Gross Misconduct Hockey Thoughts from a drifter on the hockey landscape

12/28/2009

GMH On The Road: The Rust Belt Awaits

This week I go on one of the more awesome, and slightly random, hockey-themed road trips I’ve ever done.  This has become a bit of a thing for me, going back to April 2007 when I made it to Denver for the Frozen Four.  That trip was so incredible and life-fulfilling that it’s inspired me to do other trips both great and small.  Whether it meant going to last year’s Frozen Four in, now hockey-mad, Washington D.C., taking a short drive over the Berkshires to take in a Division III NCAA Tournament game or going to Montreal for the NHL Draft it didn’t matter – hockey was the reason and everything about each of those trips made it 100% worthwhile.

The great secret I’ve discovered is the road trip itself and when the college schedule was completed and it was announced that RPI would be heading to Detroit for the Great Lakes Invitational I circled the date and started to ask around to some of the other RPI-mad fans I know to see if this might be something we could do and sure enough… Everyone else was more than fair game and driving (yes, driving) from here around Albany to Detroit seemed to be the way to go about it.  More folks were contacted and more people were interested.  Hey, more the merrier, right?

For two days, this annual Michigan-centric tournament takes over Joe Louis Arena and University of Michigan, Michigan State and Michigan Tech have a battle to see who can be the GLI champion and get a banner hung inside the Joe to state as much.  Every year a fourth team is invited and RPI got the call this time around.  North Dakota was there last year, so it’s not as if a patsy is invited to secure an easy win for someone, although some Michigan fans seem to find RPI to be the weakest team to be invited in a long time.  We’ll see how that goes as Michigan is having a bit of an off year.

Fun thing about getting this many heads together for a plan is other ideas pop up.  The NHL schedule was released and sure enough, the “traditional” New Year’s Eve game at Joe Louis Arena was back on, after being called off for preparation for the Winter Classic last year.  Detroit against Colorado is the game and so another call was made to secure tickets for the gang.  Three nights in a row our band of RPI fanatics (now tentatively bearing the moniker of Collar City Madmen) would be holed up at Joe Louis Arena for a total of at least three games, probably four or five depending on how ambitious we are to see the other games of the GLI.

For myself, getting to see a Red Wings game at the Joe is the icing on the cake.  Look at it this way, about 25 years ago my hockey fandom was kicked into high gear thanks to the local team from RPI winning the National Championship against Providence College… At Joe Louis Arena.  It was that same local team that provided another local team, the Adirondack Red Wings, with a soon-to-be Hall of Fame player in Adam Oates (who was later unceremoniously traded by the Red Wings in one of the worst trades of all time) but helped make that connection to the NHL team I now follow.  Fast forward to now and here I’ll be in the same arena getting to see BOTH of these teams.

This is about as close to a religious experience as this lapsed Catholic will ever get.  I’ll be at the Joe where Oates, Puppa, Carter and Servinis helped lead RPI to their last National Championship and I’ll be getting my photo taken at Gordie Howe’s statue and finding ways to get as many pictures of Steve Yzerman’s banner as one person can get.

It’s my moment damn it, keep your remarks to yourself.

As Ron Popeil might say, “But wait, there’s more.”

This schedule for the trip means that New Year’s Eve will be spent hoping the Red Wings didn’t lose anymore players to injury and maybe pull out a victory and then finding a bar to hole up with the gang, usher in 2010 and then get right the hell to sleep because a road trip to Buffalo is in order for the day of January 1st.  Sure, most everyone will be going bonkers over the Winter Classic in Boston but we’ll be getting geared up for Thrashers v. Sabres at HSBC Arena in Buffalo because, really, you can’t have enough hockey.

Oddly enough, for the limited number of NHL games I get to see live this will be the second time I’ve seen Atlanta play in the last three or four years.  The last time I saw them was down at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers when the Thrashers won in overtime and Ilya Kovalchuk proved to me what a madman on the ice he can be.  Just an unreal, sick talent.  More fun than that, this helps make packing for a trip easy.

RPI jersey?  Check.  Red Wings jersey?  Check.  Old school Buffalo Sabres jersey?  Check.

Good to go!

