Monday, March 15, 2010

The Heart of Darkness

Wandered down to the ACC Saturday night. We were late getting downtown as we usually are so we were tight for time when it came to dinner. Ran into the Irish Embassy which is a beautiful pub. I think it once was a bank maybe? Anyhow I normally avoid the Embassy, at least during the week, I'm more of a McVeighs' man myself, a little grungy and yellowed walls and frayed carpet and old Republican and ancient surly Jimmy behind the bar; the Embassy is shiny brass and dark wood and high ceilings and redfaced obnoxious Bay Street types braying at each other during the week. Not my scene. They pour a nice pint though and the weekend brings a different crowd and on hockey nights you can walk in and tell them you're going to the game and they get you in and out like a flash and so Saturday night we got there at five after six and had two pints each and dinner and got to our seats with just under ten minutes to spare.

We always get great seats and so we were five rows from the ice, in the visiting Oilers' end to start, just at the top of the circle on ADD's left. Right there amongst the hoi polloi. Jennifer Hedger and her husband, another sports broadcast type I believe, although I can't remember the name, were sitting in front of us a few seats over. She is a very pretty girl, much prettier than on TV. Just a tiny one, which is surprising, she's so mannish on the TV. Nothing to her in her tall black boots and fuzzy vintage Leafs sweater. Yowza. Buddy was wearing a Ranford jersey and between beers he ate sushi. Can't remember what she was eating but not that high faluting, let me tell you! ;)

Oilers probably could have put your man between the pipes and he would have done much better, let me just start with that. The Oilers came out and my pal says who's that in net, he's a big guy, and I said oh just you wait. he's going to get beat upstairs for sure even though you'd think that would basically be against the law of physics or something.

So here's the deal about the Leafs and I. I grew up in Northern Ontario in the 70s and 80s and the Leafs were basically irrelevant. We knew who they were and we got the odd game. I saw the Sittler ten point game for example and we saw a lot of the Hound line in the mid eighties when Wendel Clark arrived but for the most part it was all Habs. That was who we got and nearly everyone I knew was a Montreal fan. Those who weren't cheered for Boston maybe or Philly or les Sabres. The Leafs had a decent team but they didn't matter, not to us anyhow, and when the Habs were supplanted by the Islanders as the premier club in the league it was the Oilers who came to the fore in Northern Ontario as they rose to prominence.

The Leafs were afterthoughts. They flirted with being good in the seventies momentarily and then Ballard ruined it again and that was that. They just were not important, not in an era which featured probably the two greatest hockey clubs to ever hit the ice. Basically they were a joke.

The funny thing is that they made money in those days but when I came to Toronto in 1986 and went to my first NHL game I sat in the greys for eight dollars.

Eight bucks. Imagine. Now times were different of course. We spent twenty bucks for two medium Molson Canadians on Saturday night and my buddy smiled and said he remembered going to the school pub and getting a dozen beers for that amount but still even the greens, which were pretty good seats, could be had two for less than fifty bucks at the old Gardens. For Christmas for a few years I bought a pair for my dad and I and he would come down and we would have a steak dinner and then walk over to Maple Leaf Gardens and catch a game. The team was terrible but it was a different crowd at those prices and the ingame presentation was Jimmy Holmstrom on the organ, if I recall his name correctly. And it was the Gardens. It was a cool old rink. It was a weird vibe overall though. The team was poor and the owner was a crank and the whole organization was pretty mickey mouse but the fans were rowdier and a game was pretty fun.

Now I can take or leave the ingame presentation anywhere in any case these days but something about the Leafs' whole deal just pisses me off and so after about ten seconds on Saturday night I was wholeheartedly behind the Oilers even if it meant a stall in the fall for Hall. It may be just because I live in Toronto, I guess, surrounded by Leaf fans, because I know that Leaf fans are the same as any other fanbase. My friends who are Leaf fans are amongst the smartest fans I know. There are Leaf fans who are idiots just as there are Oiler fans who are idiots. So while Vito from Woodbridge who figures the Leafs could trade Boyd Devereaux for Crosby exists, so to does the Oiler fan who thinks that Ryan O'Marra for Ovechkin is a possibility as well.

Stupidity crosses divisional lines.

