Sunday, January 27, 2008


Hockey's All Star Break 2008

I have never been a big fan of all star games in any sport, particularly when the fans select the players. It is a popularity contest, pure and simple, and does not reflect the talent that exists in the game.

Of all four major sports, the National Football League’s Pro Bowl leaves the most to be desired. Players go through the motions in the most violent of all professional sports. No one wants to be tagged as the guy who ruined another guy’s career with a vicious hit in a meaningless game.

Baseball’s All Star game likely comes as close to the real thing as any of them. Pitchers pitch at normal speed, batters attempt to hit the ball, and run hard after contact. I can only think of one instance when a player took the game far too seriously. Pete Rose hammered catcher Ray Fosse as he approached the plate on a close play, shortening the Fosse’s career considerably. (yet another reason to love Rose.)

The highlight of the basketball all star weekend is the slam dunk contest. The all star game itself is a real yawner, with little or no defence. Players walk the floor, and let the score run to incredible heights. But the slam dunk contest captures the imagination of all basketball fans. Players are required to show ingenuity, athleticism, and skill. They are judged on their shots, and their success. Vince Carter did himself proud as a winner one year when he was with Toronto. Steve Nash added a soccer flair to the contest when he headed a ball to teammate Amare Stoudemire for a nifty dunk.

The National Hockey League began naming all stars in 1931. The first all star game in 1933 was held as a fund raiser for Ace Bailey, a Toronto Maple Leaf player who was knocked out of the game in a high sticking incident with Boston’s Eddie Shore. Since that time, the format has changed almost as many times as the game has taken place.

In 1979, the Challenge Cup between the Soviet Union and the NHL All Stars replaced the game. In 1987, there were two games held between the Soviets and the National Leaguers. There were no games in 1995, 2005, and 2006.

This year’s game has the East against the West, according to the conferences in the league. The night before the game, the league has set up skills competitions, and a scrimmage for the game’s young stars.

The players who attend the skills competitions, and take part in them, show real competitiveness from the start. There are significant elements of pride involved. No matter what the game, nor the activity, these guys do not like to lose.

The competitions consist of skating, stick-handling, shooting, and passing skills. (Body checking and fighting skills will only be displayed in regular season games.)

For the most part, these little challenges are enjoyed by the fans. They showcase the players’ skills, often in a one-on-one format.

The speed skating competition got a little fouled up this year. It consisted of a race from the goal line to the far blue line-a short sprint. I would prefer a once around the rink, circle both goals type of race. No matter. They gave us this race.

They messed the race up in a couple of key areas. Ilya Kovalchuk represented the home town Atlanta Thrashers in the race. He clearly won his race over Shawn Horcoff of the Oilers, but the judges gave the nod to Horcoff. Brian Campbell of the Sabres lost to Chicago’s Duncan Keith, but was awarded the victory. Horcoff won the final. Next time, have the boys race the clock. Get it right.

The Western Conference won the Shootout, with Dion Phaneuf deking Tim Thomas for the final goal. The Washington Capitals’ young star, Alexander Ovechkin, was worth the price of admission all by himself in the event. He enjoys the game, and the success he achieves, more than any European player. Ever. Just a joy to watch.

The fans loved the wide open three on three competition for the Young Stars. The twelve minute game featured plenty of scoring chances with the Hawks’ Patrick Kane showing his stuff with two breakaway goals.

Jason Arnott lost the Shooting accuracy contest to the Leafs Tomas Kaberle in a sudden death format. Zdeno Chara won the hardest shot competition with a speed of 103.1 miles per hour. (A good reason never to consider becoming a goaltender!)

The All Star game itself? Another slightly entertaining contest, with a few fairly important personnel on the sidelines: Sidney Crosbie, Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo.

Rick Nash got two lovely goals in the actual all star game game. He also scored one of the prettiest goals of the season just before the break. He should have been in the breakaway competition. He moves the puck from side to side so well, has such a long reach. Goalies cannot cover the six feet between the posts when he wheels in from the slot. Ditto for the Senators’ Jason Spezza. Where was he?

Now back to more serious issues. The race to the Stanley Cup. Always the best part of the best game in the world.

James Hurst –

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Oooh Baby! It was cold outside!

