Hockey night in blogtopia
We’re almost at the midway point of the season, and it’s already become quite clear why the NHL forced that lockout last year: it was all part of a plan to destroy the St. Louis Blues.
So tonight, this hockey-lovin’ blog will say a few kind words about the poor Blues before passing off to political scientist, virtuoso blogger, and lifelong Calgary Flames fan Scott Lemieux for some much-needed commentary on the New Rules and their Consequences.
Unless they win out from this point on, the 2005-06 Blues will snap one of the more curious long-term streaks in professional sports: they have made the playoffs every season since 1979-80. Twenty-five straight years: it’s the longest current postseason streak in professional sports and the third-longest of all time. But since they last took the ice in April 2004, they’ve lost Pavol Demitra to the Los Angeles Kings, Chris Pronger to the Edmonton Oilers, and Al MacInnis to retirement. In other words, they lost their offense and their defense. But they still have a building to play in, and that’s positive.
Can they win 45 straight? Probably not. That would be a record.
Now, it’s true that back in the 1980s, when 21 NHL franchises completed for 16 playoff spots, teams qualified for the playoffs if (but only if!) they were carbon-based. In 1982-83, for example, the Blues went 25-40-15, and the next year they went 32-41-7—and made the playoffs both years. Not for nothing did the late Dick Young once write that if World War II had been a hockey season, Poland would have made the playoffs. And in all that time, they never made it to the Cup finals; indeed, they made it to the conference finals only twice—and I saw their last win in a conference final game, a 4-3 overtime thriller against the Colorado Avalanche on May 16, 2001. (It was their only victory in that series; the Avs then went on to win the Cup.) Hence the obscure and unfunny (but well-aimed) joke:
Q. Why is there so little drunk driving in St. Louis?
A. Because all the bars close after the second round.
But don’t start thinking that the Blues are the poster kids for consistent mediocrity. Beginning in the early 1990s, they put together some formidable teams, and they spent the latter half of the decade just a half-step down from the Western Conference elite of Colorado, Detroit, and Dallas. During that time, some of the game’s best players could be found wearing a Blues uniform: Brett Hull, Adam Oates, Brendan Shanahan, Pierre Turgeon, Grant Fuhr, Curtis Joseph—and of course, Pronger and MacInnis. Hull scored 86 goals in 1990-91, still the most productive year registered by any player not named Gretzky. In 1996, during the couple of weeks when their roster included Gretsky Himself (on his way from LA to NY), they took Detroit to the seventh game of the conference finals before losing a 1-0 heartbreaker in double OT; but they never came as close to defeating the Red Wings in a series again, and by the time they folded in five to Detroit in 2002’s second round, the mere sight of a Red Wing insignia was enough to make them cough up the puck.
In 1999-2000 they led the league during the regular season, and goaltender Roman Turek posted no fewer than three franchise records: a .912 save percentage, a 1.95 goals-against average, and 42 wins. But they were bounced by San Jose in the first round, thanks to some of the flukiest goals and flabbiest goaltending ever to afflict an NHL team. In the following year’s playoffs, Turek performed magnificently as the Blues avenged the loss to San Jose in the first round and then swept the defending conference champion Dallas Stars; but in the conference finals, Turek gave up one weak goal after another, and by the time I saw him in game three, his confidence—and, just as important, his team’s confidence in him—was shattered. Every puck that came near him was an adventure. The Blues unloaded him when the year was over, but the damage was done, both to Turek’s reputation and the Blues’ brief run as a Cup contender. How odd it was, I thought, for the team of Glenn Hall, Jacques Plante, Ernie Wakely, Mike Luit, Grant Fuhr, and Curtis Joseph to be done in by lousy goaltending. (The Avalanche conference final game I attended in 2001 consisted of the Blues trying to come back repeatedly after Turek had let in goals that most of us could have stopped without pads; as fortune would have it, I was wearing a Curtis Joseph jersey that night, and every time I left my seat, Blues fans would stop me and ask if I would be willing to replace Turek at the end of the period.)
Since that brief run, the Blues have gotten worse, though until this year they had enough talent to make it to the postseason. How bad are they now? Let me put it this way: worse than Pittsburgh bad. Worse than Columbus bad. Bad to the point at which the team website has to say things like “the Blues have held a lead at some point in the game in seven of the last eleven contests.” (They went 3-8 during that span.) They won’t just miss the playoffs for the first time since 1980, folks. They may very well wind up with the worst record in the league. They are officially doormats.