So while the fact that a picture of Tie Domi in some sort of montage of Leaf tough guys got a bigger cheer than Wendel Clark, for example, and would get the same reaction over Mats Sundin even, and while the guy in front of me yelled at Brule "That's why you losers are in thirtieth place" after Gilbert flubbed his breakaway and while some drunken kid behind me rambled on and on through the game about how awesome the Leafs are, I think that when it comes down to it its the Leafs themselves who I dislike, not their fans. And not even their players. Even with Phaneuf in the mix this a totally likeable club, unlike the Quinn Leafs with Corson and Tucker and Green and McCabe and a long list of petulant, dirty players who never won anything and spent much of their time referee baiting, taking the cue from their old coach. These Leafs have some nice old pros like Kaberle and Beauchemin and a gaggle of big speedy kids who play the game hard and with some verve and while they are shitty and I don't really like the looks of their prospects, Kadri seeming to me to be a fit for those old teams with his attitude and most likely not really that good period, the fact is that Burke has started building something and his club at least is big and fast and tough unlike the Oilers who are small and slow and soft.

So while the team is reasonable and I don't think its the fans really that piss me off, it comes down the organization more than anything and this was clear to me immediately on Saturday night. The latest Leaf marketing gambit is the whole idea of the Leafs being Canada's team and while I have seen the annoying commercials on TV I have not experienced the full onslaught in person and by the end of it I was expecting that we'd be shipped out to central Asia in Leaf sweaters, Sherwoods in hand, to take on the Taliban. I'm not talking about the Olympians who were present (and Tessa Virtue and Heather Moyse, oh my God) but the marrying of country and club that started at the beginning and carried on was helped by the Olympic athletes being present certainly. Pictures from across Canada and of international hockey success (!) and Canadian soldiers and waving Canadian flags interwoven with pictures of Toronto Maple Leaf players - well really its nothing more than an insult as far as I am concerned, the idea that a single crappy team, pretty well the least successful team in the NHL over the last four decades, going on five now, is Canada's team. I guess I didn't get the memo when Richard Peddie and the rest of the condo selling geniuses dreamt this up. Appeals to swelling national pride and tying into a hockey program that doesn't count nearly making the final as the highlight of its last forty three years is the act of an organization that hasn't done anything right in decades and likely will continue to fail for years to come.

So now you have a club that does one thing well and that's really really make money but in the end they are still mickey mouse and its sad for the fans, who are passionate, amongst the most loyal in sport I would say, that their organization is most concerned with their brand than actually winning. It comes right from the top though from Larry Tanenabaum whose pronouncements on the Leafs being the premier NHL franchise ignore the fact that when it comes down to it there is only one thing that counts and that is winning and that is one thing that the Leafs have done very little of, so little in fact that to clearly remember Leafs teams when they were Cup champions you have to be in your fifties or older. We're not in Cubs territory yet but we're getting there.

Now the thing that sucks about all of this is the Oilers presently are no better and lets face it folks they are heading down the same path as Peddie's team. Living on glories now twenty years past and even the most recent narrative, an attractive one for sure, the underdog little team that could, is now replaced by just another porridge franchise whose main concern seems to be public money for a new arena. The hockey men have run a Stanley Cup finallist into the shoals in four short years, going from within a break of a Cup to worst in the league and the dual faces of the franchise are the dithering puppet Tambellini, forever assessing what is now the worst roster in the league, compounding the errors of his boss, and the saleman LaForge, trotting out the well worn line that the team cannot succeed without some concession from somewhere, this time the wallets of the citizens of Edmonton themselves, dark hints about the team's survival.

And so what was once a fast exciting team playing on the fastest ice in the league has been reduced to a bunch of bums, the legendary ice now crap, just like the club that skates on it.

If you're a Leafs' fan you may have your own LaForge in the greasy scumbag Peddie but you also have Brian Burke and while your man is a blowhard he also knows waht he is doing, imo.

