Sunday, December 4, 2011

Canned Heat

In recent years the month of December has not treated the Avalanche well. Last season's December swoon destroyed an early season surge that saw the Avalanche flirting with the best record in hockey. This season the failure began in November, almost as if the team was anticipating a month of self-destruction to end the year. The club once again seemed to lose its motivation, and coach Joe Sacco's days behind the bench appeared numbered.

However, within the last couple of weeks the Avalanche have been showing the kind of resilience that helps pull teams out of the kind of funk that can ruin a season, by losing only once in their last five games. Surely the team didn't magically mature into the kind of club Avalanche faithful have waited for for nearly a decade. Teams don't suddenly become relevant. However there are reasons why the Avalanche are winning, and why fans should not be so quick to dismiss Colorado hockey in a year in which it is all to easy to become absorbed with the traditional religion of the Mile High City.

The Emergence of Ryan O'Reilly

Hockey is the most team oriented of all sports so crediting one person with a turnaround is often unjustified. But whatever happened to Ryan O'Reilly needs to be researched by science. The third line center has become a force of nature since Thanksgiving and has inspired his team to play much stronger hockey. Not to imply that O'Reilly decided to start trying once the last of the turkey was gone, his work ethic is admirable, but counting his two goal performance against a hot Detroit team on Sunday, O'Reilly has nine points in five games after producing a pedestrian twelve points in his previous twenty-two.

O’Reilly has spent much of his time since the beginning of the season with Gabriel Landeskog, who is developing nicely in his own right, but the addition of Milan Hejduk to his line is paying huge dividends. Considering his defensive acumen, using O'Reilly on the third line and on the penalty kill most of his career has made sense. It is hard to argue against using your best defensive forward to stop pucks no matter how much potential he has shown on offense. Jordan Staal of Pittsburgh is a good example of this principle. Yet it appears that giving O'Reilly an opportunity to show what he can do on a consistent basis in offensive situations has been the right move.

Considering how the rest of the offense not named Matt Duchene (who is in a class of is own) has shown a penchant for wildly erratic performances (Colorado's 6-1 victory in New Jersey on November 30th following a 3-1 loss to Dallas, after a 5-2 win against Edmonton), keeping O'Reilly's line together would be smart, and may just help Sacco avoid landing on unemployment.

Mr. Elliott, Your Coffee is Ready

Coming out of training camp it appeared that Stefan Elliott was poised to start a magical career in the NHL. Some of us were so excited to get a jump on the best Avalanche defensemen since Raymond Bourque that we drafted him in our fantasy league...because some of us were drunk off of the sweet, sweet nectar of hyperbole.

Stunningly, the 20-year-old Elliott (the reason the Avalanche traded Kevin Shattenkirk to St. Louis) failed to start the season with the Avalanche and was sent down to the AHL to mature. Not so stunningly after a November in which the team decided to stop playing defense, Elliott was put back on an airplane headed towards Denver. On cue, Mr. Elliott promptly scored in his first game on a great wrist shot from the blue line shortly after making one of those special cut-off-the-crossing-pass-as-the-only-man-back-on-a-two-on-one-break-away type of plays that ol' Ray used to make. Since the call up Elliott has produced three points in five games while maintaining an even plus/minus. But we can't get too excited, can we? Of course not, these are the Colorado Avalanche! We must be reticent and cynical. Recent talk on the inter-tubes has hinted at Elliott being sent down once again, as his non-power play minutes have been cut to a minuscule level due to some shaky turnovers. Yet since his arrival in the November 26th game, the team has only managed to lose once. Coincidence? I think not. Sending Elliott back down to the dominate the AHL once again won't provide him with the kind of learning experiences he needs to develop his game. Now where did I set that jug o' sweet, sweet hyperbole?

Mister Two Goals Against

During the recent run of glory which has me no longer wanting to sling my television out the window, Semyon Varlamov has managed to become the antithesis of nearly every criticism levied upon him by his critics in Washington. Varlamov has remained healthy, while providing consistent and often spectacular play between the pipes, which is welcome considering that whenever the Avalanche score three goals in a game they are 12-3. This statistic isn't all that unusual, normally three goals will win a game. But what is unusual is that the Avalanche have only won one game in which they haven’t scored three goals, a 1-0 win in Boston on October 10th. What this means is that the Avalanche defense has not been stout enough to hold the opposition below three goals very often (they have only done it twice in games they have lost).

This is where Varlamov enters the picture. Since a 6-3 browbeating at the hands of the Penguins on November 15th, Varlamov has allowed the opposition to score more than two goals only twice. To be more specific, Varlamov has put up a goals against average of 2.03 or less in every one of his last six games. Varlamov’s consistency has calmed the team, and is in no small way contributing to their recent success.

While the Avalanche are doing well, and although I have preached on this blog before that fans need to be patient, the recent run of success is rather telling. Key players are maturing and making the most of their opportunities. While it would be presumptuous to think that the team can continue their recent run, at least it is nice to enjoy a span in which the team is heading in the right direction and learning to play more consistently.

The Denver Post
Yahoo! Sports
Dobber Hockey

Monday, November 21, 2011


There it was once again. It had been there during times of glory and strife. During times of sunshine and rain.

Win or lose, Sidney Crosby's upper lip was there, mocking us, and today was no different. In his first game back after nearly a year he was going to show the world what he was. He wasn't just the greatest hockey talent of his generation. He was, in fact, a cowboy. He was a fighter pilot. He was Magnum, P.I.

