The View From Wisconsin

Just a random set of rants from a Sports Fan from Wisconsin.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Twenty Myths of Hockey

I didn't see if this got posted previously, and it's an old one - but it's worth re-posting.

1. Canada is the greatest resource of hockey knowledge in the world. Players, coaches, front office personnel and fans know more, care more and play harder than anyone else in the game.

If this is true, why did it take them 50-plus years to finally win another Olympic gold medal? There are a lot of mediocre-to-bad players that come out of places like Brantford, Parry Sound, Moosaskin and such than there are good players. For every Wayne Gretzky, there are 100 Brant Myhrres. And if Canadian coaches are so smart, why have so many been fired repeatedly? Look at the late Roger Neilson; he was fired from several teams, including the Maple Leafs. (The Leafs, all by themselves, are proof that Canadian ownership is no better than American pro sports ownership.)

2. Cities and locales that have successfully maintained major and minor professional hockey consistently over the last 50 years are the only such locales that will successfully sustain a NHL franchise in the future.

I'm not sure I'd say that Ottawa "successfully maintained" anything over the last 50 years. Ditto Edmonton and Calgary. I don't see much to this exercise, because there are plenty of locales that meet this standard that have lost NHL franchises - like Minnesota, Hartford, Winnipeg and Quebec City. The city of Chicago didn't exactly "take" to the Blackhawks when they began play in the NHL in 1924. In fact, for the first few years of their existence, an AHA team was arguably the more popular franchise. And the fans that used to pack in the upper deck of the old Chicago Stadium are now taking their kids to the Allstate Arena in Rosemont to watch AHL hockey.

3. Hockey scouts are founts of knowledge about the game of hockey and the NHL's franchises. Scouts have seen enough hockey to be able to predict how a player will do in the NHL.

The only thing hockey scouts know about an NHL franchise is whether or not they've paid them recently. A scout's job is to evaluate talent on the basis of skills, not on actual playing ability or projections of what they would do in the NHL Any scout who labels a kid as a "50 goal scorer" is just guessing. A kid from some Division III school who gets a tryout at an AHL training camp is just as likely to score 50 in the NHL as a kid who has been touted from his first game in juniors as being a 50-goal scorer in the NHL. And just because a scout says that a player has all the playing skills necessary to play in the NHL, that doesn't mean he won't go off and do something stupid - whether it's roll a Hummer at 85 mph with a BAC of .020 or simply refuse to be a team player by not passing the puck. Remember: for every scout who found a Sakic or a Selanne, they also found 20 Smiths and MacKenzies who they swore would be NHL material - and yet never made it past the very low minors.

4. For a team to be a true Stanley Cup contender, they must have one or more elite players on their roster.

In other words, if you don't have someone who's either a.) won a Stanley Cup, b.) won a major piece of NHL hardware, or c.) scored 50 goals in the NHL, you don't have what it takes to win the Stanley Cup. If this is true, then how in the hell did Anaheim and Minnesota make it to the Conference Finals? Marian Gaborik wasn't considered an "elite player" until after the fact. The only way you become a Stanley Cup contender is to score more goals than you give up and win hockey games. That's all. Names only take you as far as the press clippings. If names won Stanley Cups, the Rangers would have five by now.

5. A team needs to be willing to spend money on elite players to be able to contend for the Stanley Cup.

Don't tell this to Lou Lamiorello. Or to Doug Risebrough. Lou got the Devils to their fourth Cup finals in eight years because he evaluated talent that he drafted or signed and developed, kept what he wanted and traded away for better players the ones he didn't. Risebrough drafted and developed young, defensive-minded players who could buy into Jacques Lemaire's defensive-oriented system. It's better if a team can evaluate talent, know how much to spend for that talent, and get the most out of that talent. Eventually, if the team is accurate with its assessments, they will have elite players on their team - without having to pay exorbiant free agent salaries.

6. The neutral zone trap is extremely boring hockey and prevents player from opening up and scoring at will.

It's also an incredible example of finesse hockey. The trap that everyone complains about is the concept of players doing everything they can to prevent the puck carrier from entering the attacking zone. It's also impossible to pull off on a regular basis. Back in the 1980's, a football coach by the name of Darrell "Mouse" Davis came up with the concept of the four-wideout "spread" offense, because of a simple truth of the game - you can find more good players who can catch passes than you can find ones who can properly defend a pass. The trap is a reverse of that theory - the more you force a team to make "perfect passes" to break through the defense, the more likely you are to make a mistake - and the better suited you are to take advantage of that mistake.

7. The elimination of the two-line (offside) pass would encourage "cherry picking" at a team's attacking blue line.

The neutral zone, as it stands right now, is only 54 feet wide. That isn't a whole lot of territory to cover - which is shown by the effectiveness of the neutral zone trap and the left-wing lock. So, a pass from your own defending zone to a player on the other side of the red line isn't such a bad concept. I do have a problem with legalizing passes to a player from the defending or neutral zones into the attacking zone, however, so this rule shouldn't be completely eliminated. But come on - you want to see the "boring" neutral zone trap go away? Make the one thing that defeats it easier to do.

