Thursday, January 22, 2009

I Quit the All-Star Game

Hockey fans have gotten to the point where if someone asked us which we would rather watch: this weekend's NHL All-Star game or back-to-back viewings of ‘Requiem For a Dream’…it would be a toss up.

Both are equally scarring, un-enjoyable, and take days to forget.

I understand why the league does it: to thank their sponsors and to promote their star players. Both aspects are vital to any company’s survival and growth, so it’s not like the festivities are going away any time soon. But the entire event, the game, the skills competition, the introductions, the surrounding failed attempts at "hype", has all become intolerable.

I used to love the All-Star game. I remember really looking forward to it. I not only sat through those 11-5, 10-6, and 16-6 games in the early 90’s…I loved them. Seeing all the best players in hockey on the ice at the same time, Gretzky, Lemieux, Yzerman, was almost mind-boggling. Watching the way everyone interacted with one another, identifying which players were leaders, who the jokers were, and who had the hardest shot or best accuracy…these were intriguing storylines that made for compelling television. It was great entertainment and was eagerly anticipated from this corner.

But somehow over the last decade or so, everything changed.

When I look back now, I see three primary reasons why the All-Star game has gone (for me personally) from can’t miss to can’t watch.

1) We grow up. As kids we like the players, we have our favorites, we collect the hockey cards and we devote most of our attention to the biggest stars. As we get older, our fan maturity kicks-in and the priority changes from individual accomplishment to team success. (Or lack thereof in the case of Leaf fans.)

2) Intensity. It seems to be on an indefinite suspension (much like Sean Avery, only he has a better chance of returning). I think the lack of intensity is caused by the fact that salaries have increased so rapidly and to such a degree that players no longer, as a whole, have the collective passion their predecessors had and therefore treat exhibitions as true exhibitions. Make no mistake, even the now mailing-it-in actors Robert De Niro and Al Pacino put more effort into their performances than NHL All-Stars do.

3) Technology. With the number of local and national games that are televised, round-the-clock highlights, the plethora of information and video available on the internet, and the option of buying the NHL Center Ice package, fans today are more connected to the NHL than we’ve ever been. We can follow anyone and everyone as closely as we desire. Instead of catching glimpses of the best here and there and watching them congregate only once annually in the form of an All-Star game, we now see them nightly in double-headers, highlight packs, and fantasy recaps. The mystery that once surrounded players on teams outside our own division or conference has disappeared.

These three factors work together to create an All-Star weekend that features an incredibly lame skills competition (where players, if they agree to show-up, look bored, confused, or both) and a lifeless game of some sport that is indeed played on ice, but most assuredly is not NHL hockey.

This shouldn’t be misconstrued as a singular attack on the NHL. It’s more of a shot directed at all sports, because each of their so-called All-Star festivities are more Jared Leto than Jennifer Connelly. The Pro Bowl has never mattered, the NBA’s version faces many of the same problems that hockey’s does (no defence and a stale, unimaginative skills competition), and baseball’s game, while easily the closest to actual regular season quality, is reduced by the parade of pitchers and players that enter and exit seemingly by the moment, and the overwhelming boringness of the Home Run Derby. They all have issues that need to be addressed and corrected in order to make the events relevant and watchable for their fans.

Except the CFL, which actually has the best of the bunch.

Theirs doesn’t exist…

Friday, January 16, 2009

Raptors Report Card

The 2008-09 Toronto Raptors may not rebound, play defence, or finish off games, but they sure can shoot the hell out of free throws. As a team they’re hitting an NBA best 82.9% from the line, lead by Jose Calderon who hasn’t missed from the charity stripe all season.

Yes, with a 16-24 record on the morning of the 41st game, the official halfway point of the season, it has come to this: the best (only?) quality the Raptors have is free throw shooting.

A smart team would try to take advantage of its strength, particularly a team that is noticeably short on strengths. Not the Raptors. They get to the line only 23 times a game, seventh worst in the league.

The good news is…well, actually, I haven’t figured that out yet. But there’s gotta be a silver lining…right?

