The advent of the National Women’s Hockey League is big news.
It’s big because the other existent professional women’s hockey organization, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, has issues, and the NWHL aims to plug at least one of the CWHL’s holes by promising to pay its players. It’s big because the immediate reaction to the announcement on social media was enthusiastic, proving that the market is definitely there. And it’s big because far along the proverbial pipeline, young girls who have never stepped foot on the ice before, who would never have been taken seriously as female ice hockey players, will soon see older versions of themselves lacing up the skates, and they will dare to dream.
On February 23, one of the coldest nights of this memorably frigid winter, women’s hockey standouts Hilary Knight and Brianne McLaughlin joined Ice Hockey in Harlem’s all-girls “Lady Harlem” team for a practice at Lasker Rink. “It was definitely our most well-attended practice this year!” coach Kristin Blundo remarked two nights later, at Ice Hockey in Harlem’s annual Winter Sports Celebration. “Looking at the girls, you wouldn’t have known how cold it was—they were just so excited that two female Olympians were skating with them.”
The excitement is contagious, rippling across color lines, socioeconomic lines, and generational lines. At the Winter Sports Celebration, a middle-aged woman named Janine told me that when she was younger she played hockey “with the boys” until she could progress no further—because those were the days before the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, before the Nagano Olympics (where women’s hockey made its debut), before NCAA scholarships, and before the National Women’s Hockey League.
Since its inception nearly 30 years ago, Ice Hockey in Harlem has ensured that young girls get the same exposure to educational and athletic opportunities that their male classmates do, while making a concerted effort to promote women’s hockey at the grassroots level—hence the establishment of Ice Hockey in Harlem’s girls-only Lady Harlem team. The organization’s devotion to advancing girls’ hockey is also evidenced by its choice of honorees at this year’s Winter Sports Celebration: youth hockey maven (and Rangers alum) Pat Hickey and women’s hockey legend Angela Ruggiero, who has been instrumental in setting up the NWHL.
Ruggiero boasts an impressive resume both on and off the ice. A four-time Olympic medalist, three-time World Champion, and the all-time leader in games played for Team USA, Ruggiero made history in 2005 as the first woman non-goalie to play professional men’s hockey in North America, playing for the Tulsa Oilers alongside her younger brother, Bill.
But her influence extends past her own inimitable playing career, proving that—as the NHL is fond of asserting—the biggest assist happens off the ice.
For the past two years, Ruggiero served as the president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, a charitable and educational organization dedicated to promoting girls and women in sports and fitness. In 1998, when the Foundation named Ruggiero and her gold medal-winning teammates “sportswomen of the year,” Ruggiero was impressed by the organization’s empowerment of female athletes regardless of their skill level or Olympic ambitions.
“By playing sports, you learn about yourself as a person, and you learn about playing on a team,” Ruggiero said, checking off the statistically proven effects playing sports has on young girls, such as healthier living and higher self-esteem. “There are just so many benefits that I want every young person to have.”
As far as statistical benefits go, the all-girls Lady Harlem team is Exhibit ‘A’. Coaches Kristin Blundo and Natalie Oshin have noticed a pronounced change in their players’ mindsets since the team’s inception three years ago. “There’s certainly something to be said for the way the girls act with each other compared to the way they acted when they were playing on co-ed teams,” said Blundo. “The blossoming friendships, the confidence, and the overall skill development that we’ve witnessed over the past three years speaks volumes to what Ice Hockey in Harlem has built in this community.”
Women’s ice hockey has been on the rise ever since the sport’s medal debut at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, and Angela Ruggiero has been riding the crest of the wave. She was there at the very beginning, as the youngest member of that ’98 team, and she is now leading the charge for the future, acting as a role model for girls who dream of excelling at a sport that had previously maintained a pretty rigid ice ceiling.
Having female role models like Knight and McLaughlin will inspire more young girls to dream. But more than that, watching and interacting with hockey players who are a little more like them can turn those dreams into a reality—whether they strive for the Olympics or the National Women’s Hockey League or simply Saturday night pick-up games. Role models like these transform “I wish I could do that” into “I can do that”—and their importance to the confidence and development of young girls cannot be overstated.
To close his address to the gathered crowd at the Winter Sports Celebration, Executive Director John Sanful recounted a tale from the night the Lady Harlem team welcomed Knight and McLaughlin as guest coaches. “A parent of one of the Lady Harlem players said that her daughter was so happy, she was talking about the practice until she fell asleep.” He smiled, slightly teary-eyed. “That is what it’s all about.”
From the perspective of anyone who is not a Pittsburgh Penguins fan, there were so many euphoric elements to last night’s Penguins / Columbus Blue Jackets playoff game. I have been a diehard Brandon Dubinsky fan since both of our rookie seasons (his first playing for the Rangers, my first watching the Rangers), so it’s not too difficult to guess which snapshot moment of last night’s overtime win was my favorite.
But there’s more to this iconic picture—this indelible moment—than the capturing of the mere otherworldly euphoria of tying a playoff game with under 30 seconds left in regulation time. No, my friends; there is much more to be learned from this fine assortment of pixels. We’ve heard it said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and, indeed, this one is no exception.
To uncover some of the hidden secrets of this photo, let’s make some notations and analyze what’s really going on here:
A) Shoutout to @JosieMist for bringing this to my attention. Dunno what everyone else in the picture is looking at, because they’re missing all the action. Forget Stacy, this couple’s got it going on. Move over, Vancouver Riot Couple! Shove off, V-J Day Sailor-Nurse Kiss! There’s a new iconic victory/chaos makeout bonanza in town—and they’ve got a freakin’ canon in the background to accentuate their impassioned smoochfest.
A.1) THIRD-WHEELING SO HARD RN I CAN’T EVEN
B) The shade of this man’s face is quite alarming. He looks like Pepto-Bismol incarnated. And his head seems to be vaguely disembodied, like it’s about to detach from his body and float up into the empty rafters of Nationwide Arena.
E) The ultimate torture: The sneeze that never happens. God bless his soul.
F) The explanation for Dubinsky’s expression?
