Playoff hockey can be a grind even for fans

Posted: May 29, 2013 by Matt Dougas in Uncategorized

You hear hockey analysts go on and on about the effects that fatigue play on the game, especially come playoff time. But, what about us fans?

I find the playoff grind gets me every year at the same time, the middle of the second 2nd round. It’s at this time of that summer starts to edge out spring and you can pick your poison, whether you are headed to the ball park for some slo-pitch slug fest, or you are more of the kind to hit the links, or you prefer jigging for walleyes at dusk, there are plenty of things to keep you from finding your lazy boy as the puck drops.

The middle of the 2nd round is also the part of the playoffs where I start to grow tiresome of hearing about how the game I’m watching is a must-win. It just so turns out that game 4 wasn’t a game the Red Wings needed to win (although you could argue they just proved that they needed to win it by losing out, they had their chance to win the series without winning game 4).  As much as each playoff game is important, the only must-wins are those of the elimination type and the only playoff games that are truly exhilarating are games 6 or 7. Nobody really remembers what happened in game 2 or 3.

Call me sacrilegious, call me casual, I love hockey as much as the next guy, but I think that the playoffs are too long and go too long into the summer.  As fun as the whole battle of attrition through 2 months of playoff hockey is, I’d like to see team depth play less of a role than it does in the NHL playoffs.

This isn’t a call for change though. I have no ideas on how to fix the problem. I am, sadly, the guy crying that there are problems with no solutions. (I hate that guy, don’t ever be that guy.) I like the seven game playoff series. It gives the better team enough of a chance to show they are better and it gives the underdog a short enough frame to pull off an upset.

I don’t see a scenario where reducing the amount of teams that make the playoffs would make them better in any way and (maybe this is just because I am from Southern Ontario) I find the playoffs hard enough to make as it is.

If I were to suggest any change, it would be for the regular season to be shortened from anywhere between 7 and 14 games being ideal. This way the regular season wouldn’t push into April and therefore the playoffs wouldn’t push in to our glorious summer quite as far. It would eliminate a few rather meaningless regular season games and probably reduce the sort of grind that everyone feels in the middle of the playoffs.

But change like that will never happen. No way the NHL would cut back on games and therefore on revenue to save players, fans, and media from the grind that is playoff hockey and they don’t care if anyone would like a longer break in the summer, which I’m sure the players would love. Ultimately unrealistic.

The good news is that last night’s thriller between the Sharks and Kings marked the end of this dreaded ‘grind’ I have been rambling on and on about. With two exceptional game sevens going on on back to back nights, it was impossible not be glued to the TV and now we enter the final four, and there is something just so captivating about entering the semi-finals that will bring even the most weary, slumbered out fans back to their seats, even if the lure of a locking onto a monster walleye took them elsewhere earlier in the week. They are back. We are back. I am back.

Winning is Cool, even for the Leafs

Posted: May 13, 2013 by Matt Dougas in Uncategorized

Winning is cool. That’s what we’re told at least, somehow, the Cubs manage to be cool without winning, but then again they’ve got curses and an ivory wall and Steve Bartman, I guess they get to be cool under unusual circumstances.
As a Leafs fan who is old enough to just barely remember the Cujo years before Quinn wrecked him at the Olympics, the Alfredsson-Tucker Saga and those four playoff series against the Senators, it is hard to remember a time when it was cool to be a Leafs fan. (Even living in Southern Ontario.)

Wearing any Leafs attire was a recipe to get teased. Every joke written about a struggling sports team has been altered to poke fun at my poor Leafs. In a salary cap era, where money can’t buy happiness or even a winning hockey team, the Maple Leafs have struggled. It should have been expected though, the NHL took all its credit cards away from their trophy wife and without any more money to through at her problems, unable to afford another face lift, the trophy wife began to show her true colours, which was more washed up prostitute than trophy wife.

Faithfully sticking with my washed-up girl has been hard as an adolescent fan, as there have been plenty of other attractive options likes those Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks, who were the two girls next door that you dreamed would be as hot they’ve become.

