Wednesday, February 24, 2010

It's Up to Us

This is a big one. As the French would say, this is "uge".

Tonight in Vancouver the Canadian Men's Hockey team will face Russia in one of the biggest games in Canada's rich hockey history. I can't call it "the" biggest...after all, it is only a quarterfinal, but in terms of anticipation and potential memorability, this game is right up there with '72, '87, and 2002.

Just thinking about it as I write this gives me the chills. Canada/Russia in a win or go home game.

The same two teams also met in the 2006 Olympic quarterfinals, but that game never had the same feeling and certainly not the same intense pressure and focus that today's game does. Many Canadians felt disconnected with the Turin team because of player selections (most notably Todd Bertuzzi over Sidney Crosby) and few were shocked when we lost that quarterfinal game four years ago after scoring only 15 times and winning just three of five preliminary games. Besides, we were still satisfied with the Gold we won in 2002 and most fans shrugged the loss off without much anger or disappointment.

But this team is different. This time is different. We're on home soil and we have a fast, young, smart and talented team that was constructed beautifully by Steve Yzerman and his management team (Chris Pronger and Corey Perry aside). We've shown we can score goals, that we've got the right pieces in place, that the Russians should be just as scared of us as we are of them.

A Canada vs. Russia match-up was predicted by many analysts as the championship final but in reality that was mostly wishful thinking. How could anyone predict the two finalists in a tournament where the top three teams are all amazing, the top seven are virtually equal and every single team is genuinely frisky?

In a single game elimination tournament like this, comprised of nothing but motivated, well-coached, skilled and hard-working teams one period, one shift, even one shot can be the difference. The margin for error in this tournament is thinner than an Olsen twin.

By my calculations the combined NHL and KHL payrolls of the two teams is roughly a zillion dollars and every player on both sides is used to being on the ice at the biggest moments for their club teams. The Russians probably have a slight edge in firepower but the Canadian blueline is a little better, while goaltending is basically a toss-up.

Just like the other quarterfinal match-ups and the semifinals and final that will follow, this game will come down to the little things: face-offs, discipline, turnovers, mistakes and quite possibly, the fans.

The Canadian team has struggled in all four of their first periods in this tournament, failing to capitalize on early chances that can set the tone for a game.

You could be the difference. And by 'you' I mean the Canadian fans who have tickets to the game. The ones who will march their way to the arena hours before puck-drop, who will be dressed in red and white with faces painted, who will potentially encourage and inspire our team to victory. It will be up to you to help this team avoid another slow start, to get momentum on our side and create a winning environment for the home team.

Can we please get a 'Go Canada Go' chant started in the opening minutes? Let's show the Russians why it is our game, let's exploit what might be the only advantage either team has: home ice.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Vancouver 2010: Game One

The opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics may have occurred last Friday night but the Games didn't really begin until yesterday when the Men's Hockey team played their first game.

Jenn Heil, Kristina Groves, Alexandre Bilodeau, Mike Robertson and then Maelle Ricker all provided some great moments over the first few days and it definitely is nice to be in the overall medal hunt, but the real competition, the tournament within the tournament, began last night.

The 8-0 win over Norway was just what the doctor ordered for this team: a tiny bit of adversity (after a scoreless first period) that was followed by an overwhelming performance. Here is the breakdown...

The Good
1) The eight goals scored were the most for a Canadian Olympic team since NHL players began competing in '98. Yes, they came against Norway but at this level eight goals is an impressive total for any team that doesn't include Alex Ovechkin.
2) Balance. Twelve different Canadian players had a hand in the first 4 goals and 17 of the 20 skaters recorded a point. All three of the scoring lines produced goals and the glue guys, Jonathan Toews, Mike Richards, Patrice Bergeron and Brendan Morrow, showed they are willing to bring energy and do the dirty-work that every winning team needs.
3) Face-offs. I tried to find the stats to back this point up but apparently an Olympic boxscore is a time warp back to 1994 so you'll have to trust me that with Crosby and Toews taking face-offs, this team will win the important ones.
4) Drew Doughty. The 20 year-old borderline surprise selection was Canada's best defenceman at both ends of the ice. Anyone still wishing for Mike Green?
5) The crowd at Canada Hockey Place was very, very good. It was a real hockey crowd filled with jerseys, face paint and most importantly, noise. In fact, it may have been the crowd starting the 'Go Canada Go' chant late in the first period that finally kicked the players into gear.