G) To whom does this leg belong? Is he/she okay? If not, can I have those pants?
H) It sort of looks like someone morphed Person B’s head into an approximation of Elvis and then strategically placed it in a different part of the picture, like a hockey-themed Where’s Waldo? game, but with dead rockstars.
I) “LET IT GOOOOOOOOOOO LET IT GOOOO, CAN’T HOLD ME BACK ANYMOOOOOOORE!”
Let’s clear this up at the outset: Yes, there are several key rule differences between high-level men’s and women’s hockey. Generically speaking, men’s hockey allows and incorporates body checking, whereas women’s hockey does not. Naturally, the hazy distinction between “body checking” and “body contact” provides for much on-ice debate between players and referees, but, hey, what’s a sport without constantly criticized officials?
If you’d like to analyze some of the nuances that make up the difference between body checking and body contact, James O’Brien at NBC’s Olympic Talk came up with an informative breakdown of the body contact rules:
James O’Brien @cyclelikesedins
On paper, there is a clear distinction between “playing the puck” and “playing the body.” In terms of calling penalties for illegal body contact, it’s often hard to distinguish. But then, boarding penalties in the National Hockey League (and beyond) also toe that tenuous line between penalty and…
As far as sports narratives go, Thursday’s New York Rangers / Columbus Blue Jackets game is a gold mine. Journalists perk up whenever a player faces his former team for the first time, and this particular game marks that First Matchup for a whopping seven players. (I’m including Nash, even though, barring a miraculous Callahan-esque recovery, he won’t be playing. And I’m excluding Stralman, because he faced the Blue Jackets as a Ranger during that infamous “We don’t want you!” game in 2012 at MSG.) Why is that First Time Back so meaningful? Well, my friends, why is any matchup against a former team meaningful? If two teams exchange a certain amount of players, at what point does one team simply morph into the other? Will the universe explode if Columbus starts a line of Gaborik-Anisimov-Dubinsky against New York? Is a team really more than the sum of its parts? Am I getting off topic? Lest we get tangled up in philosophical quandaries, here’s a quick refresher on the relevant “parts” in question: (s/t to Mike MacLean for the visual; I adapted it from this article.)
* Currently playing for the Blue Jackets’ AHL affiliate, the Springfield Falcons. Erixon leads the team with 9 points in 6 games.
** Johnson leads the Hartford Wolfpack with 14 points in 12 games.
The two trade breakdowns are as follows:
1.Rangers acquire: Rick Nash’s concussions, Steven Delisle, and a conditional third-round pick (Pavel Buchnevich)
Blue Jackets acquire: Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon, and a 2013 first-round pick (Kerby Rychel)
2. Rangers acquire: Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett, John Moore, and a 2014 sixth-round pick
Blue Jackets acquire: Marian Gaborik, Blake Parlett, and Steven “Hot Potato” Delisle
Most (if not all) of the players traded between these two teams were core members of their former teams. Any Blue Jackets or Rangers fan telling you they don’t feel even a sliver of nostalgia at seeing this group of players together again on the ice is straight-up lying. Or has no soul. So, what better way to ease your case of heart-wrenching nostalgia than by imbibing liver-wrenching doses of alcohol? Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to drink until you literally can’t differentiate between the two teams. In other words, until you reach my perpetual state of existence. And so, I hereby present: The unofficially official New Columbus York Blueshirt Jackets intra-squad scrimmage drinking game:
Note: The drinking game commences as soon as the pre-game show begins. I mean, it’s called “pre-game” for a reason, amiright?
A Rangers/Blue Jackets crossover infographic is displayed on screen.
A former/current Blue Jacket/Ranger scores a goal.
Tyutin throws a hip-check.
A broadcaster references former teammates catching up over dinner.
A player interview is shown on screen for the sole purpose of talking about his former team.
Bonus drink: The phrase “loved my time there” is used.
Extra Bonus drink: That phrase is followed up with “But I’m happy to be here now!”
“No hard feelings”
The word “emotional” is used by a broadcaster or player (But not by me. You’d be dead in seconds.)
The phrase “fan favorite” is used to describe a) Dubinsky as a Ranger, b) Dorsett as a Blue Jacket.
The former GAS Line (Gaborik-Anisimov-Stepan) ends up on the ice together.
A Rangers fan tweets about “wishing we had [current Blue Jacket] back.”
Bonus drink: I manage to weasel my way into the conversation.
Derek Dorsett and Brandon Dubinsky fight.
Derek Dorsett and Jared Boll fight.
Bonus drink: …and then surreptitiously fist-bump.
The points awarded on a Blue Jackets goal consist entirely of former Rangers.
Jody Shelley offers in-game commentary that is deemed “irrelevant.”
A Rangers broadcaster experiences a senior moment and mistakes J. T. Miller (currently #10 on the Rangers) for Marian Gaborik (formerly #10 on the Rangers) or John Moore (currently #17 for the Rangers) for Brandon Dubinsky (formerly #17 for the Rangers).
TMFT on the ice—that is, Too Many Former Teammates (more than 5) end up on the ice at one time.
Vinny Prospal is mentioned.
Bonus Drink: His headshot is displayed on screen and his spray tan is still fantastic.
Nikolai Zherdev is mentioned.
Bonus Drink: Christian Backman and Dan Fritsche are also mentioned.
A player from one team celebrates a goal by “accidentally” hugging someone from the other team.
Dubinsky is announced as the new Blue Jackets captain.
Gaborik scores five goals; Lundqvist, watching from the bench, whistles innocently.
Another trade is announced between the two teams… in the middle of the game.
Petr Prucha is mentioned. Hey, you never know.
Feel free to add in any additional ideas (especially some Blue Jackets-centric ones!) in the comments below. May your livers recover in time for the next Rangers-Blue Jackets matchup at Madison Square Garden on December 12. Good luck!
For hockey fans, August is the most agonizingly boring month of the calendar year. NHL media outlets struggle to scrape together content for daily publication, to the extent that you get extensive coverage of a press conference in which players and executives gush about how excited they are for an event that was announced months ago, people start shaking with excitement whenever details about relatively meaningless preseason games are announced, and something like this headline happens: “Free Agent [Player X] Still Undecided About Future.” Thanks for the critical update, NHL.com! (Yes yes, I know, Player X = Teemu Selanne, and Team Teemu needs to be informed whenever he puts one foot in front of the other, because he is our Guiding Light from heaven above, #TeemuForever, amen. But come on.)
