Monday, July 19, 2010

One Tough Town

Growing up in Sudbury, well, growing up in Sudbury was far different than growing up in, say, Toronto or London or Kitchener-Waterloo. Sudbury is a tough town. The winters are long and vicious and you have to be able to take them. Growing up we played most of our hockey outdoors and when I first began coaching it was the same. Thirty below and you'd be out there, wind pushing at the plywood box of the players' bench, a bunch of seven year olds aching to get out there to warm up their freezing feet, the rink surrounded by parents in their snowmobile suits and heavy boots, moms and dads stomping their feet and cheering, if the snow was heavy we'd break and they would descend onto the ice with scrapers to clean it up while we had a five minute respite in the shack, skates off and rubbing hands and feet to get them warm again and then skates on again and out into it once more.

Sudbury was a railroad town and a logging town over a century ago but first and foremost it was a mining town and the Finns and Italians and French Canadians who came to work for Inco and Falconbridge along with the Irish and Scots were tough tough men. You can't work in the mines if you don't have some nerve. Its not just a northern Ontario thing, its a western thing and a Newfoundland thing and a Maritime thing. Its Canadian, the work outdoors and underground, the battle with the elements. Its not for the faint of heart and seeing as this country was built by people who travelled from around the world to build a new life here you know that they were made of stern stuff.

It was when I moved to Toronto that I really realized from whence I came. In my hometown I was a lightweight, maybe a middleweight when it came to the drinking. I could put them back but compared to a lot of the kids that I grew up with I was a nobody. It was only when I came south that I realized that where I was from was different. Folks worked hard and they played hard and they drank hard and this was the way it was. I would go out with big men from Hamilton, a pretty tough town itself, and match them beer for beer and we'd talk about our old men and 'old men strength' and some of their exploits which we could never match and the funny thing is when I talk to my Dad, a little guy with enormous hands and nerves of steel, a guy who can throw up a building or rebuild a car or pilot his boat through a storm on Lake Superior, a guy who was a terrific hockey player and ball player and boxer, who played guitar and left home at fourteen to get a good education, then I am in awe. And then my father talks about his own old man, one hundred and thirty pounds at most, a softspoken little guy who once laid out a man with a hundred pounds on him at the Soo Legion because your man was yapping, one punch and he hit the floor, and I think about how times have changed. The generations before us built the land with their bare hands, men and women, and it wasn't easy. No room if you were soft and most had to make their own way, that's the way it was.

My uncle whose son's wedding I am attending this week was born on a train, the sixth and youngest of his family. He was delivered by the brakeman and his initials A.C.R. are homage to the Algoma Central Railroad, my grandfather's employer, the railroad on which my uncle came into this world. The train pulled into the Soo into an unholy blizzard and he and my grandmother were loaded onto a sleigh and pulled through the storm to the hospital.

Holy shit right?

The summer that I was twenty a couple of buddies came up to visit me from Canton Ohio. We went to the family camp and ate steak and drank beer and alternated stints in the sauna with swims in the lake under the stars. (One of them exclaimed that it was like being touched by God.) We went to the bars in town and one night in particular we went to the University pub, a popular place to go on Thursday nights. At the time it was also where a lot of guys went to settle scores because the most popular bar in town, a converted grocery store called City Lights, was manned by a pack of roided up bouncers who stomped (literally) on any outbreak of violence. So the violence found an outlet elsewhere, quite often at the pub which was staffed pretty minimally.

So we got nice and full and at night's end we wandered out into the summer air. On our way to the parking lot where my girlfriend at the time was going to (graciously) take us home, we came upon a guy a little worse for wear sitting on the curb. One of the Americans, a tall lanky fellow, he was well over six feet, knelt down to see how buddy was (buddy was a mess) and when he did he began to catch flak from a friend of your man who was down and out.

Now I knew both of these guys from high school, they were a year younger than me, and the guy who was mouthing was, like me, not all that big. He was what you'd call a regular guy too, not a noted tough guy or anything. But the booze was going and so he told my American friend to beat it, to mind his own business, and my pal stepped up and made a comment or two and next thing you know they were into it and next thing we know the bigger man in lying on the pavement and his nose is broken and there's blood everywhere.

We get home and my Mom laughs and shrugs and takes his shirt which is soaked in blood and the next morning its bright and white and shiny. Years of living in the north teaches you how to remove blood from clothes I guess. ;)

The funny thing is that the next week another buddy of mine comes up from Toronto and again we hit the town and again on Thursday night we go to the university pub and this time we get through the night without any trouble and we're out waiting for our ride when another buddy of mine comes out and he's been cut pretty bad and it turns out that after he realized we had left he came running through the pub, hoping to catch a lift home and a buddy of his, a guy he went to school and worked with, thought that he was coming at him and so he let him have it as soon as he came into range, split his face right open. With friends like that right? You know the old saw.