The casual onlooker might give him the benefit of the doubt. He is still a kid in many respects but his brashness will not be denied. "You question my fullness?!" Crosby's moustache cries from the mountain tops. It begs to be seen. It wants you to look upon it and tremble in the fear of its potential!

It doesn't matter that mothers who fail to recognize him would be wise to hide their children.

It doesn't matter that moustaches the world over feel sadness upon meeting it.

Rather, it gives hope to all who one day wish to have what Lanny McDonald, Eddie Shack, Bill McCreary, and Joel Quenneville have. A pushbroom. A cookie duster. A nose neighbor, flavor saver, lip cap, and soup strainer.

A weasel penis.

Some may refer to Sidney Crosby's moustache as a picket fence. Others may refer to it as a war crime. Instead we should recognize it what it is: a mantle of courage.

Sid tries hard year in an out to show the world that he is not only the greatest hockey player, but that he is a man, damnit! Those who would disparage that thing on his upper lip that makes reasonable men want to call the police are wrong. Dead wrong.

It isn't his fault!

One day we will see, and quake and weep as we gaze upon its majesty.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Occupy Tampa

Something tells me Chris Pronger doesn't play Chess.

Recently, I had the time to sit down and catch up on one of my favorite radio shows, Radiolab. In an episode from August 23rd the theme is games and why we are so fascinated with them. During one portion of the episode the discussion focused on how, at the professional level, the game of checkers was taken to an absolute stalemate by James Wiley and Robert Martins at the World Checkers Championship in Glasgow, Scotland in 1863. Between them, all forty games they played ended in a draw. Even stranger, 21 of the 40 games were the exact same game. They had taken checkers to its limit. As it turns out, there are a limited number of moves in the game of checkers and as professional checkers players they had memorized every possible move and executed their games perfectly. This led to checkers hitting rock bottom as a game.

In the same episode of Radiolab the hosts then go on to discuss the game of chess. I'm a big fan of chess so I found the following tidbit of information to be particularly interesting: There are vastly more possible games of chess than there are atoms in the universe. So, chess is cooler than checkers, but we already knew that.

In case you missed it, this week the Tampa Bay Lightning hosted the Philadelphia Flyers for a game of ice chess and indulged in some stunning theatrics.

No, not this kind

This kind.

As stated in the broadcast there is nothing wrong with the Lightning playing their 1-3-1-zone defense, just like there is nothing wrong with a hockey team playing any kind of trapping defense. Nothing in the NHL rulebook states that teams have to forecheck or play a style of defense that allows for an opposing team to have their way. Still, this did not prevent Chris Pronger and the Flyers from sitting on the puck on national television and, at least in Pronger's mind, taking a stand against what he and his coach, Peter Laviolette, believe is a defensive style that could kill hockey. Ironically, it took Pronger literally killing the game for him to make this point.

Since the dreaded days of the pre-lockout "trap", which did plenty to kill hockey’s popularity, hockey has become a much faster game. The subtraction of the red line after the lockout eased some of the pressure in the middle of the ice by allowing for two line passes and the game has seen much more fluid play through the neutral zone. Defensive strategies like the 1-3-1 are a response to this. The 1-3-1 defense takes away an offense's ability to gain speed through the neutral zone by placing three players across the center of the ice in an effort to restrict space while leaving one defender behind to clean up the mess. Not surprisingly, teams which insist on playing horizontal or East-West style games have trouble cracking this defense and suddenly, to them and some fans, the game appears to have been taken back to the days of the trap.

Seeing this defense, and obviously frustrated, Chris Pronger decided that he'd had enough. He would either prevent Tampa from employing the 1-3-1 by forcing the Bolts to forecheck, which breaks up their formation, or he was going to take his puck and go home. How sad.

In chess, there are a multitude of tactics designed to take advantage of a stifling defense, just like in hockey. If there are vastly more games of chess than there are atoms in the universe, then surely there are vastly more games of hockey than games of chess because there are more variables in hockey. Thus, it’s a shame that the Flyers and Pronger, who combine speed and brawn, chose to essentially quit playing rather than find a way to break through the Tampa defense. The Tampa defensive scheme is not new. Washington employed it in the playoffs last season. Pronger’s choice to sit on the puck rather than to advance it up ice en lieu of a forecheck smacked of weakness and, ultimately, lousy coaching.

Chris Pronger and the Flyers could have played chess, but instead played checkers.

Many NHL players have voiced their support of Pronger since he took his "stand". Their support is unfortunate. The players need to understand that defenses such as the 1-3-1 will not go away even if the NHL bans them. Furthermore, cries in the media to outlaw zone defenses make it seem like broadcasters with NHL experience never actually played the game. Hockey as a sport is hugely reliant upon zone defenses to the point where the game cannot be properly played if they are eliminated. For example, if zone defenses are banned what happens when a team is on the penalty kill and attempts to employ a traditional penalty killing defense, which is a zone? Let's take this thought experiment even further and imagine that the NHL is converted into a game where only man-on-man play is allowed. Wouldn't large, slow players like Pronger (who thrived in the old days of the trap) find themselves at an even greater disadvantage against the speedier players of today? Perhaps Pronger knew he couldn’t break the Bolt’s D and his effort, or lack thereof, was really recognition that the game is passing him by as well as an acknowledgement by the Flyers that maybe they aren't good enough to win when confronted with confounding defenses.

The biggest problem I have had with the neutral zone trap and its variations is that opponents are quick to decry its existence while failing to recognize it exists for a reason. Most forwards in hockey are fast and use their speed to take advantage of space. The elimination of space is necessary to maintain order on defense. Therefore, the elimination of space in hockey is a necessity and zone defenses and their hybrids, such as the left wing lock, are the best way to accomplish that goal.

