Friday, 3 April 2015

Winnipeg fans are still on top

I hate to admit it, but I was starting to wonder if Jets fans are overrated.

Since the Jets came back into the league, Winnipeg fans have earned the reputation as the most passionate and creative in the NHL. While Jets fans have crafted some great chants in previous years, the most interesting chant I had heard this season was "Ref, you suck!"

As having an NHL team becomes more normal, maybe fans are becoming less willing to put creative effort into their support. Perhaps Winnipeg is starting to lose the enthusiasm that makes it unique and is becoming more like other NHL markets.

While I don't totally discount this possibility, as the Jets fight to make the playoffs the fans have shown they still have creativity to spare.

Last week, with the Jets leading a Montreal Canadiens team that was starting its backup, Jets fans chanted "We want Carey," demanding the Canadiens play their first-string goalie.

Check out the link here: 

And even better, Jets fans chanted "Who's your captain?" against San Jose. The crowd coordination it would take to pull of this chant is impressive, especially since an arena full of fans would have to get that the Sharks stripped Joe Thornton of the captaincy earlier in the season and assigned it to a four-person leadership group.

Winnipeg fans are clearly pumped at the possibility of the team's first playoff appearance. While it is hard to say if the magic will last, for the time being, we all should be excited to see what these fans can come up with if they get up to seven playoff games against one team. 

Here are some classic Jets 2.0 fan chants:

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Still missing

If you are a hardcore fan of hockey, you most likely used The site was an online hockey database that detailed player salaries, team spending, and allowed the user to see the effects a trade could have on teams' salary cap situations.

CapGeek was created by Matthew Wuest and ceased operations in January because of Wuest's health issues. 

While there are other websites that track hockey salaries, none seem to be as accurate or as versatile as CapGeek was. Wuest's passion project changed the way fans talk about hockey. When a fan proposed a ridiculous trade on an online hockey forum, another fan could shoot the trade down by showing how it was not even possible. 

One might think with no CapGeek, the NHL has the perfect opportunity to step up and provide salary cap information on its website. It does not seem like this will happen anytime soon. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has said he does not believe hockey fans are interested in this kind of data and care more about what happens on the ice.

The idea that fans do not care about player salaries is absolutely ridiculous. A team's cap situation affects every move that team makes, including what players the team can sign and trade. This information is increasingly critical for fans looking to understand how the league works. This past trade deadline, the Clarkson/Horton trade, in which Toronto acquired a player who may never play again for a player they were desperate to get rid of, is impossible to understand without an understanding of the team's salary structures.

There is a major demand for a new CapGeek, and eventually someone will fill it. Maybe it will be the NHL, a major sports media outlet, or another outsider who is passionate about providing a service to other fans.

For many of us, it cannot come fast enough. 

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Why can't the NHL let refs be people?

Yahoo Sports blogger Greg Wyshynski met with NHL referee Tim Peel at a bar in New York last week. Peel has a reputation as a bad referee with many NHL fans, and Wyshynski has been one of Peel's harshest critic, often skewering him in hilarious and perhaps insensitive ways.

You might think with Peel getting the chance to confront his tormentor in an alcohol-rich environment that the meeting could get ugly. What actually happened was Peel and Wyshynski talked about hockey, shared their philosophies on officiating and gained a better understanding of each other's perspectives. While Wyshynski stands by his criticisms of Peel, he says he now has more context on why Peel made some his his controversial calls. Wyshynski also said he now sees that some of his jokes at Peel's expense may have been mean.

It actually seems like they had a lot of fun.

Unfortunately, it seems the NHL was not happy about the drinking photo above and suspended Peel for one game. 

The NHL cracking down on Peel for this meeting is a shame. After reading Wyshynski's article, I realized I had made assumptions about Peel that were based on my own biases. Like Wyshynski, I am not a big fan of Peel as a referee. He has routinely made calls I don't agree with, and I assumed he is arrogant, incapable of recognizing his mistakes and out of touch with fans.