I know it sounds insane to be fired up for a trip to two cities in the Rust Belt of the USA but here I am writing this up in the wee hours of the morning before hitting the road to get to Buffalo and stay the night there before trekking to Michigan.  What makes going to places like this in the dead of winter when the climate is at its bleakest and these cities are seemingly even less “fun” to visit?  It’s hockey, stupid.  Simple as that.  It’s cities like these where hockey lives and breathes the hardest even when things financially aren’t at their best.  The fans love their teams and when it comes to college hockey at Joe Louis Arena… Well, that’s a big deal there too because state bragging rights are more-or-less on the line and the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry is vicious.  Even going as an “objective” hockey fan for an event like this I would be fired up so you can imagine what the adrenaline rate is now having horses in most of  the races involved here.

The NCAA has made it a point to have better “destination” cities for some of their bigger events (namely the Frozen Four) but it’s places like Detroit and Buffalo (and Minneapolis/St. Paul) where hockey encompasses the lives of the folks there.  Sure some folks can get up in arms over selecting Ford Field as a Frozen Four venue (rightfully so) but their line of thought was right.  For every Tampa Bay the NCAA picks out, they make sure to take care of St. Paul, Minnesota and the Denver too.

As for updates while I’m gone for the week… Don’t expect too much unless I witness something completely insane or I’m duly inspired and want to (potentially) drunkenly ramble when I return back to the hotel room.  If you’re wanting in on crazy stories from the road or photos as they happen, I strongly suggest following me on Twitter @HockeyJoeGM.

If you’re looking for the straight stuff about RPI hockey, you need to be reading Without A Peer and following along with Tom and Gary at their site and with them on Twitter as well @without_a_peer.  I’m sure there will be plenty of stuff to hear from us about while this newest chapter of hockey road trip madness unfolds.

09/25/2008

Thanks For Playing – Part 1: Atlanta

I’m convinced that there’s no better a way to bore you, the mostly anonymous Internet audience, than by doing the same old schtick this time of year: Season previews. Sure, it’s a nice, cheap way to get a few blurbs in either praising your favorite people on a team you think is going to rock everyone’s face off or pile on the cheap shots.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m all for cutting analysis and cheap shots just the same, but I’d rather do something that you’re probably not going to get too bored with reading here.
Everywhere you go you’re going to get praise about the Detroit Red Wings. Why not? They picked up one of the nastiest scorers in the league and added him to a team that already won the Stanley Cup last season with virtually the same roster. It just makes sense.
You’ll get a lot of fun talk about the Penguins and Capitals because of their array of talent as well as having their own versions of the new Hockey Jesus on their rosters. Big superstars mean lots of press.
It’s science.
What’s more fun here is to tell those of you out there that you can just give it up right now and not even bother to watch any games this year because it’s only going to go poorly.
Starting today, I’m ending five seasons before they’ve even started.
The next week will be littered with descriptions of these teams and today, where better to start than the city where they once had a team that did so poorly that they moved to Canada to be successful!
Imagine that sort of world where retreating to Canada is made acceptable! Things sure were different in the early ’80s! We go to Ted Turner Land – the city of Atlanta where professional sports go to die an unknown and unrecognizable death.
Atlanta Thrashers
Of all the teams here whose season ends with the start of training camp, the one I feel the worst for are the Thrashers. Bob Hartley did the best he could with this team last year before getting axed by GM Don Waddell in favor of… Don Waddell. The team traded away Marian Hossa for a pile of young guys and draft picks in Pittsburgh and the Thrashers quickly went from the playoffs in 2006-2007 to being one of the worst teams in the NHL in 2007-2008, even in the Southeast Division.
This year, the Thrashers are going the Major League 3 route to “success” – they’re going Back to the Minors. It seems fitting to compare this year’s Thrashers with a terrible, should-never-have-been-made sequel of a series that should’ve ended after the first success. If you will, indulge me while I compare the roster of the Thrashers with that of the Salt Lake City Buzz/Minnesota Twins. Yes, I’ve seen Major League: Back to the Minors and can, indeed, pull this off. Watch the horror unfold.
The most talented guy on Atlanta is, by far, Ilya Kovalchuk and he’s been named captain of the team, a dubious naming since Kovalchuk hasn’t always been known as a strong guy in the locker room nor on the ice. In fact, he’s probably a more cocky and selfish incarnation of Sergei Fedorov, except without the defensive skill set. That said, he’s easily the best player on the team and the only guy on the roster you have to worry about leaving alone on the ice. He’s got the track record of danger, has a punishing shot and even on this brutal team he can and will score 50 goals.
I give to you, the Ilya Kovalchuk of Major League: Back to the Minors:

Much like in the movie, the rest of Ilya’s teammates aren’t much to talk about. Most of them are incredibly young or they’ve got innocuous histories. On the youth side, you’ve got guys like defenseman Tobias Enstrom, recently signed to a four-year extension that packs on the dollars and expectations. Enstrom would’ve been a nice partner with Braydon Coburn if he hadn’t been foolishly traded to Philadelphia in February 2007 for Alexei Zhitnik. That’s the same Alexei Zhitnik the Thrashers bought out this off-season to clear him off their records.

Ouch.

Instead, the Thrashers were bad enough to earn a nice, high draft pick to take defenseman Zach Bogosian, a player who ought to make the opening night roster and unless the Thrashers are being run by morons, should stick there for some time to come. The downside with Bogosian is that he’s terribly young (he’s 18) and learning on the job in the NHL comes with plenty of mistakes in waiting and playing alongside Enstrom, who is 23, means that while the talent level is high…it’s very green. Patience will have to be a virtue for the handfuls of fans in Atlanta. Veteran players like Niclas Havelid and newly acquired Mathieu Schneider will have to be steady with the guiding defensive hands for these guys and big free agent pick up Ron Hainsey is going to have to be very good for the Thrashers to not look like a circus on the blueline.

The signing of Hainsey drew a lot of questions and I’m sure now that Hainsey sees what he’s gotten into in Atlanta he’s probably wondering if the five-year $22.5 million contract he signed in the off-season will be worth it. I can tell Ron this: It certainly won’t feel like it this year – but things will get better.

The strength of this team, oddly enough, is in goal. Problem is, who is going to get the most starts? You’ve got Kari Lehtonen as the default starter and Johan Hedberg as the much beloved crowd favorite backup. Lehtonen’s ability to get hurt and give up soft goals seems to irk Thrashers fans a bit. Thankfully for them there’s a player eagerly waiting for his turn to take over the job for good in Ondrej Pavelec.
In an ideal Thrashers world, they would deal Lehtonen to a goaltending-desperate team for a couple of instant impact players and then make a run at the Southeast Division title with Pavelec as the top guy and Hedberg as the ever-capable insurance policy. While Lehtonen is slowly entering albatross status (something another groin injury might cement) he’s still a very good goaltender and the best thing for him would be a coach that can get his head screwed on straight so that he doesn’t get too shaken by a bad goal. He’s going to feel the pressure this year and being on a team that is going to be very defensively poor he’s going to have his hands full.
Picture if you will Kari Lehtonen as Rube Baker, the lovable yet colossally dumb catcher of the Salt Lake City Buzz. Rube had a mental block that wouldn’t allow him to throw the ball back to the pitcher. Much like Rube, Kari Lehtonen has a mental block that won’t allow him to shake off giving up a bad goal and he gets all down on himself.

Poor Rube…er, Kari.

Up front, the Thrashers are a one-line squad. Slava Kozlov and Kovalchuk are the best scorers they have and from there, quality drops off hard and gets really young, really fast. Jason Williams was signed away from Chicago this summer to help bolster the team up the middle and he’ll have to be better than any of the stats he’s put up in his career to put Atlanta anywhere near a shot at a playoff spot. If Williams can put up numbers like he did in his final season in Detroit (21-37-58), that will go a long way.
From there, youth is king.
You have the pieces obtained in the Hossa deal with Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen and Angelo Esposito, the Penguins 2007 First Round pick and blue-chip piece obtained from Pittsburgh. Expect to see Esposito playing at least the first nine games for the Thrashers this year. He’s fast, he’s innovative, he’s very talented – he’s also going to make mistakes as well but he is going to be good. Eventually. If the Thrashers allow him to stay and don’t send him back to juniors, it’ll make the immediate future of the team hurt a little bit, but the pain will be worth the pleasure in future seasons.