The counter to that logic is that the NHL wants higher scoring games. But is alteration of the rules so necessary? The Torpedo System, which has been used for well over 50 years in and out of the NHL, should work in breaking up trapping defenses—especially since the elimination of the red line. Has Philadelphia considered employing this or similar tactics? Perhaps they did and decided quitting was easier.

Chris Pronger has a right to voice his opposition to Tampa's defense, but for he and the Flyers to do it in such a fashion smacks of selfishness and a lack of creativity. Additionally, Pronger seems to lack the ability to understand that in protesting defensive schemes like the 1-3-1 he will ultimately end up causing him and his cohort’s problems should the NHL outlaw such defensive innovation. It is actually to his advantage to laud, rather than protest, trapping defenses as they favor slow defenseman after all. Pronger should shut up, play some chess, and learn to innovate.

Next up on the DNP, I teach Chris Pronger that there is more than one way to make a ham sandwich before he loses his temper, goes to McDonalds, and holds up the line until they make him one.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

So Far So...Good?

Going into the new season I thought that I'd wait a month before writing my first DNP. My reasoning was that the month of October is no more of an indicator of success than the month of April is for baseball, or to a lesser degree, September for football. The hockey season, for good teams, can last nearly nine months, and often teams that go deep into the playoffs tend to flounder during the first month of the new season. Maybe it is because the guys don't want to stop golfing, but I'm told it is because defenses take time to build cohesiveness. Goaltenders often look like they don't belong in the NHL for several weeks after the first puck drops. Roberto Luongo is the best example of such floundering.

Luongo never does well in the month of October prompting angry Vancouver fans (and angrier fantasy hockey managers) to annually call for his ousting. Such frustration is amusing considering how everyone who pays attention knows that after October Luongo magically begins to turn out quality starts. Because Roberto Luongo is magic like that. Let me be the first to admit that Luongo has driven me to the drink on more than one occasion after destroying a fantasy week in the tenth month.

Yet he isn't alone in his ability to turn October into a preseason of sorts. Across the board seasoned NHL veterans universally take the month to get up to speed. Right on schedule Luongo, who played horribly during October, is gradually restoring his game to a competent level. This may come as a surprise to shortsighted fans who can see only red every time he steps on the ice.

During this age of the 24-hour sports news cycle, which is at best silly and at worst psychotic, the punditry across the NHL is always quick to point out how certain elite teams at the beginning of seasons just don't seem to have "it" anymore. As a team, the Detroit Red Wings always start slow before turning into a rolling apocalypse after the New Year, but this doesn't prevent some members of the punditry from decreeing that Detroit is on the decline every October.

Conversely, young teams and players with something to prove almost always start out of the gates quickly only to gradually burn out as the season drags on. Last season's Avalanche team was a perfect example. The Avalanche started hot only to hit the wall by December, after which the team virtually disintegrated both physically (nearly 450 man games lost to injury) and mentally (Craig Anderson).

This season the Avalanche have again started well along with the white hot Edmonton Oilers. Unsurprisingly, in the Press, we have been treated to several pieces extolling the virtues of the NHL's youth movement. While watching the likes of Gabriel Landeskog and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is thrilling, common sense tells us that once the older, more seasoned teams come online success will become more difficult for the younger teams to sustain.

We can then deduce that aside from perhaps one or two surprises, the usual suspects flush with seasoned veterans should end up in the thick of the race to the Stanley Cup. Vancouver, Detroit, San Jose, Boston, Pittsburgh, Washington, and Philadelphia should gain steam while the younger teams, like the Avalanche and Oilers, will gradually fall by the wayside. While watching such a fast game it is easy to forget that the NHL season is a marathon and not a sprint.

Whither Peter Mueller?

Peter Mueller should call it a career. Mueller, who was apparently ready to go at the start of the season, quickly landed on the bench with post-concussion issues and then spent the bulk of October off the ice. He is only now beginning to skate with authority in practice again and one has to wonder how effective he will be if he ever returns.

I spent much of my time in October contemplating the same issue regarding Sidney Crosby, who is also nearing a return to the action. How effective can a hockey player be if they are constantly worried about where and when they will receive their next concussion? Much of Mueller's game involves working in high contact areas and, like Crosby, is based on charging the net. If Mueller were to get back into action how is one to expect that he will return to the aggressive form that saw him rack up 20 points in 15 games with the Avalanche after he was brought over from Phoenix? To that end, how are we to expect Sidney Crosby, who is entering his prime, to play full seasons much less approach his massive potential? In this modern game, where players are massive hitting machines, I fail to see how any player who has suffered multiple concussions can be as effective knowing that they could be one hard hit away from retirement.

Semyon Varlamov is who we thought he was!

There was much hand wringing this offseason over the acquisition of Varlamov from Washington in exchange for first and second round draft picks. Many onlookers were quick to point out the potential value of the draft picks and some criticism went so far as to state that the Avalanche were taken for suckers in the trade. At the time I felt it was a fine trade and I stand by my assessment. Here's my logic:

The Avalanche were never in position to land either of last summer's big ticket goaltenders, Ilya Bryzgalov or Tomas Vokoun, nor could they stick with their stock and improve. First of all, the Avalanche could not have been seriously considering Vokoun as he was the ripe old age of 35. At best Vokoun has perhaps 2-3 more productive years left. Bryzgalov, though hovering around the age of 30 had, like Vokoun, spent the bulk of his career propping up substandard hockey teams,so he had no desire to support an Avalanche team which is several years away from contention. Secondly, the greater goaltending landscape, both organizationally and league-wide, was relatively sparse. Peter Budaj had run his course in Colorado and was clearly not a starting goaltender. Brian Elliott isn’t a starter either. If the Avalanche were going to continue with their plans of methodically rebuilding they needed to look for a young goaltender with potential.