Turns out, Tim Peel is likely an awesome guy. Not only is Peel the Liam Neeson to Wyshynski's Patton Oswalt in the photo above, but Wyshynski said in his piece that Peel has apologized to teams for some of his mistakes, acknowledged some refs are better than him and even seems to find some of the jokes at his expense funny. Wyshynski emphasized that Peel is a really nice guy. 

Now that I have some insight into Tim Peel as a person, I am much less likely to demonize him after a bad call and much more likely to think of him as a hard-working guy who makes mistakes.

This brings me to my point: the NHL shouldn't expect its refs to be robots.

Referees no longer wear nameplates on their jerseys, they never address the media and they are clearly not allowed to go out for drinks with journalists.

Obviously, I know the NHL removed nameplates from referees' jerseys to protect them. In the past, fans have used a referee's name to direct hateful comments at officials and their families. While I get the NHL wants officials do do their job and not worry about dealing with the media and fans, with game sheets available online, I would think it is easier than ever before to find a referee's personal information and attack them in new and horrible ways via the Internet.

It may have been prudent to protect refs in the early 1990s from ravenous Flyers fans who hounded them as they walked from the rink to their cars, but we don't live in that world anymore. With much more specialized content on TV, the NHL's website and social media, the NHL has more opportunities to have their officials engage in two-way communication with fans and share their side of the story.

As this scene from HBO's 24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic shows, refs can be a cool, beer-drinking bunch:

Not only do I want to see more of the refs' personalities, I want to see them address the media regarding hockey plays. Rather than court controversy, I think this would help me understand their perspective on penalty calls. It would also pound home the point that these are professionals doing a very hard job.

I think it would be fascinating to see how refs assert their authority over millionaire players and coaches. I would love to see NHL officials mic'd up like in this rugby clip:

Not only does rugby referee Nigel Owens show he is the boss on the field, he also takes a shot at soccer, which many rugby fans found endearing. It would be amazing to see how NHL officials deal with players after a scrum, after a player has taken a dive or after a superstar complains about a call.

Referees are interesting people. They work jobs where thousands of people get angry — even hostile — every time they make a mistake, but seem invisible when they make the right call. Referees need to command authority over players and coaches who have massive egos, and maintain control in games where the teams hate each other. I think given all the ways the NHL has to connect with fans and present a deeper, more nuanced view of their product, the NHL should be doing a lot more to show us the ref's side of the story.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Goalies and their cringe-worthy mistakes

The stakes are higher when you're a goalie. While making a big mistake can be embarrassing for any player, letting in a really bad goal almost guarantees your gaff will appear on all the sports highlight shows.

Optically, goals resulting from bouncing pucks are terrible. Bouncing pucks may look easy to stop, but they can have a way of dipping under a glove or changing direction last second.

Jonathan Bernier experienced this first-hand this week:

While Ekman-Larsson even scored this goal shorthanded, it still could have been worse for Bernier. At least the stakes were relatively low. Both teams are likely to miss the playoffs, meaning this goal will not have a lot of impact on anything outside of this game.

Which brings us to the goal Tommy Salo let in at the Salt Lake City Olympics:


With that goal, Belarus eliminated the heavily-favourited Swedes. This remains one of the biggest upsets in international hockey history and it is all because a long shot bounced off Salo's mask. 

While teammate Mats Sundin asked the public not to scapegoat Salo, as the the rest of the team was also at fault for the loss, Salo was vilified for this play. 

Goalies need to have an extreme level of mental toughness to succeed. It takes a special personality to get embarrassed in front of a sellout out crowd and a national TV audience, forget about it, and get right back into the game.

Martin Brodeur, who officially retired last week, is in the conversation for best goaltender of all time. He has won three Stanley Cups, two Olympic gold medals and is a four-time Vezina winner as the NHL's top goalie.

As this play shows, everybody makes mistakes:

While bad luck can make a goalie look very foolish, sometimes a lucky bounce can be glorious for a goaltender. Damien Rhodes became part of an elite group of NHL goalies who have scored a goal, and he never even had to shoot the puck. After the Ottawa Senators took a penalty and New Jersey pulled their goalie (Brodeur again) for an extra attacker, a New Jersey player tried to pass the puck back to a defenseman. The pass went all the way down the ice and into New Jersey's net. Rhodes received credit for the goal as the last player to touch the puck.


