Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Simple win in Buffalo

The Ottawa Senators ended their 4 game losing streak in Buffalo last night with a 5-2 win over the Sabres.  What was the single biggest difference between this game and the 4 they lost previously?  Battle level.  Yes there were many other ingredients but the team's overall battle level by all 20 players for all 60 minutes was for me the biggest difference in the game.  They won battles for lose pucks, they won one-on-one fights for the puck, they won battles for position and they won the battle for emotional swings in the game.  There were many other things which were greatly improved from the last 4 games but those things happened because the team won more battles than Buffalo.

Often times we all try to make this game more complicated than it has to be.  People believe that tactics or system are at fault when things don't go well for their team.  Truth be told its most often the most simple things which turn games.  Battle level, energy, simple plays, and a defence first mindset are almost always more important than which team ran their trap the best.  Just like a golf swing though the simple stuff can be difficult to do at a high level every day in a very long and very tough season.  In golf the best instructors always tell you to relax and create a smooth and balanced swing.  When you are all tense thinking of the 70 things that make up a good swing its difficult to be relaxed and balanced.  That's why golf is such a tough game.  That's why those simple things in hockey are so difficult to do at a high level each day.  They are easy and simple to say and very difficult to achieve each night in the best league in the world where the other guys are trying to do exactly the same thing.

Last nights victory for Ottawa was based on simplicity but there is nothing simple about doing it over and over again.

See you at the rink

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Leafs (part 2)

The Globe and Mail has a story in the paper today about an un-named league executive talking about the murmurs about having another NHL franchise in Toronto. Other league executives have pointed out this has not been a topic at any of the Governors meetings thus it is all speculative. It has also been pointed out that if it were to ever happen it would have to be the move of an existing franchise. Adding new teams when several current teams are in financial distress is not generally regarded as a prudent move.

So let’s just play the pie in the sky game for a moment. Would it be a good idea and could it possibly happen?

Toronto is the biggest and most feverish hockey market on the planet. Despite the fact that this new team would always be the 2nd team in Toronto I am sure it could make money and more importantly make money for the league. I am told that right now the 6 Canadian teams account for over 30% of the NHL’s revenues. Another team in Toronto would only increase that. Is the market big enough? That isn’t even a question. If New York/New Jersey is big enough for 3 teams and the city of New York is big enough for 2 football teams and 2 baseball teams (as is Chicago), Toronto is certainly big enough to support 2 NHL teams. The building would overflow with all the average fans who have no chance of ever getting a ticket to see the Leafs in their lifetime.

What could stand in the way? The Leafs would stand in the way. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment has a wonderful monopoly on the hearts and minds of the Toronto sports fans. Why would they allow any of that to be eroded to benefit another owner and the NHL? Toronto had the chance to have a rival on their doorstep when Hamilton bid for a team at the same time Ottawa did. The Leafs and Sabres both let the NHL know they would both exercise their right to veto as a Hamilton team would infringe on their territorial exemption. Yes the new owners could pay a fee to the Leafs, but only if they choose to accept it and they are not obliged to. I believe they won’t. If I were running MLSE I would not. Why allow someone come in and cut little chunks out of your huge pie if you have the ability to stop it before it starts?

There will always be the talk of a team relocating to the Kitchener/Waterloo area as long as RIM owner Jim Balsillie has a voice and reporters have microphones, but he is clearly not a partner the NHL governors want despite his bulging bank account.

Would another team in Toronto work? Of course it would.
Will it happen? I doubt it.

See you at the rink.

Hartsburg Hates Soft

Senators coach Craig Hartsburg was in a grizzly mood yesterday when he met with the media. You know the earlier meeting he had with his players was likely less cordial. He is not at all happy with the way his team has played in its first 3 regular season games in North America. Lines have been shifted, players have been challenged and the most important point he is making is the idea of changing the way this team plays. It has to be harder, nastier, faster, less polite and more determined.

The word “soft” in the hockey world is a swear word. Rarely does a coach use it when talking about his own team but Hartsburg did. He says players have to understand things are going to change around this team and they had better buy in. He wants to shake up all the comfortable things. That cozy blanket of knowing Heatley and Spezza will play together, that Chris Neil will play with Mike Fisher, that Vermette and Kelly are inseparable. My father used to say to me “change is not to be feared, it is to be expected”. The Senators had better start expecting more of this.

Fly by’s on opposing defenceman will not be ignored. When a hit is there and it’s not taken, questions will be asked. When a forward is not skating full out on the forecheck a spot at the end of the bench awaits. When a defenceman fails to punish an opposing forward harsh words will be spoken.

Hartsburg has seen enough to know that this is a very talented team which is simply too polite and too often waiting for the big boys to do their magic thing with the puck and then everything will work out. Those days are over with this coach.

