Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Cautious Optimism in Late November!
Toronto Maple Leaf fans are showing great restraint at this point in the National Hockey league season. There have been moments to jump off the couch, scream madly, and fist pump all the way to the fridge for another cola. After all, it is now almost December, and the Leafs nation has yet to experience any kind of catastrophic slide.
The statistics speak for themselves: the Leafs have 28 points, just four shy of the Penguins who are first overall in the league. Mind you, the blue and white from Toronto have struggled lately, with four wins and six losses in their last ten games. They have not experienced a dreadful November drought, as has been the case in the past. Last year they won only three games in the month, whereas this year they have amassed fifteen points thus far. They do face the Bruins twice this week, with the potential to put even more points on the board.
Phil Kessel has put smiles on a lot of faces in Hogtown this fall. He is the scoring leader in the league with sixteen goals and thirty points. His teammate Joffrey Lupul is third with 27 points. If you run your finger down the list of other top scorers in the league, you will not find any other Leafs, unless you have a very long sheet of paper.
Personally, I enjoy the play of Mikhail Grabovski. His explosive speed gets him into situations where he can contribute offensively when he is on the ice. He easily swings past defencemen, and cuts to the net off the wing. Although he may not score on all of those occasions, the move usually results in fat rebounds for his linemates.
The Leafs’ goaltending situation has become most interesting in the last little while. Most hockey pundits had written off Jonas Gustavsson a couple of weeks ago. James Reimer had started the season brilliantly, but had been sidelined because of a nasty check to his head. Ben Scrivens has been a suitable replacement, but did not appear to have the stuff to take the Leafs to the Promised Land. (That would be the playoffs, which have eluded the Toronto team for more than a decade.)
For the last little while, Gastavsson, also known as “The Monster”, has performed brilliantly. Like so many of the other goalies in the NHL, he quickly swings from post to post, smothers rebounds, and gives his team a chance to win every game. Reports are now circulating that Reimer’s “upper body injury” has now healed sufficiently to allow him to stand in the blue ice again.
The Score hockey card company, under the direction of Panini America, has a full set of 2011-2012 cards on the market. There are 500 cards in the set, as well as 46 rookies. There are fourteen Maple Leaf players in the regular set, with three “Hot Rookies”: Scrivens, Joe Colborne, and Matt Frattin. In order to be included in the rookie section, one must have played last season, long enough for a cup of coffee.
With more than a quarter of the season now completed, things bode well for the Leafs. It looks as if Coach Wilson’s job is safe for the moment.
Not the case for Bruce Boudreau. He used to coach the Washington Capitals, the team that Alexander Ovechkin plays for. There has been a running battle between the two for some time. Apparently, Ovechkin won the war, at least for the moment.
Paul Maurice has also lost his coaching assignment in Nashville. Kingston’s Kirk Muller is taking over that position. There have been more than 160 coaching changes in the NHL since Lindy Ruff went behind the bench in Buffalo. His teams are always competitive, although they have yet to win the big one with Ruff as the head coach.
Congratulations are in store for the McMaster Marauders for winning the Vanier Cup, and the British Columbia Lions for their victory in the Grey Cup. Football fanatics can now turn their attention to the NFL.
Leaf fans? Baby steps first.
November 29, 2011
Monday, November 21, 2011
Joe Nieuwendyk-Enters the Hall with Class
For several years, Joe Nieuwendyk had doubts about becoming a hockey player.
“At one point in time, I thought I wasn’t big enough to play in the Ontario Hockey League,” he told me after participating in the puck toss at the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Each inductee is given a puck and a stick, and is asked to flip the puck up in the air, and catch it on the blade of the stick. Easy stuff for a guy like Joe who always had a bit of magic in his hockey stick.
Nieuwendyk was born in Oshawa, and played his minor hockey in the area. He played one season with the Pickering Panthers, then in the Junior “B” ranks. It was at that juncture in his career when he chose to “go the educational route” and he accepted a scholarship to Cornell University in 1984. He played three years at Cornell, attaining all star status, and an All American designation.
