more expected to show at the last minute.  If you enjoyed the World Junior tournament, then you have an idea of just how intense this will be.  Who will win?  It doesn’t matter.  Just enjoy watching the future pro stars as it won’t get much better than this, if and when the NHL returns.  Even the AHL’s Calder Cup playoffs have been a bore up until this point. 

LOCKOUT NOTES

While most eyes will be on the Memorial Cup, for those who still care, the AHL’s Calder Cup playoffs drag on.  As has been the case in many an NHL campaign, many of the top seeds bowed out early.  It had to be a case of déjà vu for the Binghamton Senators, who had a 2-0 lead in their first round series against Wilkes Barre/Scranton before losing the next four to lose the series.  Binghamton was one of the teams expected to come out of the Eastern Conference, but at least they didn’t bow out to the St. Johns Maple Leafs.  Now it will be up to either the Philadelphia Phantoms or Providence Bruins to show they’re worthy of another shot at a Calder Cup ring.  In the Western Conference it will be a dogfight between the Manitoba Moose and Chicago Wolves.  Chicago and Philadelphia are the only top seeds left from an original playoff pool of sixteen.

The AHL will undergo another facelift next year as two franchises will go on hiatus, three franchises join, and one moves.  The Cincinnati Mighty Ducks and Utah Grizzlies will both drop out, as Anaheim and Phoenix respectively have decided not renew their affiliations.  The Cincinnati situation was a sudden move which came shortly after the Ducks were eliminated from the Calder Cup playoffs.  New teams to the league next season will be the Iowa Stars (Dallas), Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben-Knights (Calgary), and the Peoria Rivermen (St. Louis).  The Toronto Maple Leafs will move their farm team from St. John’s to Toronto.  They will now be known as the Toronto Marlies.  The board of governors is expected to re-convene via conference call later this month to discuss issues such as division alignment and the 2005-06 schedule.

As you’ve probably figured out by now, I lost interest in my NHL Video Game simulation.  The motivation just wasn’t there for me without an actual season to compare to.  Traditionally I’ve always followed along with the actual NHL schedule just to get a sense as to what the actual game would be like.  Believe it or not, seven times out of ten the game itself could predict the outcome of a game almost right down to the exact score.  Anyway, fear not, because the Canadian Press has been using the NHL 2005 video game all season long to simulate both the regular season and playoffs, and the results may surprise you.  There has to be something big in store for the Calgary Flames the next time there’s a season, as both EA Sports and the Canadian Press managed to simulate the Flames all the way back to the Stanley Cup Finals.  Their opponents?  Only two of the original six.  EA’s simulation matched Calgary against Montreal, and the CP’s matched them up against Toronto.  Does this mean we can actually look forward to an all Canadian final next time around or is it just wishful thinking on everybody’s part (including mine)?  Hopefully we’ll be able to see for ourselves.

The NHL and NHLPA have been meeting a minimum of twice a week and are committed to continuing this in an attempt to end the lockout once and for all.  As of late, both sides still appear to be going opposite directions.  The NHL would like to get a financial system in place before ironing out all of the other issues which need to be in place for a new agreement, and the NHLPA seems intent on ironing out all of the other issues first before talking finances.  Perhaps it’s just me, but don’t these sides realize the longer it takes them to compromise, the harder they’ll have to work to win back fan support, not to mention sponsorship?  Just get it done, and now.

Once there is a deal in place, the Sidney Crosby Lottery will potentially be decided based on how teams did over the past three seasons.  As in previous years, a draft lottery will determine positions, with teams missing the playoffs given the highest priority.  For instance, the New York Rangers, who missed the playoffs the past three seasons, would get three chances at landing the top pick, whereas a team like the Edmonton Oilers, who missed two out of the last three seasons, would get two chances.  Every team would get at least one shot at Crosby.  The rumors are already circling as to how this might play out, but at least they’re incorporating some fairness into it.  If you ask me, give every team an equal shot based on the fact there was no season.

And so another column comes to a close.  I’m hard at work on my attempt as baseball columnist, so stay tuned.  As they say, the best things come to those who wait, and trust me, it will be worth it.  For those of you going on summer vacation, have a good one, and keep a computer nearby.

 

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