Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category

Long odds: this bookie puts the odds of Ovechkin being suspended at 50-1.

What are the odds that Alexander Ovechkin gets suspended by the NHL for his late, high hit on Dan Girardi in today’s game?  And if he does get suspended, what are the odds that it will be anything more than a symbolic slap on the wrist?

When trying to answer these questions we might look at the precedent set earlier in these playoffs by NHL Discipline czar Brendan Shanahan.

For similar hits in these playoffs, Pittsburgh’s James Neal – a 40 goal scorer this season – got a single game for two high hits on the Flyers’ Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux (coincidentally both of these players were making the Penguins look foolish earlier in the game).  Phoenix’s Raffi Torres – a player not known for being integral to his team – got 25 games for a carbon copy of Ovechkin’s hit on Chicago’s Marian Hossa.  If this kind of inconsistency isn’t enough to make betting on the Ovechkin hit a prohibitive endeavour, consider that Girardi, like Couturier and Giroux, seemed to be in good health after being hit as opposed to Hossa who had to leave the ice on a stretcher.

Given the precedent Shanahan has set, my money, what little of it there is, is on Ovechkin getting no suspension at all – as disgustingly hypocritical as that might be to the NHL’s stated desire to crack down on hits to the head.  Let’s consider the things Shanahan will likely look at: the hit itself, if there was a penalty called, who was delivered the check, and who got hit.  Ovechkin’s hit was obviously high as he left his feet and clearly made contact with Girardi’s head.  Because it was so obvious Ovechkin got a 2-minute penalty on the play, meaning that he has, under the NHL’s interpretation, already been punished for his actions.

The other considerations of who delivered the check and who got hit are what the suspension will hinge upon.  Given that Ovechkin is one of Gary Bettman’s show ponies and Dan Girardi is a talented, but fairly anonymous defenceman I highly doubt that Brendan Shanahan is going to risk drawing the ire of his boss and suspending one of the most-hyped players in the NHL.  Also, if we compare Ovechkin’s hit to those of Neal and Torres it is easy to see that a top-line player – even a repeat offender such as Neal – is treated much differently than a fourth-line player such as Torres, especially when the fourth-liner takes out a top-line player such as Marian Hossa.

Head of NHL Discipline Brendan Shanahan. This is exactly the look I imagine on his face when he tries to decide on a suspension.

Thus, from the NHL’s viewpoint the Ovechkin hit is an open-and-shut case: star player + anonymous victim + penalty called = no suspension.  Then wipe your hands, make a wishy-washy public statement, and carry on with the hypocritcal discipline system that currently exists.

However, I might be sensationalizing the NHL’s reaction a little bit.  It might be more realistic to say that Ovechkin will get a one-game, slap on the wrist suspension designed solely to deflect some of the criticism that would surely follow if Ovechkin was not suspended at all.  I can hear Brendan Shanahan now: “the NHL does not condone hits to the head and as such we are suspending Alexander Ovechkin for one game.”  But such a suspension will be the biggest joke since Gary Bettman – he of the head that resembles the basketball with which he is more familiar – was appointed as Commissioner of the NHL.

All in all, this analysis of the possible Ovechkin suspension is just a build-up to a recognition that the NHL’s discipline system is deeply flawed.  Star players get special treatment, especially those that Gary Bettman has a special interest in due to their status as poster boys of the league (e.g. Ovechkin, Crosby, and Malkin – all of whom have gotten away with suspension-worthy offenses in these playoffs).  Scrubs get the book thrown at them, especially where there are already rumblings of dissatisfaction among fans that the suspensions have not been harsh enough.  Essentially, discipline in the NHL has devolved into a numbers game.  The numbers in question being how many bums a certain player can put into seats; those who draw the crowds can do no wrong and those who are anonymous to the general fan serve as examples for the NHL to pretend that it cares about cracking down on illegal hits.

In business terms, this might seem like a sound policy: protect your prize assets and jettison the unneeded waste.  Even in the terms of an NHL general manager, you sign up your key players for as long as possible and bring in guys from the minors to replace those that are disposable.  Star players are where the value is, so why not protect them?

Gary Bettman demonstrates the decreasing patience real NHL fans have with his Commissioner-ship.

The fact is that while the fair-weather hockey fan that Bettman is so desperate to keep coming to games and buying merchandise stands to benefit from this policy of letting star players play, the dedicated hockey fan who keeps the league afloat and generates revenue in the NHL’s key markets (i.e. the key markets who share revenue with the teams in the southern United States that Bettman is so keen to keep around) is becoming more and more dissatisfied with the laughable inconsistency of the NHL’s attempts at discipline.  The league has made it clear that they want to clean up head checks, but they refuse to suspend players in any meaningful way unless they are scrubs.