I've watched quite a few games this year, though fewer lately, but it really takes a live viewing to realize just how terrible the Oilers are. The Leafs are awful but they are leaps and bounds ahead of Edmonton. Looking at the roster the Oilers iced I counted maybe nine or ten guys who should be in the NHL and a few of these guys are bottom of roster players themselves. Horcoff was dragging Comrie and Moreau around the ice with him (and still managed to outchance while on the ice) and Gagner was stuck with Minard on one wing and Pouliot on the other. The last time I saw Edmonton in Toronto was one of Ryan Smyth's last games as an Oiler. That club was about to go down the tubes itself just a few days later when Smyth was dumped and after that night I remarked on how the Oilers were so much smaller than the Leafs. That club was gigantic compared to this one and that club competed hard compared to this one and that team almost beat a Leafs' club that was a lot better than this one and its hard to believe how far the Oilers have fallen. Three years later and Pouliot back on the wing and still running in place and Nilsson an absolute cipher and the fourth line put out over and over again against the Leafs top players, even after TV timeouts, and just run right over in that situation despite said top line including Bozak and Kulemin.

One line the Oilers had, one line only that showed anything, and the blue, if anything, was worse. Whitney and Gilbert came rolling over the boards every chance Quinn could get them out there and they showed well. I like Whitney, he's a big lad, and Gilbert was terrific, my God he's a good player and he even got in Phaneuf's way when ADD went ballistic. Peckham and Johnson had a lot of compete at least. Johnson can certainly play on this club's third pairing and Peckham, while raw (I'm still trying to figure out the Bozak goal), is a rugged kid and he's willing and watching Phaneuf turtle was sweet (Phaneuf actually was kicking at Peckham when the kid had him down on the ice).

As for Strudwick and Chorney they were absolutely terrible. Just brutal. If either of them is in the top six next year than we can be assured that it is a planned tank job or that management is completely out to lunch. Based on past results I would put money on the latter.

And the goaltending, well same goes for that. ADD got beaten high twice and while Dubnyk hung in there somehow Kessel scored on him in an impossible spot as well or so you would think. My pal was shaking his head because I called it but anyone who has watched these guys this year knew it was coming. If they don't cut bait on ADD this summer then we can be assured that it is a planned tank job or that management is completely out to lunch. Based on past results I would put money on the latter.

Just repeating myself now. ;)

Looking at the Leafs on Saturday night was frustrating because here is a club that in many ways is in the same boat as the Oilers and yet they are ahead of the game. Up and down their lineup are guys who they picked up from Europe and college or lower in the draft, guys who are big and who can skate, guys who the Oilers absolutely need. Players like Bozak and Hanson and Stallberg and Wallin may not pan out but watching them on Saturday night, guys like them and Gunnarsson back on D and the excellent Kulemin, and one can see that even if they do not pan out as top sixers the Leafs have the basis for a big fast bottom six of the roster that would be tough to play against. I like Zach Stortini and what he brings, I love his try and how he has made himself into an NHLer but guys like him and Potulny and, well most of the Oilers up front and on the blue, had their lunches eaten by thse kids all night because they could not compete with them physically or in terms of their speed. As I said I could see the majority of the guys dressed for the Oilers on Saturday out of the league next season and I would not be the least bit surprised. I don't think the Oilers are smart enough to find their own gang like the Leafs though I am afraid.

So while it was a terrific night for our annual game it was really an eyeopener for this Oilers' fan and that sounds a little goofy I know, I've seen enough games to know the Oil are rotten but Jesus Murphy are they ever fucking poor. I saw them play in the game I mentioned before, the year when Lowe didn't provide the club with any D, and I saw them play in Edmonton that same fall, that was the year that Lowe didn't give them much up front or on the blue but a bunch of kids, but I have never seen such a terrible terrible club.

This whole rebuild is going to take a while I am afraid.


Bruce said...

I was looking forward to reading this piece and as usual am not disappointed. Well, not in the piece. My team, now that's a different matter.

You're right that a live viewing shows you things that you don't get on the tube, and there are also things you maybe see better from a once-in-a-long-while opportunity rather than a several times a season thing, the same way an uncle might see changes in a kid that are almost imperceptible to a dad.

e.g. I've been harping on small and soft forfuckingever but "slow" is not the first word that crosses my lips, yet you are right in that I used to be impressed by the team's speed and anymore that's not a positive but is neutral at best and worse than that on those many nights that Penner has packed a lunch and is carrying it in an oversized backpack. The guys who used to be fast like Horcoff and Moreau have lost one or more steps, and the young speed is either not that impressive or not that effective for the most part.