Much of the criticism centered on the quality of the draft picks. But in my book draft picks, much like corporations, should not be considered people. People should be considered people. Joe Gibbs, the legendary coach of the Washington Redskins, lived by this philosophy. Draft picks are unknown commodities and considering how their relative worth is dictated by the success or failure of the team from which they were traded can turn out to be a lot less valuable. If the Avalanche kept the draft picks and instead threw money at substandard goaltending there was no guarantee where they would land in the draft. Also, whom they could draft and whether or not the players they picked would turn out to be valuable meant they could still have been stuck with crappy goaltending.

Varlamov, age 23, had already shown flashes of excellence during his time with the Capitals so the potential was there. His development, however, was hampered by injuries along with splitting time with Michal Neuvirth. It was looking that he was headed for the KHL. This meant he was expendable, especially since it appeared he was forcing a trade. The Avalanche could not afford to send Washington any of their current players (read offense) as they had already given up a major piece of their puzzle, Chris Stewart, in order to acquire Erik Johnson and I think,, three McRibs. Furthermore, Greg Sherman didn't feel confident sending the restricted free agent an offer sheet, which Washington could have easily matched. Therefore, Varlamov, who was a known commodity, was worth the risk as the Avalanche were in a pinch and the brass knew that getting a living, breathing backstop would be better than another rough season with no guarantees.

As it stands, Varlamov is 5-5 with a 2.85 GAA and a .906 SV%. By any account his numbers stink but, again, he's young. He has plenty of years to grow into the elite goaltender the Avalanche believe he will become. Under the tutelage of J.S. Giguere, he has the opportunity to evolve into a truly dominant netminder. Given their strong start, if the Avalanche can improve on last season’s performance the draft picks will lose value and the Avalanche, barring miraculous drafting by Washington, will win the trade in the long run.

Ryan O'Reilly Is Kind of a Big Deal

Quick! How many third line centers are among their respective team's leaders in power play minutes? So much of my time watching the Avalanche is spent observing Matt Duchene and his ability to handle the puck that I often overlook the other 20 year old center who has shown massive potential. If the Avalanche have done anything incredibly well during their seemingly century-long rebuild it has been to draft centers who play well offensively and defensively. In this way, the Avalanche are benefitting immensely from the growth of Ryan O'Reilly.

If there was any important yet under-appreciated piece of the Avalanche's dominant teams of years gone by, it was the play of a strong two-way center. Stephane "Rebel" Yelle was the last grinding Avalanche center of note and O'Reilly is already outclassing him. For any team to garner respect in the NHL they need third lines that not only kill penalties but also have the ability to score when needed. O'Reilly scores and plays defense and appears to possess mystical abilities which allow him to see into the future so he can take advantage of opposing teams during the penalty kill. The kid is truly a jack-of-all-trades and will continue to be an integral part of the Avalanche as they improve.

About that Chris Stewart Trade...

Since I never got around to writing about it at length, what with the massive heart attack it caused, let's go ahead and break down the trade.

The Avalanche traded Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk to the Blues in exchange for Erik Johnson and Jay McClement on a dark day in February 2011. Little did everyone know that had it not been for the work of superhuman Chris Drury an asteroid, which was headed for Denver and was causing all the darkness, would have crushed the Pepsi Center the moment the trade was announced. But, I digress.

For all intents and purposes the trade boiled down to Stewart for Johnson. Johnson had in previous years been considered untouchable by the Blues’ front office as he is an ox of a human being. Stewart, before breaking his hand in a fight, appeared to be living up to his potential as a dominant power forward and was quite valuable as well.

Ultimately, the Avalanche felt that oft-injured David Jones was capable of filling Stewart's role on the team so long as he stayed healthy and landing a quality defenseman was an opportunity that could not be ignored. Considering how the Avalanche defense, on a good day, had more holes than Royal Albert Hall in that one Beatles song, it was a move that was necessary. Additionally, it was revealed that the Avalanche had future defensive super weapon Stefan Elliott primed and ready to go and all would be well...especially since Greg Sherman can apparently predict the future and foresaw drafting Gabriel Landeskog. The Blues, on the other hand, politely pointed out that Johnson was expendable as they felt he was not panning out and was, in fact, not as valuable as Alex Pietrangelo—the actual #1 defenseman on the team.

Since the trade made so much sense and everybody was so happy, Colorado Governor Hickenlooper immediately renamed Pikes Peak Mount Greg Sherman and forevermore a Technicolor halo of hope and happiness will encircle its summit, raining jellybeans on the hikers below.

So...where do we stand on that?

As of November 6th, 2011:

Chris Stewart- 13GP, 2 goals, 1 assist, -4, 27 penalty minutes
Kevin Shattenkirk- 13GP, 1 goal, 6 assists, +3, 6 penalty minutes

Erik Johnson- 14GP, 0 goals, 7 assists, -7, 0 penalty minutes
Jay McClement- 14GP, 1 goal, 0 assists, -1, 4 penalty minutes

Verdict: Everybody is stupid.