Chris Bosh – In his sixth NBA season Bosh has firmly established himself as a franchise player, a guy who will put up 23 and 10 every night, a guy any team would want to build around. But as we’ve seen this year, he isn’t quite good enough to do it all by himself (unless it’s a YouTube video). He’s a very, very good player, but not a superstar, not a guy who can put his team on his back and carry them to victories. We’ve seen too many double-digit leads evaporate, and too many half-hearted efforts to crown him as one of the truly elite.
Grade: A-

Anthony Parker – Continues to be very reliable from three-point range and has one of the best fade-aways in basketball, but the 33 year-old has clearly lost a step. He’s getting abused on the defensive end and his time as a legitimate starter in this league is probably over. That said, he’ll likely go to a place like San Antonio and win multiple championships on a team that really understands how to place players in their proper role.
Grade: C+

Andrea Bargnani – His recent play has been impressive…ok, it’s been shocking. After a 100 game hibernation, the sweet-stroke that was on display during his rookie season has finally returned. He’s put a streak together of nine straight games in which he hasn’t scored less than 17 and just as importantly, he may have finally turned the corner defensively. Not that he’s suddenly transformed into Dikembe Mutombo or Marcus Camby, but at least he isn’t Rafael Araujo anymore. (Made you cringe at the thought of Hoffa, didn’t I?)
Grade: B+

Jose Calderon – On the heels of two very impressive and promising seasons, Calderon’s play has leveled off to some extent. The jumper off the high screen that was basically a lay-up for him last year has disappeared, and he hasn’t been able to find the seams to the basket that he used to routinely exploit. The hamstring issue has obviously been nagging him, and probably will for the remainder of the season. Can we ask him to take the summer off and not play for Spain in EuroBasket 2009?
Grade: B

Jermaine O’Neal – What can you say? After missing 40, 13, 31, and 38 games over the last four seasons, anyone who expected O’Neal to be a regular contributor was naive. He’s already sat out 12 games this year, and when you see how well Bosh and Bargnani are currently complementing each other, the thinking in Raptor headquarters has to be centered on trading O’Neal. Has to be. Ummm, right?
Grade: C+

Jason Kapono – I still don’t think he’s being used properly. When he’s on the court you have to give him shots because otherwise he’s just a defensive liability. At worst, he should be the second option offensively when he’s on the floor. Let him catch and shoot, no dribbling. If there was any motion at all in the Raptor offense Kapono could be a 15-point per game player.
Grade: B-

Jamario Moon – You can’t depend on Moon for anything because you never know if he’s going to show up. His intensity is usually on the Vince Carter level, which is to say non-existent. If I were his agent I would be telling him to crash the boards, play lock-down defence, and never shoot the ball. Ever. Be Dennis Rodman minus the crazy. I guess he doesn’t understand that a 10 or 20 game stretch of good or even slightly above average play could net him $30-40 million. Not in Toronto, goodness no, but somewhere.
Grade: C

Joey Graham – Without Sam Mitchell berating him over every mistake, Joey finally started to play with the aggression Raps fans have wanted to see for years. Graham hasn’t made us forget that it could have been Danny Granger lining up beside Bosh, but he has potentially turned himself into decent trade filler for Bryan Colangelo. I mean, he makes one or two explosive moves every game, plays that bring fans to their feet in amazement. Couldn’t Colangelo sucker Chris Wallace or Kevin McHale into something?
Grade: B-

Will Solomon – Didn’t seem to want to put the team ahead of himself over the first 35 games, but in the last few games has shown signs that he could be competent. Still, his inner Mike James will always scare me.
Grade: C+

Roko Ukic – Not a typical point guard in that he really isn’t a great playmaker or passer, but has shown an ability to create his own shot when he gets in the lane (usually some kind of floater) and attacks the rim as well as anyone on the team. Ukic is one of the 2-3 players (along with Bargnani and mayyyyybe Bosh) on the roster who actually has room to grow. And at 6’5, he’s got the size to be a decent defender at his position.
Grade: B-

Kris Humphries – I’m convinced he could be a valuable rotation member, but Hump just can’t seem to get out of his own way. He makes a few good plays and suddenly thinks he can do anything. Maybe watching Jake Voskuhl (a guy who has perhaps a quarter of Humphries' talent but doesn’t ever try to do too much) usurp his minutes will turn the light on for him.
Grade: C

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


We know Oren Koules and Len Barrie like horror films. After all, Koules is the producer behind the ‘Saw’ franchise, a series of gruesome Hollywood movies centered around pain and torture. And Barrie’s NHL career statistics of 19 goals in 184 games would have to be considered more nightmare than dream.

