Posts Tagged ‘hockey’

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?

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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.

There comes a point in the career of most aspiring hockey players where you realize that you just aren’t good enough anymore.  You realize that the level of play has exceeded your meager skill-set and that this is the highest level of hockey that you’ll ever play.

You sit in the dressing room after the game, sweat dripping from your matted hair.  Your jersey, shoulder pads, and helmet are strewn over the bench beside you.  You feel distraught, your dreams slowly fading.  All around you your teammates are talking about the game, about the sick deke, the goal scored, or the hit delivered.  But you just sit there, knowing that you, unlike those for whom the dream remains alive, have reached the pinnacle of your hockey career, that your skills just aren’t good enough.

However, it’s not the end of your hockey career.  At least, not if you so choose.

There is still another path open to you: that of the fighter, the pest, the enforcer.  At one point, the players that fill these roles were top-liners, but eventually they hit the peak of their skills and were forced to reinvent themselves to remain in the sport they love.  It was either that or get a real job…

No one starts out wanting to be a fighter.  No one starts out wanting to spend their career annoying opposing teams.  People want to score; they want the spotlight.

Derek Boogaard: he's had more penalty minutes than the population of Vatican City.

But, for the players that are to salvage their careers by becoming fighters, this kind of transition happens fairly early in their career.  When players get to the major junior level and/or the American Hockey League they have already transitioned from being a good hockey player with a tough side to being a tough guy with a hockey side.  Take Derek Boogaard as an example.  He played 147 games in the Western Hockey League before being drafted by the Minnesota Wild.  During that time he scored a measly 21 points, only three of which were goals.  He did have a whopping 670 penalty minutes in the same time span.

These stats clearly point to a player who has decided that their career path lies in a different direction than that of Sidney Crosby or Henrik Sedin.  Heck, Boogaard even promotes this kind of reinvention to young kids through the fighting camp he runs with his brother Aaron.  He teaches young kids to fight, giving them the skills they’ll need to reinvent their careers at a young age and encourages them to use those skills.

The hockey player has become two different species.  There is the player who actually plays the game, regardless of being a first- or fourth-liner.  These players’ sole focus is to play the game, to score or prevent the other team from scoring.  Then there is the fighter, whose job is to, well, fight.  They aren’t there to play, except when the puck accidentally touches their stick.  Through reinvention, the defining traits of each species have been separated and distilled to forge the two specialist styles we see today.

But whatever happened to the player that could do both things effectively?  What happened to the Bob Proberts of hockey that could use their hands to score both goals and TKOs?

The reinvention of the hockey player has become less about adding additional skills to fulfill different roles within the game and more about becoming an entirely different kind of hockey player altogether.  And the Boogaard school will only continue that trend.  Kids will learn at a much younger age that it is better to specialize in one area of the game (i.e. fighting) and make it to the big time than develop an array of all-round skills and be stuck playing second-tier hockey for their entire lives.

This isn’t a good thing.  We are teaching people to sell out.  We are teaching them to compromise and become something different in order to salvage a tiny shred of their dreams.  Instead of nurturing them to become better people or learn positive skills that will help them achieve their full dreams we are giving them the directive that if at first you don’t succeed, go become someone else and then try again.

From this pattern of reinvention we get hockey players who sit on the bench for 50 minutes of a game, skate around looking for a fight for five minutes, and then spend the remaining five minutes in the penalty box.

What we don’t get are players who can skate around for twenty minutes scoring goals and then beat the snot out of the guy who just slashed them.

This sh*t happens, so get used to it.

People get hurt in hockey.  People get checked into the boards by big men flying around on skates.

But that doesn’t mean that for every injury in the NHL that results from a body check the checking player should be suspended.  It sounds ridiculous even to say it.  You wouldn’t give Scott Stevens a suspension for making a legal hit on Eric Lindros as he cuts across the blueline with his head down, would you?

Yet that is what we’ve come to in today’s world of hockey.  We’ve become so intent on policing headshots and preventing injuries that any time a player is injured, whether the play by which he was injured was legal or not, we scream out for a penalty or a suspension.

We assume that because someone is injured that the play was dirty and therefore deserving of suspension.  That thought relies upon the assumption that the game is safe to begin with and that in the regular course of a game no one will get injured if they play by the rules.