Next up on the DNP I trade Greg Sherman a sack of #2 pencils for pristine acreage in the Sangre de Christo Mountains.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Beer League

Growing up in Colorado I was afforded many opportunities to play sports. My home state is a bastion of outdoor activity, and the weather is generally accommodating, which allows kids the chance to play year-round. For my friends this usually meant playing football in a nearby park, or in a backyard. One of the strange facts about Colorado in the 70's and 80's was the distinct lack of accessible hockey. Kids were interested in it, but it wasn't easy to do, even if Colorado has always been a "sports" state. Allow me to explain before you get on your rickety "Colorado doesn't deserve hockey" soap box.

Ice and snow almost never stick around in Denver for very long, as the cold temperatures don't keep. In fact, I can recall only one time when the local pond froze over long enough for the local parents to shovel it off and get some games going. Most winters Colorado's front range tends to be windy and brown and never quite cold enough. Much of Colorado is not some kind of pristine, white tundra half the year. Those images are almost always shot high in the Rocky Mountains in places like Vail and Steamboat.

Where I grew up in Jefferson County there exists the Jeffco Ice Arena (or Ice Rink, or whatever we called it depending on the day, mostly it was called "Jeffco") where I first learned to skate. It was about a twenty minute drive, and if one was ever involved with a team, this was not a drive that a parent wanted to partake in at 5am, even if Colorado winters tend to be forgiving in comparison to those of the northern "M" and "N" states. Tournaments were either played at a couple locations in Jefferson County, in Boulder, at The University of Denver (an hour drive to the south), in Colorado Springs (a three hour drive to the south) or Vail (a three hour drive west into the mountains) so hockey was a massive inconvenience. Again, kids were interested in it but it wasn't easy to do. It required a lot of dedication, which is why hockey natives of Colorado (and even hockey transplants) tend to be very passionate about the Avalanche. Hockey is a tightly knit community forged in the crucible of having to drive long distances at odd hours.

Lately I've been thinking about this difficulty when confronted with the issues in my current league. The Daejeon-Cheongju Ice Hockey League has existed for about four years in South Korea. It was founded by some friendly Canadian expatriates who got sick of not playing hockey. I've been participating in the league for about a year and a half, and for the most part it has been entertaining, even if playing goaltender in a skilled beer league is never injury free. The good players shoot as hard as anybody.

Recently we lost our ice time in Daejeon (a five minute drive from my apartment) to a bunch of kids due to a lack of players. Attendance had been declining due to terrible recruiting and attrition (people who tired of Korea and left the country to go home) and we only had about five guys who could show up on Friday nights for practice. Combine that with the negative attitude of a certain drunk Korean zamboni driver, and less than tolerant management and we were out. This season we have to play all of our games in neighboring Cheongju, which is a solid 45 minute drive to the north. So it is pretty much the Cheongju Ice Hockey League this season, and maybe permanently. The loss of the Daejeon rink was big and is threatening to kill the league.

I was reminded recently during the drive to play three consecutive games (due to a lack of goaltenders) of the drives I used to take during my 20's up north to Boulder from Westminster to play late night games in the middle of the week (which I also hated), and how my frustration with having to give up some Saturdays now to play a game I love in another town is a bit misplaced, because it is really no different from what I've almost always had to do.

As we were dressing my friend Andrew made a good point before what turned out to be long night of hockey. He mentioned that the league was an opportunity for those of us who loved hockey to still play. It wasn't a pro or semi-pro league, but it was, in every sense, an opportunity.

Sometimes it is easy for me to forget how good it is to play hockey in a country where the sport is seen as a strange anomaly. Perhaps that is something that I should learn from. Nothing is easy in hockey, just like few things are easy outside of the game. Living abroad in a country with a difficult language, where the people don't necessarily like you, and few people can be trusted is not something for the faint hearted. It is a stressful existence that involves periods of loneliness, doubt, and confusion.

For those of us in the Daejeon-Cheongju Ice hockey league, the drama and difficulty of maintaining a league is ultimately something that draws us together. Some players take it too seriously, and others don't take it seriously enough. But in a way hockey takes on a larger role in Korea than it ever did for me in Colorado. It isn't just a game here, it is a way to, in no uncertain terms, maintain my ever waning sanity.

So here's to a new season, however long it lasts.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


Sportswriting is a terrible chore. There are only so many sports which offer only so many stories. The obvious stories, which can be taken from a box score, are barely worth writing. Who won, who lost, who scored, who helped, who played, and who didn't play. There are shots, completions, drops, saves, possessions, fouls, penalties, ejections, and fights. An article can be written about a come back or blown opportunity. Another can be written about a game changing injury or stroke of luck. These fill most of the space in a sports section or website. In the truest sense that is all there is to sports. They are games of numbers, and nothing more.

The rest of the space is occasionally occupied by a personal interest story or an essay about league finances, which are mostly boring. The personal interest stories are sometimes good because they go beyond the field, court, or rink and bring fans closer to a game to which they are already wed. The task of the writer is to make the article as interesting as the game, which isn't easy. Instead these articles are mostly candy for the fans because they in the end make professional sports possible. We like the games. We love the distractions. We live to escape. We want to know the athletes outside the lines because we've invested so much of our time and money watching them do things within them. Ultimately, sports reflect society. We like royalty and things that shine.

The best articles are those that elevate the mundane to that of legend. Maybe its a story about an underdog, or a fallen hero. Perhaps it is about a scandal that goes unnoticed. Rare is the sportswriter who can take an ordinary game and bring the reader into it with the kind of wisdom and tact that inspires greatness.