Despite my frustrations with the league’s inability to discipline players consistently, it wouldn’t be much of an argument that the dedicated hockey fan is getting fed up if there’s no evidence of such feeling.  However, let’s rewind to the reaction to the Raffi Torres suspension.  Coming only a couple days after James Neal’s hits, Torres’ hit was directly compared to those of Neal.  So, when Torres was given 25 games, the outcry on message boards everywhere wasn’t about the suspension being too high or too low, but rather that it was supremely hypocritical for the league to suspend Neal for only one game for two similar hits and then hit Torres with 25 games a couple days later.  Similarly, after the brawl-filled Game 3 of the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series, the message boards were filled not with comments about the skill level on display in the game, but rather why Sidney Crosby can start two line brawls and get away with it and why Aaron Asham got a slap on the wrist for his brutal assault on Brayden Schenn.

The sentiment is that these inconsistent suspensions that favour Gary Bettman’s prized assets are ruining the game and are only serving to exacerbate the problem of headshots by making them fair game for enough who earns a big enough paycheque.  You can punish scrubs and repeat offenders all you want, but until you crack down on the stars who commit the same crimes headshots will still exist.  This is why, given the chance Brendan Shanahan has with the Ovechkin case above, I’d give Ovechkin the same 25 game deal given to Torres and show players around the league that if you don’t respect your fellow players, then you get the boot.

Bertuzzi v Moore: the ugly ramifications of player-enforced discipline.

The alternative is that you let the players police themselves.  You can remove the instigator penalty (which was a joke to begin with) and let the goons of the league enforce martial law when their stars get hit high.  However, letting the players police themselves leads to incidents such as the one that ended Steve Moore’s career at the hands of Todd Bertuzzi.  Tempers flare, safety is ignored, and blood is sought.  Eventually the retaliation, the martial law, becomes more unsafe than the initial hits were to begin with.  That’s not the kind of hockey the fans, the players, and especially the league really want.  But it is the only alternative in trying to clean up the game and cut down on headshots.

Ultimately the moral here is for the NHL to smarten up and discipline players in a consistent and appropriate manner.  Stop being scared that you’ll alienate the fair-weather fans and realize that in placating them you alienate the dedicated fans who have stuck with the league since the original Winnipeg Jets, through the expansion era, and through the lockout.  Stop talking the talk and start walking the walk with regards to cracking down on illegal and unsafe hits.  It’s pretty simple.

And while you’re at it, NHL, why not crack down on hits from behind as well?

When an athlete walks off the field (or skates off the ice) for the last time the first question on everyone’s lips is “what’s next?”

Depending on the player the options could be endless.  Some like to take a few years off to recover from the beating their bodies have taken over years of gruelling training and ritual poundings.  Others have an exit strategy lined up and waiting as a product of smart thinking while still an active player.

But perhaps one of the most common career paths for a retired player is coaching.

The Great One while coaching the Phoenix Coyotes

Picture it: the old, grizzled veteran who has hung up his skates for good coming back to the team he loves and teaching the next generation of players how to be great.  It’s the image we first had of Wayne Gretzky when he stepped behind the bench for the Phoenix Coyotes.  Here was the Great One arrived to teach the Blake Wheelers, Kyle Turrises, and Peter Muellers of the hockey world how it is done.  It’s the image that Dale Hunter has honed for years with the London Knights before making the jump to the NHL with the Washington Capitals.

However, as Gretzky’s failure to turn Phoenix into a contender will attest to, making the transition from player to coach is best attempted by a certain breed of player.  Players like Gretzky, to whom the game came easily, aren’t as well equipped to teach young players the ropes as those who fought tooth and nail to climb to whatever heights they did.  To make a long story short: greatness does not translate, but hard work does.

It was with these things in mind that I stepped behind the bench to coach Men’s Rec League hockey in September.  A friend had invited me to play, but I didn’t have my equipment with me so he told me I could coach.  At first I expected to be a glorified cheerleader, especially given that all the players save one were older than me.  But for some reason the players actually listened when I told them to do something.

Now, I was never the greatest hockey player.  I didn’t win a lot of awards or play on many great teams.  I certainly never played with anyone who ever made it past Junior ‘C.’  Further, back in my playing days I was a goalie, alone in my own little world.  It didn’t really matter what my teammates did so long as they didn’t give up breakaways or shoot the puck at me.  It didn’t matter what system they played so long as the puck got out of the zone at the first time of asking.

The 1-3-1 is hockey's version of the 3-man midfield in soccer.

As far as strategy goes I am a novice.  You’re never going to see me scribbling complex systems on a white board while channelling my inner Guy Boucher.  You’re never going to see me counter a devious defensive system such as the 1-3-1 by telling my players to not attack a la Peter Laviolette.  I was taught the basics, so I teach the basics.