Arctic conditions across the northern United States meant that football was played last weekend on frozen turf in New England and in Green Bay.

Isn’t that what the Packers always want? They crave the “Frozen Tundra” as an advantage for their boys. The opposition huddles around gigantic heaters, praying for sunshine. They run to the sidelines for mittens and parkas. Advantage Packers?

Sorry. Not last Sunday. The Giants from New York, led by Manning the Younger, regrouped in the second half, carried the play for most of the game, and won in overtime. Giants kicker, Lawrence Tynes, lined up a 47 yard attempt in the extra period. It split the uprights. Game over.

There is no doubt that his job was on the line, as he had missed his two previous shots at a field goal. There is an unwritten rule for kickers: Three and you’re out---something like baseball. He had hooked his second attempt in the dying seconds of the game, restoring hope in the faithful at Lambeau.

The Packers were fortunate to be in that position at the end of the game. The Giants had worn them down, controlling the play the entire game. They had the ball for forty of the sixty minutes in the game. More than half of their rushing yards came from Brandon Jacobs on twenty-one carries.

Jacobs hails from Louisiana, in the deep south. He didn’t seem too affected by the cold. Then again, when you are six feet four inches, and weigh more than 260 pounds, you do have an advantage when you run with the ball at opponents in the secondary who are under six feet tall. Jacobs mowed down the Packer tacklers on more than one occasion.

The Giants balanced their attack with an electric passing game as well. Plexico Burress hauled in eleven passes for 154 yards, breaking a long-standing team record. Six other Giants hauled in passes for another hundred yards.

Earlier in the day, the New England Patriots continued their undefeated season with a 21-12 victory over the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers entered the game with their wonderful running back, LaDainian Tomlinson, hobbling on the sidelines. “LT” carried the ball twice, then spent the rest of the afternoon off the field. He was sorely missed by the Chargers.

The Pats were led by Tom Brady, now recognized as the premier pivot in the NFL. Drafted 119th overall, Brady has continued to improve his stock over the years. Teamed with coach Bill Belichick, they are the most lethal offensive combination in the history of the NFL.

Running back Laurence Maroney had another typically spectacular game for the Patriots. He slashed and dashed for over a hundred yards, and got the Patriots on the board in the first quarter.

The Chargers failed to capitalize on their opportunities. They marched the ball down the field. They entered the “Red Zone” with plenty of momentum. They then fizzled, and faded. All of their points came on field goals. They needed major scores.

Both the Chargers and the Patriots fought the elements as well. It was nippy, and the winds swirled throughout the day. Quarterback Brady felt the cold. After the game, he reflected on his upcoming trip to the SuperBowl in Arizona: “Now we’re going someplace warm, because I’m freezing my you-know-what off.”

The Forty-Second SuperBowl will be the final test for the Patriots. They have yet to lose a game this year. Only one other team in the history of the NFL has gone undefeated in a season. The Miami Dolphins accomplished the feat in 1972, winning SuperBowl Seven in Los Angeles on January 14, 1973.

The word “perfect” is often used in these circumstances. There will be fumbles, interceptions, penalties. Passes will be dropped, offensive linemen will miss their assignments. In this game, there is no perfection; however, with a win on February 3rd, the Patriots will come as close as any team ever to doing it right.

In the Arizona sun!

January 22, 2008

Monday, January 14, 2008


Playoffs? Already?

It always comes as such a shock to the system when one realizes that the playoffs are less that a month away. In this case, I am referring to the Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League.

The NHL will head into April before they begin post season action. Will the Leafs be there? Anybody’s guess. About a month ago I told one of my Hogtown buddies that the Leafs would go on a run and win several games. Sure enough, that was the case. I neglected to add that their luck would run out after that, and that there might be some hard times ahead. With salary caps, parity, injuries, travel, and all of the other factors affecting play, it is simply too difficult to predict the outcome of the NHL at the end of the regular season.

It would not surprise me one bit to see the Leafs in the playoffs. Nor would it shock me if they didn’t make it. Keeping the volume on “Mute” helps me keep a clearer head when making such decisions.

The Dukes are heading into the playoffs under a head of steam. They added a few players at the trade deadline. Those players showed well in their initial games wearing the Wellington jersey. There is always a period of adjustment when one goes to a new team; hopefully these new players will blend with the rest of the team, and help down the stretch.