Sports Illustrated to me always meant a visit to the dentist's office. Being coerced into the Volkswagen by my Mom to take a ride to a wood paneled, globe light ensconced dungeon where "A Horse With No Name" by America was drilled into my psyche as Dr. Bennett scraped at my molars. The only respite came in being able to read Frank Deford's articles in the waiting room while my brother and sister were forced to bite down on fluoride gelled mouthpieces, which would inevitably cause one of us to vomit in the back of the car on the ride home. I always associated those mouthpieces with football. If I was tough and didn't swallow the fluoride I'd be rewarded with not having to have those medieval torture devices stuck in my head. When the time to keep them in was up I would eject the horrible things from my mouth and jog back to the waiting room to relive what Refrigerator Perry or "Chrissy" Evert or John Elway did six months ago. The thing that made Sports Illustrated so good was that the writers took the box scores and the personal interest stories and crafted them into larger tales of competition and sacrifice. Life was life, and sports were but a part of it, yet they were the part which offered inspiration. Some years after Dr. Bennett's office, the internet came, and somehow sports became life, and lamentably things stopped making sense.

I first discovered while attending college at the University of Colorado. My freshman year featured Rashaan Salaam's 2000 yard season which was trumped by Bill McCartney shockingly calling it quits. The Broncos evolved from a laughingstock to juggernaut as they were pushed by an Avalanche team that came ready made and improved as the decade waned. Even the Rockies and Nuggets made a dent, albeit a small one, but it supplemented the sense of dominance. People had to recognize "backwater" Colorado. They had to pay attention. The internet forced them. The day that I sat down in the computer lab in the College of Environmental Design, I'd heard that ESPN had a website, so I brought it up in all of its 56k glory, and from that point on everything changed. Everybody seemed to know everything. Suddenly the magazines in the waiting room were no longer relevant. They became antiquated books of dreams left to rot in piles, thumbed through by kids with short attention spans who couldn't be bothered with reading.

For some reason around that time I stopped enjoying stories about sports. I'm not sure when it happened but I know it was fueled by the impatience brought about by the internet. I had to know what was going on all the time, immediately, and the internet provided that fix. I wasn't alone in this need, and as a result information was stretched out and became repetitive. Like a thin sheet of butter spread across too many pieces of toast. I became far too informed on trivial subjects, and suddenly I was that kid in the waiting room who couldn't be bothered to read. Journalists stopped writing deep, researched articles in major publications, because everything had to be quick or it wouldn't be published. Worse, many journalists seemed to stop trying entirely, instead resorting to interviewing other journalists and pundits. In the race for content, the meaning of content changed. Content became filler, and the filler had no substance. The line between reality and fabrication blurred and often ceased to exist. One had to search hard for the truth while knowing even then what they would find wouldn't necessarily be accurate. Later came social networking and we as people morphed into advertisements, while the internet as a whole became a place of lists, pornography, and people yelling. Content was sacrificed for a need to know and deliver knowledge.

As has been my routine nearly every day since the dawn of I brought up the page this week out of habit, forgetting that I had yet to watch the most recent Stanley Cup Final game between the Bruins and Canucks. Lamentably I found out about the score, and disgruntled I noticed that Bill Simmons was presenting something called Grantland. I rolled my eyes. I'm not a fan of The Sports Guy. I can't really relate to him. His articles, when he's not writing about Boston sports or the NBA, are mainly focused on popular culture and reality television.

There is no real substance to much of what Simmons does, and half of it isn't sports. Furthermore, he fell out of love with the NHL some time around the lockout and decided to stop paying attention and campaign against the sport. While I can sympathise with falling out of love with a team- the Broncos of late have angered me to the point where I don't really want to watch them play- I would never completely give up. So when I saw Grantland, and newly minted Boston Bruins fan Bill Simmons, I couldn't possibly take it seriously. What was he going to feature? Round the clock coverage of Snooki and Tom Brady? Long winded essays on how he really, actually, totally, still loves hockey? Please! Unfortunately, the site delivered plenty of both, but I managed to stick around and read an article by Chuck Klosterman entitled "Three Man Weave" about a small town basketball team which defeated a better team with only three players. Klosterman's article is well written and researched. He's been writing for a long time so excellence is to be expected. It wasn't necessarily Frank Deford in a dentists office good, but it captured my imagination.

I remember a television show a while back, perhaps it was Murphy Brown, wherein the plot revolved around the team doing cheap reporting on several shallow subjects in order to draw in viewers so that they could then be hit with one or two in depth, meaningful reports on important issues. The idea isn't new. A marquis on an art house sparkles for a reason. In this way, perhaps Bill Simmons is on to something. Perhaps at some point he recognized the importance of bringing true content back into sportswriting. Maybe he saw what I saw. Tons of information but no stories of legends and their battles. Simmons admits that he isn't the greatest writer, so any jabs he takes at himself are relevant. But his ability to see and address a need is pertinent. Grantland offers what many have termed a "dream team" including the aforementioned Klosterman as well as the likes of Malcom Gladwell and Dave Eggers. The group seems to be serious about bringing the substance back into sports. That it comes from an unlikely source is ironic, but considering what much of the internet has offered up until now, it is acceptable.

Somewhere out there there is a kid sitting in a waiting room with an iPad wanting somebody to tell him a decent story. One can only hope that this movement catches on.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Existing for the Sake of Existence

I think it is a fair to say that over the years I have attempted to offer two things in this space: erratic writing and mostly glowing praise of the Avalanche. Until recently I have also enjoyed bathing in the sense of logic which has radiated from the front office of my favorite hockey team.