So even though there are only a dozen readers of this blog who care about hockey, and none of those readers care about the sorry fate of the St. Louis Blues, let’s take a moment to acknowledge their passing. And here’s hoping that they start to rebuild next year.
On the bright side, the New York Rangers look like a serious, hardworking bunch. And Jaromir Jagr seems to have marshaled his considerable talents for the first time in years. I can’t say any more than this, though, for fear of jinxing these bracingly fast, hungry young Rangers.
And with that, I turn you over to Scott Lemieux, political scientist, virtuoso blogger, and lifelong Calgary Flames fan, who will discuss (among other things) the NHL’s new rules and new look: the post-trap, post-clutching-and-grabbing, power-plays-a-plenty NHL. Me, I’m in favor of it all, even the shootouts, which I opposed until I witnessed the Rangers’ epic 15-round shootout against the Capitals on November 26. They’re really kinda fun, in a regular-season kinda way, and much more entertaining than soccer shootouts. But then, everything about hockey is more entertaining than soccer. What you say, Scott?
Scott Lemieux says:
Thanks—and condolences—to Michael. I hope everyone will raise a toast to the Blues, as well as the great, recently retired Al MacInnis, the anchor of what will be—let’s be frank—the only championship a team I root for passionately will ever win [aside to nonfans: why are you still reading this post? but for those of you who are, Scott is referring to the 1989 Flames], and who had many terrific years in St. Louis as well. (And was just a youngster when the Flames and Blues played their epic 7-game semi-final series in ‘86.) Admittedly, it’s hard to say nice things about the NHL today—I’m still choking on my own rage about the inclusion of Todd Bertuzzi on the Canadian Olympic team, thus irreparably tanrnishing a great showcase for the game—but I can come at things from a happier perspective.
[Another note to nonfans: why is Bertuzzi the spawn of Satan? Here’s why.]
In 2004, the last time there was NHL hockey, my Flames won their first playoff series since that ‘89 Cup win, and I was lucky enough to be back home to see their overtime elimination of the Red Wings in round 2. (The students who had to sit through a lecture about the Taiwanese courts after I caught a flight the next morning may not have been as lucky.)
But last year’s finals were exciting for non-parochial reasons as well. What was most encouraging about the finals were that the two finalists—Tampa Bay and Calgary—were both fast, highly skilled teams laden with young stars, and they played an exciting seven-game series. (It’s too bad, as I’ve mentioned before, that Michael chose to cheer for the team that comes from a state with no outdoor rinks and in which the election statutes are apparently written in crayon by the Attorney General’s 6-year old daughter, but hey—they won! And they’re a fun team to watch.) While I’m conflicted about the new NHL because I strongly favor the players in any pro sports labor dispute, I do think that Gary Bettman’s new rules (which, of course, hardly required a lockout to be changes) are for the most part good for the game, and I hope that the 2004 finals will indeed be the harbinger of a game that is as great as it should be.
Before getting to the big new changes, it’s also worth talking about some small stuff that makes a difference. For years, the NHL made some rule changes that seemed to come out of nowhere. My favorite example is getting rid of the delayed offside, which eliminated unnecessary whistles—but, in a bout of baffling illogic, various people started saying that the new rule had prevented Canada from producing good new defensemen. During the same period of time, linesmen became incredibly vain, taking forever to drop pucks on faceoffs of trivial importance, and coaches also began more and more delays to fiddle around with lines. After the magnificent 2002 Olympics, at which hockey was played not only at a staggeringly high level but also with international rules that minimized these pointless delays and whistles, Bettman (to his credit) immediately instituted a series of rule changes that largely eliminated these delays from the NHL as well. None of these solved fundamental problems, but they did improve the game, and showed that the league was willing to consider rational changes. Which leads us to this year’s new rules.