The Wellington Dukes 200-2008 hockey cards are now available, but selling fast. There are 22 cards in the set, from # 1 Goaltender Paul Karpowich, to # 46 Chris Ayotte.

On the back of each card, players have listed a few of their favourites: NHL players, band/singer, and movie.

Also listed on the back of each card is a standard player profile: size, position, and home town.

Only two NHL players were named twice as favourites: Scott Niedermayer and Joe Sakic. There are eighteen other NHL players listed as favourites---even some long gone from the league. Ayotte named Doug Gilmour as his favourite player, which makes a little sense since he hails from Cornwall, and that is where Gilmour played after playing for the “Tier II Belleville Bulls”. Naturally, both Dukes’ goalies chose NHL goalies as their favourite players: Karpowich likes Patrick Roy and Jake Fischer chose Martin Brodeur.

There are four Wisconsin players on the Dukes’ roster. Jon Bockmann, the lanky blue liner from Wind Lake, is an avid Chicago Black Hawks fan. He lists Jonathan Toews as his favourite NHL player. The Hawks are a team to watch this year, and all of the Hawks’ fans from the Sixties are beginning to crawl out of the woodwork. Naturally, Bockmann is also a huge Green Bay Packer fan, and dreams about Favre firing the winning TD in the upcoming SuperBowl. Glory Days! Have they gone? Time will tell.

The Bureau brothers , Brendan and Cory, disagree on everything. Cory likes the Chili Peppers, while Brendan supports the local talent-The Tragically Hip.

As is the case with all hockey teams, players come in a wide variety of sizes. Picton’s Ian Wallwork is listed at six feet, six inches. Kyle Hawkins-Schultz stands at five feet, seven inches. Years ago, the Belleville Bulls’goaltender, Darren Pang, stood tall at 5’ 4” in the nets. He is generally listed as the smallest player ever in the NHL, when he stood between the pipes for the Hawks. He also maintains that he was not wearing his skates when they measured his height!

This is the second set of Dukes’ cards to be released. Several years ago, the set, issued during the 92-93 season, included Bryan Helmer who is currently with the San Antonio Rampage of the AHL. “Hermie” indicated on the back of his card that he would consider himself successful if he were to play semi-pro hockey. He has more than exceeded that expectation, having played several years in the NHL with Phoenix, Vancouver, and St. Louis.

The cards are available at Dukes’ home games in the canteen area, on the Chuck-A-Puck table. Individual cards sell for two bucks each, and the sets sell for $ 22. All cards are laminated, and will withstand 130 KPH winds coming off Lake Ontario!

With only a handful of home games remaining in the regular season, the Dukes will spend the next couple of weeks gearing up for the playoffs. Get to the DukeDome early. Catch the action!


Tuesday, January 08, 2008


Junior Gold-Again!

The Canadian Junior Hockey Team won the gold medals at the recently held “Under 20” tournament held in the Czech Republic. Hardly earth-shattering news, since it marked the fourth occasion in a row that they have come out on top.

However, in this instance, they emerged victorious by scratching and clawing and snarling all the way to their overtime goal over against Sweden. It was not pretty, and it was not easy. But it counted. The boys are home. Their arms are tired from carrying trophies, and waving flags. (There is a wonderful photograph of the Belleville Bulls’ P. K. Subban with the Canadian flag in Monday’s edition of The Intelligencer.)

There were two Bulls on the Canadian squad. Shawn Matthias also participated in the tournament, and often played a pivotal role. On the final goal, he managed to squeeze the puck, past the Swedish defender at their blue line, fought to control the puck, and swept it over to create the scoring opportunity. Matthias finished the tournament with points, on goals and assists.

During the tournament games, Subban was used sparingly; nonetheless, his role was also crucial. He worked hard in practices, became an integral part of the team, and emerged from the championships with the same medal as everyone else. Too often the lesser lights are under-appreciated.

Many chesterfield coaches questioned Coach Hartsburg’s decision to start goaltender Steve Mason in the last two games. The pundits from the peanut gallery had all sorts of reasons why Mason should have been riding the pines. They were wrong, again.