The Bad
1) Team Canada opened the game playing extremely tentatively and forced far too many passes, trying to make pretty plays rather than shooting the puck and going hard to the net. Let's hope that was the feeling out process and not a developing trend that will see this team work it's way into games.
2) Discipline. And we can't even blame the way the international game is called because all five Canadian penalties would've been called in the NHL. This team has to stay away from retaliatory penalties and maintain it's composure.
3) The powerplay went 2 for 7 and too often was content with moving the puck around the perimeter.
4) The puck-handling of Roberto Luongo. Let's just say Vancouver Canucks fans should be happy the NHL has the trapezoid because each time Luongo ventured out to play the puck it was an adventure.
5) The name 'Canada Hockey Place'. Really? I would've been willing to lay down $100 to call it "The Canadian Sports Junkie Arena". If I had an agent, I would fire him.

The Ugly
1) The Norwegian curling pants. I know they had nothing to do with the hockey game, but how could they not lead this section?
2) It's been...ummm, interesting to watch the Olympic telecasts and see the on-air talent from both TSN and Sportsnet work together. Get ready for more awkward transitions as unfamiliar analysts throw to each other and continued over-laughing by Nick Kypreos at anything that resembles a joke.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Hello World" Again?

We're five weeks into a new golf season that is creating as much buzz as a Wilmer Valderrama film at Sundance.

Ever since Tiger Woods drove his SUV into a fire hydrant 50 feet from his driveway, golf attention and news has shifted from the tee box to the tabloids. In the two and-a-half months since that night, we've heard Tiger was in Sweden, Arizona, Long Island and finally in Mississippi where he was allegedly released from sex rehab last week.

Meanwhile, on the PGA Tour, Ryan Palmer, Bill Haas and Ben Crane were winning golf tournaments. Paint also dried.

Steve Stricker and Geoff Ogilvy, both top ten players, also won tournaments but neither provided the necessary star power to bring the buzz back to the course. Instead, we continue to wonder where Tiger is and when he's coming back? And most importantly, an 'indefinite break' ends before the Masters, right?

The initial reaction to the Tiger story from the golf community was, unsurprisingly, silence. Tiger has always been notoriously private and reportedly aloof with his peers. The deal between them was fairly straight forward: he made them all obscenely rich and they stayed out of his way. Amongst tour players Tiger's private life, at least on the record, was 'Fight Club' and we all know the first rule of 'Fight Club'.

Shortly after the scandal broke Jesper Parnevik criticized Woods but that was expected and understandable, as Jesper employed Tiger's wife Elin as a babysitter and played a role in introducing the couple.

Then in late December Sergio spoke out. And then Geoff Ogilvy did too. Both did the previously unthinkable and actually discussed the personal life of Tiger Woods, with Ogilvy going as far as trying to suggest Tiger owed it to the tour to hold a press conference away from the course before he comes back. (In what must have been rock-bottom for Woods, John Daly even offered some advice.)

The comments from Sergio, Ogilvy and more recently Tom Watson all made me raise an eyebrow. Why would they risk ticking Tiger off? Do they really want him extra motivated when he comes back? Are they trying to see if he can win a tournament by 20 shots?

It just didn't make sense. Tiger is the best. By a mile. If the players encouraged a rapid comeback or goaded him into returning, their earnings would take a monumental hit. Their chances of winning would significantly decrease. Why wouldn't they take advantage of the moment and let a sleeping Tiger lye? Why would they disobey 'The Code'?