Most of the focus has been on Jason Spezza and his realignment with Foligno and Winchester, but others might not be on the media’s radar but you know they are on the coach’s. Chris Neil thought by many to be a 2nd line kind of guy is now one of 2 forwards (Donovan is the other) skating on the 4th line. One of them might be a healthy scratch on Wednesday.

The defence corps was supposed to be inferior in moving the puck, but superior in nastiness compared to last years top 6. Hartsburg has not seen enough of the nasty. Those are not expectations placed on Kuba and Lee, but they are on Smith, Phillips, Volchenkov and Picard. Right now Smith and Volchenkov are the only ones making the coach's grade.

This is not an overnight thing. Changing the way a team plays and its on-ice attitude does not happen with a few practices and some video. It will take some time and it may require the movement of some disgruntled players who ultimately don’t want to buy in, but it will happen.

I will be very interested to see the way this team plays by Christmas. My bet is that the type of game Hartsburg wants will be under the tree before the 25th.

See you at the rink.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Solution: Mr. Hollweg meet Mr. Probert.

I just saw the hit Toronto’s Ryan Hollweg laid on Blues rookie defenceman Alex Pietrangelo. It got Hollweg a 5 minute boarding major and the 2 goals the Blues scored were the biggest part of their come from behind win over Toronto.

It also gives all of us who are not in favor the instigator rule more fuel for the fire. I am absolutely not in favor of more fighting in the NHL. Especially the hopelessly boring staged fights between enforcers who play 4 minutes a game and simply meet the other team’s enforcer, they fight, they go to the box and the game goes on. That is a huge waste of time.

I do believe that the natural emotion of this game will always bubble over into legitimate fights in the heat of the battle between 2 players who care deeply and compete with all their being. Those fights would happen even if fighting was completely banned because things do get that heated in hockey.

I know to many this will make me sound like a caveman, but I also believe in “visits”. I believe that player’s actions on the ice would again be tempered if they had any true fear that someone would come to visit them for their mis-deeds. That was part of the code of this game that helped protect star players and it’s a part of this game which the instigator rule has changed for the worse.

Ryan Hollweg is one of (but not the only) poster child for the ineffectiveness of the instigator rule and supplementary discipline. Thus far no sanctions the NHL has imposed on Hollweg in the past have caused him to change the truly dangerous and illegal way he plays. The price a team and player may pay to make him physically suffer for his actions is too high. The suspensions and possible lost games due to the penalties a player and team must take to track down and punish Hollweg are simply too high in a league where parity means a lost game in October really can mean you miss the playoffs in April.

Ryan Hollweg’s willingness to hit people from behind would be severely tested if he knew someone might try to break his jaw each time he tried to run someone from behind. As we all know there is no need for Hollweg to play with that fear in today’s game. Again no one will come to visit him because the price for those who come knocking is higher than the price Hollweg will pay for doing it in the first place. That is a very dangerous policy for the rest of the players in the league to live with.

See you at the rink.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Swedenpalooza 2.

It was tour day in Göteborg (Gothenburg). After Senators practice Daniel Alfredsson took some of the members of the media on a walking tour of some of the beautiful downtown portions of this port city. It was founded in 1621 and the history here is deep. Daniel’s love for this place is also obvious and he seems to love teaching us about where and how he grew up. A better cultural guide you could not find. We went to his high school which is right across the street from the rink. We poked our heads into the gym and there was Alfredsson’s old gym teacher Eva. A quick hug and hello and she was back to teaching the kids badminton.

Anyone who has traveled outside North America has already seen and noticed this, but one of the things you do see a lot of is cars we just don’t see at home. I don’t mean the exotic ones. I mean the everyday cars made by the big 3. They make some vehicles just for export and they are not sold in North America. Today I saw a Chev Kalos sub compact car and a Ford Galaxy micro van.

One of the other things you really notice if you come from Ottawa is how bi-lingualism is handled here. It isn’t. It just happens by itself. Swedish students start taking English in grade 4 and thus most everyone here can speak both Swedish and English. I have run across only 2 or 3 people who could not speak English. Signs on business’s are Swedish or English or both. There are no laws to force a business to use any language. I don’t want to get into a French/English debate but Swedish TV is filled with North American shows in English and our language and culture is all around them yet none of their culture seems to have been lost or diluted nor do they see it as a possibility. Maybe that’s what we need in Canada. Get rid of sign laws and institute mandatory French in all of our schools. If all Canadians are bi-lingual then cultural protectionism seems to take care of itself.

Just more observations from Sweden. Oh and yes it is still raining. It has been raining off and on since the moment we arrived.

Tomorrow is game day and I can’t wait. The atmosphere in that building is going to be wild and Gord and I get to broadcast the game from the stands with the fans so it should be wild.

See you at the rink.