Glad you got a chance to see JDD's "A" game as it were, but I'm guessing the highlights of your night were named Hedger and Moyse and Virtue.

Black Dog said...

Thanks Bruce.

I'll probably do a second post on a few more impressions I had of the experience which is what I wanted to do originally but then as usual I got carried away by the futility of it all.

The game was entertaining but the Oilers are really really bad. I knew this but I think maybe I was in a bit of denial.

There's very little to like about this club.

Scott Reynolds said...

Great report Black Dog. I think this will be the first season in the last... I don't know, fifteen years, where I will not have seen the Oilers live. I guess I'll have to rely on your very capable descriptions to get a real sense of how terrible the team is. Not too torn up about it :)

David S said...

Like Bruce, I was really looking forward to this post, and perhaps dreading it just a bit too. You sir did not dissappoint on either front.

One thing. I would suggest that what you're seeing this year is indeed a planned tank job. There's no other rational explanation for the on-ice product. My guess is when the players finally figured it out, only a handful of them (Sam Gagner comes to mind) decided to still punch in every game. Its a god damn travesty.

Dennis said...

Sean McComrmack is Hedger's boyfriend and he's an anchor on Sportsnet's highlight shows. The guy's an unabashed Oilers fan so I'm not surprised he was wearing Ranford gear.

I will have to take your word that Hedger's better in person because I have used the mannish term in regards to her as well and she's never impressed me in the least.

Regarding Moyes I will never forget her ass in those spandex pants.

I was as sick as a fucking dog when I saw her win the medal and in the words of george costanza, "it moved."

Black Dog said...

David - if it weren't for the Khabibulin deal I would say it was planned but I think the thought this summer was the same as every other summer - golly gee they were going to compete, especially now that we have a Cup Winning Goalie!

What is scariest is that they have so completely misjudged the talent. Other than Hemsky and POS up front they don't have any top nine forwards on IR. And POS has been awful.

I think they just aren't that smart although at least once it became apparent that it was a disaster they didn't turn around and try and salvage it, so that's good.

Black Dog said...

Dennis - yeah that's him.

I've never thought much of her either but she is pretty fine.

And Heather Moyse? Oh yeah. Islander on top of it too so you know she's the finest kind.

Ribs said...

Hedger & McCormick have been married for a few years now. Anyone remember her from "The Lofters"? Yea, me neither. Interesting clip though.

YKOil said...

I'm with everyone who says: they (Oilers management) just aren't that smart. That said, at least they got the: have really bad goaltending part of it right.

Ribs said...

Wow, no comments after posting that link. Must be the censor thing. How does this one work?

Black Dog said...

Ribs - yeah I've seen that one before. That show was like that MTV Real World I think, right? A bunch of wanna be actors mugging for the camera?

Nice video though.

YKOil - yeah I'm with you. Its been pretty clear now, its four years running after all - these guys don't know what they're doing.

Ribs said...

Ha, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that it's old news around here. Yea, that was a junky canadian show that no one watched.

Black Dog said...

Around here? You mean in Old Perv Corner? ;)

hunter1909 said...

Oilers last won the cup in 1990, with a great playoff that, unlike the 2006 one ended with a cup.

Since then I've suffered through more than I can stand, once giving up on NHL hockey altogether. Now, with a useless pile of shite, that being the Oilers, I'm apathetic until they prove they're something a whole lot more than that, and, after 30th place, somehow scratching for eighth isn't going to cut it anymore.

Swabbubba said...

There is always next year the draft is a coming. The Oilers are so bad that they have no players other teams want to kill. Wishs hit on Seabrook wtf. That was bad. But Seabrook's hit 20 seconds earlier was not much better.
The new NHL rewards the cowards like Cooke. Alas I can say i watch about 5 minutes of a game and wander off cause there is no point in watching, it is like Nascar waiting for some disaster to happen.
I hope habby retires or fails a medical for pumping enzymes. The only thing I am watching the Flames trying to flip flop into the playoffs if they don't make the Sutter family will be unemployed that will cause a rise in the UI premiums for us all

Ribs said...

Hehe, you said it BD. Not me.

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