All good questions that only lead to one answer: they, like us, are scared Tiger may not be back for a while. And while that may be positive for their personal bank accounts in the short-term, in the long-run, with a new television deal on the horizon and several title-sponsorships in question, it could be disastrous.

It was in 1996 that a 20 year-old Tiger burst onto the scene and announced his arrival with the words "Hello, world". For professional golf to snap out of its current funk, Tiger will need to have a rebirth. Soon.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

State of the Leafs: 2010

I started writing report cards for the Leafs, Jays and Raptors in 2004 long before this blog ever existed. Back then I would simply email them to friends. I've always enjoyed writing them, but slowly at first and now quickly there are sports team report cards everywhere. I posted a Raptors edition two weeks ago and it would have been time for a Leafs version but...I can't.

I'm not saying I invented the concept of handing out grades to sports teams (read: I probably did), but I am saying I'm done with them. I'm retiring the report cards and moving on.

I'm replacing them with State of the Union type columns. Of course if they bomb (the articles, not the teams) I have no problem pulling a Jay Leno and slipping the report cards right back in there. We'll see what happens. For now, it's on to the State of the Leafs: 2010.

The last year has been exceedingly rough for the Maple Leafs and their fans. Actually, tough isn't nearly strong enough. It's been a nightmare. A fourth straight spring without playoff hockey (and soon to be five), a number one goalie who wasn't even AHL quality, and a clear lack of goal-scoring ability amongst the forwards have all contributed to the futile state of the franchise.

But that's only the beginning.

Brian Burke, the chosen one, the crusty, egotistical and (previously) successful GM who was hired away from Anaheim in November 2008 and given total autonomy over hockey decisions...has not been able to turn the ship around. He hasn't even offered up his typically crazy sound-bites that would have at least provided an entertainment value that is clearly missing on the ice.

Unwilling to fully commit (or accept?) to a proper rebuilding phase, Burke again swung for the fences this past Sunday, trading for Dion Phaneuf and J.S. Giguere, two players with monster contracts that their previous teams were desperate to move. The trades leave the Leafs with approximately 14 defencemen eating up 98% of the team's cap space and an aging, expensive goalie at a time when nearly every successful team allots minimal salary to a position that can be filled by almost anyone (except Vesa Toskala).

Even worse, Burke's September trade for Phil Kessel coupled with the season-long funk his team has shown on the ice have combined to sap every ounce of feeling out of the season. Leaf fans are not upset as much as they are disconnected. The losing would be sufferable if the payoff - a top three pick - was still an option. You know, a reason to believe, a reason to care. But Burke traded Toronto's 2010 and 2011 first round draft picks to Boston to acquire Kessel. The result is a 2009-10 season that is totally lost. Toronto fans have become zombies, sleep-walking through the season without cause or emotion.

And the players that were supposed to be building blocks for the future, most notably Luke Schenn and Mikhail Grabovski, have regressed. Considerably. Schenn looks completely overwhelmed in his sophmore season, constantly fighting the puck and taking bad penalties at an alarming rate. The supposed defensive defenceman has been repeatedly victimized on one-on-ones and has been a healthy scratch at times. Grabovski, whom Burke curiously signed to a 3 year $9 million extension last summer, has failed to build on his 20 goal season and seems to have more fire in practices, where he routinely fights with teammates, than he does in games.

The rest of the roster is filled with role players (Beauchemin, Komisarek, Primeau, Mitchell, Orr), unproven projects (Bozak, Stalberg, Hanson, Kulemin, Gunnarson, Gustavsson), cap filler (Exelby, Wallin) and the stale leftovers from the Cliff Fletcher era (Finger, Stempniak). The two best Leafs aside from Kessel (Kaberle and Ponikarovsky), are rumoured to be on their way out of town, the next to be traded in the ongoing effort to...what?