Brett Sterling and Bryan Little are the other guys that will get involved in the scoring mix, but this team is one Kovalchuk injury away from being the Chicago Wolves, which might not be so bad since they’ve been dominating in the AHL the last couple of seasons.

You’re probably saying to yourself, “Who the hell are these guys?” Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
Meanwhile, the role players here are numerous both up front and in back. Chris Thorburn, Marty Reasoner, Eric Perrin and there’s even an oft-injured enigma in Todd White. If you want to eyeball anyone that will punch someone’s lights out you’ve got a nice sampler platter with appetizers like Chris Thorburn and Garnet Exelby, a main dish of Eric Boulton and a potential breakout super-goon in defenseman Boris Valabik. Boulton is a loose cannon and doesn’t think twice about making a questionable hit nor of fighting anyone. He reminds me of a certain guy from a certain movie I’m obsessing on here…

Worse yet, after all of this, the guy I really feel for here is the new Thrashers head coach John Anderson. Much like Bruce Boudreau in Washington, Anderson has paid his dues in the AHL and is finally getting his crack at the NHL after being promoted from Chicago to coach the big team in Atlanta. Anderson has twice won the Calder Cup as coach of the Wolves in 2002 and 2008. Winning a title with the minor league team ought to get you strong consideration when the big league team needs a new guy, I just don’t know that this is the sort of situation Anderson was hoping for.

He is getting a team that is surely more talented than his Wolves teams (at least, I think they are) and he ought to be familiar with plenty of these guys already so there’s an advantage. Given the amount of success and experience many of these guys have with Anderson, perhaps that will carry them through some of the early struggles you’d expect for this team. I just don’t see it happening. I just hope that Anderson can be more charming than say… Gus Cantrell was!

Yeah, the bar is set pretty low here for Atlanta, even with the addition of Schneider to the team, this team is going to be hopeless on defense and they’re indescribably thin on offense. Goaltending will have to carry this team and unfortunately that position is occupied by a guy who’s on shaky ground in his head and at home since they love the backup and minor league guy more than the starter. I feel for John Anderson, I do – but I wouldn’t even wish this team on Marc Crawford.
OK, maybe I would, but that’s just me being spiteful.
This team will finish last in the Southeast and damn near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. They’ll be front-runners in the John Tavares sweepstakes come next summer. They’ll be duking it out with a handful of other teams we’ll get to later on, but the only saving grace the Thrashers have and the only reason why they’ll put up some respectable numbers is because they’re in a putrid division and get most of their games against them. If this team were in just about any other division in the NHL, I’d have no doubts they would get crushed harder. That said, they’ll do better than what their talent would indicate but they’ll still be terrible.
Thanks for coming Atlanta, please proceed to the exit.

07/06/2008

A Modest Proposal

Filed under: Atlanta Thrashers,Florida Panthers,Gary Bettman,Seattle — Joe Yerdon @ 9:28 PM

It’s interesting that in this hockey-centric blog that the word “modesty” is being mentioned at all this time of year. NHL general managers can’t wait to get rid of the money the owners make and spend it recklessly on players who may, and likely, may not have earned their new paychecks. A statement like that should be linked with articles talking about such insane money-tossing, but those are too numerous to count right now.

Suffice to say, a guy like Jeff Finger, who only two years ago I was watching carve up the ice in Albany for the AHL River Rats, is now making $3.5 million a year for the Maple Leafs and he hasn’t even played 100 NHL games yet nor could he crack the starting lineup more often than not for the Avalanche in the playoffs last year.

But I digress.

I’d like to talk about how the league’s love of all things American could be put to best use, rather than ripping them for doing so ad nauseum, which I’ve developed a bit of a penchant for doing.

My source for this inspiration actually derives from a miserable failing of Gary Bettman’s former boss and role model, David Stern who recently acted as the hitman for the murder of professional basketball in Seattle.

That’s right, the city to a former NBA Champion, the Supersonics won the NBA Championship in 1979, you know, when the NBA was a floundering league that had its title games aired in tape delay on CBS and was overwrought with drug problems.

