Thursday, November 10, 2011

What We've Learned So Far...

After a 7 game road-trip the Jets are still trying to develop an identity

Roughly one-fifth of the way through the regular season represents a good opportunity to gauge the performance of the new Winnipeg Jets. Through 15 games, this is what the play on the ice has told us...

Tanner Glass is the Jet whose stock has risen the most among fans
The 27 year-old rugged left-winger gives the most consistent effort night-in and night-out. Glass plays hard and has just about matched his entire point production from last year in Vancouver (73 games, 3 G and 7A). Third and fourth line type players are perhaps Winnipeg's deepest strength (back-handed compliment alert!), but Glass stands out among this group and Cheveldayoff and company should be looking to sign him to a new deal before he hits unrestricted free agency next summer. We knew Mark Stuart was going to be nasty to play against. Glass has been a pleasant surprise.

Ondrej Pavelec looks like a bona fide #1 goalie
The young netminder showed flashes of brilliance his last two years in Atlanta, but after a bit of a rough start (he allowed 9 goals on his first 54 shots this year), Pavs has really found his groove, starting every game on the road-trip and turning in five stellar performances. He is absolutely capable of stealing games for this team. The traditional numbers (3.31 GAA and .896 SV%) don't look good, but for 24 minutes a night Pavelec's playing in front of only one defenceman. Which brings us to...

Dustin Byfuglien is a defenceman! Yes, he is. No really.
We know this because coach Claude Noel continues to insist on playing him there. And we've also been told that he refuses to even consider playing forward. Never mind that his blatant disregard for: staying in position, choosing his spots to pinch, back-checking, and making quick stops and starts (nobody makes bigger loops back into action) have directly resulted in a number of goals against. Apparently that is part of the "learning process" that fans and Pavelec will have to suffer through. Logic might suggest that with a shortage of offensive punch up front, Byfuglien would provide more value to this team playing forward. Clearly logic is not part of this equation.

Jets management believe in Johnny Oduya, even if you don't
Other than Byfuglien, Oduya has been the favourite whipping boy for local fans. But when Winnipeg slapped an "A" on his jersey after Enstrom and Antropov went down, it was a clear signal that Jets management believe Oduya is considerably better than his early season play had indicated. And you know what? The vote of confidence has seemed to work as Oduya has been noticeably stronger on the puck since the move.

Alex Burmistrov is talented
The 20 year-old Russian has played very well in the young season, and his shiftiness along the boards and overall puck control skills are elite. But his consistency is already a question. After a six game point streak, he has registered just a single point over his last six games. Shades of Alex Zhamnov?

Jim Slater is over-achieving (production-wise)
And no one should expect it to continue. My apologies to his agent and family, but it's true. Slater scored 5 goals in his first 11 games and is on pace for a 30-goal season. His career history suggests he is a 10 goal scorer, so even getting to 15 this year would be pushing it.

Tim Stapleton should not be playing the point on the powerplay
No matter the circumstances. Stapleton has 0 goals and 3 assists in 11 games this year and 13 points in his NHL career. He is 29. Those don't seem like the qualifications for a powerplay specialist.

Friday, November 4, 2011

View From the Top

Leafs Finally Looking Good (For The Moment)

Last night's win by the Leafs not only continued their hot start to the season, it moved them right up to first overall in the NHL. And as of me writing this, hell had not officially frozen over.

Tied with Pittsburgh atop the standings thru 13 games, just about everything is going right for the Leafs. They boast two of the top scorers in the league, have battled through a lot of tight one goal games, the penalty kill has been terrific*, and because of the tremendous ACC crowd, have yet to lose a game.**

*I lied. Ranked dead last percentage wise, the Leafs penalty kill is a joke. This would be really alarming if the PK had been this bad for three years now. What? It has? Moving along...
**Lied again. Not a great job at all by the ACC crowd. Embarrassing would be a much better way to describe all the fake hockey fans who gobble up the best tickets but can't be bothered to actually sit in them until maybe the 15 minute mark.

The few remaining Leaf haters out there (!) might argue that Kessel and company have benefited from a borderline soft schedule, but at least credit Phil and the boys for taking advantage of it.

And credit Kessel himself, who has been dynamic and so far looks like the most dangerous offensive player in the game. Phil has traditionally been streaky as an NHL scorer, but he's never been this hot, for this long. Kessel is a serious threat to score every time he is on the ice. The puck follows him around and he creates scoring chances almost every shift.