Other articles I’ve read recently talk about events that occurred many eons ago, but the reporters figured, hey, August is where all hockey news goes to die, so it’s as good a time as any to revisit every historical NHL event that ever occurred. (Happy 25th anniversary of the Gretzky trade, everyone!) Keeping up with the times, I decided to contribute to this trend and dig up a notable NHL-related event and the rather hush-hush details surrounding it: The 2009 ousting of NHLPA boss Paul Kelly.
I stumbled upon the story back in January, while interviewing a woman named Susan Foster—someone who is, frankly, criminally under-recognized in the hockey world (at least among fans). Ms. Foster wrote a widely influential book with Leafs’ legend Carl Brewer—The Power of Two—in which she and Brewer exposed the corruption of the NHLPA’s first executive director, Alan Eagleson. Long before the book’s publication in 2006, back when he was serving as a federal prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice, Paul Kelly became friendly with Foster. The two kept in touch throughout Kelly’s brief turn as the PA’s director, which lasted from October 24, 2007 to August 31, 2009.
What exactly happened that night, you ask? Find out below, courtesy of the estimable Susan Foster. PS: Kelly himself gave this exposition his blessing. Take that for what it’s worth.
Q: How was Paul Kelly fired?
It was a set-up — a power play or “palace coup” orchestrated by a couple of inside managers at the NHLPA (holdovers from the Bob Goodenow era), and a few newly appointed outside Board members. This array of individuals had become increasingly uncooperative with Paul in an effort to assert their own agenda. They made it extremely difficult for him to pursue various initiatives and make many of the positive changes and improvements he wanted to make for all the players.
A few PA members confidentially voiced concerns to Paul about a meeting of the Executive Board that was held in Las Vegas from which he was excluded, and during which issues were discussed that affected all players, Paul did the right thing. The players who voiced these concerns believed that the PA Constitution had been violated. Paul knew he had a legal obligation to explore these concerns and attempt to learn what had transpired during this session, and indeed a duty as Executive Director to act to protect the interests of all members of the PA.
When the minutes of the meeting were sent to Paul – and only after he first consulted with legal counsel — Paul reviewed the minutes. Thereafter, he was open and honest and disclosed to the players that he had reviewed the minutes of the meeting, the reasons he had done so, and what he had learned: that the PA’s constitution had indeed been violated during this meeting.
Unfortunately, this issue was twisted and manipulated against Paul by some of these same insiders and outside Board members that had participated in this meeting, and they used Paul’s honesty and integrity against him. These individuals relentlessly lobbied a small handful of players over many hours during an evening player meeting in Chicago and ultimately convinced them to take the regrettable step of terminating Paul’s employment, at 4:30 am in the morning. At all times, however, Paul Kelly did exactly the right thing and upheld his duty to the membership.
Q: Why didn’t Kelly fight it?
Without question, Paul had a strong legal case for wrongful dismissal. However, it was his choice not to pursue this avenue. He is a peacemaker not a war-monger by nature and he has a huge heart and concern for others. He’s the type of person who looks forward, not backwards.
He did not want to drag his family through a prolonged lawsuit. His family had already paid a huge price by his taking on this position with the PA. He was living in Toronto and constantly on the road while his wife and family lived in Boston.
Furthermore, amazingly, in spite of his treatment by a few of the players, he said that he didn’t want to cause harm to the player members of the NHLPA or the game itself.
Q: What has gone wrong since Kelly was ousted?
Paul Kelly’s ousting was the greatest travesty that’s ever happened to the players. He was the only Executive Director who was concerned exclusively with looking after the best interests of the players and their families.
Paul was not in this role to make a name for himself. He’s an honorable, good man and a very diplomatic person, and it was a great loss for the players.
The circumstances of Donald Fehr’s appointment as Paul’s successor were very suspicious. He was on the phone with the group in Chicago within hours of Paul’s termination, and it was a foregone conclusion that he would eventually become as the next Executive Director.
I am absolutely sure that Paul Kelly would have put the CBA negotiations to bed months ago, but Fehr kept digging in his heels. He made everyone think the two sides were close to a deal, and yet he was the one putting up roadblocks that hindered a deal from being struck.
In one of the important meetings, he showed up 90 minutes late and put three ideas on the table, but he hadn’t calculated any of the numbers on what he was offering so it was basically a complete waste of time for everybody.
Fascinating inside look, if anything. But speaking to Paul Kelly myself a few days ago (for a totally separate interview) solidified this image of him in my mind. He not only refused to criticize anyone involved in the 2012-13 negotiations, but he went out of his way to praise everyone involved—though he did add that he would have begun discussions months beforehand and hopefully avoided a lockout altogether. And isn’t that what we’d all love to hear?
Peter Tingling, a business professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, analyzed the data from years of NHL drafts in an effort to measure the effectiveness of scouts’ drafting decisions. His conclusion? “Better off guessing.”
Of course, that won’t stop NHL teams from sending legions of scouts to remote locations all across North America, Russia, the Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden, Slovakia, and Germany, tasked with the goal of finding the Next Big Star. That won’t stop these scouts from pouring through detailed statistics of 15-year-old kids, analyzing their physical properties and mental capacities and everything in between. On the other side of the glass, the teenage hockey players know they’re under the microscope, understand that everything about every action on and off the ice is dissected, evaluated, and given a numerical grade. Come draft year, the more overtly skilled players can’t even put together a sandwich without being scrutinized for their creativity (or lack thereof) in ingredient choices. Each prospect tolerates and even embraces the spotlight, because it means that he can continue to foster his dream of maybe, just maybe, one day playing in the National Hockey League, playing for the team he adores, playing alongside the star he grew up idolizing.