We just didn’t know that for their next project, the owners of the Tampa Lightning were going to butcher their own roster.

A team that was a Stanley Cup champion only five years ago has turned into a dysfunctional mess and if you believe recent newspaper reports, a potential candidate for contraction.

And now, with the possible trading of Vincent Lecavalier a mere six months after signing the star center to a massive 11-year contract extension, we could very well be approaching the climax to this nauseating script.

Moving one of the top ten talents in hockey for spare parts (which is what the rumoured Montreal package of Chris Higgins, Tomas Plekanec, Josh Gorges and draft picks is) would be positively frightening for any Lightning fans out there and a clear signal to every other NHL player that Tampa Bay is a certified hockey wasteland. The team will have to overpay any player it hopes to sign (Koules and Barrie already seem to have a firm grasp of this concept) because no one with a decent option is going to be interested in working under these conditions.

The chaos began when Barrie and Koules purchased the Lightning last summer and promptly lured Barry Melrose out of the broadcast booth, mothballs and all, and gave him the coaching duties, continuing their Hollywood theme. Melrose hadn’t been behind any type of bench in 15 years, and the choice was widely criticized and questioned, but it did provide many headlines and much media attention for the Lightning and their new owners.

From there, free agent winger Ryan Malone received a seven-year contract at first-line money despite the fact that he put up Alexei Ponikarovsky type numbers playing alongside Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. But hey, at least they got his pro-scout father, Greg Malone, as part of the deal too! Days later the Lightning added Radim Vrbata on a deal that his agent must have accepted in about 0.2 seconds. For 3 years and $9 million the Lightning got a guy who had frustrated coaches and teammates with play that was inconsistent and lacked intensity, a guy who would be joining his fifth team in seven seasons.

And on and on it went. They brought back Vaclav Prospal for $3.5 million a year when there was no obvious place for him to play at that salary, and continued the science project by inking aging veterans Gary Roberts and Mark Recchi, both of whom were healthy scratches at times last year. They re-signed forward Chris Gratton, who is 33 going on 50, and spent more than twice what they pay their starting goalie to add Olaf Kolzig as a 38 year-old back-up.

To alleviate the burden of having five forwards eating up $25 million in cap space, Tampa strong-armed All-Star defenceman Dan Boyle into waiving his no-trade clause and accepting a move to San Jose that was nothing more than a salary-dump.

At this time Jay Feaster, the man who put together the Stanley Cup winning roster, was still the acting GM, but was noticeably absent during the press conferences that announced the various moves and signings. Feaster would resign from his position on July 11th after being left to blow in the wind while the new guys took hands-on ownership to Jerry Jones like levels.

To top it off, Barrie, Koules and new GM Brian Lawton dealt for Ottawa defenceman Andrej Meszaros two weeks before training camp and met his outrageous contract demands, handing over another $4 million a season to a player who peaked four years ago as a rookie.

The off-season roster reconstruction was fascinating and for the most part illogical, but that was only Act I.

Ownership forced Melrose to keep the first overall pick from the draft, Steven Stamkos, on the roster and insisted he be given minutes that he clearly wasn’t ready for. Melrose wanted to send the 18 year-old prospect back to junior hockey, but Barrie, Koules and the Tampa marketing department had already heavily featured Stamkos in team promotions and weren’t about to be told what to do.

Just 16 games into the new season, Melrose and his famously coiffed hair were kicked to the curb, replaced by Rick Tocchet, who had a starring role in ‘Operation Slapshot’. Tocchet may very well turn out to be a good or even great NHL coach, but giving him the head job only months after completing a league-mandated suspension was a curious way to calm the waters.

And on and on it has gone. Vrbata was re-assigned to my beer-league team, where he has four goals and is minus-14 in 20 games. He won’t go into the corners in our league either and we don’t even allow hitting. (I made that up, he’s actually playing but not competing in the Czech league.) Gratton was sent down to the AHL in December, and Matt Carle, the only roster player the Lightning received in the Boyle trade, has already been shipped out to Philadelphia.