Maybe at 24 he is mature enough to transition from streaky-young-player-with-crazy-offensive-potential, to legitimate NHL superstar.

But it hasn't just been Kessel carrying the load. Every part of the roster has contributed. Joffrey Lupul is probably playing above his head, but he has scored at this level before and he and Kessel seem to have developed great chemistry.

After a slow start the Grabovski/Kulemin/McCarthur line has started to pile up points, just as they did at times last year. Phaneuf is playing his best hockey in years and his partner Carl Gunnarson has blossomed. Rookie Jake Gardiner has been just about as good. Before going down with injury, Reimer was proving last year wasn't a fluke. Joey Crabb gets called up from the minors, scores 2 goals in 2 games, and quickly gets perhaps the best nick name in the league (King Crabb).

When you're on a roll, you're on a roll.

If you wanted to try to poke holes in the Leafs you could point to the disappointing performance Luke Schenn has turned in, obviously the PK, and the big summer trade with Nashville that has been a total bust.*

*The positive would be that Matthew Lombardi has bounced back and remained healthy so far after missing all but a handful of games last year with a concussion. Unfortunately he's put up about the same level of production as he did last year when he wasn't even in the line-up. But at least Lombardi is in the line-up, which is a lot more than you can say for Cody Franson. The other half of their return from the Predators was supposed be the bounty Toronto was rewarded with for taking on the minor albatross of a contract belonging to Lombardi. Instead Franson has been in the press box, unable to crack the line-up for all but 3 games, and is rumoured to be trade bait.

But that would be nitpicking, and after an extremely lean few years since the lockout, Leafs fans are more than ready to feel good about their team.

We'll see how long those feelings will last.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Expect Some Turbulence

Time to buckle up Jets fans, all indications suggest it will be a bumpy ride

Yes, the entire city, and frankly a good chunk of the country, is eagerly anticipating the official return of the Winnipeg Jets to NHL hockey this coming Sunday.

The buzz has been building ever since the Stephen Brunt article hit the web back in May, and has only grown with the release of the new logo and uniform that is being worn in some fashion by approximately 97% of the local population (the faded women's v-neck t-shirt is borderline spectacular).

When you factor in the blitzing media coverage provided by Hockey Night in Canada and TSN (radio and television), the dominating water cooler talk in every business and social setting, and of course the total panic surrounding all those not fortunate enough to have gotten in on season tickets, the love-in for all things Jets has reached its crescendo.

Because the moment the puck leaves the hand of Bobby Hull, or Stephen Harper (or whomever it is that gets the call for the monumental moment) and hits the ice, well, all the anticipation and pure joy for the return of NHL hockey will fade to the background. From that point on it will be about results.

There is no doubt this franchise will have a grace period - five years of confirmed sellouts guarantees that. No one expects this team to win the Stanley Cup this year, or even next. But playoff hockey in the near future is on the minds of many locals, and to reach that goal, players will need to develop and wins will need to be accumulated.

And that is where the conversation gets tough.

In Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian, and Ondrej Pavelec, the Thrashers have provided the Jets with a solid group of young players to build around, and it looks like Zinger and Chevy drafted another piece to include in Mark Scheifele. Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien and particularly Tobias Enstrom form a nucleus of better than average veterans to lead the way.

That group absolutely represents promise, and has upside to believe in. The problem is that outside of Enstrom, none of those players represent bonafide first line NHLers. Not today anyways. The young guys all have the potential to get there, but potential can't be expected to immediately translate into wins.

The problem begins with the rest of the roster, which is filled mostly with 3rd and 4th liners, who other than the soulless Nick Antropov and the disinterested Kyle Wellwood, should play passionately in front of what promises to be an all-out crazy home barn. But passion and grit can only get you so far (like about 10th place in the East).

The Jets first line of Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler is actually a decent second line or a great third line on a championship caliber team. Kane, Burmistrov and Antropov are again, a decent third line. Scheifele and Eric Fehr (when he returns) represent 2/3's of another decent third line. The Tanner Glass's, Ben Maxwell's, Tim Stapleton's, Chris Thorburn's, Patrice Cormier's and Jim Slater's of the world are great to have when they combine to fight for the 12th and 13th forward spots. But when you need to dress three or four or even five of them a night, well, that's not a good sign.