Personally, I blame Matt Cooke.  I could blame Cooke for a lot of things because I really don’t like the guy, but in this case the blame lies firmly at his feet after his dirty hit on Marc Savard.  His blindside elbow to the head knocked one of the most skilled players in the league out of action for the rest of the regular season.  Cooke went unpunished for what was unquestionably a dirty, cowardly hit.  This prompted a harsh backlash by fans and players alike for the league to crack down on headshot-throwing felons like Cooke.

The bottom line is that the Cooke incident set off a chain reaction that has led us to the point we are at now.  From that point fans looked for headshots – the true marker of which is whether or not the player is concussed in the aftermath – and came down harshly against the players who injured other players by throwing elbows to the head.  That sentiment then evolved to any other kind of injury and now when players get injured through being hit by another player in any way people cry out for suspensions or create lynch mobs to hunt down and castrate the offending party.

For those of you who don’t believe this, take a gander at the current discussion surrounding Zdeno Chara’s hit on Max Pacioretty.

On one hand you have the people who are inherently biased because of what team they cheer for.  Bruins fans see nothing wrong with the hit and some of them attribute rather feminine qualities to Pacioretty despite the fact that he was concussed and fractured some vertebrae (seriously, I’d like to see you keep playing in that condition!).  Montreal fans have made Chara the most wanted man in all of the Montreal area, considering the hit he delivered to be full of reckless intent to injure.  The Montreal side is calling for blood, obviously angry that one of their players has been knocked out of action for a while – and the awkward construction of their home arena makes it even less easy to swallow.

On the other hand you have the non-biased, such as TSN’s Bob McKenzie (who I normally agree with on a lot of things), who in trying to view the situation objectively have found themselves advocating for punishments based on injury alone.

The logic to this position is easy.  Injuries are bad, no matter how they are caused.  They detract from the on-ice product which has effects upon both the financial and physical aspects of the game.  Less injuries are ultimately better for both the league and the players themselves.  Due to the ever-present possibility of freak injuries, it is impossible to cut all injuries out of the game.  Injuries to players that happen as a result of actions of other players are not freak accidents and are preventable.  Therefore, it makes sense to cut out any and all preventable injuries, including those that result from actions of other players.

It also helps the argument when a player, in this case Pacioretty, decrys the act by which he was injured shortly after being declared unfit to play for the forseeable future.  It worked wonders for the crusade against headshots when Sidney Crosby vented immediately after his run in with concussion (although it didn’t work wonders for his image as a whiner or the NHL’s image of only caring about its stars).

However, that viewpoint is patently wrong.  You can’t penalize or suspend players for every injury that is a direct result of their actions.  You can punish them for injuries that are a direct result of their intentions or for injuries that are a direct result of obviously illegal plays, but not for injuries that are a direct result of legal plays.

If you start punishing players for legal plays only in the cases where a player is injured, then you create a double standard of punishment.  Suddenly a play becomes illegal in some cases and legal in others.  Even the standard to which an action is deemed to be illegal fluctuates based on the referee or league disciplinarian that is presiding on any given day.  Simply put, a fluctuating and uncertain standard is not standard at all.

It makes no sense to judge players by one set of rules up until a certain point and then, because of some random coincidence, judge them by another set later.  In order to bring some sanity to the situation the league would have to either make the play itself illegal, in which case much of the aggressiveness of hockey might be lost, or accept that injuries do actually happen by coincidence.

And injuries to happen by coincidence.  A recent study shows that 8% of all NHL injuries are complete flukes.  That doesn’t include injuries that happen during the course of play or through body checks.  When those injuries are added, the number of coincidental injuries moves above 50%.  To make every play that leads to these injuries illegal would effectively neuter the game of hockey.  It might not take away the aggression fully, but it would change the game beyond recognition.

Therefore, everyone needs to realize that injuries do happen.  We need to realize not to overreact when we see someone taken off in a stretcher or hobbling to the dressing room.  Sure, we don’t like or want to see players hurt – especially our favourites – but such is the state of affairs in hockey and we need to accept that without going completely overboard.

We all love the aggression in the game, so grow up and stop whining when someone gets hurt because of it.

The people who score the goals get all the glory, not the people who stop them.