He was drafted by the Calgary Flames in the 1985 draft, twenty-seventh overall, in the second round. He began his NHL career late in the 1986-87 season, and then began a nine year stint with the Flames. He won the Stanley cup in 1989 with the Flames.
He also won a Cup with the Dallas Stars in 1999, and won the Conn Smythe Trophy that year as the playoff MVP. He spent parts of seven seasons with the Stars.
In 2003, while playing for the New Jersey Devils, Joe won his third Stanley Cup. He finished his career with stops in Toronto and in Florida with the Panthers.
Nieuwendyk was on the phone in his office in Dallas when he received the call from the Hall. Unfortunately he was making arrangements to attend the funeral of Harley Hotchkiss in Calgary. Hotchkiss was one of the owners of the Flames, and was instrumental in making Nieuwendyk welcome to the NHL. “Harley was truly unique. He established a family atmosphere in Calgary. There was a family barbecue before the season began. He will be missed”.
Nieuwendyk told me that he had grown up “like a lot of kids in Southern Ontario. When I played street hockey, I wanted to be just like my favourite player-Mike Palmateer!” That was a little surprising, considering their positions.
As a General Manager in Dallas, he is faced with making some tough decisions. He fired coach Marc Crawford prior to the beginning of this season. “We felt that we needed to go in a different direction. It was also difficult to release Marty Turco and Mike Modano.”
Nieuwendyk had some kind words to say about Andrew Raycroft, a former Wellington Duke, and his backup goaltender in Dallas. “It is a difficult role on any team. But Andrew has done a nice job for us. He is very well respected by his team mates.
Nieuwendyk also excelled at the game of lacrosse. He won the Minto Cup as Canadian Junior Lacrosse Champions with the Whitby Warriors. By the way, the award for the top rookie in the Ontario Lacrosse Association is entitled the “Joe Nieuwendyk Award”.
Joe finished his career with more than six hundred goals in regular season and playoffs, adding another six hundred helpers.
Always a competitor, Nieuwendyk summed up his feelings about hockey in his introductory remarks. “Whether it was in a rink, or on a pond, I always loved the feel of my skates on the ice, and the puck on my stick.”
Way to go, Joe.
November 21, 2011
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Notes From The Hall
I arrived in plenty of time for the introductions and opening remarks at the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday morning. I settled into my seat in the second row, with a clear view of the stage. As the ceremonies were about to begin, a man sat down directly in front of me. In an instant, I recognized him. That is why I did not ask him to move. His name is Gordie Howe.
As I am sure you are aware at this point in time, Gordie was there to see his son Mark. Mark is one of four retired players entering the Hockey Hall of Fame this year. Joe Nieuendyk, Ed Belfour, and Doug Gilmour have also been selected to enter the Hall.
Bill Hay, the Chairman of the Hall, started the gathering by stating: “This is as good a group as we’ve ever had going into the Hall “. The co-chairmen of the selection committee, Jim Gregory and Pat Quinn, introduced each inductee by reading the plaque notation.
After each player had received his ring, and participated in the “Puck Flip”, media scrums were held in various locations in “The Great Hall”, a fine room which contains the citations of all previous inductees and all of the National Hockey League’s hardware. The Stanley Cup rested majestically on the stage.
Ed Belfour is always described by every player, manager, coach, and hockey executive as a “character”. There are many definitions for that term, and Eddie likely fits them all. In many respects, he is a non-conformist. On several occasions, he was down right rebellious.
For example, most players are overwhelmed by the phone call one gets when one is informed that he or she has been chosen to enter the Hall of Fame. Eddie was taking a nap, a pre-game nap before his men’s league game. The call was then placed to his brother-in-law who took the good news to Eddie.