Most of them I like a lot. I’m not sure how big an impact the elimination of the two-line pass will be, but the threat of the long pass does seem to have opened the game up to some extent. And while I do find games with too many power plays a little dreary, the tight enforcement of obstruction rules is a necessary evil, and hopefully as players change we’ll get the benefits without the drawbacks. I love the new rules that discourage icings (as well, of course, as the return of tag-up offsides), and I also love the new rules on goalie equipment, which emphasize agility and reflexes rather than sheer size. (A quick eyeball of the goalie stats seems to show that save percentages are down a bit, which is good, and also that Dominic Hasek—still tremendous at 40—is the greatest goaltender of his generation, which is duh.) Overall, it definitely the rules have improved the game, and I hope some alienated fans will check it out.
My one quibble, however, has to do with shootouts. I don’t mean to knock soccer—I’m sure I would be a big fan if I lived in a country where it was a major sport—but I have trouble getting behind a sport that decides its ultimate championships will a gimmicky fraction of the game. (It’s like getting to the 11th inning of Game 7 of the World Series and then deciding things with a home run derby.) And so I have to admit that I’m still not crazy about it. But as long as it’s confined to the regular season I can live with it, and if it draws new fans to the rink or the Wood Varnishing Network (or whoever it is that’s showing their games before NBC starts up), it’s a good thing overall.
A final thing to note is that the new rules don’t matter much if the talent isn’t there, and here is where I think things are looking up the most. The increasing influx of talent may finally be mitigating the dilution of the talent pool caused by over-expansion. Still fairly young superstars like Vinny Lecavalier and Jarome Iginla have been joined this year by Carolina’s Eric Staal as well as Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley of the devastating Senators. And this year’s rookie crop—well, let’s just say that (a) I’m confident after watching almost every game that Calgary’s young defenceman Dion Phaneuf (a towering, hard-hitting defenseman who already has 8 goals) is the best player we’ve drafted since MacInnis, and (b) he’s at best the third-best rookie in the league, behind Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin. I don’t mean to deny that there are problems. While the NHL gets a bad rap on violence vis-à-vis the NFL, the example of Bertuzzi shows that it remains a problem, and the league could probably still afford to shed a team or four. But overall, I hope that this season, while purchased at a terrible price, will reflect a turning point for the NHL, as the surprisingly robust attendance (has a league ever increased its attendance after a work stoppage?) reflects.
Hockey, the sport of kings...and leafs and Canadiens and oilers and (sigh)"Mighty Ducks”.
i hate a lot of the new rules. Shootouts suck and I’ve never been a fan of automatic OT - to be honest I never had a problem with tie games. I do like the idea of calling some interference and holding for the first time in 15 years as I hate the centerzone trap defence, but bringing in a two line pass - well, back on the pond that was what we called cherry-picking and it was verboten.
I was born and bred a Habs fan and the first three weeks of the season were bliss, even if they have kind of faded in the stretch. Live by the one-goal last minute win, die by it, I guess. Still, it is good to see the boys back on the ice. Now if I could just get a CBC satellite feed here in Tokyo.
Oh and can I just blogwhore for a moment and mention my plan to feed Tucker Carlson to a lodge full of angry beavers? Apparently he regards Canada as a “retarded cousin” for not being willing to just roll over and take it on trade and for having our own foreign policy.Posted by rev.paperboy on 12/23 at 01:21 AM
And my favorite, and very old, hockey joke (other than Don Cherry):
Q: What do the Toronto Maple Leafs have that the Montreal Canadians do not?
A: Black and white film of their last Stanley Cup win.Posted by rev.paperboy on 12/23 at 01:56 AM
the league could probably still afford to shed a team or four.
Well, there are a few Cdn cities that are gearing up to snag one or four of those ridiculous sunbelt teams. The Globe and Mail recently pointed toward Hamilton (which would likely kill my current-hometown Sabres), there are hints and intimations that the Penguins might be headed to Quebec or Winnipeg (wish it could be Nashville or someone instead of Pittsburgh). And Carolina’s surely ripe to go.
The Cdn $ is at a high-water mark, a perhaps likely to stay there, plus there’s the salary cap (a “rule change” you neglected to mention)… Witness the Blue Jays recent and unprecedented spending spree.
I’ve even seen Halifax mentioned, which would be too amazing for words… Far more amazing than, say, Houston or Kansas City.Posted by on 12/23 at 01:57 AM
A good one from the reverend! The amazing thing about the Maple Leafs is that the fans are as arrogant and solipsistic as the Yankees, except that they haven’t noticed that their team hasn’t played in the finals since there were 6 teams…Posted by Scot Lemieux on 12/23 at 02:04 AM
And Jaromir Jagr seems to have marshaled his considerable talents for the first time in years.
