If there’s one thing that chaps me about the NHL’s critics, it’s their constant evaluation of playoff ratings, and assessment of hockey being “boring” because of low TV numbers.
The Los Angeles Kings/New Jersey Devils Stanley Cup Final isn’t producing the numbers that Boston/Vancouver did last year, and it’s not beating the NBA’s ratings either (this year’s game 6 ratings were actually better than last year, and the LA Kings owned social media interaction, but those are just details).
Well boo f’n hoo.
Look, I get it — the NHL is a business that sells the product of hockey to fans, advertisers, TV networks and the rest, and thusly it has to put a show on TV that a lot of people watch in order to swoon money away from all the afore mentioned parties. Fine.
Back in the day, the league scrambled to regain its post-lockout fan base, and was desperate to lure them back. Fans, viewers, and advertisers alike drooled over the “new NHL” that they were rewarded with, and ever since the NHL has seen its ratings and fan base grow exponentially. New rules were put in place to allow players more time and space to score, and impeding their progress was heavily penalized for the slightest obstructions. Players were paraded to the penalty box, and special teams dominated ice time. Goalies had their pad size decreased, got confined to a trapezoid shape around their net, and rightfully started getting lit up. Fighting became increasingly criticized, and thusly enforcers who contributed nothing besides their fists were put on notice that their services were far less necessary. Fans who came to see boxing matches were disappointed when the only thing that broke out was a hockey game.
Supposedly, the game was fun to watch “again” (it never wasn’t), and everyone seemed happy — except for goalies, tough-guys, all non-elite scorers who had to make defensive adjustments in their game to survive in the league, and also some elite players that took the retirement option rather than the adjustment one – well, everyone except most of the players, that is. So basically no one in the game was better for it, but all in the name of increased ratings and entertainment; everyone from the ground up made adjustments to produce a more entertaining on-ice product because the agreed consensus was it was a necessary evil.
But here’s the thing: you can modify the rules of the game and try to weed certain aspects/players out all you want, but eventually hockey players will adapt, survive, and thrive. Very few players really care if you find them entertaining or not (save for Sean Avery, et al), they just want to play the game they love, not get cut, make tons of money, and win. But they are aware of how their inflated salaries are funded.
Goalies are probably the best example of all – in the 80’s, scoring was probably at an all-time high, as Wayne Gretzky and others were making a mockery of modern goaltending by scoring 200 points in single seasons. Eventually, goalies got hip to it, bought bigger pads, invested themselves in honing their craft, and developed new styles of goaltending (see: Patrick Roy) that became the standard to learn from. Goaltenders even started handling the puck as well as some players, and scored goals (see: Martin Brodeur, Ron Rextall, etc).
In short, goalies got really good at stopping the puck, and scoring went down. Goalies were so good, people started to prefix Gretzky’s scoring triumphs with an asterix, because apparently they were achieved under crooked terms (despite the fact that legends like Gordie Howe, Jean Beliveau and Rocket Richard scored and set records on even worse goalies).
Talented goalies became a “threat” to the product of hockey; so almost as a punishment for getting so good at their position, goalies had to downsize their equipment, stay in a smaller space, and endure ongoing threats of making their nets bigger and other absurdities. All in the name of entertainment.
So they made the adjustments, scoring went up, and everyone was happy — for a while. That is, until goaltenders like Jonathan Quick, Pekke Rinne, Tim Thomas, and an apparently ageless Martin Brodeur were able to adapt, survive, and thrive — and stop a lot of goals from going in.
And once again, people complain that hockey is boring because they don’t get to see 20 goals go in every night – the same thing they criticize the last generation for being able to do — despite the fact that the stars of this generation like Sidney Crosby, Alex Oveckin, Steven Stamkos, Claude Giroux and others still score the way Gretzky, Lemieux, Yzerman, and Hull were able to in the previous one. Either you want today’s elite to score 50 goals in 50 games, or you don’t, pick your side.