As I mentioned, most of the players on the team I’m coaching are older than me.  They forked over $250 and their Friday nights to have a good time shooting the puck around.  I can see a lot of reasons why they wouldn’t want a coach and very few, apart from wanting to win games, why they would.  That’s why it was such a surprise that in my first game one of the players looked up at me as I stood on the bench and asked what he could be doing better.

In the beginning, the team could only be called a team in a very loose sense.  Some of the players had played together before while others were completely new.  While it certainly wasn’t a blow out, that game would not have been anybody’s pick for prettiest game of hockey ever to be played.  The defensive zone coverage was loose and the attack uncoordinated.

But with each game that I’ve been behind the bench these things have changed.  The defensive zone coverage, while not perfect, actually has some shape to it.  The breakout makes it out of the zone more often than not.  And when the puck gets into the offensive zone the players are on the same page with how to attack instead of just flinging the puck at the net and hoping to get lucky.  The calibre of hockey still isn’t going to wow anyone, but the progress is definitely there to be seen.

Perhaps the most telling piece of evidence that my coaching is having an effect is what happens when the coach isn’t there.  As a full-time student, member of student government, and active fraternity member I have various responsibilities that have gotten in the way of being at every game.  But, apparently, when I’m not there the team reverts to the team that played in that first game.  The moral: hockey players respond to authority.

If I am allowed to hypothesize for a moment I would say that having a coach is built into the psyche of the hockey player from a very young age.  Even when you learn to skate you have someone, even if it’s only your mother or father, teaching you how to do it; you have someone who knows better than you telling you how to do it properly.  The same extends to when you start playing hockey, no matter what level you start at.  You always have a coach and that coach always attempts to teach you to be better, both as an individual player and as a team.

In light of this, not having a coach may seem unnatural.  One might even go so far as to say that the unifying force that makes a team something more than a loose collection of individual players is lost without a coach.  Gone is the mentor who keeps the game on track and teaches players to be better and a vacuum of leadership is left in his wake.  The question is then who is going to fill it?  From there everything degenerates as everyone starts to play their own way and it takes an actual authority figure to rectify the situation.

Scotty Bowman has coached more Stanley Cup-winning teams than any other coach.

It is in light of this that I find my experience in coaching to be so interesting.  I am consistently amazed that players look to me, a former goalie with nothing in the way of proper training, as an authority figure.  When you look at the coaches that are so respected around hockey, whether it be your Scotty Bowmans or your friend’s dad, they all have one thing in common and that is that they know their hockey inside and out.  They command authority not because they stand behind the bench and wave their arms about, but rather because they know how the game is played better than anyone around them.

Perhaps why I’m so amazed stems from the aura we build around coaches as being the untouchable fountains of hockey knowledge.  A good coach commands respect and awe.  Just like the first-grader looking up at the grade-eights it’s hard to envision oneself as being in the same position as those who hold such an elevated place in your personal pantheon.  It’s like wearing the ‘C’ for the Montreal Canadiens and having to live up to the reputations of the greats who came before such as Newsy Lalonde, Toe Blake, Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau, or Yvon Cournoyer.

The other thing is that, unlike other hockey players, I didn’t plan to coach hockey when I stopped playing competitively.  I didn’t plan on being back on a bench any time soon.  I didn’t plan on being the next Kirk Muller.

For better or worse though, now I know that it’s there if I ever need a career to fall back on.

Isn't the maple leaf supposed to be red?

So, at the risk of jinxing it (here’s hoping), how about those Maple Leafs?

Traditionally at this point in the season I am breaking out the Leafs jokes such as “What is the difference between the Toronto Maple Leafs and a triangle? (A: A triangle has three points.)” or “What do the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Titanic have in common? (A: They both look good until they hit the ice.)”

However, the Maple Leafs have ignored the usual script so far this season and actually find themselves in playoff position heading into December.  And I’m completely in the dark as to the reason why.

On paper this Maple Leafs outfit doesn’t look much different than the one that once again managed to cause hearts to flutter up until the final week of last season in the latest instalment in the will-they-or-won’t-they saga better known as the Maple Leafs’ playoff fortunes.  The usual suspects are still there eating up inordinate amounts of salary cap space: Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, and Mike Komisarek.  Add in the newly acquired duo of Tim Connolly and John-Michael Liles and you’re halfway to the salary cap already, which is the exact same position that the Maple Leafs have been in for the past few seasons.  The management is the same too, with the crotchety duo of Brian Burke and Ron Wilson still holding onto jobs many thought they would have lost years ago.