But before that, he dreams of the June day in the year of his 18th birthday– the day he’ll hear his name announced in front of a crowd of thousands, the day he’ll walk up to the representatives of the NHL team that chose him out of hundreds, and he’ll pull on that team’s sweater and be able to call it his own. It’s a day when dreams are fulfilled or crushed, and whole lives begin anew: It’s Draft Day, baby.
After years of following the NHL draft online by scanning a list of names and, in the cases of draft picks of a team I like or the appearance of a player under 5’9”, consulting a brief scouting report on the player in question, I was given the opportunity this year to attend a draft for myself.
I pulled into a Newark lot a smidge later than I had anticipated, and I barely got a chance to enjoy the rollicking fanfest set up outside Prudential Center as I hurried to the media trailer to pick up my press pass. I could barely contain my joy when the nice lady handed me a lanyard to go along with my credentials. (After dealing with a season of temporary passes strung through stretchy-string necklace ties, lanyard necklaces had come to represent, in my mind, the mark of a truly important event and/or a truly important reporter. The last time I received a lanyard press pass, I had to travel to Vegas to get it.) Enjoying the humid, filthy, sticky Newark air, I wandered around outside and squinted at a few boys in suits as if their names, potential draft statuses, and bios would magically materialize on their foreheads. When that didn’t happen, I headed inside.
The perk of actually being thereversus watching the whole production from home (or reading about it afterwards) manifests itself in a paradoxical way: The feeling of immediacy, of experiencing the moment When It All Began, is something that only takes on significance in retrospect. That is, looking back on Draft Day from some indefinite time in the future, when Draftee Number One, or Five, or Twenty Seven, or One Hundred Twenty Seven is hoisting the Stanley Cup, you can announce to no one in particular: “I was there the day he was drafted. I was there the day it all began.” But the drafting procedure itself, taking place in real time, is not too thrilling, to be honest.
I was joking about bringing my Columbia University Women’s Ice Hockey Club jersey in case my name is called, but I did spend a significantly embarrassing amount of time wondering what it would feel like. I imagined the thoughts and feelings of those 18-year-old boys who, unlike me, actually harbored realistic hopes of being called that night. For the players who went in the first three rounds, I can imagine the experience was quite different than that of the players who were picked in rounds four through seven—or not at all. Seth Jones may have slid down all the way to number four, but he knew not only that his name would be called, but that he would get to walk up to the stage, shake the commissioner’s hand, and pose for a picture with an NHL jersey brought out just for him—as only first round picks get to do. Later round picks don’t get the luxury of donning a jersey with their names printed on the back. Later round picks don’t get the luxury of knowing that their names will be called. Then, of course, there are those boys who sit through the entire seven-hour endeavor without hearing their names called at all. Of the many iconic pictures that filtered out of Prudential Center that day, no photograph was more moving than the one that showed, in the back left corner of the picture, a father and son sitting amidst a sea of empty seats as the draft was coming to a close. So many dreams are fulfilled that day, but so many are dashed as well.
Those who weren’t drafted can reenter next year, and many undrafted prospects were already invited to development camps across the country for a last-minute opportunity to impress some men in suits and earn themselves a second look. And as for the ability to pursue that NHL dream, well, the NHL is sprinkled with undrafted superstars. Some little guy named Marty St. Louis just won the League scoring title for the second time in his career. You could say he made $400 without ever passing Go—and you, my little undrafted friends, could too!
But for the vast majority of future NHLers, Draft Day is where it all begins.
My favorite moment of the Draft occurred 211 times that evening. Of the 50 or so that I witnessed firsthand, I flailed audibly at every single one of them. The moment in question, of course, is the Post-Draftee Name Announcement Family Hugfest, which, to me, is emblematic of the sum total of all feelings associated with that momentous occasion: excitement, relief, anticipation, fear, envy from other prospects, separation anxiety for mom, etc. The 208th PDNAFH, however, was the most heartwarming one by far. The Devils, with the newly acquired 208th draft pick, awarded franchise goalie and future Hall-of-Famer Martin Brodeur the honor of selecting his own son, Anthony, as the club’s final pick for the evening. Playing it cool, the kid took his time finding his way to the draft floor, where his father and a bunch of other important Devils executives awaited his arrival to claim his jersey. And when he approached the table, he did what he had always been taught to do: he reached out to shake the hand of the man holding his shiny new jersey. Which, in this case, happened to be his dad.
Marty, of course, would have none of it. He pulled his son into his arms and hugged him as if the two of them were up in the stands, rather than on the draft floor, in front of the cameras and executives and whatnot. The pride on Brodeur Sr.’s face was unmistakable. Anthony’s face was inscrutable, mostly due to the fact that it was buried in his father’s shoulder.
Draft day is a day of hope; prospects hope to hear their names called, fans hope their team’s picks will somewhere along the line evolve into high-level contributors for the Big Club, and scouts hope their selections will reflect favorably upon them in the future. Every living being in the building reeks of Hope. Even the highly-touted prospects who know they’ll hear their names called in the first round would be lying if they said they didn’t harbor hopes of landing with a certain NHL team over another.
Hope: one of the most dangerous words in the English language. Another? Luck.
And luck, as Peter Tingling discovered, is really what it all boils down to. This is not a knock on what professional scouts purport to do for a living—far from it. In accepting the overarching element of luck in the whole process, we can appreciate the job that scouts do—attempt to render the element of luck inconsequential—all the more. But at the end of the day, they’re dealing with human beings, not machines. At the end of the day, every human being is a wild card. And at the end of the day, what kind of human is a wilder wild card than a teenage boy?
The night before the draft, I watched an interview with top-rated prospect Seth Jones. Seated at the table with him were six or seven Columbus Blue Jackets executives. One at a time, they began to question him about his skills, level of competition, etc. The air was so thick with formality, it seemed more like a CIA interrogation than a prospect interview. Jones, having been trained in the art of Boringly But Appropriately Answering Interview Questions, handled it all with poise. But he was thrown for a loop when general manager Jarmo Kekalainen leaned in from the shadows, steepled fingers clasped under his chin, icy eyes flashing, bald head gleaming, and, as if he were asking the president of the United States whether or not he should launch nuclear weapons at North Korea, posed the following query: “Should we trade our three first-round picks in order to draft you?” There was only one right answer. But Jarmo was looking for the other.