The casual fan that the NHL tries so hard to entice into becoming a viewer/customer doesn’t get that every level of hockey player would kill to crack an NHL lineup, if only as a fourth line player whose job description is limited to getting the puck over the center line and dumping it in the other team’s zone and changing. They don’t get that playing defensive and positional hockey is as important as scoring goals in some scenarios,
They don’t get that the players they view as “boring” have been playing the game since they were able to walk, travelled a million miles through every small town in the world, had coaches bench them, been told they weren’t good enough, been cut from teams, put in 1000’s of hours in the gym, spent 1000’s of dollars on equipment and training, gave up summers to devote to self-improvement, studied the game, learned to get better at their position, fought, injured every bone and muscle in their body, and have basically done everything it takes to just be a “boring” player. Casual fans don’t understand why every player isn’t as flashy as Crosby or Ovechkin. They don’t get the thrill of skating down open ice on a breakaway, making a crisp pass that sticks where it’s supposed to, making a big body check, having anywhere from 20 to 20,000 people cheering or booing you, or just how electrifying it is to be better than the other 11 players on the ice for one brief moment and score a goal.
And they’re shocked and appalled when playoff hockey success becomes defined by grit, toughness, and will, rather than the finesse and freewheeling they see all year. They don’t like that prominent regular season scorers like the Sedin’s get roughed up in the playoffs and can’t score as often. This is the way the NHL has always been, and always will be. Through all the concessions of tweaks and modifications they make, the league works hard to protect its roots. The NHL’s regular season is a show, the playoffs are a showdown. Playoff hockey is the real version of hockey, played in the key that every young player was taught by every coach they ever had. Playoff hockey is about two teams battling through everything the other throws at them, and scoring more goals than them by any means necessary. Every pro, college, junior, and minor hockey player know that a switch gets flipped come playoff time.
They want more penalties called because they think it’ll make the game faster and improve its flow – because, you know, nothing keeps the game moving like 50 stoppages of play per game to call penalties. And if they don’t see the penalties called that they are assessing from the comfort of their couch, some have the audacity to claim hockey is rigged. Come on.
Casual fans don’t get it because they’ve never done it. They’ve never been in those situations, and likely never will. Heck, I’d wager a good number of people calling hockey boring can’t even stand up on skates. The NHL isn’t trying to appeal solely to former players, it’s just that people who’ve played know what’s really going on out there, and have a better grasp on how to emotionally engage the game.
To be fair, there are some great minds in hockey that never did ever lace up in the NHL – Bob McKenzie, Darren Dreger, James Duthie, Elliotte Friedman, and plenty others like them know their stats and inside information, no question – but the thing about stats and averages is that they may tell a good story, they can’t ever fully predict the happenings of a game as unpredictable as hockey is from shift to shift. Again, hats off to the insiders, but guys that have been on the ice immersed in those situations insiders try to predict the outcome of – guys like Ray Ferraro, Kelly Hrudey, Jeremy Roenick, Nick Kypreos, and up and comers like Justin Bourne – are the ones I’m going to lend my ear to when I really want to know what’s going through players’ heads. But that’s just me.
Inclusion may be the root of the entire problem – hockey is far more difficult to get involved in than other sports; you have to buy a lot of pricy equipment, plus facility and registration fees are high, whereas participation in sports like soccer and others require very little besides a ball and a sunny day. If there were as many grassroots hockey players worldwide as there are soccer players, maybe we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
So many exciting storylines have developed through these playoffs: LA entered as an eighth seed and dominated top teams, their incredible road victory record, the emergence of Jonathan Quick as an elite goaltender, Dustin Brown’s prominence and then disappearance, Dustin Penner’s redemption, the Radulov and Kostitsyn debacle in Nashville, Phoenix going farther than its franchise ever has and the fall out of their elimination, Martin Brodeur being 40 years old and still making ridiculous saves, Washington’s ongoing Ovechkin/coaching saga, Claude Giroux leading the playoffs in scoring while his team was eliminated for an entire round, every Tortorella post-game interview, and many more beyond those.
In the finals themselves, the first two games were decided in overtime, saw Kopitar score exciting goals, and now is featuring aNew Jerseycomeback when it seemed at first sight that LA was going to sweep the series. If overtime isn’t exciting enough for you, there’s even a plethora of Hollywood stars and other famous people attending games if straight-up hockey isn’t good enough for you – heck, even TMZ is covering stars attending Kings games/events.
But beyond all that still, you have two teams of players and coaches who are playing through pain and doing whatever it takes to accomplish what they’ve wanted to do since they were kids: win the Stanley Cup. It’s still the most difficult trophy to win in sports, and the lifelong goal of every person who’s laced up a pair of skates. To capture it is nothing short of a feat.
Anyone who doesn’t find entertainment in this extravaganza just doesn’t get hockey, and probably never will. The NHL wouldn’t agree with this, but if you’re reading this and are still one of the people calling hockey boring, please by all means, go watch basketball.