So, in this top-heavy world of underachievers and unwanted All-Stars, what has changed between this season and last for the team known as the Blue and White?

Well, it certainly isn’t goaltending.  Toronto’s goalies have allowed 80 goals (this number does not account for empty net goals) in 26 games thus far, which is just over three goals per game.  Add in the all-important save percentage stat that reads at a rather pedestrian .901 and it’s easy to see that there certainly aren’t miracles being worked in between the Leafs’ pipes.  It’s not as though their goalies are seeing a disproportionately low number of shots either.  James Reimer, Ben Scrivens, and Jonas Gustavsson have faced on average 31.2 shots per game, which is around or above the NHL average.  They can’t make the same excuse as Detroit’s Jimmy Howard and say that his defence just doesn’t give up many shots to begin with.

Phaneuf is finally regaining some of the form that made him such a hit in Calgary.

If it’s not the goaltending causing MLSE CEO Richard Peddie to get excited for the first time in a decade, maybe it’s the defence.  Maybe the Leafs have become stingier in their own zone than those great, snore-inducing New Jersey teams of the late ‘90s.  Alas, that doesn’t seem to be the answer either as they’ve managed to give up a 26th-best total of 85 goals against in 26 games.  Of the teams currently in the top eight of their respective conferences Chicago is the only other team to have allowed more than 80 goals, with seven teams conceding fewer than 60 up to this point in the season.  This defensive frailty is hard to believe when you consider that the Maple Leafs defence core consists of a top four of Phaneuf, Komisarek, Liles, and Luke Schenn and up-and-comers in the form of Carl Gunnarsson, Jake Gardiner, Cody Franson, and Keith Aulie, the latter two being stars for Canada’s World Junior team in recent years.  Gone is the mistake better known as Jeff Finger, but the Leafs’ defensive woes still continue.

That leaves us with what I like to call the Washington Capitals Syndrome (WCS): play a firewagon brand of hockey and score more goals than the opposition to cover up defensive frailties.  Washington has used this method to great effect to not only gain regular season success, but also get their coach fired because it is totally ineffective in the playoffs.

However, as I mentioned previously, Ron Wilson still has his job and I think a lot of the credit for that has been the emergence of Joffrey Lupul as a legitimate partner for Phil Kessel on the Leafs’ top line.  Lupul has been the Robin to Kessel’s Batman this season, matching Kessel stride-for-stride in the points scoring race while playing legitimate first line minutes.  As such it is no coincidence that the Maple Leafs also find themselves amongst the league leaders in goals for with 83 goals to their tally thus far.  Unsurprisingly, if we are continuing with the WCS hypothesis, the Maple Leafs are also getting great offensive contributions from their defence with Phaneuf and Liles racking up 18 and 16 points respectively.

While I term this the Washington Capitals Syndrome and am highly skeptical of its suitableness to playoff hockey, no one can deny that it is effective over the course of a regular season.  Washington has used it to great effect over the past few seasons, winning a President’s Trophy in the process.  Of course, the Capitals have a relatively more talented than Toronto’s current outfit.  Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, no matter how good they have started the season, are not Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.  Nor are Dion Phaneuf and John-Michael Liles in the same offensive category as Mike Green.

Mike Komisarek could be the key that allows Toronto to play sound defensive hockey.

What the Maple Leafs do have in their advantage over the Washington teams of recent memory is the personnel to play a more defensive-oriented game.  Washington was forced into playing a run-and-gun style because they lacked true talent on the blueline.  They lacked a true shut-down unit that could effectively combat opposing teams and such was their downfall when the opposition stopped theirs.  The Leafs have such a combo waiting in Mike Komisarek and Luke Schenn.  Whether or not such a partnership will develop is another story though.  It will take time, especially since Komisarek is just getting back into his stride as an NHL defenceman.  If such a pairing ever coalesces into something more than a pipe dream the Leafs might be a greater contender than you’d think.

Whether or not the Maple Leafs can emulate Washington’s success in playing offensively-charged, but defensively-irresponsible hockey is one of the reasons to keep watching the Maple Leafs intently.  If they continue at the same pace it is very possible that Leafs fans will see their team in the playoffs, but it is also possible that they will crash and burn as their opponents learn to shut down the Kessel-Lupul tandem.

But that’s the danger of firewagon hockey.  You might win a lot of games 5-3, 6-5, or 7-4, but you can lose just as many 5-2, 6-1, or 4-0.  A hot goalie or tight checking can be your undoing just as easily as 4-on-2 rushes can be your saving grace.

Either way, the Maple Leafs just made the hockey season interesting, and not only because I might have to wait a little longer before breaking out my best Leafs jokes.

All statistics from www.tsn.ca as of December 4, 2011.