Because of the nature of today’s game, several of the inductees had spent some time together as team mates. Gilmour, Nieuwendyk, and Belfour played together in Toronto. Nieuwendyk noted that Belfour and Gilmour arrived early at the rink, for different purposes: Dougie to pull a prank like putting black shoe polish on the black toilet seat in the dressing room and Eddie to sharpen his skates.
In fact, the team always travelled with Eddie’s personal skate sharpener. Arrangements were also made to find Eddie’s favourite orange juice in every NHL city.
When pressed to come up with a special “Eddie Story”, Nieuwendyk stated, reluctantly: “There were likely moments in his career that he probably would like to take back”. He then added: “But he reveled in being the best in the game. In the 1999 Stanley Cup playoffs, he beat Grant Fuhr, Patrick Roy, and Dominic Hasek.”
Belfour grew up in Carmen, Manitoba. He played on five NHL teams from 1988 to 2007. He also won the Vezina Trophy as the lead’s best goalie twice. The first time he won it was his rookie year, when he also won the Calder Trophy as the league’s best rookie.
Belfour was considered to be a bit of a late bloomer, as he was never fast-tracked to the NHL. He bided his time in college hockey, awaiting his chance at the Show.
Belfour gave special recognition to the former great Russian goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, who was his goaltending coach when Eddie broke into the league with Chicago. Although Tretiak spoke no English at the time, Belfour understood. “He showed me what he wanted me to do, and I did it!”
When I asked him about his greatest experiences in the game, he mentioned the 2002 Team Canada Olympic victory. When asked about his best save, he said that he had robbed Federov in a game in Detroit. “I amazed myself,” he chuckled.
One of Belfour’s heroes growing up was Terry Sawchuk. He said that he had read Sawchuk’s book carefully. He was always a fan of the Habs great goalie, Jacques Plante.
Belfour said that he “would relish the opportunity to get back into the game as a General Manager. It would give me a chance to get closer to the game I love.”
Notes on the other inductees will follow in subsequent articles.
Keep your stick on the ice.
Tuesday, November 08, 2011
Wellington Dukes Super Sports Draw-2011
On occasion, I have been accused of behaving shamelessly. Let me rephrase that. Quite often, I do behave shamelessly!
I blunder from pillar to post, touting various projects and organizations that I consider to have merit: the Wellington Dukes, the Belleville Minor Football League, the Belleville Bulls, the Buffalo Bills, The Hamilton Tiger Cats. On occasion, I join forces with social causes as well, but this is not the space for that.
At the present time, I am selling tickets for the Wellington Dukes. There are many of us in this community who believe that the Dukes are an important source of joy and entertainment. And so we press on with activities to help the club.
In this case, I am selling “Super Sports Draw” tickets. This is the fourth annual draw, and it has been a rewarding activity: rewarding for the Dukes for the funds that are raised, but also rewarding for the winners.
The prizes, in my humble estimation are fabulous. Most are tickets for sports events. There are also great golf prizes, and several merchandise prizes as well.
Sometimes I am asked where I get these great prizes: in a nutshell, I mooch them. A quick check of the Webster’s is worth the ink: “To make one’s way (in life) with sharp practice”. That isn’t all bad.
Here are the hockey tickets I have mooched so far:
March 10: Leafs and Flyers
March 20: Leafs and Islanders
February 25: Sens and Bruins
February 26: Sens and Islanders
February 23: Leafs and Sharks
February 28: Leafs and Panthers
March 10: Sens and Sabres
April 3: Sens and Hurricanes
There are also four pair of Bulls tickets, and two season tickets for the 2012-2013 Dukes games.
There are soccer tickets for the TFC, Argos tickets, Raptors tickets, and Blue Jay tickets for next year.
There are four rounds of golf for two at local courses.
The Dukes are indebted to all of the fine folks who have donated to this draw. The end result of it is that many sports fans have had a great experience at the rink, at the ball diamond, at the soccer pitch, and at the football field. Perhaps at the basketball court as well, if they can reach an agreement.
There are still more prizes to come, including several fabulous sports sweaters. I will let you know about these when they arrive.