Wait, what happened? What day is it? What year is it? Where am I???
I think I blacked out — I was having the most amazing dream though….. I was dreaming that the LA Kings won the Stanley Cup…. but it couldn’t be…. they were the eighth seed in this year’s playoffs…. they’ve been bad or average at best since 1993 when they lost in the Finals…. they had to beat #1 seeded Vancouver, #2 seeded St. Louis, #3 seeded Phoenix, and then 3-time Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils and their future Hall-of-Fame goaltender…..
Wait, let’s watch this video and see if this really happened….
OMG THE KINGS REALLY WON THE STANLEY CUP
Besides my boyhood favorite team winning their first ever franchise Stanley Cup, highlights of this video include Anze Kopitar spinning around the Staples Center with a tilted crown and “California Love” by Dr.Dre & Tupac playing at the 42:43 mark, hearing Dean Lombardi tip his cap to Terry Murray and other builders of the team, seeing guys from the past like Luc Robitaille, Bernie Nichols, Ron Hextall, and of course Darryl Sutter get their hoist of the Cup, and my eyes getting a little misty at the 20:51 mark when the team picture is being taken and the chorus of U2’s “Beautiful Day” kicks in. Elementary school me would have come absolutely unglued. Adult version of me barely held it together. One can only imagine what would have happened if I’d seen Wayne Gretzky get another lift of Stanley.
It truly was a beautiful day.
Anze Kopitar’s game 1 overtime winner was unquestionably pretty, and there’s a lot more within the 10 second series of events that occurred prior to the puck crossing the goal line than one is able to see at first glance that made it even more spectacular.
First, the fact that this scoring opportunity even materialized is ridiculous, and a complete breakdown on New Jersey’s part.
1. Things start out as New Jersey defenceman, Marek Zidlicky, forced Dustin Brown to turn the puck over just before the Kings blue line (C). Up until this point, Kopitar (A) was covered by Zach Parise (B), and both were anticipating the puck heading towards the Devils’ zone.
2. When the original Brown/Zidlicky turnover occurred, Parise peeled off from Kopitar to aid the attack. Kopitar perhaps was anticipating a positive outcome of the breakdown and just kept heading to the other end in a straight line, rather than doubling back to help defensively.
3. Travis Zajac (A) responded and swatted at it, but wasn’t able to gain true possession, while Drew Doughty (B) was. Doughty then sent the puck up along the boards to Justin Williams (C), who was waiting near center ice. By the time Williams received the puck, Kopitar was waiting at center completely uncovered (D), as Parise was still deep in the Kings zone (E).
4. New Jersey’s last man back, defenceman Bryce Salvador, pinched on Williams (A) – why he would take a risk like that in overtime is beyond me, especially with an unhindered attacker heading towards his net. Before Salvador could engage, Williams (B) had the presence of mind to chip the puck to the middle (whereas most coaches would instruct you to chip it off the boards and into the zone to be chased down) to a wide open Kopitar at the Devils’ blue line (C), who had at that point been gaining speed since his own blue line. Parise is so far behind on his backchecking, he’s not even on the screen anymore.
5. By the time Kopitar made his shot, Dainius Zubrus (A) was incredibly able to catch up and touch him with his stick, but not with enough force to disrupt the scoring opportunity.
Regarding the goal itself, there are a number of amazing things that occur within the split seconds of it being scored (3 seconds from the time he takes possession of the puck at the Devils’ blue line to the puck going in). The whole scenario almost boils down to a battle of the wits when you slow it down and dissect it.
1. Kopitar throws a deke to the right that Brodeur bites on, but is able to stay with. As Kopitar moves to the left side of the goal, Brodeur continues to track the puck; sprawling across the crease with his right pad along the ice to thwart a goal being scored along the ice.
2. What happened next is where I believe Kopitar won the battle. While on his stomach, Brodeur flexed his right knee from about 2 feet out from the goal line, and elevated his right pad up to around a 45° angle, with his skate blade finishing approximately half way up the 4’ high post — one may assume to counter an anticipated elevated shot that Brodeur had baited by closing off the on-ice options. Brodeur is 6’2”, which means the length from his knee to his foot is approximately 1.5 feet, while the pad being elevated is 11 inches wide. Kopitar had the puck at the 4’ mark at the top of the crease – a 4’ distance and a 4’ high post create a 45° shooting angle for Kopitar. BUT Brodeur has his pad up, and by the estimated distance variables, Brodeur’s sprawl actually cuts the middle 13° out of Kopitar’s scoring angle, and reduces his total feasible scoring area by 40% down to an 18° angle in which he needs to raise the puck within to score – that’s a tough shot from that distance, even by NHL standards.