It’s been tough sticking with my sweetheart through the tough years, but I’ve got through it, even though I was starting to doubt if cheering for the Leafs would ever be cool again, the past few days have shown just how powerful winning is.
The Leafs with just a few wins have made being a Toronto sports fan not so bad anymore. My favourite Dougie Gilmour shirt doesn’t get me ribbing anymore instead compliments. Even though I don’t reside in Toronto, my southern Ontario city was bright with blue and white today as everyone anticipated game 7 against the Bruins. It is the first exciting time to cheer for the Leafs in a near decade and that’s a thing of beauty.

In case of a lost, it really isn’t a loss. Fans are united in their satisfaction of the playoff run against the Big Bad Bruins. Maple Leaf Gardens has become the happening place for hockey fans in all of Ontario. Kessel has shown he is a solid playoff performer and has out done Seguin. So even a loss wouldn’t hurt all that bad tonight, considering the Leafs have already made it cool to be a fan again.

A win tonight and well, I feel like there would be second Canadian spinoff of the ‘4 days in October’ documentary about the Leafs instead of Mike Weir or Red Sox this time though. Simply, a three game comeback to win the series would send the city into a state of utopia.

After years of being uncool, it feels good to finally be back in the cool club of fandom of a winning team.

My Afternoon as a Slovenian Hockey Fan

Posted: May 13, 2013 by Matt Dougas in Uncategorized

It was 2 o’clock another lazy afternoon, with the big game 7 between the Leafs and Bruins still five hours away and I was looking to unwind. As I was surfing the channels, it became apparent, a decision had to be made: should I watch a re-run of the Newsroom or Canada was playing against Slovenia in the World Hockey Championships. It was one of those daily decisions that I find are so tough to make. Newsroom is one of my favourite shows and you never know what you may have missed the first time you watched something. Canada and Slovenia sounded a lot like skills competition for Giroux and Stamkos to me, I mean I didn’t even know Slovenia had a second hockey player, I thought maybe Anze Kopitar was it and he wasn’t even going to be there. I was leaning Newsroom’s way, when I remembered my resolution to stop being the kind of guy to watch re-runs and I decided to at least give the Canada, Slovenia game a chance.

Rob Black and Bob Errey, TSN analysts did a bang-up job hyping the game, declaring that the game was rather meaningless and would have no effect on the tournament, as Canada would be moving on to the Quarterfinals and Slovenia would be relegated.           Then Rod Black would push the envelope one step further and say something he likely regrets. “Canada should win this game, and they will win, I saw they arrived at the rink.”

It’s the kind of comment that you hear a lot when Canada faces a weaker International team, but it is also the kind of cocky comment that was just enough to perk me off the couch and make me a fan of Slovenia hockey for the afternoon.

Only by chance it was a great afternoon to be a fan of the Slovenian team.

The first five minutes of the game made me consider flicking back to the Newsroom, Slovenia couldn’t win a faceoff, they looked sloppy, a few skating strides were rather questionable. A Canadian point shot went hit of the post and landed in behind Slovenian netminder Luca Grancar. In attempt to cover the puck and then pass the puck to the official Gracnar made himself look about as coordinated as Yao Ming trying to high five his family after being drafted.

It wasn’t looking good. However Canada was struggling to get one by Gracnar and he was looking better with each save. Without any knowledge of the Slovenian team I was changing from armchair critic that I usually am into armchair Paul MacLean, noticing players, and only being able to recognize them by number.

Player 26 was looking particularly good and in off a rush, he managed to put a puck on the net that was bobbled by Dubnyk and just like that the impossible was true, Slovenia was up.

I was getting into the game at this point, I wanted to see an upset, I wanted to see blood, I wanted to see the team that only got to play against these Canadian players in video games and dreams take it to them.

Then player 26 received a nice pass streaking down the wing and hey what to do you know? He scored again. I thought, Did Slovenia fly in Kopitar for the game or what is happening is here? Turns out they didn’t. Jan Urbas is the guy’s name and his was a big body was dancing around NHL defencemen. Prolific goal scorer? Hardly, Urbas scored 4 goals playing 52 games in the Swedish Elite League this season.

The first period wrapped up and I was anticipating Rod Black and Bob Errey’s roll back of their statements before the game, but it didn’t come.  Essentially re-upping on their proclamation of an easy Canadian victory. Something to the tune of Lindy Ruff will get in the dressing room and rally the troops. As a long-time supporter of Slovenian hockey, I was enraged! My boys went out there and showed they can play hockey and you two plugs at TSN won’t even give them a chance to win this game.