That reminds me of a great Jagr story from his Penguins days. He once ran into a reporter who had written some negative things about him and said: (sorry for the cursing kids!) “I don’t talk to you anymore you’re a fucking asshole.”Posted by Sadly, No! on 12/23 at 03:30 AM
Heh, that’s a good one, rev.paperboy.
GRRR, this reminded me of something I was hoping to forget, tonight’s Sharks game. They’d better not lose to those pathetic Blues tomorrow night.Posted by Kevin on 12/23 at 04:05 AM
more articles about hockey!Posted by Kevin on 12/23 at 04:05 AM
They (the sportswriters) always said that Hamilton would never get an NHL franchise as long as Harold Ballard was alive, but he’s gone on to the big hot stove lounge in the sky (and good riddance to him, too. He was the Nixon of hockey - as crooked as a dog’s hind leg.) My folks live in Hamilton, along with the Habs farm team and as much as I’d love to see a team there, I don’t think it is likely to happen. Winnipeg on the other hand should have a team, and Halifax would become a great hockey mecca for those on the east coast of Canada - the team would pack in fans from day one. Quebec City too, despite the anti-francophoniness of Eric “egghead” Lindros.
Pittsburg has a long tradition of being on its last legs, so I wouldn’t count them out. Nashville, Tampa, Florida, Carolina and Atlanta and Phoenix are not places where people really give a puck about the game. Dallas fans only come out when the team is winning.
Now what about that “short for Richard” Tucker Carlson and his delusional statements about Canada?Posted by rev.paperboy on 12/23 at 06:33 AM
the Rangers’ epic 15-round shootout against the Capitals on November 26.
Wasn’t that fun? Marek Malik’s ‘circus bow’ was a nice capper. And on a holiday Saturday night on MSG, offering an especially large number of previous shootout skeptics the chance to be converted.
Shootouts were a lot of fun when the brother-in-law’s team was in the I—they almost always won. So far 0-for-4 in the NHL version; maybe things will pick up when the real goaltender returns (soon!).
Most of the other rule changes have been real improvements, but the goalie ‘no touch’ zone is just not right. Saw it called for the first time tonight, on a rookie, and hate to think of all the young goalies coming up having to be trained around it. It’s the most likely of the new changes to go.
Biggest drawback (aside from so many power plays, which may be subsiding): way too much running of the goalies. Something has to be done.Posted by on 12/23 at 08:15 AM
Don’t know much about hockey, but anything is better than soccer (outdoor version)!Posted by on 12/23 at 09:43 AM
"The amazing thing about the Maple Leafs is that the fans are as arrogant and solipsistic as the Yankees, except that they haven’t noticed that their team hasn’t played in the finals since there were 6 teams…”
Ouch, Scott! That’s called faith where I come from.Posted by on 12/23 at 09:57 AM
"Thanks—and condolences—to Michael. I hope everyone will raise a toast to the Blues,”
I intend to play Leon Redbone’s version of “The Ghost of the St. Louis Blues” in their honor.
I liked the sound of the rule changes. I haven’t seen a hockey game since before the strike though. They don’t seem to be televising them here in DC. Then again, watching the Caps might not qualify as watching a game.Posted by on 12/23 at 10:36 AM
As a Blackhawks fan, I was going to express some schadenfreude about the Blues being bad. But since the Hawks have lurched between bad, and APPALLINGLY bad over the last few years, I decided to shut my yap and just tell my favorite “Hawks suck” story.
When they traded Jeremy Roenick to Phoenix for spare change back in ‘96, I was at a friend’s place in the West Loop. He turned on his video game console, fired up his hockey game, and tried to recreate the trade.
The game engine REFUSED TO LET HIM MAKE THE TRADE. It threw up a series of messages that started by warning, moved on to pleading, then followed up by BEGGING him not to make the trade. Finally, by clicking what was essentially a disclaimer that allowed the game to disavow all responsibility for his lack of enjoyment, the trade went through. That new team was incapable of winnning a single game in the digital season, even on the easiest setting.