The Lecavalier blockbuster, if it does go down, will no doubt be positioned in Tampa as a necessary way to re-build a struggling roster, but anyone with a reasonable outlook will see it for what it really is: another salary dump with another bit of malice mixed in. Koules and Barrie allegedly promised Lecavalier they would not trade him before his full no-trade clause kicked in following the season, but as their six month track record as NHL owners has shown, their words are as hollow as their movies.

Speaking of which, according to IMDB, Saw VI is scheduled for release in 2009, and by the looks of things in Tampa, it could be coming out any day now.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Maple Leafs Report Card

Last night's shellacking at the hands of the Canadiens was Toronto's 41st game of the year, officially marking the halfway point of the season and an obvious time for mid-term report cards.

Nik Antropov – When Cliff Fletcher was still GM I was so afraid of waking up to a “Leafs extend Antropov for 5 years/$30 Million” headline that I was literally terrified to turn on my computer each morning. I would hesitate, hit the power button and then jump back a few steps, close my eyes and visualize good things. Needless to say I’m now salivating at the thought of receiving the standard currency for a rental player of a pick and a prospect. Who knows, maybe the Leafs re-sign him again in the summer?
Grade: B

Matt Stajan – Don’t let the points fool you (31 in 35 games), Stajan is putting up 2nd line numbers on first line minutes…and he’s a third line player. But he has played well.
Grade: B+

Mikhail Grabovski – I’m still not sold on the Russian rookie. He definitely has considerable skill and speed, but he shows up about as often as Amy Winehouse. He reminds me of Alexei Zhamnov and I can’t figure out if that’s a good thing or not. I’m leaning towards not.
Grade: C+

Jason Blake – Blake has played significantly better since half-demanding a trade in November after Ron Wilson benched him for a couple games. I think it would be better if Leaf fans totally forgot about his contract (drinking excessively helps sometimes I find) and just pretended he was a scrappy little guy with speed and little understanding of when to shoot or how to play a team game.
Grade: B-

Lee Stempniak – Next year Toronto will pay Stempniak and Jason Blake a combined $8 million to score 30 goals and 60 points. Not good times.
Grade: C-

Alex Ponikarovsky – Slightly overpaid but a big body who goes into corners and is a consistent 20 goal scorer. Over his history he’s taken a lot of careless stick penalties, but appears to have corrected that under Wilson’s tutelage.
Grade: B

Kyle Wellwood – His 14 goals lead the team…or, wait, they would lead the team if the Leafs hadn’t decided to get rid of him for nothing. (Although as the picture to the right indicates, Wellwood wasn't always in 'game' shape during his Leafs tenure.)
Grade: #$*%

Niklas Hagman – A very questionable signing by Fletcher, and eerily similar to the Finger deal (more on that shortly). Both are average players and veterans that don’t seem to fit into a sensible re-building plan.
Grade: C

Dominic Moore – One of if not the most consistent Leaf day-in and day-out: always shows up and works hard. The problem of course, is that he’s a fourth line player who can only do so much.
Grade: A-

Jamal Mayers – Was brought in to provide leadership and stability in the dressing room and toughness on the ice. I have no sources inside the Leafs dressing room, so I can't confirm what his presence has meant behind closed doors, but on the ice he's doing his job: hitting guys and dropping the gloves when needed. For the most part, it's just really hard to look good or bad when you have 10 bottom six forwards.
Grade: B-

Nikolai Kulemin – I guess it’s not officially a Brian Burke team until Brad May is on it, but I don’t particularly agree with sending down Kumelin to make room for him. Kulemin was playing solid two-way hockey and now we’ve potentially robbed Kumelin of some confidence. Kulemin deserves better.
Grade: B

Ryan Hollweg – He’s stopped nailing guys from behind. Ahh, well, you know what I mean. Other than the exceedingly cool moustache, Hollweg really doesn’t bring anything to the table. I’d be surprised if he got another contract to play next year…from any NHL team.
Grade: D+

John Mitchell – He was just starting to come on, receiving more and more ice time when he injured his shoulder, and hasn’t been able to get back to that level. Still up for debate whether he’s a legitimate NHLer.
Grade: C