3. This is where I venture that Kopitar’s skill/instinct kicked in – as Brodeur’s pad came up, it obviously reopened the along-the-ice scoring option, which Kopitar held on to the puck long enough to draw out – in overtime of the Stanley Cup Final, 25 year old Anze Kopitar had the patience to outwait a 3-time Stanley Cup champion, 4-time goalie of the year, and 20 year NHL veteran within a 4’ space at top speed in a fraction of a second – and tuck it neatly right underneath within an even smaller 14° clearance, while Brodeur unsuccessfully scrambled to get his pad back down in time.
4. Kopitar buries the puck and game 1 in the back of the net behind Brodeur.
They say that in those split seconds, time seems to slow down. I’ve been in game situations like that – not an OT breakaway in the Stanley Cup Finals against a future Hall of Fame goaltender scenario, mind you – but I can attest that you do can have an odd amount of control in a finite window of time like that. Kopitar being the amazing player that he is, demonstrated that point to a tea, and made it count.
Five years ago today (June 9), I married the most beautiful girl in the world. Since then, we’ve been all over the world together, had many adventures, and made many new friends along the way. What a ride, and what fun it all has been…. and so much more yet to come! Our wedding day is recognized by both of us as one of the funnest days of our lives. Thanks again to all of you who were able to share and take part in it with us in one way or another! Happy 5th anniversary to my wife, KarmaLee Cunning. I love you. Can’t wait to see where we are in another 5.
[originally post for www.betonhockey.com on May 30/2012 ]
There’s a big fuss being made over the fact that, for only the second time ever, an American captain will be hoisting the Stanley Cup for his team first at the conclusion of this year’s playoffs. While it is an interesting statistic, it seems that the same people that are so concerned with captaincy nationality are uninterested in discussing the birthplaces of each of Dustin Brown and Zach Parise’s teammates that they are leading into battle; and less interested in talking about where the coaches that these captains are taking orders from, originate.
We should examine the origins of the remainder of each team’s roster to see exactly where our nationalistic allegiances should be strewn. Let’s do that now.
LOS ANGELES KINGS
The active roster of the Los Angeles Kings features 25 players – 15 of them are Canadian, 7 are American, 2 are Russian, and 1 is Slovenian. Add 1 Canadian if you count head coach Darryl Sutter. The Kings have more Canadians in their lineup than the Ottawa Senators, and as many as the Vancouver Canucks – the only two teams based in Canadian cities that made this year’s playoffs.
Representing Canada (60%): Jeff Carter, Kyle Clifford, Colin Fraser, Simon Gagne, Dwight King, Jordan Nolan, Dustin Penner, Mike Richards, Brad Richardson, Jarret Stoll, Kevin Westgarth, Justin Williams, Drew Doughty, Willie Mitchell, Jonathan Bernier (Darryl Sutter).
Representing the USA (28%): Dustin Brown, Trevor Lewis, Scott Parse, Matt Greene, Alec Martinez, Rob Scuderi, Jonathan Quick.
Representing Europe (12%): Slava Voynov, Andrei Loktionov, Anze Kopitar.
Assessment: Predominantly CANADIAN.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
The active roster of the New Jersey Devils also includes 25 players – 7 of them are Canadian, 7 are American, 4 are Swedish, 3 are Czech, 2 are Russian, 1 is Ukranian, and 1 is Lithuanian. Add 1 Canadian if you count head coach Peter DeBoer.
Representing Canada (28%): Steve Bernier, Eric Boulton, David Clarkson, Adam Henrique, Travis Zajac, Bryce Salvador, Martin Brodeur (Peter DeBoer)
Representing the USA (28%): Ryan Carter, Stephen Gionta, Cam Janssen, Zach Parise, Mark Fayne, Andy Greene, Peter Harrold.
Representing Europe (44%): Patrick Elias, Jacob Josefson, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Petr Sykora, Dainius Zubrus, Adam Larsson, Henrik Tallinder, Anton Volchenkov, Marek Zidlicky, Johan Hedberg.
Assessment: Predominantly EUROPEAN.