Of course, Roenick then went on to be one of the biggest assholes in the history of the sport who didn’t actually come up on criminal charges.
Even so, owner Bill Wirtz is still the biggest asshole in all of sports. ALL OF SPORTS. There is no comparison. Just one example: in an age of bittorrent, broadband, satellites, and Tivo, he still refuses to show Blackhawk home games on TV.
Oh man, I have to stop now. I’ve got myself feeling envious of Blues fans again.Posted by on 12/23 at 10:54 AM
”...way too much running of the goalies. Something has to be done.”
Really good point. I’m not sure that I want to bring back the “foot in the crease is a penalty” rules of the late 90s, but they need to do something…Posted by Scot Lemieux on 12/23 at 11:12 AM
I am amazed that the Blues held the North American record for most years in the playoffs--- since they are one of the most obscure major-sport franchises. Most causal fans probably didn’t even know St. Louis had a hockey team until Gretzky got traded to the Blues.
They do hold one other post-season record: in 1968 they were the first expansion team in a major sport to make the finals in their inaugural season. They made the finals in their first three seasons, in fact. (Of course it might be relevant thatback then there was a Western Conference consisting of 6 expansion teams, and the Stanley Cup matched the two conference champions.)Posted by Tim Horrigan on 12/23 at 01:07 PM
Ah...hockey. I’m already the 15th comment, so you’re wrong that only a dozen readers care about hockey.
Now to substance. I’m a Rangers fan, and I care about the continued existence of all the teams in the league. The league has made some bad decisions about franchise location and expansion, but having a franchise in St Louis certainly wasn’t one of them. Aside from the franchises that are perennial doormats (Chicago), team fortunes tend to be cyclical. (If they’re not, chances are that’s a management decision, not something in the water.) When the Rangers won the cup in 1994, one of the calls that was replayed over and over ended up “this one will last a lifetime!”, and, in recent years, it’s seemed as if it would have to. But, things are looking up for the Rangers, and I assume that the Blues will, in turn, improve, if not this year or next.
As for the rule changes, I’m strongly ambivalent. Each individual change (with one exception) seems defensible. But, in the aggregate, it seems like too much change at once. The exception is the shootout. When shootouts were first proposed, my initial reaction was the standard fan horror; why, that would be like deciding a baseball game with a homerun hitting contest. In practice, of course, I love the exhibition. When a game I’m watching ends up with a shootout, the action on the screen has my full attention. And the Marek Malik goal was absolutely the second best thing I’ve ever seen on the ice. (That 1994 thing was first, of course.) But, the rational part of me still thinks that goal should never have had the chance to happen.
And attendance. I’m sure I’m not the only one to be quite skeptical of the NHL’s announced increase in attendance. I’ve seen far too many “fans disguised as empty seats” in the background of highlight packages from around the league, and not just on days with extenuating circumstances (inclement weather, transit strike, etc.). I’m not in a position to audit not only how many tickets have been distributed but also the cost; how many are sold to students on game day for a very deep discount? How many are given to military or to sick children?Posted by on 12/23 at 01:20 PM
"[aside to nonfans: why are you still reading this post?...]” ooops i got too far. Damn it! I must be more careful.
It is truly disturbing that when i retired and moved from CA to the Northwest (even really close to Canada) that i was leaving the better hockey teams down in the South. Alas, unfortunately, more of the ‘utes’ are playing that game with the bouncing brown rubber/leather ball; heaven forbid but even the local high schools can’t support a hockey league (they also just shut down the newer and better of the two ice arenas in the city). The sudden thaw that just hit on the first day of winter has wiped out the two outdoor rinks, and we are left with a tiny wooden (and appropriately smelly) one and the big stadium/arena that has to bounce between basketball, minor league/collegiate hockey, and rock concerts (oh yeah and the truck pull and SuperMX nights).
When so few in the Northwest are caring any more about hockey, i can’t see attendance blooming across the nation. Maybe if Team USA were to do well in Torino we might see a bubble, but me thinks not.Posted by on 12/23 at 02:55 PM
It’s great to see a hockey discussion with informed fans!