I expect this team to feed off the home crowd and play winning hockey in front of the MTS Centre faithful, but struggle mightily on the road. On that note, the early schedule could be cruel, with Winnipeg playing only 4 of their first 15 games at home, including a 7-game road-trip through the Eastern conference from Oct.27 to Nov.8.

Head coach Claude Noel along with the management duo of Zinger and Chevy have done a great job establishing a culture and identifying their model for success.

Hopefully Jets fans have the patience to allow them to stick to it.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Forgotten Star

Only 3 defenceman have out-scored Winnipeg's Tobias Enstrom over the last two years

On the day the Winnipeg Jets opened training camp for the first time in 15 years, one storyline continued to dominate local headlines.

That would be Dustin Byfuglien, who, thanks to his ongoing legal matters as well as his Prince Fielder-like figure, has been heavily (couldn't resist) focused on.

Before Big Buff started getting the Kate & Will treatment from the Winnipeg media, the spotlight had mostly been occupied by Andrew Ladd. He was the first Jet to touch down in the 'Peg after the team officially relocated, and his new five year contract, along with his recent stats, Stanley Cup pedigree, and Western Canadian upbringing gave fans reason to feel comfortable with their instant attachment to the new captain.

The tragic suicide of Rick Rypien was obviously big news as well, while the hometown heroes (Fehr, Gregoire, Meech), and potential young stars (Kane, Little, Pavelec, Burmistrov and Scheifele) have each received their fair-share of print.

Lost amongst all those storylines is that of a 27 year-old Swede who just might be the NHL's most underrated player.

Tobias Enstrom was drafted eight rounds into the 2003 Entry Draft (239th overall), and despite putting up solid numbers and progressing in each of his four NHL seasons (he was an All-Star in 2010-11), hasn't stopped being overlooked by the hockey community.

When you think about Duncan Keith, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Dan Boyle you instantly recognize them as elite NHL defencemen who provide excellent offensive output and quarterback their teams' powerplays.

What most people don't realize is they are also the only three d-men to register more points (Keith - 114, Lidstrom - 111, Boyle - 108) over the last two years than Enstrom (101).

What Enstrom lacks in stature (he is listed at 5'10 and 175) he makes up for with skill and savvy, and after finishing in a tie for fourth amongst defencemen with 28 powerplay points last season, Jet fans and the entire hockey community won't be overlooking him much longer.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Heartbreaker Doesn't Have to be The End

Next 20 games will define this Blue Jays season

What was hopefully the final episode of "The Maybe Jon Rauch Can Close for Us Show" doesn't have to be the climax of Toronto's season.

There is no doubting Thursday afternoon's loss to Tampa was deflating for both players and fans. Coughing up two separate extra-inning leads is a tough way to lose a series, and when you factor in the momentum they had going and that a Jays win would've moved them into a virtual tie in the standings with Tampa, it hurts even more.

Toronto lost an opportunity to announce, "Hey, for the next few years, it's gonna be us scaring the Red Sox and Yankees, not you". Instead, John Farrell inexcusably sat nailed to the bench while Rauch threw the Rays batting practice. (Note: Anthopoulos has done just about everything right, but putting four guys who think they could or should be closing in the same bullpen was a disaster.)

The Jays (particularly Farrell and especially Rauch) may have come up short in the Tampa series, but there is still reason to believe this team can bounce back, continue to position itself as a real threat beginning next year, and perhaps even put a tiny bit of heat on the Yankees for this year's Wild Card.

With a suddenly very appealing everyday core of Bautista, Lind, Escobar, Rasmus, Arencibia, and Lawrie, an elite top of the rotation duo (Romero + Morrow), and a collection of adequate 4/5 starters, the Blue Jays immediate future is as bright as its been since 1994.

With that group of players and a revamped bullpen, another quality starter, and a live body replacing Aaron Hill's corpse at second base, the Jays will open the 2012 season as a legitimate, albeit underdog, playoff contender.

But let's not forget about this year.

Beginning on Friday, the next 19 games stack up like this for Toronto: in BAL (3); vs OAK (3); vs LAA (3); in SEA (3); in OAK (4); vs KC (3).