Jones blinked, and in that moment, he looked like any other 18-year-old boy.
Midway through the second round of the draft, I slipped down to the ice-less ice level to catch some of the interviews and observe these boys in their most candid moments. Dozens of people milled around the cavernous hallway jutting out from the Zamboni entrance; the NHL Network had a table set up for one-on-one draftee interviews, televisions were scattered on various walls for the purpose of updating media members on the goings on of the draft floor, and a couple more tables were set up on raised daises so that the newly drafted players could face their very first swarm of reporters.
In my mind, I divided the draftees into two categories: Those who looked older than 18 years old and those who looked younger. Goalie Zach Fucale, for example, looked like he had just stepped off the playground and could really use an ice pop; and yet here he was addressing esteemed reporters about the condition of a professional sports outlet. In French, probably.
But all of these boys—despite their interview training, despite their already-chaotic lifestyles—all of them now walked with the tiniest extra jump in their steps, looking around with gazes just a little bit glossier, eyes just a little bit bigger, polite smiles stretched just a little bit broader. I always thought the term “glowing” could only be applied to pregnant women, but after experiencing the NHL draft, I’d have to expand the list to include newly drafted hockey players as well.
So, here’s how I saw it: Kid hears his name called, experiences thrill of the century, dutifully hugs mom, dad, girlfriend, siblings, and anyone else who might be within embracing distance, and then, suddenly, he’s following a man in a suit down a tunnel, and the PR guy he just met gently shuffles him to the interview table, chatting with him, questioning him about his family and hotel accommodations in/around the fine city of Newark, asking how he feels about this tremendous life event. Meanwhile, the kid’s trying to ignore the buzzing in his pocket that signifies a flood of congratulatory texts, because he needs to focus on putting his inexpressible feelings into words.
One draft pick in particular stood out to me: a kid who was picked up by the hometown Devils. The Devs made a splash in the first round by dealing their first round pick for Vancouver goalie Cory Schneider, and then traded its 39th pick to the Phoenix Arizona Coyotes for the 42nd and 73rd selections. With the 42nd pick, New Jersey grabbed Bronxville native (like me—holla!) Steve Santini—a guy who happens to have been a lifetime Rangers fan. “That changed twenty minutes ago,” Santini quipped, when asked about his NHL allegiance. You could tell he was already itching to redecorate his room.
When the outpouring of questions trickled to an abrupt halt, the reporters surrounding Santini’s table went to seek out another shiny object to interview. Santini stood off to the side with a member of the Devils’ PR team, waiting to be ushered away once again. Santini was bouncing excitedly. Suddenly, he froze. “Wait. Was I the Devils’ first pick? I was, wasn’t I?” He beamed, like he had just scored a date to the prom. “Cool.”
Five hours later, I was finally ready to head home. The dusk air felt peaceful and refreshing compared to the swirling bustle of activity taking place under the too-bright lights in the bowels of the Prudential Center. Looking up after fidgeting with the contents of my bag, I noticed a family of four stroll by, chatting softly. In the front, a young man walked alongside a middle-aged woman—his mother, I assumed. He was proudly sporting a red, white and blue Canadiens jersey with the name “MCCARRON” emblazoned across the back. At 6-5, McCarron towered over his mother, easily falling into my first category of draftees. He walked with his mother, hand in hand, the white lettering of his jersey gleaming under the light of the streetlamp.
It was another touching moment in an altogether emotionally charged night. Who knows which of the night’s draftees will embark on an NHL career? Which will play a season, or just a game? Even first rounders aren’t sure things, as many long-suffering Rangers fans can attest. Some will get hurt, some will lose confidence, some will suffer through both. In the end, these are kids, and the world of professional sports can be a harsh place.
But, if only for this one night, these kids can dream.
One: Because jeering at people is mean and makes me sad, and we should all love each other instead. Two: Because how do you think Gary Bettman explains the booing to his kids? Three: Because your team just won the Holy Grail of sports after enduring several grueling weeks of agony, grit, luck, hard work, blood, sweat and tears, and instead of reveling in the euphoria that will last a lifetime, you scrape up vestiges of negativity and hiss at the man who represents the league you claim love so much? It boggles my mind.
But the most glaring reason the Gary Bettman boobirds bother me so much is because they display such woeful ignorance. And I know you people are not stupid.
Often, the insults are simply indicative of bigotry. Some Canadians hate the fact that Bettman is American, because the place of his birth allegedly means that he lacks an innate passion and appreciation for The Game. Bettman is also Jewish, a fun fact that was exploited with particular vehemence at several points during the 2012 lockout, because what screams originality like a good ol’ “greedy Jews” joke? (Or maybe I’m just extra-sensitive because, like Gary, I’m Jewish, American, and a resident of New Jersey. Represent!)
Gary Bettman has been compared to more villains (both historical and fictional) than I care to count. Sure, he deserves his fair share of blame for a fair share of NHL-related happenings (or, in the case of the missing half of the 2012-13 NHL season, non-happenings)—but no more than his fair share. You can’t expose the bad without also pointing out the good. Why is the Commish vilified so extensively and so absolutely? Truth be told, a vast majority of the “Bettman Sucks” hype lacks any substance whatsoever.
Hearing the word “lockout” tends to send NHL fans into convulsions of rage, so I’ll try not to harp on this topic more than necessary, but it’s understandably impossible to discuss Gary Bettman’s public image problem without alluding to the decades of labor unrest. The fact that Bettman was at the league’s helm during three work stoppages is telling, to be sure, but telling of what, exactly? As the popular saying goes, it takes two to tango, and while Gary was the guy running the show for the trifecta of messy legal battles, he tangoed with a total of four NHLPA bosses over the past two decades. He may be sly, he may be calculating, he may be cold, and he may be vain, (not that I’m suggesting any of these) but the men across the table from him all these years ranged from questionably moral to downright criminal (hello and goodbye, Alan Eagleson).