Wayne Gretzky is widely considered the greatest hockey player of all-time because he scored 894 goals (and assisted on 1963 others) and when you look at a list of the other nominees for greatest player you’ll see names like Orr, Howe, Lemieux, or Richard, all of whom were prolific offensive players and goal scorers.

Even Bobby Orr, one of the greatest defenceman of all time, is more widely celebrated for his ability to score goals and/or assist on goals than his contributions to keeping others from scoring on him.

This then begs the question of why do we value goal-scorers over goal-stoppers?  Alternatively, it makes us wonder why we should value goal-stoppers at all if the most valuable players in sports are all goal-scorers?

The first question is easy to answer.  In today’s world of the business of sports, where fan excitement equals dollars in the owners’ and league’s pockets, the goal-scorers are the primary entertainers and the goal-stoppers the antithesis of that entertainment.  Each goal adds the the fans’ excitement, making them more willing to watch the product being sold to them.  The goal-stoppers seek to shut down this excitement.

Thus, the goal-scorers are paid more, publicized more, and and valued more by the general public.  After all, it is the goal-scorers that give the fans the highlight-reel moments that are sure to stick in the collective memory.  It might be a physics-defying deke or a lighting shot to the top corner that raises the fans’ excitement.  Even in highlight-reel saves or defensive plays the goal-scorer plays his part by creating a chance so likely to lead to a goal that the goal-stopper is forced to do something miraculous in return.

So now that we know why the goal-scorer is valued, we must turn to the question of why we should value the goal-stopper.  Why should we value the player who dampens our excitement and stops other players from giving us the highlight-reel moments that we love so much?

While some people are likely to say that we shouldn’t value these players, I think that without the goal-stopper the sports that we love would be the lesser.

Consider that for half of any game one team is on offense and the other is on defence.  That means that for half of any game each player will have to play either offense or defence (unless it’s American football, in which case the players need to learn to play both sides of the ball before I can take the sport seriously).  It also means that if you can’t or don’t have the skills play both offense and defence, then you are only actually playing half of the sport.

For example, take a goal-scoring winger in hockey who doesn’t backcheck or block shots, e.g. Alexander Ovechkin.  For all of Ovechkin’s offensive prowess, he will never be a candidate for the Selke trophy for best defensive forward.  You will never hear commentators praise him for his defensive positioning or picture-perfect shot-blocking technique, those kinds of praise are reserved for work horses like Anton Volchenkov (who only plays half the game on the defensive side).

On the other hand you have players such as Pavel Datsyuk or Nicklas Lidstrom who play effectively on both sides of the puck.  Datsyuk, a regular 90-point player, is consistently among the top players in the league for forcing turnovers and plus/minus.  Lidstrom, in addition to his defensive skills, routinely puts up 50 points each season – reaching a career high of 80 points in 2005-2006.

And it’s not just in hockey that we see this opposition of the goal-scorer and the goal-stopper.  Other sports such as basketball, soccer, and rugby all require players to play both sides of the ball with equal effectiveness.  However, as with hockey, the goal-scorers get most of the glory.  After all LeBron James isn’t famous for grabbing defensive rebounds, but rather for making highlight-reel dunks.  Lionel Messi isn’t famous for making key tackles or marking effectively, but rather for his phenomenal skills with the ball at his feet.  Jonah Lomu wasn’t famous for smashing people in a tackle, but rather smashing through other people’s attempts to tackle him (just ask Mike Catt…).

None of these players are as effective on the other side of the ball.  LeBron doesn’t combine shut-down defense with his offensive game in the same way as Dwight Howard or Kevin Garnett.  Messi does not possess the all-round qualities of a Paul Scholes, Bastian Schweinsteiger, or Gerard Pique.  Lomu didn’t get around the pitch in quite the same way as modern masters Dan Carter or Richie McCaw do.

For a true sports fan, the defensive side of the game holds much merit.  There is a subtle art and a brutal efficiency to playing defence.  A perfectly timed body check or the instinct to latch onto a loose pass from the opposition and turn it into a scoring chance the other way is just as beautiful as Ovechkin’s latest shootout move or one-timer.

Therefore, the player that does both, the one that paints on both sides of the canvas so to speak, is much more valuable and much more deserving of our respect and admiration than the player that does one exclusively.

So I then have to turn the question around: why should we value players who only play half of their given sport?  Why should we elevate the goal-scorers to a status above that of the player who can both score and prevent others from scoring?

Why?