I'm not saying they're going to feast on that schedule...but if they ever had it in them to really go streaking, well, this seems like a pretty likely stretch of games to do it, right?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Curious Case of Anthony Stewart

Why would Winnipeg cut loose a young, cheap asset?

Kevin Cheveldayoff and Craig Heisinger have been modest, safe and predictable with their hockey decisions for the Winnipeg Jets.

Signing Andrew Ladd was a no-brainer. Staying away from over-priced unrestricted free-agents is clearly part of the plan. As is building from within, developing their draft picks, and maybe favouring a prairie birth certificate. This organization is insistent on laying a foundation and then building from the bottom up.

Thanks to a multi-year season ticket package, the euphoria surrounding this franchise will not wear off for at least three years, which is great news for the hockey operations department. The pressure, at least initially, is off. No matter what the team does on the ice, every seat in the MTS Centre will be sold, so there was no need to go all Glen Sather on July 1 and spend recklessly. Cheveldayoff and Heisinger know they can afford to be patient, to be stable.

That's what makes it so difficult to understand why the Jets would let Anthony Stewart walk away.

The 26 year-old Stewart is a former first-round pick, a Canadian World Junior champion who spent parts of four straight seasons in Florida's line-up but never established himself as a full-time NHLer. After Florida gave up on him two years ago, Atlanta signed him and kept him in the AHL the entire 2009-10 season. Last year Stewart graduated back to the NHL and played 80 games for the Thrashers contributing 14-goals, 39-points, and at times, gave a decent resemblance of a bona fide power forward.

After making only slightly above the league minimum last year ($632k), Stewart wasn't due for a huge raise. A raise yes, but nothing astronomical. His play last year suggested his upside was worth modestly investing in, especially with ample cap space and a roster that is thin on forwards.

But shortly after the draft Winnipeg announced they would not tender a qualifying offer to the restricted free agent, instead choosing to allow Stewart to leave for nothing via unrestricted free agency. It was strange and it didn't seem to fit the model that was being built. Here was a young, affordable player with the potential to easily outperform his next contract, and they take a pass.

Did the Jets believe Stewart over-achieved last year, that he isn't capable of being an NHL player? Was his attitude so poor that they didn't want him around other players? Did he not want to come to Winnipeg? Lot of questions, but so far very few answers.

Earlier this week Stewart signed in Carolina for a very reasonable $1.8 million over two years.

Jets fans are wondering why he was forced to move on.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

NHL Signing Day

With a $64 million cap and a 23 man roster, the average annual salary for a NHL player in 2011-12 will be just shy of $3 million

When the NHL salary cap came into effect after the lock-out, I began to ruthlessly decry every long-term (6 or more years) and/or big dollar ($6 million plus annually) contract that was signed.

I ridiculed the Rangers for signing Chris Drury, the Flyers for Daniel Briere, the Red Wings for Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen, the Canucks for Roberto Luongo...the list went on and on (just like the actual contracts).

I always believed it was in a team's best interest to avoid those types of contracts at all costs. I understood the thinking behind tacking on years and paying the majority of the total contract at the front of the deal to reduce the cap hit, but I couldn't see the logic in committing more than five years to any player not named Crosby or Ovechkin. Injury, consistency, and complacency were all too much of a concern in my mind. Plus, I am apparently the only person who remembers the mess that was the NBA from 1996 - 2000. (So yes, my credibility took a hit with the 'It Won't Be Jets' and 'Manitoba Time' columns, but I did forsee the current NHL salary crisis a full three years ago.)

I also thought that tieing up as much as 20-25% of your cap space on 2-3 players would not allow a team to surround those top players with the quality depth needed to compete for a Stanley Cup.

I was adamant that teams who offered these types of contracts would regret them in the long run. I was positive that having more than a couple of players with annual salaries north of $5 million would cripple a team. I firmly believed you had to be very careful not to overpay anyone on your roster, and laughed at many contracts for borderline or slightly above average players who were signed to 3, 4 and $5 million contracts (Jeff Finger, Mike Commodore, Tuomo Ruutu, to name but a few).

I was deeply invested in the stockpiling draft picks/developing players/avoid over-paying for free agents philosophy. I believed you needed the roster flexibility that comes with putting together a team in this fashion, and if you didn't, well, at some point it would come back and bite you.

What I didn't see coming was a salary cap that would increase at a pace of almost 10% a year, from $39 million in 2006, all the way to $64 million in 2011. I didn't see the average, yes AVERAGE salary becoming almost $3 million in 2011.