Meanwhile, does anyone remember Donald Fehr? Mr. Baseball, for all intents and purposes, sailed his yacht down the Hudson after this year’s Collective Bargaining Agreement was finally signed—no thanks to him. (I heard that he showed up 90 minutes late to an important meeting and put three ideas on the table, but he hadn’t calculated any of the numbers on what he was offering, so it was basically a complete waste of time for everybody.) Susan Foster, partner of the late Carl Brewer and players’ rights trailblazer, offered me an insider’s look at the procedings when I interviewed her during the recent lockout. She noted that the circumstances of Donald Fehr’s appointment as NHLPA boss were very suspicious; he was on the phone with the group in Chicago within hours of Paul Kelly’s termination, and it was a foregone conclusion that he would eventually become as the next Executive Director. Plus, the employment arrangement that Fehr cut for himself seems tremendously self-serving. He could live in New York and write a book while heading up the CBA negotiations.
Alas, I’ll stop ranting about the evils of Don Fehr before the pot has a chance to call the kettle black. I only brought him up in order to highlight two little known Gary Bettman incidents.
The first involves Ms. Foster, who has devoted her life to helping out retired NHL players. Many former NHLers not named Gretzky or Howe were in dire straits because of an inadequate pension fund, and Foster has worked tirelessly over the years to remedy the league’s glaring oversights. Thanks to her efforts, the NHL and NHLPA agreed last fall to continue financing the Senior Player Benefit Plan for the old-timers and, in January, pledged to improve the benefit program even more.
Foster explained to me, warm smile noticeable in her tone of voice, Bettman’s hands-on involvement in the process:
He has been on board from the beginning. Back in July, I prepared a letter in which we expressed our gratitude and explained why these payments have been so helpful. We asked the NHL and the NHLPA to respectfully consider continuing these payments in the future. It was signed by about 24 of the older players who attend these luncheons, like Harry Howell, Bob Baun, Bob Nevin, Peter Conacher, and countless others.
A copy was sent to Gary Bettman and the Players’ Association. Gary Bettman—on the eve of the lockout—emailed me, thanking me for that letter, and saying that I should rest assured that the NHL was committed to continuing to support the former players. There was never an acknowledgment from the NHLPA regarding that letter. (In the end, they agreed to cooperate with Bettman and the NHL to continue the payments.)
Can we get a #BettmanCares?
Another personal tale comes from the Hockey Maven himself—Stan Fischler—who should probably be voted “Bettman’s #1 Fan” before he retires. Stan showed me, without commentary, a hand-written note from the NHL commissioner in which he thanked Stan for sending along a book and for being a good friend to him over the years. Seriously: Awwww.
All of that, of course, goes on behind the scenes. My point is, those who assume that Bettman spends his free time stealing lunch money from helpless Canadian children couldn’t be more wrong.
But Bettman’s villainous persona in the public eye is baffling to me as well. The simplest answer is usually the correct one, so it’s not over the top to suggest that Bettman merely functions as a lightning rod for the vitriol of all NHL fans, players, and reporters. He is the face of the league in the legal sense, so it’s easy to blame him for any and all of its shortcomings. Jonathon Gatehouse, author of The Instigator: How Gary Bettman Remade the League and Changed the Game Forever, noted wryly that “being hated is part of Gary Bettman’s job description.” The Commish has accepted this aspect of his role with a remarkable amount of stoicism. “If I can deflect negative attention from the game and the owners,” he once told Leafs’ blogger Howard Berger, “I’m fine with it.
But what of his professional accomplishments? According to an old New York Times articleWikipedia I dug up, Bettman’s objective at the dawn of his tenure was “simple”:
Put a stop to labor unrest; sell the product in television’s mainstream marketplace; change the violent image of the game; curb salary inflation; force enlightened self-interest on reluctant, old-fashioned owners; expand contacts with European developmental leagues and markets; settle the divisive issue of possible Olympic involvement, and help launch several new expansion teams.
The persistent focus on the first, (largely failed) goal is understandable; I, too, am infuriated by the 113-day lockout that lasted 113 days too long. (And the NHL’s involvement in the upcoming Olympics still remains to be worked out, but I’m optimistic that the NHL and NHLPA will get their acts together—and soon.) But the game has changed in unbelievably important ways since that February morning in 1993, and if Bettman had a hand in all three lockouts, then it’s safe to say he had a hand in the unprecedented growth during that time as well.
We’re constantly throwing around phrases like “Most watched _____ ever” with regards to each subsequent Stanley Cup Final game; consider “the product in television’s mainstream marketplace” sold. The NHL’s television exposure has been one of the defining successes of the last two decades. The league has come a long way since the 5-year deals with FOX, ABC, and ESPN, and even those were jaw-dropping at the time. Then came the Versus deal in 2006, worth $207.5 million. Finally, in April of 2011, a 10 year/$2 billion deal was signed with NBC, giving the league it’s highest ever rights fee from a U.S. network. Not to mention programs like GameCenter, Center Ice, and XM radio talkshows, which lessen the need for such extensive television network coverage. In 2011-12, the league’s revenue totaled $3.2 billion. In this lockout-shortened campaign (48 games), revenue is expected to be upwards of $2.4 billion. That’s 72% of the revenue with 58% of the games played. Despite (…because of?) the labor unrest, the league is undeniably flourishing. (Need more info, stats gurus? Look no further than this Chris Botta article.)
As for “salary inflation”, the introduction of the salary cap and of cap circumvention prevention clauses have seen to that. And as for the violent image of the game, well, take one look at the evolvement of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety. Though the European Premiere games will not be back to start the 2013-14 season, that venture—along with the potential revival of the World Cup of Hockey—is certainly on the table for further discussion.
And expansion? Sure, there have been pitfalls. Sure, the Coyotes are struggling, despite the continued support of diehard Desert Dog fans. But the league has, literally speaking, expanded—and benefited. For every Atlanta Thrashers, there’s a San Jose Sharks; for every Florida Panthers, there’s a Winnipeg Jets. Thanks to the interest in hockey inspired by expansion teams, youth hockey has grown exponentially as well—check out this piece by USA Hockey’s Chris Peters about the impact of Sidney Crosby on Pittsburgh hockey in particular.