All salary cap numbers from www.capgeek.com as of December 4, 2011.

As a university student at a school that is at least fifteen times the size of Stirling, I can get rather bullish about my pride in my hometown and the people in it.  Stirling has shaped who I am and what I believe in, and a lot of that can be attributed back to my experiences at the Stirling Arena.

I grew up only a few doors down from the Blues Barn on West Front Street.  A well-stuck golf shot from my front yard would have put a dent in the old steel siding of the building.  The arena was there when I was born and I still go back there to watch games whenever I’m home from university.  It is an ever-lasting monument to what a community should be.

I remember the first time I stepped onto the ice at the arena.  I must have been somewhere between three and five years old (I’m not too sure on the exact dates) and I wasn’t wearing hockey equipment, but rather just a pair of skates and a bike helmet.  It was public skating.  I remember my Mom and Dad leading me around the ice and teaching me how to skate.  It didn’t seem like it would be the start of the building of a mystique that would last up to this very day, but I guess that when you’re that young and had never played hockey before, it is easy to see the arena as just another building.

I started playing hockey at around eight years old, fresh from watching Dominik Hasek steal gold for the Czech Republic at the Nagano Olympics.  From that moment, the Buffalo Sabres, home of our very own Rob Ray, became my favourite team and hockey officially—in Canada it’s only a matter of acknowledging it—my favourite sport.

My hockey career didn’t get off to a very auspicious start.  I remember that one of my teammates in Novice house league managed to convince me that a defenceman could go offside at his own blueline if he went into his own zone before the puck.  I think it’s safe to say that I didn’t spend long as a defenceman: I spent maybe half a season as an out player before trading in the shin pads, shoulder pads, and gloves for a set of goalie equipment that was rented out from the SDMHA.  I remember that the SDMHA had just purchased a new VIC black, green, and maroon blocker and trapper and at the start of each season I would make sure to be the first in line to claim them for the upcoming season.

Buffalo Sabres hero and my all-time favourite player, Dominik Hasek.

Eventually I graduated to my own equipment and the local glory that is rep hockey.  I was following in the footsteps of my hero, Hasek, although the goalie school I attended for a couple summers swiftly disabused me of the notion that Hasek’s belly-flop style was something to be emulated.  I can’t say that I was ever the greatest hockey player, but in Stirling hockey isn’t measured by skill alone, but rather by how hard you work for yourself, for your team, and for the emblem on the front of the jersey.

It is these things that growing up and playing hockey in Stirling taught me.  We took pride in how well we played and how well we comported ourselves as a team.  The community supported us no matter what, and any playoff game that we played in the Blues Barn was jam-packed with most of the town, not just our families and close friends.  We would take heart from this: why else do you think that our teams always seemed to win those home playoff games?

A big part of this was the recently passed Barry Wilson.  I have a special place in my heart for Barry and his family after years of being babysat by his wife, Kathy.  I remember the ever-constant face of Barry being there whenever I came over to the rink, whether immediately after school or early in the morning for practice, or late on a Saturday night for a league game.  Having that familiar face there all the time was something special in itself and Barry will be greatly missed by the Stirling community.

In short, and I probably could have saved everyone a bit of time if I had said this at the beginning, hockey in Stirling is a religion.  And, like the best religions, it leaves its believers stronger in heart, in mind, and in spirit.  I can say that of Stirling Minor hockey and I’m sure I’m not the only one.  Thousands of kids have passed through the system over the years and each one has participated in one of the best hockey programs around; there’s a very good reason why we played against teams from much larger centers than our own and did well.  The entire town, the kids, the parents, the people like Doug Fleming who stick around and coach teams even when their kids have long moved on are all to thank for their contributions to the SDMHA and their efforts in general.

At the end of the day, while I hope that my hometown can pull it out like so many overtime playoff games before and win the Kraft Hockeyville competition, I could really care less about whether the competition is won or lost because this town and its people are already winners on so many levels.  When I introduce myself to people I always have and always will introduce myself as being from Stirling, because being from Stirling is something to be proud of.

Who wears more padding? A Stormtrooper from Star Wars or a NFL player?

In Grade Ten, I played American Football.

I have hated the game ever since.

Make no mistakes, American Football has never been one of my favourite sports.  I joined the team mainly due to peer pressure.  It didn’t take long to confirm that it just wasn’t the sport for me, but I have never been able to pinpoint exactly why I hated it.

Part of it might have been the endless stoppages.  Part of it might have been having different “teams” to play different parts of the game.  Part of it might have been the equipment designed to hurt players under the guise of being protection.  I could never pinpoint it exactly.

Now, almost 6 years later, I can finally understand why I hate the game so vehemently that I can barely call it a sport or acknowledge it as a form of football.