Now when a player like Brooks Laich signs for $4.5 million a year, the sticker shock isn't nearly what it used to be. If the average salary is almost $3 million a year, then a slightly above average player is going to command at least slightly above $3 million a year. Simple logic.

The point is, worrying about fitting large salaries into your cap or slightly over-paying for an average player is suddenly a waste of time for fans and teams alike. Not only does a cap that keeps going up entice rich teams to be stupid, it also means those same teams have unlimited get-out-of-jail-free cards that can be used to give away bad contracts to teams needing to somehow get to the salary cap floor (which is a staggering $48 million for 2011-12).

All of which adds up to a humongous payday for Brad Richards.

I hope he signs with the Leafs.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


Philly will regret this one in the morning

The least shocking part of today's crazy shakeup in Philadelphia was the signing of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov to nine-year $51 million contract.

On a day when the Flyers may or may not have ripped the soul out of their team by trading Mike Richards, and also moved perennial 30-goal man Jeff Carter, they managed to saddle themselves with a ridiculous contract that became an albatross the second it was signed.

It wasn't shocking because shortly after they were eliminated from this spring's Stanley Cup playoffs, Flyers owner Ed Snider was quoted insisting his team find an established goalie no matter the cost.

"So either one of the goalies we have has to step up in training camp, or we have to make improvements to make sure it happens. But we are never going to go through the goalie issues we've gone through in the last couple of years. If we trade or go for a goalie [through free agency], we'll make it work. We can make anything work, even with the cap."

A few weeks later Philly traded for the rights to the soon-to-be unrestricted free-agent Byzgalov, who had quietly made it well known he wanted a deal in the neighbourhood of seven years and $49 million, and that meant a significant amount of dollars needed to be moved.

With a young Claude Giroux/JVR tandem and two highly skilled and dependable veterans in Daniel Briere and Chris Pronger, plus a pretty solid supporting cast, moving Richards or Carter is somewhat defensible.

But moving both to make room for Bryzgalov is not.

Committing dollars and length to a goalie in the salary cap system is not a good move, even with a cap that only goes up. Goaltenders are the easiest commodity to find. They are plentiful, they continue to flood the market, and therefore, they are cheap.

If I was Paul Holmgren, before finalizing the Bryzgalov contract I would've reached out to the Vancouver Canucks fans and asked them how they're feeling about being stuck with eleven more years of Roberto Luongo, then forwarded all the responses on to Ed Snider.

I would've pointed to Rick DiPietro.

Then I'd point in the other direction at Antti Niemi. And Brian Boucher or Michael Leighton. Corey Crawford. Craig Anderson.

Every year there are goalies who come out of nowhere and win or even steal games. Some get hot for one or two months, some for one or two years, and some prove they've got legitimate staying power. The difference in ability between the 3rd and 43rd best goalies in the world is fractional. You never know where or when you'll find a gem, or how long his game will last.

I'd also point to winning franchises like Detroit, Chicago and San Jose and the cheap and replaceable goaltending model they use.

Then I would've pointed back to DiPietro again.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Manitoba Time?

Chipman's latest comments suggest this team won't be called "Winnipeg"

"We are very honoured by the NHL board of governors' unanimous decision today," Mark Chipman, True North's chairman of the board, said in a statement.

"We know that the fans of this province have an appetite for NHL hockey that is rivalled by few in the league and intend to work very hard to make Manitobans proud of our franchise for years to come."

That was the comment released by True North after the NHL officially approved the relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers franchise to Winnipeg yesterday.

Since I love a conspiracy theory, and have been claiming for weeks that this team won't be called the Jets, it didn't take much for me to read between the lines and determine that whatever this team ends up being called (and I'm still sticking with Falcons, but am genuinely worried about Polar Bears), it will not be preceded by "Winnipeg".

Instead it will be the "Manitoba" somethings, which apparently follows the very successful off the field model of the Saskatchewan Roughriders. While Regina might be where the Riders play their home games, anyone who has ever stepped foot in Saskatchewan knows that the entire province embraces that team, and that is the type of following True North hopes to build for its Winnipeg-based NHL team.