I grew up in MN just minutes from the Canadian border, so I could watch Hockey Night in Canada as well as local broadcasts of North Star games (damm those Texans!). Now I root for the Wild, but they are currently mediocre. I hope they get some scoring soon. Lemaire is a good coach, but I’m not sure if his style is suited to the new rules.
Someone menioned Phoenix as a possible move. I live 90 miles from there and they just built a nice new arena in Glendale, so I doubt they will be going anywhere. I don’t know what their attendance is like this year, though.Posted by on 12/23 at 10:34 PM
"way too much running of the goalies. Something has to be done. “
Well, of course, the traditional method of solving this problem has usually involved a serious beating, even a bench clearing. I used to be a stay-at-home defenceman in peewee hockey and the only penalties I ever took and the only time anyone came close to fighting (which could get you booted from the league - there is no fighting allowed in kids hockey) was when someone ran the goalie. Most defencemen would sooner see an opposing player put his hands on his sister than his goalie.
Nobody. Touches. My. Goalie. Ever.
Doing so shows a lack of class and respect and a complete lack of brains - goalies may be the most heavily armored people on the ice, but they are watching the puck in front of the net, not the goon cruising up behind them. It is an invitation to have the crap beat out of you. People who run goalies are the reason people like Tie Domi and Moose Dupont and John Kordic are(were) in the NHL. It is a self policing problem.Posted by rev.paperboy on 12/24 at 02:53 AM
rev. p: The instigator rule has muted the traditional response to goalie-running, and the problem is league-wide and not being solved by ‘self-policing’ so far. Dropping the instigator rule might be one option, but I consider it unlikely and believe the league will look at some other choices.Posted by Nell on 12/26 at 04:37 PM
Hey Rev --
I assume you know that CJAD carries Habs games over the internet? Probably not at a very convenient time for you in Tokyo, though.
And, as a Habs fan, I can’t share Scott’s view of the ‘89 Flames.
TedPosted by on 12/27 at 06:49 PM
Just back from Christmas in Edmonton, where I got to take my boys (9 and 6) to their first NHL game. Of course, the Oilers chose that moment to instigate the suckitude rule, and the hapless Wild had them snakebit, but still, it was fun. Aidan walked out with a Ryan Smyth tshirt and Brennan got himself a Pronger shirt and they were both very happy.
Much as I’ve always been an ABC (Anybody But Calgary) fan all my life, I cheered them on when they got to the finals, Scott. But with my Toilers looking good to make the playoffs again, that option is no longer open. But we can both share a dislike of the Canuckleheads, right?
The new rules look pretty good to me, especially the extra points being squeezed out by those teams prone to play to a tie. But I do fear that the players are not going to figure it out and continue to take too many penalties.
DPosted by Derryl Murphy on 12/28 at 02:19 AM
"Much as I’ve always been an ABC (Anybody But Calgary) fan all my life, I cheered them on when they got to the finals, Scott.”
How can you not love a team named for the burning down of a different city, during the Civil War of another country. It’s even better than the Utah Jazz.Posted by on 12/28 at 11:46 AM
“way too much running of the goalies. Something has to be done. “
Maybe, but i’d actually rather the goalies be made a legitimate target if they venture away from their comfy zones to play the puck. The crease and the newly created areas behind the net should be safe. In the corners, he should be able to play the puck, but also be fair game for checking. It’s a stupid rule that limits the goalies’ ability to help his team by playing the puck only in certain areas of the ice. If the object of that rule is to minimize the goalies influence away from the net, then make him a skater like anybody else on the ice. If there is even the slightest possibility that the goalie will get hit, 99% of the time he won’t bother trying; but it shouldn’t be a penalty to him (or some other teammate who serves the penalty) if he tries. Stupid rule!
Now back to the Blues, the Pens will beat them to the bottom this year. Can anybody on that roster (other than Crosby) hustle off the ice during a line change??? I cringe thinking of the bad habits he’s learning from that team!Posted by on 12/29 at 03:33 PM
I think the rule changes since the lockout have made the NHL much, much better. I recall before the league shut down I couldn’t sit through an entire game unless my team (happens to be the Vancouver Canucks) were playing.
Now, I can watch any 2 teams play and there is some entertainment value.
I don’t much care for Gary Bettman, but the rule changes he has helped implement are one of the good things he has done for the league.Posted by NHL Trade Rumours on 02/20 at 03:15 PM