Simply put and with all due respect, American Football is a game for idiots.  It is a game that engages a minimal amount of the brain capacity of its players.  It is a game where any meaningful decision that requires any amount of thought is made by some 60-something standing on the sidelines in a tracksuit.  The only thought process required of a player is “Hit hard” or “Run fast.”

For example, in Sports Illustrated’s NFL Preview edition a story was run titled “What Ever Happened to Tackling?”  (It was billed on the cover as “The Lost Art of Tackling.”)  The main purpose of the article was to bemoan the degradation of tackling as a technical skill in the NFL, but it was also a showcase of just why American Football is not a thinking man’s sport.

An example of the "arrow through snow" tackling mentality.

Coaches in the NFL teach their players not to think.  They teach them to tackle in one way: straight up and as hard as possible, consequences be damned so long as you hit the guy hard enough to knock him down.  Specifically, Philadelphia Eagles Defensive Coordinator Jim Johnson would teach his players to, according to cornerback Sheldon Brown, “just keep running through like knives” and, according to fellow coach John Harbaugh, “attack like an arrow through snow.”

In this type of philosophy, there is no thought.  There is only action.  A player is trained to be a heat-seeking missile and once the switch is flipped (read: whistle blown) automatically hunt down any opposition ball carriers.  The technique taught, as bemoaned in the article (in reality tackling technique in the NFL has only really devolved from ‘hit the guy as hard as you can with your shoulder’ to ‘hit the guy as hard as you can’), is non-existent.  The full extent of it is ‘be an irresistable force.’

Compare this to American Football’s genealogical predecessor, Rugby Union.

A technically sound tackle such as this one will allow the tackler to reagain his feet quickly and compete for the ball.

Due to the nature of the game, the big hit that has so wowed American audiences in the NFL, College Football, and high school Friday Night leagues across the country is largely eschewed in rugby in favour of a more technically sound, safer form of tackling.  Players tackle with their shoulders instead of charging full-bore into the opposition.  When they do charge full-bore they risk leaving a large hole in defense.   Not charging full-bore and holding a defensive shape requires thought.  It also results in far less injuries involving tackles than what is seen in American Football.

Furthermore, due to the continuous nature of rugby, tacklers must tackle in such a way to either not commit a penalty for disrupting the opposition or inflict a turnover on the opposition.  This requires thought about body position, angles, time, and the laws of the game.  The tackler must process how the opposition ball carrier is coming at them in order to ascertain how best to end up in a favourable position to complete a turnover.  Do they go high and hope to hold the ball up or stay on their own feet?  Do they go low and have to scramble back to their feet before contesting the ball?  Do they have time to even contemplate a turnover or should they just focus on rolling away and re-taking their place in the defensive line?

This level of thought is not required of an American Football player, even on the offensive side of the ball.

On offense, plays are most often called by the coaches on the sidelines.  The thinking is done on the sidelines, all the players have to do is execute.  And still that execution involves no more thought than “run into this gap,” “throw to receiver x,” or “catch the ball.”  As a thinking man’s game, offense in American Football is light-years behind sports such as Hockey, Association Football, or even Curling that demand their players make the key decisions in real-time.

It must be said that some thought goes into the mind games played between the offense and defense at the line of scrimmage, but that is merely a by-product of decisions made on either sideline.  It is not independent thought as such, but rather a necessary outcome of 22 grown men trying to keep each other in the dark.

Peyton Manning makes coaches obsolete by being one of the only true "thinking" American Football players.

Therefore, as a product of the game’s inherent devaluation of intelligence, there are very few examples of players who can be truly classified as smart players.  Peyton Manning is one (why the Indianapolis Colts even bother with an Offensive Coordinator and/or Quarterbacks Coach is beyond me…).  Green Bay Packer cornerback Charles Woodson is another.  Manning is the only quarterback in the league who truly calls his own plays, often at the line of scrimmage seconds before the ball is snapped, and Woodson is the pioneer of tacklers who think enough to try and strip the ball – thus causing a valuable turnover – in the process of making a tackle instead of following Johnson’s “arrow through snow” method.

Now, American Football fans might try and turn the title of this article against me and argue that American Football isn’t supposed to be about thought, but rather passion.  And that’s fine.  In my opinion, a sport bereft of passion is just as lacking as a sport bereft of thought.  But where does that argument take us?  It is an admittance of a flaw to be sure, since if thought and passion are our two criteria for what makes a good sport it then follows that having only one cannot be better than having both.  No amount of passion can overcome a lack of thought.  It will always be the case that thought plus passion will be better than either of thought or passion on their own.