Monday, June 6, 2011

It Won't Be Jets

True North will unveil a new name for the Winnipeg NHL franchise

If we've learned anything during True North's first week as NHL owners, it's that they aren't just the humble and respectful outfit they've been correctly reported to be. They're also very smart, innovative, and even calculating.

For years all we've heard about Mark Chipman and his pursuit of a NHL hockey team for Winnipeg was that he was "going about it the right way". Chipman and company were low-key, tight-lipped, and steadfast in their belief that Winnipeg was more than capable of supporting a NHL franchise. But the job they did capitalizing on the mass hysteria surrounding this story was nothing short of amazing, and it proves they should not be underestimated.

The preparation True North put into the ticket drive was evident from the first minute of last Tuesday's press conference right through to 12:17 on Saturday afternoon, when all 13,000 season tickets were gobbled up in shocking fashion. The level of detail they put in to laying out their plan, the readiness they showed with a clean and user-friendly website, and the sense of urgency they created in the marketplace was astonishing. It was a marketing clinic, and one that certainly made 29 other NHL franchises take notice.

So don't expect this story to come full circle. Sorry to all the romantics out there, but the NHL team that plays its home games in the MTS Centre next year will not be nicknamed the Jets. That would be too easy, and True North doesn't do easy. Just ask Rick Dudley. Many fans will be heartbroken, and yes, they absolutely will continue to wear their Jets jerseys to the MTS Centre, but the opportunity for ownership to start fresh (and sell a ton of merchandise in the process) will not be passed up.

The Jets, as much as Winnipeggers love them, were never a symbol of success on or off the ice. The Jets franchise won a total of only two playoff series in their 17 years, had 11 different head coaches, and full houses were the exception, not the norm. True North can get away with saying this is a new chapter for hockey in Winnipeg and Manitoba, and they want to start it with a clean slate.

So you can throw out Thrashers and Moose too. Neither of those represents a fresh start or a clean slate.

We've heard Polar Bears but that would be idiotic, and thankfully True North doesn't do idiotic either. (Although some people would argue a membership fee and annual dues to be on a waiting list comes awfully close.)

Assuming, all the potential name possibilities have been aired, that leaves us with only one remaining option: Falcons.

It will be painful at first to hear a new and foreign name, but gradually all those Jets jerseys that are sure to paint the home crowds blue for a while will become Falcons jerseys, and eventually we'll all be okay with that.

A good marketing department might even see an opportunity to allow fans to hold onto the Jets for a little while longer. A third jersey or an annual Jets "retro" night would certainly fix a lot of problems.

I wonder what a great marketing department might see?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Benedict Junkie?

The return of NHL hockey to Winnipeg has this blogger questioning where to place his allegiance

Growing up in rural Manitoba, the first jersey I ever got was of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

An older kid who lived down the street and who was an excellent player in his own right, had a passion for the Leafs and I keenly followed his lead. Hats, pajamas, tooth brush, underwear - yup, all Leafs. Soon I had a sweet "Starter" jacket with a blue and white crisp Maple Leaf on the back, and I couldn't have been more proud.

In those days our family had a quarter share of two season tickets for the Jets, and with me being the biggest hockey fanatic of the four kids and my Mom, I went to the lions share of the games with my Dad. I cheered for the Jets, was a big fan of Ducky and Teemu (and Essensa and Steen, and the list goes on and on...), but I always wore my Leafs jersey and when Toronto came to town, I absolutely wanted the Buds to leave with the two points.

Still, when the Jets left in '96 it was a crushing feeling. I was at the last ever game, when Detroit eliminated Winnipeg in Game six of the first round and I can vividly remember the old Winnipeg Arena being completely jammed at 6pm, the original whiteout crowd going crazy, chanting "GO JETS GO" a full 90 minutes before game time.

Like most of my friends, I donated some of my hard-earned summer employment cash to the grassroots campaign that was launched to try and raise enough capital to keep the team around for one more year, to buy a little more time to find a new owner. I attended the "Save the Jets" rally, where 15,000 fans staged a sit-in at the arena and Don Cherry told us not to give up.

But it didn't matter. The Jets were sold, relocated to Phoenix, and suddenly I had no reason to even consider splitting my allegiance. If I wasn't completely and 100% behind the Leafs prior to that moment, I most certainly was from that point on.

As the rumours grew louder and louder over the past few weeks that the NHL would indeed be returning to Winnipeg, many of my friends, colleagues, and even strangers who saw me walking down the street with my Leafs hat on, asked what I was going to do if the Jets/Falcons/Moose came back?

