Tuesday, January 18, 2011

DG's Hat Trick- January 18, 2011

The following is my assessment of hockey’s three most interesting stories of the week. This will be updated weekly. Here’s this week’s edition.

WOE CANADA?: By now, you already know the story: on January 5, the Canadian national junior team was leading the Russians 3-0 after two periods with a bruising, dominating effort. Then, the Russians blitzed the Canadians with a mesmerizing passing attack that resulted in five unanswered goals in the third to come away with an unexpected victory.

Cue the tears and the finger pointing. Then the over-analysis.

Yes, there were problems for Canada in the third. It became apparent that they were tired heading into the third, operating at half the speed they were in the first two periods. Couple that with a Russian passing game that showed signs of breaking out all game long and it was a recipe for disaster. Yes, Mark Visentin should have saved that second goal; and yes head coach Dave Cameron should have used his timeout after the second goal but the truth was the Russians had a comeback in them all game long. Really, the third was going to be all about “weathering the storm” and the Canadians failed at that task miserably.

However, is this really time to sound the alarm from coast to coast? No, it’s not.

Let’s think about it for a second. First of all, games like this happen all the time, even to the great teams. Despite what we may sometimes think, the players are nonetheless human and they’re prone to mental lapses. It happens. If the Vancouver Canucks blew this lead on the 5th we might talk about it for a day then forget about it- the fact that it was the “gold medal game” means that we’ve inflated just how bad the collapse was. Does the Canadian team deserve criticism? Absolutely; but please, let’s not blow this out of proportion.

Furthermore, the Canadian team has won a medal in every world junior tournament since 1998 and every year between 1982 and 1997 except 1984, 1987 (the “Punch-up in Pieštany”) and 1992. They’ve also been in the final the past two years despite losing both, and both games were winnable. Sure, there’s a few things we need to correct- we need better goaltending (11 goals in two straight championship games won’t cut it) and we need to start incorporating more skill in our game as opposed to just relying on brute strength- but let’s not panic. Canada’s a long way from falling from its mighty precipice.

CRANIUM SHOTS COME TO A HEAD: This is a story that never seems to end, does it? Once again, “head shots” are in the news again, specifically because the NHL’s Golden Boy, Sidney Crosby, insisted on bringing it up. After being forced out of the lineup because of a concussion- one which Crosby still hasn’t recovered from- Crosby solidified his status as the NHL’s biggest crybaby by lambasting the fact that the league did nothing to David Steckel when the Washington Capital drilled him during the Fall Winter Classic on New Year’s Day.

Perhaps the NHL was listening, because only a week later, Tom Kostopoulos of the Calgary Flames was dinged with a six-game suspension for running into Detroit Red Wing defenceman Brad Stuart and breaking Stuart’s jaw. Naturally, the Flames and Kostopoulos are crying foul, because, naturally they didn’t think they did anything wrong.

For those of who haven’t seen the plays in question, here’s what happened:

-The Capitals just broke up a Penguins rush in the moments before the Steckel hit happened. As Steckel raced up ice to join the rush, Crosby was hit in the head by Steckel’s shoulder as the Capital brushed by. Steckel claims the hit was accidental, but Crosby pointed out Steckel could have taken a lane that wouldn’t have hit him.

-Stuart, however, was hit “head on” by Kostopoulos when the former was trying to bat the puck out of the defensive zone. Like Crosby, Stuart had his head down, but unlike Crosby, his head was facing the play when Kostopoulos charged at him. Kostopoulos did take aim at Stuart and did draw a roughing penalty on the play, but nothing more.

Predictably, what we’ve got is the same old story- the NHL’s “Wheel of Justice” system of random punishments. Crosby is crying foul because he was the victim of a “blindside hit to the head”, the kind of hits that are supposed to be punished more severely this season. Kostopoulos is crying foul because he hit Stuart dead-on and doesn’t think it falls under the “head shot” rule his suspension fell under (technically he’s right). Yet Kostopolous is suspended and Steckel isn’t, being at best a confused application of the head shot rule.

Naturally, most of the hockey media responded by saying that the league should just consider banning “all head shots” and remove the “blindside/lateral” requirement of the head shot rule.

However, I’ve got an even better idea- let’s start by calling the penalties we already have. You know, stuff like “charging”, “checking from behind”, “boarding”, and “roughing”. It’s okay, you can all have a minute to look them up in the rulebook- they are there.

Did you find them? Good. Now let’s work on actually enforcing them on a regular basis. You’d think a self-described “major league” would have a concept like that down to an art but sadly we see time and time again that the best the NHL can do is apply the rules haphazardly; and when violent situations do get out of hand, the league simply cooks up a new rule to cover up the fact they weren’t enforcing the rules they already had.

‘Cause the players are right- all these rule changes, they just add to the confusion. Couple that with the league’s inconsistent officiating and what you have are the players no longer knowing what’s legal and what isn’t. Small wonder the players feel the need to “police themselves”, ‘cause the league does such a poor job of doing it themselves; and you can only guess where this system of “vigilante justice” goes- in an eye for an eye world, “revenge” violence only escalates until there are no eyes left. Unless the NHL wants eyes- playing and watching- it needs to act soon, before the violence gets to the point where no one will ever pick up a hockey stick ever again.

JURY DUTY AND OTHER WILD NHL ABSENCES: While I was watching the Edmonton Oilers bring new life to an anaemic Los Angeles Kings team on Saturday night (there was nothing else on...), an interesting tidbit came up regarding Ryan Whitney and his absence from the Oilers.

From Edmonton Sun columnist Terry Jones’ Twitter feed (http://twitter.com/#!/sunterryjones/status/26511186904219649):

“HNIC full of Oilers news tonight. Now saying Ryan Whitney headed under the knife and has drawn jury duty.”

Details are slim on that story, but apparently on Hockey Night In Canada it was revealed that Whitney was supposed to fly out from Carolina back to Edmonton to have the ankle surgery but was held back because he was called for jury duty. Whitney apparently couldn’t get out of it, but it doesn’t matter much anyway- Whitney’s season is apparently over anyway.

The story did inspire me to look into the NHL vault and draw a list of other strange NHL injuries. Here are my top 5 (in no particular order):

However, in 1984, this prank took an unfortunate turn. Doug Wickenheiser, best known as the surefire prospect in 1980 that just didn’t catch fire, fell asleep in the flatbed of a pickup truck. The truck’s owner didn’t hitch the back padding properly and Wickenheiser fell onto the path of an oncoming car. Fortunately Wickenheiser survived the ordeal but he did injure his knees and missed the entire 1984-85 season.

A snowblower? Yes, a snowblower.

The story apparently goes that Sakic, already out with a herniated disc in his back, was removing snow that was clogging the snowblower. Apparently Sakic didn’t realize where the snow was and placed his hands a little too deep, breaking three fingers and severing some tendons. Fortunately, the power was off, so the fingers survived the accident but it still forced the centreman to miss much of the 2008-09 season, which turned out to be his swan song.

...and finally, the strangest- and most unfortunate- injury of them all:


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