8. No-touch icing would eliminate the strategy of dump-and-chase line changes.

And this would be bad... how? Players would just have to learn that they have to launch the puck from the attacking side of the center line instead of just blindly firing the puck up the ice. And I don't know about you, but the idea of watching the goaltender corral the puck, then a defender setting up behind the goalie and play "how do we break out today?" is about as much fun as watching ice melt.

9. The disadvantage of having European players on a team is that they don't know as much about the game, and they are always one bad situation away from going home to play hockey back over at home.

This is almost as bad as racial profiling. The old prejudices against Europeans (that they don't like to hit, they're selfish and moody) still linger in the modern NHL. Truth is, if you were several thousand miles from home, and things weren't working out for you in your chosen field of work, you'd be looking for ways to get home. You might also get a little stir-crazy from not knowing the language, the customs, or even where to go to get a good serving of your favorite home-cooked meal. That doesn't mean that these guys aren't playing their hardest.

10. The history of the Original Six franchises is one of hallowed legends and lore that every hockey fan knows and loves. That history also proves why the National Hockey League is the greatest ice hockey league on the face of the Earth.

A quick read of the book Deceptions And Doublecross would lead you to believe otherwise. Considering that the NHL itself was formed out of spite for one team owner, and that all involved in its formation were some of the most sneaky and underhanded individuals who ever set out to run a business, it's amazing that the NHL went as far as it did. The NHL essentially wrested control of the Stanley Cup away from its trustees and declared itself the be-all and end-all of all things ice hockey. Truth be told, during the Original Six era, there were probably several AHL and IHL teams that had better players than the NHL - but there was no room for them, because the NHL refused to expand until 1967. Oh, and the "Original Six" concept is a myth in and of itself: Only one team in the modern NHL was a part of the NHL from the moment it began, and that is the Montreal Canadiens. The Maple Leafs were nothing more than an "expansion team" brought in to replace the Blueshirts franchise of the despised Eddie Livingstone.

11. Hockey fans in Canada are more passionate about the game than fans in the United States; US fans are more likely to go to a hockey game to watch fights than a good goaltending match-up.

If hockey fans in Canada are so passionate about the game, how do you explain Edmonton, Calgary, Victoria, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Quebec and even Montreal losing their major-league hockey franchises since 1921? Yes, it's true: between 1921 and 1998, all eight of these cities had at least one of either an NHL, WHA or PCHA/WHL team. And all of these cities lost their teams. Montreal went from being a hockey hotbed with several major hockey teams in 1909 to having only one with the demise of the Maroons in the 1930's.

As for fans in the US, look at Dennis O'Leary from Boston - he's a gung-ho hockey fan from a gung-ho hockey city. He's done a lot in recent days to spread the word about the game. His favorite player is Bobby Orr, not some thug goon from the "Big Bad Bruins" era. And, if fans would rather watch fights, how do you explain the success of the Minnesota Wild? They're not exactly known for getting penalties five minutes at a time, but they are known for very stingy goaltending. And they have a waiting list for their season ticket holder list.

12. Fighting is a part of the game of hockey.

That is like saying throwing at the batter is part of the game of baseball, or that flagrant fouls are part of the game of basketball. That's just a load of BS. Fighting (or what's known as "fisticuffs" in the rulebook) is a penalty. The rules are clear: you fight, you're off the ice for five. Of course, if you're a stiff who doesn't care if he's not on the ice all night, a five minute major might be seen as a godsend. The NHL isn't serious about doing anything about fighting, but if they were, it wouldn't take too much: just change the rule to include an automatic five for both parties, and a game misconduct for the player deemed to start the fight.

13. Ties are also a part of the game of hockey.

Speaking as a fan who had to sit through the 2002 Major League Baseball All-Star Game debacle, I can only say this: HELL NO! I don't care if the game is baseball, football, hockey, soccer, tic-tac-toe or tiddlywinks - ties just out-and-out suck. Now, there is a cure for this, but it's the one thing that would be the hockey equivalent of the DH: the shootout. Most of your Euros are familiar with it, as are your junior players and your IHL graduates. It sends your season ticket holders home knowing that they saw a game where there was a winner and a loser. And, with the five-man shootout format, it takes a team effort to win the shootout.

14. The game of hockey is a much better game live and in person than on TV.

A recent article about the NHL and High-Definition TV made it clear that the NHL knows what its drawbacks are when it comes to televised hockey: you can't see the whole ice in the smaller format camera feed. So why not do what movie producers do with their films and make games available in a "wide screen" letter-box version? You can put scores on top and in-game updates on the bottom, while allowing the fan the view from "the entire ice" so they can see the play develop. Better still, try putting those Eye-In-The-Sky remote cameras suspended over the rink so the viewer can see the up-ice rushes. There should be a better way to see the game than it's presented now, and it shouldn't take some gimmicky thing like "FoxTrax" to do it.