And so the second period started.

Canada came out rejuvenated just as the TSN crew predicted and Duchene banked one in off Gracnor’s pad. A cheesy one, but a goal is a goal and now I was sweating. As the powerhouse Canadians were buzzing.

Buzz they did, as Stamkos and Giroux showed off their world-class skill to tie the game up.         

Blowing a lead like that with the delicate confidence that my winless Slovenian team had was devastating. I was getting ready to turn the game off, as I’d rather battle through a show like Coronation Street, than watch those cocky Canadians blowout my team.

But I give them credit, the Slovs battled back and the captain tipped one in from the point before the end of the second. I knighted him Captain Clutch, the commenters called him Tomaz Razingar. Marc Crawford, TSN colour guy nicknamed the team the Pesky Slovs.

Canada would rally back and win the game in overtime. Nonetheless, it was a great afternoon to be a Slovenian hockey fan. I noticed some good players, Urbas, Gracnar (looked good in net and suppose to get drafted), and as Paul MacLean would say, player 86, 22, and the Rodman brothers also looked good. (I didn’t even realize there was two Rodmans until late in the 3rd.

I won’t pretend to know anything about Slovenian hockey, Urbas was impossible to miss with what was likely the game of his life and the other players I liked I was too lazy to look up, but the real take away I got from rooting Slovenia this afternoon is the hockey world is continually getting broader and good hockey is being played everywhere. That Slovenian team was nothing sneeze at and they are ranked 18th in the world. A country I wouldn’t even pick out on a world map gave some of the best players in the world a run for their lunch money.

The gap between the rich and poor in hockey is shrinking and for fans of hockey this is great. Although there is still a long way to go, Canada has over twice as many hockey arenas as Slovenia has registered players. Days like these give me hope though.

Well done, Slovenia, well done.

Sorry Slovakia, You Are Mention Worthy

Posted: December 27, 2012 by Matt Dougas in Uncategorized

Apologies, Slovakia and to the handful of people that have continued to read my blog posts. I’m not sure where my head is at. Maybe, I am just getting back into the rhythm of writing, but I feel my past two posts have been rather sub-standard. However, I am determined to make this blog work and I will keep writing and we may hope and pray the quality will only go up.

Onto hockey.

Well, I had quite the day. I woke up at 4 in the morning to catch the start of Canada and Germany’s game. The TV watched me from about halfway through the first to the last five minutes in the third period.

I wonder what the TV ratings are like for the 4am Canada games because even for the die-hard hockey fan like me, it seems like the worst possible time to air a game.

Anyhow, I managed to watch a replay of the game and was impressed with the quality of Germany’s hockey team… I know, I know, they lost 9-3, but they really couldn’t have caught any worse of breaks and they were also playing against a Canadian team with several players who would be in the NHL if it weren’t for the lockout. But, with the players out there, I expected Germany to look awful and well they could have looked worse. They also could have looked a lot better, obviously.

As far as growing hockey nations, I think you have to say that Germany and Switzerland have to be most promising. Switzerland has had a slew of strong prospects coming up lately, Benz, Niederreiter, Sbsia and most recent, Flames prospect Bartschi.  Germany has Tobias Rieder, who I thought looked pretty decent today and they’ve performed very well in recent under 18 events.

Germany’ matchup with USA tomorrow could be interesting if Germany has a good start. If Germany were to upset a team, it wouldn’t be the first time that USA is the victim.

Back to my apology to the Slovakian team, in my last post I joked that they were a team not worthy of more than a mention, however they gave Russia all they could handle today and I am interested to see if they can sneak into the quarter finals now. I think they may have missed their best chance today with that loss. I was impressed that Slovakia was able to slow down such a strong Russian team.

Slovak and Czech teams have really not been to struggling recently, particularly in Under-18 hockey, as elite talent doesn’t seem to be coming from the two nations like it used to. I do think it is only a matter of time before one of Slovakia or Czech Republic loses its footing the IIHF top division and is relegated.