My initial answer was easy: I've invested more than 25 years of my life following the Leafs, living and dieing with each and every win and loss. If and when the Leafs finally do win a Stanley Cup (humour me), I want to be around for that payoff. But having a team in my own backyard that in many ways represents the emotional return of long-lost friend, well, that complicates things.

My mind tells me Leafs, my heart tells me Jets.

I'd like to think I'm a logical person.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Waiting Game

It's been eight days since Stephen Brunt declared a deal to return NHL hockey to Winnipeg was "done".

The story itself of course, of bringing the Jets back home, has been rumoured for most of the last two years. But it was the Brunt story last Thursday night that really sent Winnipeggers into a state of euphoria. Fifteen years of hope and patience (and a sky-rocketing Canadian dollar), had finally paid off.

Immediately following the Brunt report it was pure enthusiasm and exuberance. Dancing at Portage and Main, "Go Jets Go" chants at every opportunity, bar stool analysis of the Thrashers roster (Hello #1 draft pick in 2012, welcome to Winnipeg!), and of course the name game. Moose? Falcons? Or would True North throw the fans a bone and bring back the Jets moniker?

The Canadian holiday long weekend saw the initial emotions of the city transition into eager anticipation for the press conference that was to be held this past Tuesday. Old school Hawerchuk jersey packed for work? Check. Celebration plans for the local watering hole? Check. Phone calls and texts to put together a group to go splitsy on a season ticket package? Check.

Then over the last few days a hint of annoyance krept into the overall mindset of the city. Bettman's much-ado-about-nothing quote on Tampa radio Wednesday morning certainly poured water on the fire, and as we head into another weekend still waiting for the official announcement, with nothing more than the painful "negotiations continue" updates, well, panic hasn't set in yet, but it's not far off.

For now, all Winnipeggers can do is continue to hope, be patient, and trust that one of the most well-respected and knowledgeable sports journalists in Canada, who happens to write for a paper that is owned by the person who will also be part of the Winnipeg ownership group, didn't get it wrong.

And we can continue to hate Bettman.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Goodbye Jo Jo?

Now that Jo-Jo Reyes has officially tied the record, this is going to be a bigger story.

At 22, 23, 24 it was a minor nuisance, but now, after a disastrous outing in New York, the all-time winless streak could easily take over the Jays current identity. Today's loss will make the American media smell blood and threatens to overshadow the ridiculousness that is Jose Bautista and the overall spunkiness (yup) of a team that has clawed through a difficult early schedule heavily loaded with road games in tough ballparks to remain in the hunt.

Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos has made the 26 year-old southpaw a personal project and despite 28 consecutive starts without a victory, Reyes hasn't actually been totally horrible. At least not all the time. Of those 28 starts, only ten have come for the Jays and of those 10, six have been decent to good. Reyes has no minor league options left, so removing him from the major league roster means they risk losing him for nothing.

It's easy to look at the 28 game streak and say get rid of him, and the media pressure will no doubt intensify over Reyes' next couple of starts. But Anthopoulos has a streak of his own, one that grows with each player transaction. The GM phenom believes in the loser lefty, and Jays fans believe in the GM phenom.

That's why getting rid of a pitcher who fails to win a start 28 times in a row is somehow complicated.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Canada and USA Meet Tonight

That was the headline Canadian hockey fans have been waiting for throughout the current edition of the World Junior Hockey Championships.

It's not that we were bored or disinterested with the first eight days of competition, not in the least. The Canadian powerplay continues to be gorgeous, watching Brayden Schenn pile up points was impressive and the Russians and Swedes both made us fully aware why Canada, for maybe only the third time in the last 15 years, wasn't the overwhelming pre-tournament favourite.

Besides, this is the World Juniors! Hockey Canada and TSN have done a tremendous job building the WJHC into a "monster" and other than Pierre McGuire, we absolutely lovvvvvve this tournament. The Stanley Cup hasn't been won by a Canadian team since 1993 and over the last 17 years this tournament has become our annual reprieve, our appetite growing year after year. For most of us, the WJHC is a chance to tune out our crappy NHL team for a couple of weeks and actually have the opportunity to receive some satisfaction in return for our emotional investment. (Yes, I am looking directly at you Brian Burke.)