What a town.


Steve Tambellini has avowed to make the Edmonton Oilers a tougher team to play against and one cannot blame him. This club has been getting pushed around since June 19th of 2006 and every season we fans are forced to watch as Jarret Stoll and Ladi Smid and Tom Gilbert and Ales Hemsky and Sheldon Souray and others have been knocked out for lengthy periods of time by questionable acts by opposing players. Its been ugly and Tambellini wants it to stop and that's great.

Now the best way to be tough to play against is to actually have a really good team. Teams like Detroit and Chicago and Pittsburgh and Carolina have won the Stanley Cup since the lockout and by my eye the biggest goon who actually took a regular shift for any of these teams was Ben Eager and calling him a goon is probably a bit of a stretch. The Ducks were loaded with fighters who fought but they also had a blue that included Pronger and Niedermeyer and Beauchemin as well as four decent to excellent lines plus Giguere and Bryzgalov between the pipes so if that's the model you want to follow then I guess you had better start with two future Hall of Fame defencemen who have won every damn thing and go from there. Add Selanne and have MacDonald/Getzlaf/Marchant/Pahlsson up the middle and then add a goon or two in there once all is said and done I guess.

Point is that the toughest teams to play against are the ones that always have the puck and while in some minds toughness means fighting (hello Mr. Cherry) the reality is that the most valuable toughness comes in the form of guys like Datsyuk and Zetterberg, Crosby and Gonchar, Keith and Toews and the whole rest of that lot. Can't say I've ever seen Marion Hossa or any of the aforementioned in a fight but playing through torn ligaments or a bad shoulder or returning to the ice after losing a goodly number of teeth, fighting through your checks and winning the puck time and time again, taking that hit to get the puck out or taking a beating in front of the net or playing thirty minutes a game rank a lot higher to me than dropping them and wrestling with Eric Godard or Donald Brashear.

Its those folks who say Ales Hemsky isn't tough who think that a guy like JF Jacques or Steve MacIntyre will make a difference who are sadly mistaken. If you're going to have thugs on your team then its probably best that they can play, like Shore and Howe and Lindsay and early Mikita and Bob Clarke and Messier and that lot. Give me Claude Lemieux or Matt Cooke, dirty pricks who can play a bit. Those guys will help you win. Guys like Jason Smith or Chris Pronger or Raffi Torres will help you win.

Guys like Jacques or MacIntyre or Greg Stewart. Not so much. Even Zach Storini, a guy who isn't much of a player, is going to help you win more than these guys and God help Tom Renney if Stortini sees the PB so one of these jokers can take a shift or two.

A guy like Stortini, well God bless him. He pulled down a three year contract and the life of it pays him less than that joker O'Sullivan got in one season. If POS or Robert Nilsson had anywhere near the heart of Storini well that would be something to see. But they don't and so they are gone and good riddance. At least Zach, given a couple of reasonable linemates like Brodziak and Glencross, will help eat those dregs alive. Because those dregs usually include that NHL GMs' cowbell, the useless goon or two.

Its not just an Oiler thing. Its an NHL thing. The guy who can barely play, who takes up a roster spot, who gets pounded by any measure when he's on the ice. these guys are supposed to have value. These guys who can't find a spot on the rosters in Chicago or Detroit or Pittsburgh.

Or apparently in Tampa either as Yzerman was quoted as saying that fighting is an overemphasized part of the game. Now Yzerman had Bob Probert on his side for a number of years but of course poor old Bob could play too, people forget that. Years after Probert was gone though and the Wings won a few Cups there wasn't a lot of fighters in Detroit. There was that famous brawl against the Avs when they finally pushed back and that meant something, it really did, and of course McCarty was a guy who could throw them, Shanahan too, but again there's a Hall of Famer and another guy who could play. And when it comes down to it that's what it comes down to. Having guys who can play who can take it. That's the type of toughness you want. Not some guy whose presence means you have a short bench every game.

I guess the thing for me is that while I appreciate what Tambellini is trying to do I don't think he's going about it the right way. We'll see when camp breaks I guess. certainly adding Jones and Fraser and Vandermeer will help and it looks like there will be more size and talent up front in Hall and Paajarvi and certainly anybody who has seen Hall play won't question his toughness. And if Peckham makes the team and can play well that will help too.

Just mark me down as a guy who would be a lot happier if Vande Velde, who is supposed to have a little bit of an edge and some nice skill as well, makes the club instead of MacIntyre. MacIntyre's presence on this club for two seasons didn't prevent guys from getting run. I'd prefer a guy who can play thank you very much. And MacIntyre cannot and Jacques gave us very little reason to believe that he can either.