If you’re basing your team allegiances upon the nationality content of each team, here’s how you should focus your cheering:
If you are Canadian, and want to cheer for Canadian players, you should be cheering for the LA Kings in the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals.
If you are American cheering for Americans, it’s your choice.
If you’re European cheering for Europeans, you should side with New Jersey.
Brody Sutter of the WHL’s Lethbridge Hurricanes and the famous Sutter family signed an 3 year entry-level contract with the Carolina Hurricanes on June 1/2012 , where his cousins Brandon and Brett are awaiting his arrival– I thought it’d be interesting to post my interview with him, his coach, and his uncle from January of this year that was printed in the Kelowna Daily Courier. Enjoy!
[originally printed in the Kelowna Daily Courier on January 26, 2012 ]
THURSDAY, 26 JANUARY 2012 02:00 by DAVE CUNNING
Players in the WHL are used to having media surround their team, and even more so are players who have been drafted and/or have played games for NHL clubs. But when you have a famous last name stitched on the back of your
jersey, such as “Sutter”, the microscope focus intensifies.
For Lethbridge Hurricanes captain Brody Sutter, though, the bright media lights are part and parcel of belonging to his well-known hockey clan.
“It’s been like this my whole life, so I’m used to it,” said the 6-foot-4 and 205-pound Sutter. “It’d be weird if there wasn’t a lot of media and stuff. I’ve grown up with it and gotten used to it. It’s not that bad. I just try to put it all to the side.”
Hurricanes associate coach Matt Kabayama is used to the attention the Sutter name brings to his club.
“It’s fairly natural,” Kabayama said. “A lot of his uncles played in the Lethbridge area and his cousins played just up the road in Red Deer. There’s a lot of Sutters in our area, so we’re used to it.”
Along with the attention comes opportunity. Brody was the Carolina Hurricanes’ seventh-round pick in in 2011, even after being omitted from Central Scouting’s player listings.
If he were to crack the Hurricanes’ lineup next season, following what is his last season of junior eligibility, it would unite him with his cousin Brandon, and possibly Brett (currently playing in Carolina’s farm system). It would also make him the ninth Sutter to play in the NHL, behind his father Duane (who won four Stanley Cups with the New York Islanders and now scouts for the Edmonton Oilers) and five other uncles.
“I stayed at (Brandon’s) house during training camp for a couple nights,” recalled Brody. “He’s got a pretty nice place and lives a pretty good lifestyle. That’s the dream, and it’d be even sweeter to play with a family member. Everyone in our family seems to want to blaze their own path and go their separate ways, but it’s fun to play with family.
“I grew up playing street hockey and thinking about it, and it’d be pretty cool if it became a reality. I don’t know if I’ll make an NHL lineup next year. I’m hoping to make the AHL and work my way up. It’s a big jump that’s not easy to make, but, hopefully, I can take it one step at a time.”
His uncle, Gary Sutter, a Kelowna resident and the only first generation Sutter to not play in the NHL – though his brothers contend he was the best of them all – believes his nephew Brody is on the right path, despite an injury-hampered slow start to his junior career.
“What goes around comes around,” said the eldest Sutter. “He’s just like his dad and his uncles. He works hard and plays the game with a lot of passion. He started his WHL career fairly slow because of his development in Florida, but he’s been more or less carrying his team as of late. He’s a late bloomer, and I think he’s still got great potential.”
That potential is beginning to reveal itself, and Lethbridge’s coaching staff is among the many who have noticed.
“Brody’s come such a long way,” said Kabayama. “When he first came to us from Saskatoon, he went through some injuries and wasn’t your typical Sutter the way he played. He needed to add more grit to his game, and he’s come along by leaps and bounds. If you compared him now to then, you wouldn’t know it was the same kid. He’s always been tall, but he was only 170 pounds when he came to us. He’s gotten stronger and he’s skating like a man now, not like a gangly kid anymore. He’s just now realizing what he can do – with his size, it’s tough for guys to take the puck away from him in this league when he protects it. He’s understanding the game and working well with his linemates.”
Brody knows input on his game from the most famous family in hockey is never hard to access.
“When I’m struggling, there’s input,” said Lethbridge’s leading scorer. “When I need advice, it’s always only a phone call away. When I’m playing well, everyone just sits back and watches, but if they see something they think I can improve on, they let me know.”
Sutter currently leads his team in goals (20), assists (20), and points (40). The Hurricanes are currently two spots out of a playoff berth, with just over 20 games remaining in their regular season schedule.