But I digress.  This article is about why I don’t like American Football.  Those who do like American Football are free to like it as they so choose and for whatever reasons they want.  I long ago realized that, despite my vehement hatred of the sport and everything it stands for, there are many people out there that do like it.  Those people don’t need me telling them that their favourite sport sucks (they already have to put up with watching it for heaven’s sake!!).

It may have taken me six years, but I can now truly understand why I hate American Football.  I value sports that combine thought with passion.  I value sports that don’t require their players to perform like automatons, performing simple functions without thought for the greater picture.

I also value sports where the players don’t celebrate after performing those simple functions like they single-handedly won the Second World War…

While browsing the depths of Twitter today, I stumbled upon this gem supposedly from Arsenal goalkeeper Manuel Almunia:

A little further prying led to the realization that this was a fake account, saving Almunia from the ridicule of football fans everywhere when they pointed out that Almunia has no business giving goaltending tips to anyone given that he can’t even hold down Arsenal’s starting goalkeeper job.

This post by some Arsenal fanboy (who clearly has come to terms with his team’s declining fortunes rather poorly), plus my membership on Manchester United’s fan forums where David de Gea is being ripped a new arsehole by supposed Manchester United supporters, has lead me to write this post in defense of de Gea.

Before you declare me a hypocrite, I will admit that I am disappointed by the goals de Gea has let in against Manchester City and West Brom.  But I’m not angry.  I’m not calling him a failure or questioning his ability to fit in at United.  I’m disappointed.  That means I expected more, but have been unpleasantly surprised by the way things have actually panned out.  I’m not about to tear de Gea apart just because of a couple bad goals.

David de Gea while playing for Atletico Madrid in La Liga.

Let’s look at some facts here.  David de Gea is 20 years old and far from the finished product as a goaltender.  He just moved from Spain not even six weeks ago and is still learning how to speak English on a team where very few, if any, players speak the same dialect of Spanish as de Gea.

Some more facts.  Manchester United have been blessed with a string of great goalkeepers over their history, most recently Peter Schmeichel and Edwin van der Sar.  Manchester United is one of the biggest clubs on the planet (if not the biggest) and their fans have very high expectations of the club and the players.  It is safe to say that anything short of a 20th Premier League title this season will be considered a failure.

So, where in this maelstrom of contrasting expectations is it reasonable to expect de Gea to be absolutely perfect?  When was it decided that one bad goal or one bad game is enough to turn supporters who should, by any stretch of logic, be cheering for you and supporting you against you as virulently as some have been turning on de Gea?  It might just be a symptom of the 21st century world of sports where fans want to see immediate results from big-money purchases (remember that de Gea cost United 18-million Pounds to sign), but it is wrong nonetheless.

De Gea, while young, comes backed with all the promise in the world and comparisons to many great goalkeepers.  But like any promise shown by any player, it is called promise for a reason.  It is called promise because it needs time to blossom into skill.  Promise does not equal skill, as some people seem to believe.  It does take time, or the right environment, to move a player from the promising youngster category – which de Gea now occupies – to the established starter category – where de Gea will someday be.

Sir Alex Ferguson: The mastermind behind United's past 12 Premier League Championships.

Now, I’m not usually one to question Sir Alex Ferguson’s methods.  In fact, much of my thinking about the Man United squad that can be found in this post has been reflected in Sir Alex’s actions and statements.  However, given the facts that I related about de Gea above, I might have taken a different tack with regards to his deployment early in the season.  After all, United do have Anders Lindegaard who was signed last January waiting in the wings.  Lindegaard has had plenty of time to adapt to life in England and the rigours of playing for Manchester United, not to mention he has looked very assured in the few appearances that he has made for the club.  Allowing de Gea more time to settle in a bit better and familiarizing himself to the coaching of Eric Steele (by many accounts one of the top goalkeeping coaches in the world) while getting a few games here and there could have been very beneficial to his progress.  Instead, the ripping he is taking from the fans could be enough to shatter his confidence.

But I digress.  The point here isn’t to question the players or the manager – after all United did win the game despite losing Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic to injury – but to promote patience, understanding, and support.  When United bought a 20 year old keeper, they and the fans knew that there would be a learning curve.  Although de Gea has played over 100 times for Atletico Madrid and received a number of age-grade caps for Spain, neither is Manchester United.

Everybody involved with de Gea’s transfer in any way – whether as the player, the manager, the club, or the fans – knew this.  Therefore, it should not come as a surprise when there are growing pains and there is no cause to verbally abuse the player in the way some people have been doing.

As one poster on the Manchester United forums stated, when a player plays for your club you support them, whether they play good or bad, for as long as they play for the club.  You don’t have to like them, but you do have to support them.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have never been blessed with outstanding I.Q. in the hockey operations department.  However, it’s taken until now to realize just how low that I.Q. actually has been over the course of time.