However, this year things are a little different. The rabid-dog, crazed enthusiast, World Junior Hockey fever that normally sweeps across our nation...hasn't. It could be that we're still basking in delight from our 2010 Olympic Gold and that victory, combined with years of dominating the World Juniors, has resulted in a fat cat attitude for Canadian hockey fans at the moment. Maybe because there wasn't a Crosby, Tavares, or Hall on the roster, a household superstar that we could rally behind, we were willing to file this year's team under "Can't Win 'Em All" and simply move on.

Or maybe the biggest factor in our collective softened excitement this year is that other than Canada, the U.S.A., Switzerland and maybe Sweden, none of the countries seem to be improving. Actually, they appear to be getting worse. Finland has been at best treading water for years. Russian hockey is a mess. At the turn of the century both the Czech Republic and Slovakia were threats in any tournament, but in recent years they have looked un-organized and over-matched.

On the other hand, after developing a genuine dislike for each others program over the last decade and on the heels of two unbelievable games (Gold medal and New Year's Eve) at last year's World Juniors and the instant classic that was the Olympic Gold Medal overtime battle, the Canada/U.S. hockey rivalry is at it's all-time peak.

All of which means that as of today, after two weeks of tempered enthusiasm for Team Canada, this tournament has our attention. This game matters to us.

We stand on guard for thee.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

2010: The best of Sports on TV

Here are my favourite non-live action television sporting moments from 2010. That doesn't quite work, does it. Suppose I'll try again.

Here are my favourite non-game television sporting moments from 2010. Crap. That sucks too.

Below are my favourite televised moments from 2010 that didn't primarily involve live-game coverage. Still awkward, but it'll have to do.

5. Gatorade Replay Series
Available on Rogers Sportsnet (though you'll have to stumble upon it to find it) this one hour program reunites rival highschool teams who had a memorable game cut short or finish in dispute, and then replay it. The games in question typically occurred in the late '90s so it is fascinating to see all these late 20 and early 30 year-olds trying to get back into shape so they don't embarrass themselves in front of the entire community. The producers develop storylines with a few key players from each team and Gatorade brings in a couple of their big-time endorsers (Dwyane Wade, the Mannings, etc.) to serve as honourary coaches. I've seen hockey, basketball and football episodes and all were definitely worth watching.

4. HBO 24/7 Penguins Capitals
The other day I read where someone said that the Oil Change documentary series following the rebirth of the Edmonton Oilers was just as good as the Pens/Caps HBO series, and that it was done on a sliver of the budget. I could not disagree more, aside from the budget of course. The Pens/Caps series is wildy entertaining and offers a real glimpse of behind the scenes action in the life of an NHLer. Oil Change so far has been 15 guys sitting around a boardroom twiddling their thumbs and staring blankly at each other while Kevin Lowe or Steve Tambellini talk in circles so as not to reveal any meaningful or interesting information.

3. Friday Night Lights
Now in it's fifth and final season, and in my opinion, the best sports television show ever. If you've never watched this series, season one is amazing, push through season two, and then prepare to be inspired in every aspect of your life by listening to and watching Coach Eric Taylor, who strikes a perfect balance between tough and fair. Well, maybe not inspired, but thoroughly entertained. The football is Sportscentre worthy and the drama is 90210 level (the original, not the remake). Just watch it.

2. Ken Burns "The Tenth Inning"
The two-part follow-up to Burns' original and epic "Nine Innings" baseball documentary, which outlines the history of the game from the very beginning, is excellent. The Ninth Inning left off in 1990, just prior to the official launch of the steroid era as well as the lockout (1994) that killed baseball in Montreal. Burns weaves his way in and out of stories and topics managing to cover every issue the game has faced over the last 20 years and recreating each historic moment. A must-watch for any baseball lover.

1. ESPN 30 for 30 Series
These 30 documentaries, one for each year in ESPN's existence, are nothing short of superb. Each directed and creatively owned by a notable filmmaker, the 30 riveting stories began airing on TSN in the fall of 2009 and just recently completed their initial run. They aren't necessarily the 30 biggest sports stories from the last 30 years, but rather a look at many that have either never been told or not fully explained and every single episode has something to offer. The most notable in my mind were King's Ransom, Without Bias, The Two Escobars, Once Brothers and The Best There Never Was.