Seattle’s only professional sports championship is courtesy of the Sonics. Seattle also is a big time legitimate city in the United States, at least as far as media market rankings go. Seattle/Tacoma is 14th largest in the United States and has been a city without a professional, NHL-level team since 1924.

Hell, the first American Stanley Cup Champions were the Seattle Metropolitans in 1917.

What’s most heinous here is that the main beef for the Sonics shuffling off to the wilds of Oklahoma City (Market size 45 according to Nielsen) is the way Stern has basically told Seattle, “If you ever want to see the NBA again, you’ll build us a new arena.”

It’s this sort of attitude that the NHL should take advantage of and work with the city to show that they care and are willing to play the role of the white knight.

During the ridiculous Nashville ownership wranglings, writers and speculators made it a point to pick out different U.S. markets that are interested in and would love to take on NHL franchises. Cities like Las Vegas (thanks to Jerry Bruckheimer’s interest in owning a team) and Kansas City (due to the availability of a spacious new 18,000 seat arena) were the places picked out as most logical.

Seattle rarely, if ever, entered into the equation.

Why? Well, it’s pretty likely that the answer lies in Canada.

A move to Seattle would, almost assuredly, get the dander up of the Vancouver Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini. Seattle sits 140 miles to the south of Vancouver and Vancouver’s claim to the region would be highly challenged putting a team in a large, U.S. market that, the Canucks would argue, watches and loves the Canucks.

I’m sure there are many arguments into the validity of this, but let’s face it, 140 miles isn’t that far away, a two to three hour drive away at most. Such closeness is surely a great argument in favor of the Canucks keeping their hold over the market and them having any fans leeched away from a team being located in Seattle must be valid.

Wait… what’s that? Buffalo and Toronto are only 93 miles apart? Both teams sell out their arenas? They have a thriving rivalry? Toronto fans go out of their way to get tickets in Buffalo to see games there because they’re cheaper tickets and easier to land than Leafs tickets? All of these things happen and neither team loses anything being so close?

Huh…

Well then.

So why wouldn’t they want to do this? Why wouldn’t they want to ride in and work out a deal with the city of Seattle to move say… the Florida Panthers or Atlanta Thrashers to Seattle with the help of Starbucks owner and champion of all things Seattle, Howard Schultz? After all, Schultz wants to bring a law suit against the NBA and the owner of the now Oklahoma City NBA franchise, Clay Bennett.

Schultz loves pro sports in Seattle so much, you’d like to think he’d be behind a project to bring a floundering NHL franchise to the city, you know, to fill the void. Think of the marketing potential Gary. Starbucks is the biggest brand of coffee in the world now. Their shops are everywhere, and in the western U.S. there is none bigger to compete with them.

You hear that? A product known worldwide and has a foothold stronger than anything in the Western United States! Think of the potential!

It’s been pretty clear that hockey in South Florida is a miserable failure. No, I know they made the Cup Finals in 1996 and leaving a city that’s had a taste of success would be tragic.

What about Atlanta then? They’re currently a two-time failure at holding the interest of the fans. Never mind the fact that Atlanta is a brutally awful professional sports market, this is a place that still finds it necessary to point out the most mundane aspects of hockey to its paying customers by announcing them over the public address.

Yes, we know the rules to icing are confusing and maybe the rules to offside might be a bit hard to understand, but don’t worry, the Thrashers PA guy will tell you what it is every time it happens.

If they aren’t going to find a way to contract franchises and if they want to make the right move and play the good guy for once, sweet talk Howard Schultz and tell him there’s another sport that plays games between October and June. Tell him there’s another way to bring fun to the people of Seattle. Tell him you’ll work out a way to help pay for a new arena in Seattle and make sure that the people of Seattle don’t have to pay for it.

Be the good guy. Save face on one of your failed southern experiments and send them north. No, not to Canada. Send them to Seattle and resurrect the ghosts of the Metropolitans, much like the NHL did in Ottawa with the Senators.

Oh, and, uh, ignore this little connection of Blackberry and Starbucks while you’re at it – I’d hate for them to toss out this idea spitefully.

Powered by WordPress