Roberto Luongo could have been a Maple Leaf...thank God it didn't happen.

In 1996, Mathieu Schneider was traded from the New York Islanders to the Toronto Maple Leafs, along with Wendel Clark, for Kenny Jonsson and the Leafs’ first-round pick in 1997.  At first glance this doesn’t seem like that stupid of a trade for the Leafs, but – much like the recent Phil Kessel trade – the value of a first round pick is not to be underestimated.

In this case, the first round pick turned out to be the fourth-overall selection that the Islanders used to select Roberto Luongo, who turned into one of the top starting goalies of his generation.  The big mistake the Leafs made was passing on a bona-fide franchise goalie of the sort that they haven’t had since before I was even born.

That brings me around to the actual topic of this post: the value of goaltending in today’s NHL.

You’ve heard all the cliches about how championships are built on goaltending or how teams build from the net out and for the most part they’re true.  I challenge you to show me the Stanley Cup-winning team that did not receive great goaltending on their way to victory, even if said goaltending came from someone that was completely unheard of before the playoffs began.

The last couple of years would seem to undermine such a theory.  Fewer teams are using an out-and-out number one goaltender.  Fewer goaltenders are earning mega-bucks contracts.  Teams are stocking up on B-level goalies to interchange throughout the season.

Some may conclude that this is an indication that the value of the goalie is declining.  Teams are less inclined to pay big bucks for a top-notch goalie because they feel that the money is better spent on forwards or defencemen as they feel such are more valuable in the chase for Lord Stanley’s Cup.  As such, goalies are seen as being more expendable.

The greatest goalie of all-time, Dominik Hasek.

That’s pretty bad news for people who grew up in the era of Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur, Dominik Hasek, Ed Belfour, and Curtis Joseph.

However, I would argue that the trends of the past couple years point to just how valuable goaltending really is.

Let’s start with the premise that the goalie is the most important member of the team.  I know that such an assumption could result in a rather circular argument, but assuming that general managers also start with the same premise will help explain the trends that we have seen.  The second premise that we need to acknowledge is that there are 82 regular season games plus a possible 28 games to come in the playoffs.  This represents a total of 110 games.  Thirdly, it is a fact of the game that goalies get injured, lose form, or simply need a rest.  These premises are inarguable.

What these three premises amount to is the fact that in order to have the best chance of winning the Cup, a team must get good goaltending every game out of the entire 110 possible games.  If goaltending is the most important factor towards winning it would behoove teams to ensure they have good goaltending every game of the season.

Now, in the modern, salary-capped NHL, teams can really only devote a certain percentage of their salaries towards goaltending.  Even with the emphasis on getting top-flight goaltending, NHL rosters have room for 23 players and teams would be rather foolish not to fill those rosters out.  Based on a per-player division of salary cap money, teams can afford to spend approximately $8.217 million on goaltenders (based on 3 goaltenders at $2.739 million per player).

The question is: how is a general manager to divide up this money to give his team the best shot of winning?

If we go back to premise three – that goalies get hurt, have off-days, etc – then it would seem that the historical strategy, that of investing all the money in one high-priced superstar, is rather flawed.  For instance, what happens when a team’s $6-8 million investment comes up lame with a pulled groin?  What happens when said investment has a stretch of bad games that causes the team to lose morale and confidence, leading to a long losing streak?

Niemi is a perfect example of teams diversifying their goaltending assets.

Today’s general managers are taking a different approach.  They are diversifying, investing in multiple goaltenders in the hope that at least one will be able to produce the goods at any given time.  Let’s look at the Chicago Blackhawks as an example.  They won the Cup on the back of Antii Niemi’s great playoff performance.  (Coincidentally, their opposition in the finals – the Flyers – used a rotating carousel of goaltenders to get there.)  Niemi was a relatively unknown quantity before that playoff run, but proved to be a shrewd investment on the part of Stan Bowman and his predecessor Dale Tallon.  But when Niemi’s contract ended, Bowman refused to give Niemi a new, inflated contract on the basis that he had several young, inexpensive options (not to mention the albatross contract he was saddled with in Cristobal Huet) on hand.  One of which, Corey Crawford, turned out to be a pretty good player himself.

Other teams, including the Toronto Maple Leafs, Washington Capitals, and Detroit Red Wings have also employed such a tactic (albeit with varying results).

In saying that, teams would still be foolish to pass on a potential Hall of Fame goaltender as the Maple Leafs did in 1997 (Luongo may not be Hall-bound, but his first few years in the league sure pointed in that direction), even if it will cost them a large chunk of salary.

After all, good goaltending is the most valuable commodity in hockey and great goaltending gets you in the Hall of Fame.