Tomas Kaberle – Since the lockout and through this morning, only two defencemen in the National Hockey League have accumulated more points than Kaberle (Lidstrom and Gonchar). That’s it. Two guys. Is Kaberle a great defensive defenceman? No. But he makes a great first pass and is terrific on the powerplay. At $4.15 million and with two more years still to go on his contract, he is one of the best bargains in hockey. The only way he’s getting moved is if somebody meets a steep price. The Marian Hossa deal from last year (a former first-rounder in Esposito, a future first rounder and a roster player) should be the starting point.
Grade: B

Pavel Kubina – The demanding Toronto media has eroded Kubina’s perceived value, continuing to position him as the overpaid and inadequate defenceman who struggled mightily in his initial season with the Leafs. But since then, Kubina has quietly played really well and was excellent at the end of last season. In my mind, a Kaberle/Kubina/Schenn top three defensive core (at a very reasonable cost) wouldn’t be a bad group to build around.
Grade: B

Luke Schenn – A very solid rookie season for the 18 year-old, but watching the World Juniors I couldn’t help but wonder what being an integral part of a championship team would have done for his development.
Grade: A-

Jeff Finger – Unfortunately for Leaf fans, his contract (4 years/$14 million) doesn’t make any more sense now than it did this summer, when rumours circulated that Toronto mistakenly thought they had signed Kurt Sauer and ended up with Finger ( Finger is a decent player, an average player, awww dammit, I can’t continue with that. He’s a lottery winner. Cliff Fletcher was Willy Wonka and Finger had the golden ticket.
Grade: C+

Mike Van Ryn – Has looked pretty good when he’s played, but on the heels of missing 60+ games last year and another 24 games already this year…well, you have to wonder if he’ll ever be a full-time player again.
Grade: B+

Ian White – If White is dressing every night, your team is not making the playoffs. He had a decent little streak earlier in the year, but so did One Republic. He would look great on the Marlies. Or bagging my groceries.
Grade: C

Jonas Frogen – The only acceptable transaction Fletcher made was signing Frogen, who is tough and cheap. He kind of reminds me of a Swedish Vinnie Jones.
Grade: B

Vesa Toskala – He ranks 44th in the league in goals against average and 45th in save percentage and has started 35 of the Leafs first 41 games. He hasn’t stolen a single one. In fact, he’s allowed four or more goals a league high 14 times.
Grade: D

Curtis Joseph –Yeah, bringing back Joseph for $850,000 makes a lot more sense than keeping Scott Clemmensen for $500,000.
Grade: D

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Another Year, Another Gold

As Canadians and sports lovers, we’ll passionately cheer on any national team we can. It doesn’t matter if it’s the alpine skiing, curling, basketball, rowing, water polo, lawn bowling, rock/paper/scissors or any other team…if the Maple Leaf is flying, we’re rooting it on.

Collectively we are sports fans, but more importantly, we’re Canadian sports fans. And we’ll take every, and any reason we can to band together and enthusiastically cheer our teams on—with beer, of course.

But when it comes to hockey it’s a different story (save the beer). We’re not just happy to be there. As fans, we can’t simply have a good time and be our usual awesome selves regardless of the outcome. Because when it comes to hockey, we’re the perennial favorite. It’s a step outside our participation-ribbon comfort zone. Instead of soaking in the experience, rejoicing over ‘personal bests’ and walking around with perma-grins plastered all over our faces, we’re forced to deal with things like ‘pressure’ and ‘expectations’.

It is for those reasons that the World Junior Hockey Championships have ballooned not only into a paramount event in our country, but perhaps also the most satisfying. Unlike the Olympic hockey tournament, which is equally fascinating and terrifying because no one truly knows who will come out on top, the WJHC has become an annual coronation of our country’s ability to produce the best young hockey talent in the world.

Last night’s 5-1 victory over Sweden was the fifth straight gold medal for Team Canada, but that is hardly indicative of the truly over-whelming presence Canada has been for most of the last two decades at the World Juniors. We’ve now won 10 of the last 17 titles, sport a dominating 39-3 record over the last six tournaments, and have failed to finish on the podium just three times since 1988 (1989, 1992, 1998).

We’re a combination of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. We are the Yankees, Lakers and Canadiens all rolled into one.

And for hockey fans in this country, none of whom have seen their local NHL team win it all since the Canadiens captured the Stanley Cup in 1993, the Juniors have become a welcome reprieve from our usual fruitless hockey calendar.

Only 364 more days till we get to do it all over again. Let the blitz for six begin.