The institution of traditions like Hockey Weekend Across America is another boon for the game, and the Winter Classic has been a rousing success every year since its inception in 2008. (Although, maybe the six Outdoor Classics that have been been scheduled for next season is just a bit excessive, we say, as we shell out the cash and instacollage pics of our road trips to each and every outdoor game.)
I’m not pretending to be an expert on the business ventures of the NHL. But one can’t charge the league’s commissioner with the bad without also praising him for the good. Do you enjoy connecting with other fans while taking in the Stanley Cup Final on TV? Do you revel in the magic of the Winter Classic? Do you appreciate the countless opportunities available to youth hockey players?
Chalk it up to an empathetic projection of my vasovagal reaction to pain—a relatively normal physiological reaction, all things considered. Luckily, I haven’t personally experienced much physical trauma in my life, so I’m happy to say I can’t describe this phenomenon in more detail. But from my understanding, this is your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong, and you should probably go about acquiring medical attention for that broken fibula instead of “valiantly” wriggling around the ice during that penalty kill, Greg.
We all know that pain is a part of life. But should it be idealized—both in the realm of athletics, and beyond? Should we be teaching young hockey players to swallow the hurt and chug away, because tears are for the weak, and hockey (which is a metaphor for life, dontcha know?) is for the tough?
Some very brilliant hockey writers have expressed their sentiments on this subject better than I could ever hope to, so you should start by checking out Ryan Lambert’s take (“Hockey’s attitude towards injuries remains as dumb as ever”) and then Joe Proulx’s response (“You’re not always gonna feel great, but the job comes first”) Oh, and for a refresher on some of the spilled blood and broken bones that saturate the history of the NHL, Stu Hackel at Sports Illustrated launches into the grisly details. You know what they say—no guts, no glory.
Old-time hockey is filled with guts-and-glory stories, many of which involved the indomitable Eddie Shore (those crazy Bruins, eh?), who accumulated an estimated 800 stiches over the course of his 15-year NHL career. In a single game against the Montreal Maroons, Shore suffered a lacerated cheekbone, a two-inch cut above his eye (both of which were blackened), a broken nose, three broken teeth, and was knocked out cold for 14 minutes. But hey, no biggie—he played in the next game. And that, depending on your point of view, makes him either a hero or an idiot.
I can still admire—from the safety of my couch—the unbelievable motivation that many of these hockey players demonstrate. Theirs is the kind of motivation that drives a person to give something their absolute all, the kind that pushes Gregory Campbell to dive in front of that slapshot in the first place. (I admire this because, after all, I am a Rangers fan.) Plus, I embrace the idea of wholly committing oneself to something, if only as a Didion-esque means of attempting to triumph over nothingness. And even as I recognize that I’m writing about a sports game, I do accept that there are lessons to be learned, and that disregarding one’s own safety for something Greater—be it the morale of the team, the Stanley Cup, or what have you—is commendable.
But in my mind, there’s a line to be drawn somewhere between Bravery and Absurdity, and Gregory Campbell’s actions hurtle past the former and into the realm of the latter. Maybe this mindset is a function of the fact that I am not, contrary to popular belief, a professional hockey player. I have not struggled through innumerable obstacles—both physical and emotional—in order to get to this point in my career; I am not holding the precious hopes and dreams of my teammates (and countless others) on my shoulders alongside my own. Put in more mundane terms: It’s not my job to do whatever it takes to win.
Even so, I am a hockey player, and a hockey fan, and I, too, have lovingly memorized the closing monologue of last year’s 24/7, which includes this gem: “Never get caught telling a hockey player, ‘It’s just a game.’” While I do believe that hockey is more than “just a game,” I also believe—contrary to what the unbreakable Brandon Prust says—that pain is more than “just pain.”
The idea of glorifying pain is hopelessly antiquated, insofar as it is intricately connected to the idealization of tough-guy, hyper-masculine sports personas. If ignoring your body’s desperate need for medical attention is considered “toughening up,” then the alternative—that is, succumbing to pain—makes you a sissy (short for “sister”; a pejorative, sexist term that implies that women are weaker and therefore inferior; see “Crosby, Cindy”). Yes, toughness as a manifestation of determination is a part of the game of hockey, and determination is a wonderful quality to possess in life. But the endurance of pain should be separated from that abstract notion. (Especially since it is, in large part, a farce, considering the heaps of medication a player probably ingests in order to “play through the pain” of a torn labrum or a PCL, a broken wrist or cracked ankle. This Pain-fighting Hero, then, is not even him. Or her. But I digress.) I happen to like the “Hockey is for everyone” slogan over the “Hockey is for only really tough manly-men who happen to have been born with a high pain-tolerance threshold and a blatant disregard for personal well-being.”
Though it may seem impossible to establish a dividing line between Bravery and Absurdity, perhaps we can adopt one from everybody’s favorite movie, Miracle. (Of course.) After confirming with the team doctor that Rob McClanahan wouldn’t further injure his bruised leg by playing on it, coach Herb Brooks tells McClanahan to suit up for the game—implying that if his player was at risk for further injury, Brooks wouldn’t have sent him out on the ice.
Now, we’re left with these categories: Playing through temporary pain is laudable, but playing through temporary pain with potentially long-term consequences is just plain stupid. When we say that the NHL is “cracking down on concussions,” we’re essentially placing concussions in the second category and agreeing that under no circumstances should a player attempt to “play through” a concussion. But when a player is pulling on his jersey for the fifth overtime period and at that point is really just dreaming about his bed, not the Stanley Cup, we’d all agree that he should push himself past this exhaustion the moment he steps out onto the ice. Easy enough distinction, right?
As I’m sure you’ve already realized, it may not be that simple. McClanahan, who, it must be noted, did not know what the doctor had revealed to the coach, responded to Brooks’ goading with one of the (zillions upon gazillions of) greatest lines in the movie: “I AM A HOCKEY PLAYER! YOU WANT ME TO PLAY ON ONE LEG? I’LL PLAY ON ONE LEG!”
Cue Gregory Campbell.