Coach pb9617 said...

Just mark me down as a guy who would be a lot happier if Vande Velde, who is supposed to have a little bit of an edge and some nice skill as well, makes the club instead of MacIntyre.


I'm so tired of hearing about hits and fights. Who in the hell gives a shit if you give up a goal every 20th shift?

shepso said...

Black Dog- on the subject of your former town, a buddy's band from back home in Edmonton is doing a tour. They're thinking about playing in Sudbury on the back end of the tour. I'm trying to help book their Ontario shows. Any thoughts on a venue there?
Also, with BCB moving to Toronto, what say we try and get the Toronto gang of Oilers bloggers together for the first oiler HNIC game of the year?

Black Dog said...

shepso - hmm, you might start with Shaughnesseys (sp?); my niece has a band and they play there regularly, its a fair size bar, usually they have bands once or twice a week

I'll see my niece next week so I can ask her if she ahs other suggestions, she is incommunicado right now (camp - no phone or interweb)

As for the fall, for sure. I'll be in if Jenn isn't working and Ty and Mike Winters are always up for OILERRZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ!

Derek - yeah, this whole idea that JFJ softens up the opposition or MacIntyre has them looking over their shoulders is ridiculous, especially when they get on the ice for seven minutes a game and spend that time scrambling around their end.

Give me Hossa and Toews turning the opposition's defensive coverage into a fire drill shift after shift. You want to wear a team down? Start with guys who can get the puck into their zone and win puck battles.

Chris said...

My gut tells me that the MacIntyre signing has a lot more to do with team culture than is generally discussed. Much like Strudwick, MacIntyre exudes a positive attitude that may be infectous. Players like MacIntyre and Strudwick will be replaced as the rebuild progresses.

Black Dog said...

Chris - I'm sure they are but I'm a terrific guy in the room as well. Its true, you can ask any of the guys who play for Capsule.

Also, like MacIntyre, I can't play hockey. Certainly not at the professional level.

I'm happy for the guy, I really am. He's like Rudy, if Rudy were a monstrous human being who kicked the shit out of other people. But they could probably find about a thousand hard working nice guys who are better players than he.

spOILer said...

I have high high hopes for Mr. Vande Velde. Oilers have been missing sandpaper guys who can play the game at a level higher than Stortini (no knock on Storts).

Olivier said...

" Now Yzerman had Bob Probert on his side for a number of years but of course poor old Bob could play too, people forget that. "

Well, the reason his passing was so widely mourned, even tough all we saw were the brawls, was because dude was a pretty darn good player. Wielding that kind of nuclear deterrent and being able to skate with good players without embarassing them... Chris Simons, in his early Nordiques/Avalanches years was a bit like that too. A bit.

One of the recurring meme on some french habs boards is about the habs going and getting that big JFJ fella; he is big and french, just what we need! We could ship out that heartless russian scum Kostitsyn and add some toughness to our top-6!

The humanity...

Loved the line about the guy cutting up his buddy running across the bar. Young men and alcohol, always entertaining.

Mr DeBakey said...

Toughness & grit is is tool like any other.
A hit is just a hit, to be useful it has to accomplish something.

We've been talking some about the 72 Canada-USSR series.
I'd forgotten how terrible Wayne Cashman was in many ways - neither speed nor finesse like Counoyer, Henderson or Ratelle.

But, he separated [gritted, hitted] guys from the puck along the boards
THEN passed it onto Esposito's stick in the slot.

That's useful grit

Chris! said...

Apparently I had forgotten that Probert could play. Looked up his stats and 87-88 is crazy. 21 points in the playoffs! And yet all I remember is the face-destroying.

Andrew Willis said...

Please keep me in the loop about any gathering of the Torontonian Oiler clan. I've been stuck on my own watching them for far too long.

Black Dog said...

Andrew, will do, and btw nice to see you Chris! and a round of applause folks for one of the main reasons that Oiler blogs are the cream of the croP

E said...

this is exactly the thing that always struck me as remarkable about canada. americans like to talk about the toughness of our frontiers, back in the day, but... shit, ain't nothing compared to what y'all had to deal with, and not so very long ago either.

i've always wondered if that was somehow connected to the traditional indifference to violence and injury in hockey. now, of course, the level of bloodiness in the sport is much higher than everyday life, but back when hockey was emerging in canada, everyday life was an ugly, dangerous business in most parts of the country. the kind of bad shit that might happen to one in the game is nothing compared to the kind of bad shit that could happen to one just by living and working in late 19th, early 20th century canada. so the inherited attitude towards hockey violence is that it's no biggie, even though by contemporary standards, it's pretty egregious.

just a hypothesis.

Black Dog said...

E. - I can see the truth in that