I’m no expert on where all the talent went from the two former powerhouses, but a reason that I’ve heard constantly is that the expansion of Czech’s junior league has led to skill depletion and has made the league less competitive than other top junior leagues.

I think it is something to watch this year; Slovakia did make a statement that they’re no push over yet with a solid game against Russia, but things are rolling downhill. Slovakia is probably the most interesting team to watch this year, as I feel just as easily they could upset USA or Canada and slide into the next round, so could they fall short against Germany and face relegation.

I hope Santa was as good to all of you, as he was to me. I no longer have to sit on an exercise ball or lay in bed awkwardly to write a post, I now can lounge in the comfort of an office chair, with wheels! I can wheel around the house, grab a drink, wheel back to the desk and continue writing. This is sure to increase my body weight and have negative effects on my health. How it affects my writing, remains to be seen.

Well, it has been a while since Canada has won the World Juniors. Two years? There was Russia and then there was Sweden last year and goddamit, how did Jesse Carlson score from there!? It seems hard to believe that it has been 3 years without a gold medal in Canuck land.

Winning the World Juniors won’t be any easier this year; Russia is hosting the tournament and surprise! They got a team oozing skill led by Yakupov, Grigorenko and Khokhlachev, three top NHL prospective forwards. Goaltendering won’t be a tender spot for Russia neither, they got the two Andrei’s from last year’s team returning, Marakov and Vasilevski, both very good young goalies.

Finland looked solid in pre-competition. Armia, Granlund, Maata and company won’t provide a cake walk for any team. Goaltending has always been a strength for the lions and nobody should suspect that it will be any different this year. A player to watch on this Finnish team will be Alex Barkov, a forward who will be highly sought after this summer at the NHL draft. Barkov is supposed to be a big strong centre that can put the puck in the back of the net. It’ll be interesting to see if he can do that against the best junior hockey players on the planet.

 America is always tough to beat. Phily Housely’s team will likely led by the Russian American, Alex Galchenyuk. Maple Leafs prospect Tyler Biggs will be heavily scrutinized by blue and white faithful, but he should be a strong force for USA.

Sweden has got a new look this year, defending champs. The Bergs (Alexander Wennberg, Filip Forsberg, Sebastian Collberg and Filip Sandberg) and Sons (Linus Arnesson, Rasmus Bengtsson, Tom Nilsson, Viktor Arvidsson and William Karlsson) will be tough to overcome.

And oh yes, apparently Slovakia, Czech Republic, Latvia and Germany have entries in the tournament as well.  Who knew just how much Google could help a hockey blog.

Canada has it this year though, Nugent-Hopkins, Scheifele, Huberdeau, Hamilton and  Strome would all likely be unavailable for the holiday classic if it wasn’t for the NHL lockout. Hey, maybe this lockout isn’t so bad after all; it has given Canada one of its best World Junior teams in recent memory.

However tough the tournament may be, Canada has a great excuse that never gets old to fall back on. Our best junior players are so good they’re in the NHL, so HA! Oh wait… #%#@ing Gary Bettman, you #&#@ing plug, why do you hate Canada?

Add the NHL stars, Steal the Charm

Posted: December 24, 2012 by Matt Dougas in Uncategorized

Today, Canada’s roster for the nationally followed holiday tournament was announced and without disappointment the roster will feature several stars. Canada’s Spengler Cup team… yes you read that right. Canada’s Spengler Cup team will enter this year’s tournament with a team, basically, stacked full of locked out NHLers.

Spezza, Tavares, Seguin and Duchene will bring elite NHL skill to the Spengler Cup, something that has not been seen from a Canadian squad at the tournament before. This is after a 6 year drought without a championship at the event, so it can be said Canada means business this year.  At what cost though?

Not only have the locked out players on this team taken spots away from players on European club teams, now they have taken over the roster of Canada’s Spengler Cup team. A team that has formally been composed of minor league journeymen, who have been unable to make their big league dreams come true so they have travelled over to Europe, so they can play the game they love and make a living of it. (Not a luxurious living at that.) These are guys who have worked extremely hard and play for the love of the game, not fame or money, as they only get minimal amounts of each playing hockey in Europe.