The tickets for the draw make great Christmas gifts. Better than a pair of Argyll socks!
Tickets are now available at all Dukes and Bulls games, from Dukes executive and players, and at Lavender Furniture in downtown Wellington.
Grab a chance to be there!
November 6, 2011.
Tuesday, November 01, 2011
Bills Win Big in Toronto
The Go Train leaving Union Station was packed with football fans heading east. Most of the party were satisfied with the game. The Bills had whitewashed the Washington Redskins 23-0, handing Coach Shanahan the first shutout of his lengthy career.
Brad Fisher had attended Sinclair Secondary School in Whitby. He was wearing an Acadia Axemen jacket, rather proudly. I asked him about his football connection. “I played one year at Acadia, and loved it. I transferred back to Ontario, and now I’m in my final year of computer studies at the university in Oshawa.” Brad would tip the scales at well over two hundred pounds. I asked him for his comments on the game. He chuckled. “I really don’t follow the game too carefully. I focus on the offensive line, because that’s where I played”.
The game was by far the most successful tilt played in the Toronto Series thus far, both on and off the field. The authorities had localized many of the pre-game activities beside the Rogers Centre, pretty much self-contained. Fans lined up to get into the “Tail Gate Party” (no tail gates, mind you), before the game to listen to deafening music, to play a few carnival games, to drink Budweiser products from slim aluminum cans at $9.75 a crack.
This game was the fourth in a series of five that are taking place in Toronto. Thus far, the Bills had not won in Hogtown. The Redskins had a respectable record going into the game, albeit with some controversy at quarterback. The article in the program for the game was entitled “Redskins Showing Signs of Improvement This Season”. So much for that. Rex Grossman and John Beck both had taken turns at the helm this season. Beck got the nod last Sunday.
Beck was sacked nine times in the game. That means that he got the ball from the centre to start the play, moved back a little to see what might be on the horizon, and was met by several large men who wanted to drive him into the unforgiving turf. The result was a loss of a lot of yardage, and no escape.
On the other side of the ball, the Bills keep rolling along. For some observers, this comes as a bit of a surprise. Not in these quarters. There were quiet expectations about Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. As he has gained confidence in his career, he has met and surpassed most expectations. He is now in the upper echelon of NFL ball flingers, and plays with great poise.
It was nice to see former Bill and Hall of Famer Jim Kelly take the microphone at the tail gate party to stir up the fans for the game. He and legendary running back Thurman Thomas have been instrumental in promoting the team as it continues to improve.
The game was the first shutout in seventy-six games for the Bills. Credit that to a stingy defence. Credit is also due to the offensive line. Fred Jackson, the Bills’ premier running back credited the boys up front after the game. “When those guys can get a hat on a hat, that allows me to get into the secondary.” Jackson indicated he was very concerned when “Fitz” took a nasty hit in the game. “He’s a huge part of what we do. Everyone was wide-eyed when we got into the huddle. We were all concerned. It was good for him to get back up.”
Fitzgerald later indicated that he simply lost his wind.
Coach Chan Gailey was more than pleased with his team’s performance. He said the he was “scared to death” coming out of the “Bye Week” when the team had an extra week of practice. He said that players get out of their routines in that period. “Guys were late for meetings,” he added.
Gailey was thrilled with the crowd. There were mumblings out of Buffalo prior to the game that fans in Toronto did not really get behind the Bills. Such was not the case on Sunday. But Gailey added: “I just have to teach them not do to the wave when we have a third and one!” It was a little distracting for the Buffalo squad.
Defensive specialist Gorge Wilson told us that he found the environment “most exciting”. His read on the game? “We dominated the guy we were matched up against.”
The Bills are now 5-2 on the season, and face the New York Jets twice in the next four weeks. They also have the Dolphins twice before the end of the season. Both of those games should be cakewalks; however, it is the NFL, initials which can stand for “Not For Long” if your game is not right.
On Sunday, the Bills made everyone “Shout”.
November 1, 2011