After Ryan Smyth was traded to the Kings and it became apparent that the Avalanche were going to rebuild, I took the opportunity to look at where the team stood versus the salary cap. At the time it looked like the Avs were going to be sitting pretty with over 15 million dollars in cap room. With the right pieces in place (Paul Stastny), a good draft or two (Matt Duchene) and what turned out to be a loaded farm system, they were primed to rebuild quickly, and I got excited. But considering the recent news that Craig Anderson has been traded to Ottawa for perennial underachiever Brian Elliott, coupled with their record nine game losing streak, and the whirlwind return and retreat of Peter Forsberg, my excitement has been warped into persistent psychotic rage.

If there is anything that keeps the average hockey fan going, especially if they like a bad team, it is a constant stream of rumors. It gives us hope. I like to believe that most hockey rumors are released via high frequency radio transmissions beamed from Don Cherry's arm pits, which allow the rumors, smelling of Old Spice and poutine, to permeate and soothe the frontal lobes of hockey fans with minimal interference.

In the days of the super secret Pierre Lacroix administration, the attentive Avalanche fan learned to deduce what rumors were true (none of them), and which rumors were false (all of them). Using this knowledge I adopted a fairly reliable system of figuring out what the Avalanche were going to do next. I liked to call it "Buy That Guy!" It was a good system, and relied on trading prospects for legendary athletes. The fun of it all involved figuring out which hockey legend would play in Denver next.

Unfortunately that system grew obsolete after the lockout and had to be altered so that it is now cold and more complex. I call it "Sweating Blood From A Turnip." It goes like this: Ride player A to much fanfare until player A ceases to produce, develop, or play well with others. Trade player A for cheaper player B. Whip player B until player B "spits the bit", then trade player B for cheaper player C, and so on and so forth.

To be fair, when the ownership of the Avalanche transferred from Stan Kroenke to his son Josh, the team remained committed to a rebuilding strategy that placed the team near the cap floor, as discussed in Terry Frei's Denver Post article last August. Unfortunately in the case of Craig Anderson, the rebuilding philosophy seems to have put him in an unwinnable position.

Last season when the Avalanche were supposed to be terrible, Anderson hauled them into the playoffs with an effort that can only be termed "heroic." But while his performance was admirable, it put the team in an undesirable position. They were still developing and their growing pains were masked by the goaltender. Furthermore, the team missed out on what could have been a great draft for them which featured the likes of Taylor Hall and Jeff Skinner. If the team had done badly, even going so far as to "tank", fans would not have cared, as losing in the present may have helped secure future winning. Instead the team won, expectations were raised, and the Avalanche missed out on the meat of a good draft.

This season Anderson again attempted to carry the team but hurt his knee. When he was left to recuperate, the offense did its best to make up for a disjointed defense, ranking near the top of the league in scoring. But Peter Budaj, who is not Craig Anderson, was left to hold the fort until Anderson's return, and the team plummeted to the bottom of the league in the puck stopping department, which did not improve when Anderson returned.

Goaltending is 99% mental. You either want to get in front of 90 mile per hour missiles or you don't. More often than not the desire to get in front of the puck stems from confidence. If you don't have confidence then the other team will score, and you not only lose your motivation but you lose even more of your confidence. This is where Anderson was not helped out by team management, they didn't bring in anyone to help the defense.

It is achingly apparent that if Anderson was healthy and not trying to push his injury (potentially) in order to secure a new contract, that he didn't want to play behind a pathetic defense. Who would? So rather than actively pursue defensemen who would remedy the situation, the Avalanche instead traded a good goalie who was obviously frustrated for worse, a bad goalie who is obviously frustrated. That is the wrong solution to what isn't a complicated equation.

Apologists will point out that the team at least got something for a player who was on the way out, or may be more severely injured than has been indicated, but I will disagree with that logic by pointing out that the player the Avalanche traded for does not seem to be a viable solution whatsoever based on past NHL performance. Brian Elliott wasn't in an "Anderson" type of situation where he was stuck behind a great goaltender (Thomas Vokoun). Elliott was given chances to help Ottawa and didn't. Yet we are expected to believe that Elliott is going to magically transform into Patrick Roy just because he isn't playing in Ottawa. Really? I may be wrong (I hope I am) and perhaps all Elliott needs is a change of scenery a la Peter Mueller, but at this point I'm having trouble seeing how he is anything more than a warm body on the bench. Why trade a good goalie who needed help for a bad goalie? Why not just bring in better defensemen?

At best Avalanche fans are being asked to accept a crappy trade with a "change of scenery" label on it. At worst, fans are going to get to watch the former Ottawa goaltender ride the bench. Where is the win here?

Let's get back to rumors. This trade, combined with the Avalanche not pursuing people like Ilya Kovalchuk last summer or Tomas Kaberle recently, says that rumors the ownership and management are more interested in just keeping the team close to the cap floor may hold water. These rumors, if true, involve ownership putting out a product that is just good enough.

The logic that that the team wants to save money to lock down future stars like Duchene holds, and is defensible, but I fail to see where icing two substandard goaltenders actually serves to help the team's bottom line. This runs contrary to the supposed motivation of the ownership icing a team that wins enough games to make a profit. It gives the appearance that the ownership is being cheap and doesn't care about winning, even if they are actually simply staying the course on a long rebuild. Fans won't won't pay money to watch a team that appears to be tanking, or willingly underachieving, so management of the team's message is absolutely necessary. That is where the Avalanche have truly failed.

If the team has garnered any well deserved criticism over the years it is that the team doesn't communicate well with fans. The Avalanche rarely advertise, and recently Matt Duchene met with scorn from the management for opening a Twitter account. Fans have often made light of the level of secrecy surrounding the organization, but in the case of the Anderson trade, this secrecy is hurting the team. The Kroenke's and team management have to understand on some level that communication is absolutely necessary, especially during a rebuild when fans are being asked to pay money to support a substandard product. Without communication it makes the organization seem devious and lacking in good will. The same criticism has been levied against the Nuggets, also owned by the Kroenke's, as they stand to lose Carmelo Anthony for what will surely be lesser players.