Mason proved his worth by being selected as the tournament’s most valuable player, top goaltender, and all star. He started the trip as a member of the London Knights, but was traded to the Kitchener Rangers half way through the tourney. The Rangers, as hosts of the Memorial Cup, will be one of four teams vying for supremacy of junior hockey in Canada. Mason will play a pivotal role on that squad.

The top defenceman of the World Championships was Drew Doughty of the Guelph Storm. He was also selected to the All Star team. The Canadians began the tourney recording two shutouts, reflecting the emphasis on defence.

Coach George Burnett of the Belleville Bulls is justifiably proud of the accomplishments of Matthias and Subban. “I told both of the boys before they left that it is a tremendous honour just to be selected as one of the twenty-two players representing Canada. It is also a wonderful honour for our program.

I spoke with both of the boys briefly after the tournament. They indicated that the experience was bigger than they had anticipated, in terms of pressure and exposure.”

Burnett added that he watched the entire final and that he would be speaking soon with Coach Hartsburg. “It was great to see Shawn Matthias as part of the final outcome on the winning goal. It was nice to see the tremendous confidence that the organization showed in Shawn.”

P. K. Subban has a shot at making the team next year. Burnett had this advice for both of them before they left. “You are part of an exclusive group. If they ask you carry the puck bag, do it as best as you can.”

Burnett realizes that the tournament is draining, both physically and emotionally. “A victory like this hopefully will have an impact on their play when they return. They have learned a great deal in such a short period of time.”

Both players will return to action within a week. They will be suitably recognized by the team at an upcoming game. Be there. It will be most worthwhile.


Tuesday, January 01, 2008


World Junior Hockey Championships-2008

Happy New Year!

May the wind be always at your back, and may your ice conditions be perfect, and may you stay out of the penalty box a little more frequently this year!

The Canadian entry in the World Junior Championships has their work cut out for them this time around. The team allowed the Swedes to slip the puck into the Canadians’ net in the dying moments of the preliminary round game to lose 4-3.

Not a lot of shame in that. The Swedes were highly ranked going into this tournament, having conquered the world in the last “Under 18” Championships. The loss was definitely a wake-up call for the Canadian squad, as they had not lost a single game in this Junior Tournament for almost four years-a stretch of twenty games.

But these runs of winning and losing do not last forever, and a victory over the Finns will allow the Canadian boys a shot at the Americans in the semi-final. A loss in any game at this point in time means that you pack your bags and go home.

Team Canada has captured the gold medal at the last three tournaments. Naturally, expectations do run high.

Of local interest, there are two Belleville Bulls on this year’s squad. Shawn Matthias is a forward on the team, and logs a lot of ice team on the power play as well. In the four games played thus far, he has two goals and an assist, and leads the team with a “plus three” in the plus/minus category.

P. K. Subban plays defence, and has steadily improved throughout the tournament. The Montreal Canadiens draft pick was listed as the “seventh” defenceman, indicating that he would be used only if one of the other six faltered or got hurt. But he is getting more opportunity from Coach Craig Hartsburg, and making the best of it.

Matt Cooke of the Vancouver Canucks is now in the middle of his ninth season in the NHL. Long before he laced up the blades in the NHL, he also played in the World Juniors tournament. “Cookie”, a Stirling native, also honed his skills at the Dukedome as a member of the Wellington Dukes.

On the back of Craig Mills’ 1996 Upper Deck hockey card, he is described as “one of the unsung heroes in Canada’s fourth consecutive World Junior championship victory”. Mills played on high-flying line with Brian Secord and Daniel Cleary with the Belleville Bulls; however, with Team Canada, he was asked to play a more defensive role.

The current Junior team played the Finns in an exhibition game before the tournament. They defeated the kids from Helsinki 4-2.

By the time you get this edition of The Times in your hands, the result against the Finns likely will have been determined. Hopefully, the Canadian lads will have succeeded, and will have advanced to play the Americans.

The Americans advanced with victories over Kazakhstan, Switzerland, Russia, and Finland. The Russians also bested the Finns, 7-4.

A lucky bounce here or there, a deflection, a bad call. At this stage, anything can happen.

Following the championships, you can head to the Yardmen Arena in Belleville to catch Subban and Matthias in action, live, as they lead the Belleville Bulls into the 2008 playoffs in the OHL.

James Hurst

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