And really, who doesn’t get goosebumps from an impassioned pronouncement like that? He’ll play on one leg—he’s a hockey player! He’ll dislocate his shoulder, pop it back in, and come out for overtime—he’s a hockey player! He’ll “get his bell rung” in a fight and drop the gloves again four minutes later—he’s a hockey player!
But maybe, just maybe, there’s a fatal flaw in this so-called ideal. Decades ago, wearing helmets was a radical concept. Months ago, visors were optional. Mandating the use of Kevlar socks is still a while away, but it’s not as inconceivable as it once was. Like anything, the game of hockey needs to evolve to survive. These changes are strengthening the game, not weakening it. In addition to the aforementioned rule changes, we’re beginning to see a slight culture change as well—The NHL’s recent partnership with You Can Play represents an important step in the right direction, towards a more inclusive, and less impulsively reckless, NHL.
Change can be painful. But it is precisely the kind of pain that we should endure.
“Not many leaders are this versed in the craft of motivation.”
These words from Liev Schreiber’s powerful narration in last year’s HBO 24/7 series accompanied a clip of John Tortorella practicing his “craft of motivation.” Truth be told, Torts was pretty good at it.
But what happens when the motivator ceases to motivate? When your high-spirited team becomes just another group of struggling individuals?
If your name is John Tortorella, you find yourself out of a job.
Tortorella was one of only two bench bosses to make it to the second round of the NHL playoffs in each of the past two seasons. He led a scrappy, overachieving New York Rangers team to the Eastern Conference Final only one year ago and earned a Jack Adams nomination for his efforts.
That 2012 team believed in its coach and, therefore, believed in itself. That team had an identity. That team had “jam.”
Many scoff at the importance of “intangibles,” but there is one aspect of last season’s successful squad that was notably missing in New York City throughout this shortened campaign: Confidence.
A coach can’t blast a shot from the point, clear the crease, forecheck, backcheck, or pokecheck. A coach can’t score goals, save goals, or deliver a walloping hit. But that’s not a coach’s job. A coach’s job is to inspire his players to perform up to their potential and then to surpass it; to believe in their ability to succeed as players and as a unified team, all for the purpose of obtaining hockey’s ultimate prize: Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Tortorella was behind the bench for last season’s swagger-induced miracle run and this season’s star-powered playoff push, but he failed to achieve The Goal—a Stanley Cup—with either.
The 2012 squad, despite its admirable, work ethic-fueled success, was missing too many tangible pieces (goal scoring, elite skill) to make it all the way. The gritty Rangers finally ran out of grit, leaving Henrik Lundqvist to fend for himself while the rest of the team struggled to ignore incoming crash of reality.
The 2013 Rangers benefited on paper from the addition of elite goal-scorer Rick Nash, but sorely missed rugged depth players such as Brandon Dubinsky, Brandon Prust and Ruslan Fedotenko. To compensate for these losses—and, allegedly, to demonstrate a commitment to the coach—Glen Sather shipped Slovakian sniper Marian Gaborik to Columbus in exchange for two young, potentially explosive talents (Derick Brassard and John Moore) and a hard-nosed Torts specialty bruiser (Derek Dorsett). Ryane Clowe was also acquired to fill these dearly departed skates, and to provide some veteran leadership as well.
This replacement of missing parts left the Rangers with no more excuses. Skill? Check. Grit? Whatever the hell that is, check. But wins? Goals? As a netminder, Henrik Lundqvist can only do so much. A team that boasted the likes of Rick Nash, Brad Richards, and (for half of the season) Marian Gaborik should not have struggled to score—especially on the man advantage.
Tortorella’s art was motivation. His players noted his brute honesty as something that drives them to be better. Why else would Richards sign a nine-year deal with this coach? Why else would Nash, who had dozens of other GMs banging down his door, agree to come to New York?
“I trust them, and they trust me,” Torts once said about his players. But somewhere along the line, this trust went stale. Only the 23 players on Tortorella’s roster are privy to exactly when and where it went stale—or maybe they’re not even quite so sure. Regardless, the little things began to leak out: The coach’s assessment of Carl Hagelin’s power play performance, and Hagelin’s curt response. The disappearance of 2012 playoff sensation, Chris Kreider, and his inability to effectively, permanently find his game.
Then, there’s Exhibit A: The strained relationship between Tortorella and Gaborik, which led to the latter agreeing to waive his no-trade clause. At the time, it appeared that Glen Sather was demonstrating his commitment to working long-term with John Tortorella by unloading a 40-goal scorer who, try as he certainly did, never truly fit into Torts’ system. But in hindsight, it’s clear that Gabby was hightailing it out of the Big Apple before things got too heated.
Though Tortorella’s players said all the right things before and after each game, their play on the ice had noticeably deteriorated. Notoriously slow Taylor Pyatt wasn’t the only player who appeared to be skating through sludge. The lights in the renovated Madison Square Garden were brighter than ever this season, but the players on the ice were still struggling to find a spark.
The club’s morale certainly could not have improved when the coach opted to bench one of its leaders, Brad Richards, for Games 4 and 5 against Boston. Having earned just one point in his entire playoff campaign, Richards certainly deserved to be sidelined, and hardly anyone argued with the coach’s decision. But in truth, the situation should never have occurred in the first place.
And if Tortorella can’t elicit production from his fellow 2004 Stanley Cup-winner and longtime pal, there was hardly any hope for the rest of his squad either.
Henrik Lundqvist’s panic-inducing “we’ll see” comment during his exit interview appeared to be the final straw. Henk’s noncommittal response regarding a contract extension in New York was stated after his assertion that the organization had taken “a step backwards” rather than, as Tortorella proclaimed, “a sideways step.” New York management had to do something to keep its King happy, and they had to do it fast.
Tortorella outlasted Gaborik in the head-to-head battle of Who Goes First, but when Torts was weighed against franchise goalie Henrik Lundqvist, the result was not in the coach’s favor.
Put in exaggeratedly simple terms, Tortorella is only effective when he’s effective. The Rangers need a morale boost, and it’s not going to come from him.
This team’s Cup window is closing quickly, and Henrik Lundqvist isn’t getting any younger.