Now the beauty of the Spengler Cup for many a Canadian has been to see these guys play with the maple leaf on their chest, represent our country, and get national recognition that they never would have otherwise. It’s these journeymen’s time to shine in our nation’s embrace.

All of this charm has been taken from world’s second most popular hockey holiday classic, as the NHLers have stormed in. I must note that last time there was a lockout, Hockey Canada did not allow locked out NHL players to participate for Team Canada, citing the reason that they didn’t want to take precious little spotlight from the Canadian journeymen, who would be there for Cup not only that year, but years to come.

However, we all learn after a while that winning is everything and our special little group of journeymen haven’t been able to win the Spengler Cup in six years, mingle that with no recent success in the World Juniors and you can see why Hockey Canada has the winning bug this turn around and have opted to go with the best available players.

As much as it is a shame for the journeymen to be shown the door for NHL players, it will be a chance for everyone to get their appetite for top flight hockey quenched, somewhat. It is no surprise that anything less than winning the tournament will now be a severe disappointment for Canada’s Spengler Cup squad, but to say the tournament is, but a formality at this point would be overkill. Yes, our NHLers are good, but so are these European club teams.

Although all the charm that the Spengler Cup had for me will be decimated, I will still tune for the same reason you will, I’m desperate for some NHL action.

Forgive me for digressing away from the NHL a little towards the wider world of hockey in this post. The biggest league in the world will be involved, but only tangentially.

In these dog days of summer, when the most intriguing NHL news is who looks good at prospect camp and whether or not that aged free agent will be signed to the fourth line of your team, fans of the sport tend to look anywhere for their hockey fix.

The NHL, however, knows how to feed the hockey-starved masses. After being the first major sport to adopt and embrace the use of social media like Twitter and Facebook to connect with their fans, Twitter feeds all summer are filled with updates, breaking news and off-season interviews with a team’s favourite players. Despite efforts from baseball and football (the American version) to follow the success of the NHL’s social media template, the hockey boys are still seen as the act to follow when it comes to new media.

There are many reasons as to why this is, but one seems to be the sheer professionalism of how the NHL and their teams use what could potentially be a powder-keg of bad publicity-even when the LA Kings Twitter feed gained such notoriety over the Stanley Cup playoffs for barely-veiled shots at the Vancouver Canucks, gentle jabs at the New Jersey Devils and a wave of cheerleading for their squad that bordered on arrogance, the press coverage was mainly positive, citing what a great job the Kings media department were doing.

NHL players, too, are amongst some of the most well-respected users of social media in sport. Paul Bissonette may be a relatively minor name in terms of NHL on-ice stardom, but on Twitter he’s a genuine hockey superstar, known for his sense of humour, irreverent tweeting and attempts to publicise good causes through his stardom. He currently carries over 307,000 followers.

In sheer numbers, though, it’s probably Alex Ovechkin who leads with 400,000+…not bad for a Russian who tweets mainly about where he’s been and what he’s doing in between starring for the Washington Capitals, or retired player and now NHL’s head of discipline Brendan Shanahan.

Of course, where the NHL leads, others follow, including the league in which I commentate for one of the teams-the British Elite League.

This last season appeared to be the one where Twitter genuinely became a major marketing tool for the league, as teams from Dundee in the North to Cardiff in the South realised just how effective direct communication with their fans could be. Accounts had always existed, but they sprung up at a furious rate as British pundits like Dave Simms, coaches from the majority of league teams and players began to sum up their thoughts in 140 characters or less.

Naturally, I joined in with this Twitter revolution, both by driving the Twitter feed of my team’s webcast (it surprised me that one hadn’t been set up before, in fact-it appears that many teams in Britain just weren’t hugely au-fait with the power of social media) and tweeting on my personal account.

However, the lines were blurred somewhat when I received criticism for tweeting my personal views on a signing while having a public connection to the team (in my Twitter bio), as well as the club being unsure about me and my fellow commentator engaging with debate on fans on the webcast Twitter. After discussion with the team the issue was resolved amicably by both sides…however, I’m now a lot more careful with what I tweet to which account and have removed any mention of which club I am part of from my personal bio. My lesson has been well and truly learned.

It seems that the British teams are now not only aware of the power of social media, but also its possible pitfalls involving team personnel.