15. Great hockey teams are built from the goal outward.

This adage should actually be something like this: "The easiest way to put together a good hockey team is to start with a great goaltender." This doesn't explain the success of the Vancouver Canucks, of course. The truth is, great hockey teams have great players on them, who contribute regularly to the success of the team. It naturally follows that one of the great players should be a goaltender. However, there are few goaltenders who are consistent enough to win year in and year out. If you have great players in front of a goaltender, regardless of his talent level, he plays much better. Guys like Grant Fuhr and Eddie Mio probably would be forgettable if they hadn't had talent like Gretzky, Kurri, Messier and Coffey in front of them night after night.

16. Slap Shot was an accurate representation of minor professional hockey in the US during the 1970's.

Yeah, right. There are so many things that the movie "made up" about minor league hockey - like the fact that the Federal League used a single-elimination playoff tournament - that it's only borderline truth. Yeah, there were some colorful players like the Hansons, and the scene at the beginning of the movie with the s--tfaced drunk forward are plausible, and divorces and "free love" were frequent all over North America at the time. But an announcer who was that clueless about hockey? And that much fighting - well, okay, there was a lot of fighting in pro hockey at that time - but really, fighting in the playoffs? Uh-uh, wouldn't happen. The reason why Slap Shot is so popular among hockey fans is that there's an element of the truth in it - long bus rides, maniacal fans, strange things happening on ice, colorful players.

17. Players who wear face visors are more likely to be hit and high sticked than if they weren't wearing them.

This is like the old argument about helmets and going into the corners. "The more safety equipment a player has on, the more likely he's going to be reckless in his play." I don't buy that. I think, in the light of what happened to Bryan Berard and other notable high-sticking incidents, the visor should almost a no-brainer. With the speed of the puck and the ferocity of hits, eye protection should be the rule, and not the exception. Any argument against them isn't being realistic about their benefits.

18. The best hockey sweaters in the history of the game are the Canadiens "bleu, blanc et rouge" uniforms.

I can tell you right now that people in Detroit, Toronto, Boston, New York and Chicago disagree vehemently. What makes a good hockey sweater - and they're called sweaters, not jerseys, by the way - is pretty much a matter of taste. I have always believed that simpler is better, and that a good, descriptive logo beats something generic or overly cartoonish. I've always liked the original San Jose Sharks teal away sweaters, with the Shark logo and the white/black stripes and the block numbers.

19. There is not enough hockey talent in the combined Canadian, US and European hockey systems to sustain the current number of teams in the NHL.

Yes there is. The problem with the European part of the equation is the incentive to jump across the big pond. Most players in the major Euro leagues - Finland, Sweeden, Germany, Italy, Russia - believe that the quality of play in their leagues is at or just above the AAA minor league level (the AHL/IHL level of talent). The typical European player believes - and somewhat rightly, if I might add - that unless they're playing at the elite level, in the NHL, why should they bother uprooting themselves to play the same quality of hockey as they would playing for pro teams in their homeland? Ask any US or Canadian hockey players who have made the jump to Europe as to how that long-term move feels, especially when you're in a country where almost no one speaks your language on a daily basis and a good McDonald's is hard to find.

As for the US/Canadian side of the equation: if it wasn't for the major juniors and the US Colleges, the NHL could have boat-loads of more young talent than any other sport on the continent. The age limits and the existence of juniors and college hockey have made the NHL an older league by fiat. If NHL GM's decided to just put good young talent on the ice night after night, and let the veterans get old and slow very fast, the juniors and college talent pool could become secondary to the development of players. And the NHL could, conceivably, add four to six more teams.

20. The NHL and the NHLPA are headed for a long, extended labor dispute that will result in one or more franchises ceasing operations, and - in a worst-case scenario - the death of the NHL itself.

I would have to believe that, despite all the hard-line talk between Gary Betteman and Bob Goodenow, neither one is really interested in having their livelihoods eliminated out of pure stubbornness. Of course, the NHL was founded out of spite, greed and stubbornness, but that was back when such behavior was fashionable. There has been so much talk and fretting and fussing about this season, and how the World Championships will end one day before the agreement expires. So much talk, in fact, that any sort of a lockout or strike would be perceived as utter failure on the part of the NHL. The sad truth is that the NHL isn't sport #4 in the eyes of the American public anymore. That privilege goes to NASCAR and its Winston/Nextel Cup series. Both sides realize that any sort of extended work stoppage will hurt that position.

That doesn't mean that there won't be grumblings and gripings. Training camps may not open on time. Some harsh words may be said - more than likely by Bill Wirtz, who's trying to play Steinbrenner in all this. But I think, in the end, cooler heads will prevail. Besides, the NHLPA's current proposal is so reasonable that I think even lunkhead Wirtz could be convinced to play under that system.

NOTE: Okay, so I was wrong about point 20. That's not a bad batting average.