Friday, 16 January 2015

Taro Tsujimoto: The greatest fictitious hockey player

Last week I talked about a kid who could be the next Japanese player drafted into the NHL. This week I will be talking about the first Japanese player drafted by an NHL squad.

In 1970, the Buffalo Sabres selected Taro Tsujimoto from the Tokyo Kantanas of the Japanese Ice Hockey League. For a player from a nontraditional hockey country, getting drafted by an NHL team is a huge accomplishment. This feat is even more impressive in Tsujimoto's case, given he never existed.

Buffalo coach/GM Punch Imlach invented Tsujimoto, reportedly picking the name out of a Buffalo phone book, as a joke during the eleventh round of the amateur draft. Because there was no scouting in Asia at the time, no one noticed that the draft selection was a prank.

Tsujimoto was Buffalo's 183rd pick and apparently Imlach didn't think he could get a quality player that low in the draft.

As a Japanese speaker, there are a couple of things about the pick that should have been suspicious. First, there are no plural forms of words in the Japanese language, so it is unlikely a team in Japan would be called the Katanas. Whether there is one katana or 100 katana, the word never changes. Also, katana means sword, which is a huge coincidence given Buffalo's team name is the Sabres.

For years, Sabres fans would chant "We want Taro!" when their team was getting blown out. I have not heard this recently, but given how bad Buffalo are this year, it may be an excellent time to bring back this tradition.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Could this Japanese kid be the next hockey superstar?

Just because I have a Canadian passport does not mean I can dangle like this.

When I lived in Japan I was the authority on hockey. My Japanese students and mostly American coworkers assumed that because I'm Canadian I must know everything about the sport and be great at it too.

I seemed to be an ambassador for the sport in Japan.

"I saw on the BBC that you guys had a big hockey game," an Australian bartender in Kanagawa teased me after the 2011 riots in Vancouver.

The basic premise behind the stereotyping and mockery was clear: Canadians love hockey and people outside of Canada don't.

With all this in mind, I found this video of 11-year old Aito Iguchi refreshing. Aito is from Saitama in Japan, but he has skills with the puck many Canadians, myself included, can only dream of having.

He is obviously still young, but if he grows up to be an NHL star he could be huge for hockey in Japan. Everyone who has seen a Seattle Mariners game during the peak of Suzuki Ichiro's powers knows the Japanese media is fascinated by Japanese star athletes playing outside of their country. 

As someone who loves hockey, it would be great to see NHL stars from new places. While as Canadians, we want to dominate the sport, if we really want to see the sport grow, it is important to get great players and teams from different countries.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Bryan Murray's battle with cancer

Michael Farber's piece on Bryan Murray's battle with cancer for TSN

Despite the fact that this video came out about two weeks ago, I haven't watched it until today.

I think I've been avoiding it. Like Pat Quinn who I discussed in the previous post, Bryan Murray had a big impact on me as a hockey fan, and the subject matter is very sad.

Murray has Stage 4 colon cancer. In the video he says he may have had cancer for ten years. He also says that his cancer could have been prevented if he had asked for a colonoscopy. While Murray seems to be in good spirits during the interview, it is still very depressing.

I have been a fan of Murray before he even came to the Senators, my favourite team. I was excited when the Senators brought him in as head coach, and even happier when they gave him the position of general manager.

Murray, 71, has been working in professional hockey for most of his life, and like Pat Quinn is highly respected in hockey circles. He is a guy who has managed to adapt and excel as the game has changed.

Murray is also a fierce competitor. Fans of the Senators, Red Wings, Mighty Ducks/Ducks, and Capitals have seen Murray show this from behind the bench. In the video, Murray talks about trying to make the most of the life he has left, and will strive to live as long as possible with the best quality of life.

While it is sad that his cancer could have been prevented, I give a lot of respect to Murray for making that public. As Murray says, a lot of people put these kind of check-ups off, and having a prominent member of the hockey community like Murray come out with his experience could help a lot of people.