Well, some of them are, anyway.

One of the most striking things about the NHL players and their Twitter feeds is that they are clearly very carefully regulated. The NHL, like most professional leagues, has a code of conduct which players must abide by (indeed, Paul Bissonnette’s original account was shut down by the league after he made comments calling Russian Ilya Kovalchuk a “communist”-not the most offensive Tweet ever but a little near the knuckle).

Over this summer, however, several players in the British league have come up with the kind of Tweets that would probably get them a reprimand or a fine were they in the NHL. Chief among these is Cardiff’s new signing Devin DiDiomete-a player signed from the ECHL and known for being something of a hothead. Belfast’s Adam Keefe has also been involved in several public spats with opposing fans, as has “the voice of British hockey” Simms.

The issue appears to have come to a head in the past few days, with DiDiomete engaging in a vicious Twitter row with Coventry Blaze’s Mike Danton and Gerome Giudice-a spat in which personal accusations have been thrown around by the Cardiff Devil, who has also referred to the people of Coventry as “mutants” repeatedly. Danton, too, has been repeatedly abused by opposition fans with reference to his past, while DiDiomete and Keefe have got similar stick from Blaze fans.

It has been noticeable, however, that while the Coventry players have chosen to take the moral high ground in responding, DiDiomete has got worse and worse-something which surely must be causing a headache for his paymasters in the way their club is being perceived.

Currently, the Elite League has no written social media policy, with each team responsible for regulation of their players.

The team I work for is becoming increasingly active in their efforts to make sure what the players and staff say publicly is acceptable to most people’s taste, and this initiative is to be greatly praised. They’re also careful with their own Twitter feed, and are indeed fast becoming one of the more professional clubs in the league after listening to concerns. However, the template to follow is probably that of the Braehead Clan up in Glasgow, whose Facebook presence has been a factor in cementing their success as an expansion franchise.

However it seems that at the moment British hockey in general is unsure on just how to handle the double-edged sword of social media. Neglecting it to start with, the teams have now adopted Twitter without (seemingly) being entirely sure how to use it for the best, with reports in the British hockey media community of some teams being very sensitive in some areas but very lax in others-for example an employee for one club often reveals other teams’ signings or attempts to spread gossip, or on one memorable occasion earlier in the season saw attempted mockery of another club’s player get smacked down.

Players around the British league often tweet the kind of thing which probably seems fine in the locker room but not if you’re trying to build a professional brand (the DiDiomete situation is by far the most extreme, but it’s not the first time a player has gone after opposition players and fans on Twitter). With today’s arrest of a teenager for publicly Tweeting abuse to Olympian Tom Daley being one of several high-profile examples of Internet misuse leading to real-world repercussions in British sport, it makes me wonder where this situation will go if allowed to continue.

To their credit, it seems that the British hockey community is slowly realising that they need to utilise social media more effectively, with several teams (notably Glasgow’s Braehead Clan) starting as they mean to go on with fine use of Facebook to promote their events. There are many players and coaches who use social media extremely effectively-Coventry’s coach Paul Thompson, the aforementioned Clan and their staff and the Cardiff Devils club themselves.

However, allowing players to engage in public calling-out of each other for fights, post questionable pictures and references and seeing fans let themselves and their team down by joining it makes me wonder just how effective a “laissez-faire” policy is.

British hockey has done well in following the NHL by making increasing use of social media to promote their brands, teams and sports. However, now the initial steps have been made, incidents like the DiDiomete controversy have brought matters to a head-the people running British hockey need to take the next step and educate their players, clubs and fans on how social media can be used most effectively, lest their current approach does more harm than good.

A “social media policy” similar to the NHL’s is reportedly being prepared for this season, which will govern players, coaches and teams and lay down guidelines on the best use of social media…guidelines which will be applied to all rather than left to the individual clubs to define. This is a hugely positive step.

However, these guidelines need to be strong, clearly-defined and with clear penalties for contravention. Penalties that are applied equally to everyone, whether they be media, player or club official.

It remains to be seen just how effective it’ll be. That’s probably something we won’t see until someone like DiDiomete tries his Internet agitation tricks once the season starts.

It’s going to be an interesting season for British hockey clubs, both on the ice AND in cyberspace.