I don't like the notion that an organization might be in existence just to exist. The idea runs contrary to both human and competitive spirit. I want to believe that Anderson was traded simply because he had lost his will to play, or was badly injured. But in allowing Anderson to lose his will, the management and coaches must take at least part of the blame. How Craig Anderson could go from the toast of the town to trade fodder in less than a year simply doesn't make sense. It is truly a sad story.

Fans in Denver want to win. They need to win. If the rumors about the motivation of the ownership turn out to be true: that the Avalanche exist just to exist, then this would be a horrible revelation that could destroy the franchise. If they aren't true and the team is truly committed to a long term rebuild, then the team needs to explain what at least on the surface appears to be a bad trade.


In the most recent news Kevin Shattenkirk, Chris Stewart and a second round draft pick have been traded to St. Louis for Erik Johnson, Jay McClement and a first round draft pick.

After hearing that I've decided to write about it when I regain the power to think rationally.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Here We Go Again!

I find myself wondering what he is thinking this time. Athletes can't be faulted for wanting to keep the good times rolling, but in Peter Forsberg's case, the good times are broken down and sitting on blocks in the front yard. Maybe he sees what the rest of us see. That the Avalanche are fast and fun to watch. I can't fault him for wanting to be a part of the team. Wanting to be back with the guys.

I was there the last time Forsberg played for the Avalanche. It was game six of the first round playoff series against the Wild in 2008. The Avalanche clinched the series, and Forsberg hurt his groin. I saw it happen. Something gave as he skated up the ice, and he drifted slowIy back to the bench. "Pedro's hurt again," I told my friend. I knew then it had to be the end.

But I'm a sucker, just like the rest of us are suckers. When Forsberg was selected to the Swedish Olympic team last year, I got excited. I thought that maybe he would show the world that he still had "it." But then I noticed he would be playing on the third or fourth line, and the excitement waned. And when I watched, the excitement turned into sadness. Injured or not, Peter Forsberg wasn't really dominant anymore. He is, by any sports standard, old.

Sure, hockey had Gordie Howe and Chris Chelios. Players who were great far longer than they should have been. But they weren't really playing on one leg or no legs like Peter. When it was announced that Mario Lemieux would play in a game before the Winter Classic, my ears perked up, but then my eyes read "Old Timers game" and I shrugged. Age happens.

I'd love to see Forsberg back on the ice, making plays that nobody else can make, hitting people harder than anyone else can hit. I want to have fun again when I watch hockey. I want the Avalanche to roll through people, and so does Peter. In times past I got used to writing cynical columns questioning Forsberg's returns. He was always too hurt and everything seemed crazy. But this time I feel different.

I feel...I feel...happy?

Yeah that's it. I'm happy with this. I'm excited! I want this to happen!

Crank up the media circus and unfurl the banners! Peter Forsberg is back!

Everyone fall in line and make haste to the Pepsi Center. Fill the air with trumpets and stories of his greatness! Let this be a time of feasting and celebration!

Our hero is back for one last, last, last, last, last, last, ride!

And this time it will be different? Who cares?!


Thursday, January 13, 2011

Old Man River

From what I can tell I am the only Avalanche fan in all of South Korea. My beer league is mainly occupied by Detroit, Ottawa, Vancouver, Blues, Montreal, and Leafs fans. In a sense it is a lonely existence, but there are good things about having a wide array of friends who like a wide array of teams. The best thing being that the majority of us can combine forces to mock the Leafs, Sidney Crosby is respected but seen as a punk, and Alex Ovechkin is almost universally worshipped, while Jason Spezza is almost universally despised.

The conversations tend to be wide in scope, and since Daejeon could be easily mistaken for a Canadian colony due to the large proportion of Canucks who live here, the hockey knowledge runs deep. Still, the lack of another Avalanche fan makes it difficult to have long conversations about where the Avalanche are going this season, and I often find myself with no one to high five when they score. Oh well...

If there is anything about the expatriate life that is guaranteed, it is that one spends a lot of time on the internet. At this point I can Facebook better than Mark Zuckerberg, and I truly appreciate that hockey, if not generally seen as an important sport in America, thrives in cyberspace.

From what I've read lately on the innertubes, wonderful bastion of hyperbole they are, the Avalanche are a horrible train wreck. Peter Budaj is seeing more time than Craig Anderson, the team has no defense, and the long absence of Chris Stewart allowed the Avs to go from "feisty and dangerous" to merely "feisty" or worse.

The win against Detroit this week provided evidence that the Avalanche can have games where they are overwhelming, yet after being shut out against the Blackhawks, the team provided the counter to that argument, and stand as winners of only four of their last twelve games.

I've preached before that the Avalanche are a young team, and that fans need to be patient with them while they develop. The fans seem to be trying, but for me, the patience is growing thin. Frankly, I'm getting sick of my own advice.

I get this idea that whenever I type the word "patience" into a computer I sound like a 75 year old man waiting on a couch for his tapioca to arrive. Maybe it is because inconsistent teams are difficult to write about, or maybe it's because my knee hurts and there's a draft coming from that dern window.

Colorado needs to show me something in the next month. They need to become giant killers. The return of Stewart should provide a spark, but this run towards the playoffs has meaning. The Avalanche need to take the next step towards success this year. The standards are higher, and they need to live up to them.

Now please, shut that door before you let all the heat out, and get me my stogie!