Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Still Making Good Time



When my daughter turned ten last fall (ten! I can hardly believe it) I told her that to celebrate we would spend a weekend away at a destination of her choice that we could drive to (within reason). She chose Niagara On The Lake and when told to plan the itinerary asked if we could go to the Falls and ride the boat up to them as well as go to the butterfly conservatory and 'Bird Kingdom' which turned out to be one of those old school attractions that you see here and there in rural Florida. A little run down and seedy, a little cheesy. Totally fun.

 We found a weekend which with Jenn working many weekends and all of our activities and obligations isn't that easy - case in point we have two free weekends where we will all be at home from now until after Labour Day - and after our youngest's kindergarten graduation ceremonies last Friday morning we hopped in the van and headed down the QEW. We stopped for a quick lunch and were closing in on St Catherines when suddenly the engine light came on and the van began to shudder. We pulled over, dead in the water. Visions of a ruined weekend appeared in my head and I pushed them down violently. This was going to happen. It had to happen.

 The same thing happened a year ago and it turned out the engine was misfiring due to a fouled sparkplug. We got a tow to the nearest Honda dealer and they said they'd look at it and we tried to figure out what was next. They were amazing (super amazing!) - they got a van from the used car lot and shuttled us to the cottage we rented 25 minutes away and told us that in the worse case they would deliver a rental car to us so we could enjoy our weekend. Minutes later our shuttle driver was back to take me to the dealer. It was the same problem as last year and the van was ready to go. (It turns out there is some sort of known issue so we need to get that fixed but for now we were good to go.)

 We were lucky. In a few weeks we head out east for our annual trip and I pictured us breaking down between Quebec City and Edmundston, stuck two hours from a town of any size, trying to convince someone whose second language was English that what we needed to get back on the road immediately. Instead it all worked out and my daughter (and the rest of us) had a tremendous weekend.

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 What drives my wife crazy about my family (and me) is we're optimists. We can't help ourselves. Our family crest should be a guy drinking a beer in a boat with an elk and a wolf with whatever the Latin for 'It Will Work Itself Out' embroidered below. When Mom was sick a number of years ago and we were in the hospital discussing options Mom and Dad nodded and smiled and repeated this mantra regardless of whatever the doctor or nurse or therapist said.

 It will work itself out.

 For us, well its a coping mechanism I guess. We aren't dummies. We know that sometimes things don't work themselves out. A year ago yesterday Dave Bolland had just scored and I got an email telling me that my dear cousin had passed after a short valiant battle with a vicious cancer. Just about to go to California to start a fellowship after finishing his surgical residency he had his whole life before him. And then he was gone.

 I had a beer for him last night. A big fantastic beer. I miss him so much.

 Things don't always work out.

 So much depends on luck. That cluster of cells that turns on you. The drunk driver on the road, the sudden violence of cars colliding that always gets me when I hear it. You can make all of the right choices and it helps you if you do so of course but when it gets down to it shit happens and a lot of the time there's not a thing you can do about it.

 It's ironic that Spencer's passing woke me up to this and that because of his death I've become more alive than I ever have been. He always lived his life full out and for that matter I had too, as best as I could, you can't live every day like you're going to drop dead tomorrow, its a nice sentiment but exhausting as a philosophy but with that said I worry very little about things anymore and when the question is do it or don't do it, whether its travel or adventure or anything within reason then my answer is yes, yes, yes, lets do it and so we went to Paris last fall rather than wait and then New York this past spring and in the fall I will be heading off again, though to where is still up in the air, perhaps Budapest, perhaps the west of Ireland, the balls of life, as philosopher Aaron Ekblad says, are being juggled and I don't know where they'll land and I wish my balls were being juggled right now but I digress.

 People don't like thinking about that eh? That luck is always there lurking in the shadows and that you can do everything right to fashion your life so that all will be well and then BAM you're a goner. Its a hell of a thing to get your mind around, it can be terrifying really but its also the way it is. We have friends who have had miscarriages and we had one couple whose baby died when she was being delivered. All was well and the baby was perfect, something just went suddenly wrong and that was it.

 Unbelievable horror.

 But we can't think about it other than as a cautionary tale that we are lucky and that we should enjoy what we have and celebrate it. Because we should, right? Because another truth is that it can always be worse. Car breaks down on side of the road? Its nothing. The absolute and total exhaustion that comes with being a new parent? Its nothing. And on and on and on. You do what you can, the best you can and then you hope that the dice come up for you.

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 People don't like talking about luck in hockey either. The preference is to attribute championships to hard work and character, its the story that sells see? The reality is the team that wins is usually the one that is the most talented, healthiest and luckiest. See those guys in the NHL? They all busted their asses to get there, on the rink, in the gym, countless hours pursuing their dream. They are all tougher than you are, sitting on your couch, drinking your Pepsi, eating your Cheetos. Professional hockey is a vicious brutal game, it always has been, and the softest player in the NHL has more guts than you can imagine. So lets put that notion to rest please. Telling me that, for example, Dave Bolland has some sort of intangible quality (he is good in the room - how do you know that?) that makes him a better hockey player than Mikhail Grabovski when watching the game proves the opposite. Dave Bolland was a fourth liner on the Chicago Blackhawks. He lost his job to Michael Handzus. He wasn't worth what he was paid last year. He scored the Cup winner, same as Frank Kaberle, Ruslan Fedotenko, Uwe Krupp, Maxime Talbot. These guys were all decent NHLers, don't get me wrong (and I don't mind Dave Bolland, at least before he pulled up lame, I wouldn't pay him a cent until I saw if he could still skate) but so much of what we read and see and hear is overblown nonsense isn't it? Character and wanting it more and all that. It is more entertaining than to think that plain old luck has a lot more to do with it that's for sure.

 Los Angeles was a deserving Cup winner and they squeaked by Chicago due to luck. If Chicago had beaten them? Luck. You don't win three seven game series, including one on overtime (and multiple OT games to boot) without getting the bounces. Not to take anything away from LA, they're a great team and they own the puck and get a lot of shots on net and the end result is that luck smiles on them more often than not, especially when they added a guy in Gaborik who could turn all of that possession into production but if any of those odd deflections go a little awry then its Chicago in the final and likely winning it all again. And that's fine, that's the way it goes sometimes, it was actually a relief to, for once, not hear how a losing team lacked character or try, good god I hate that.

 Where does all of this meandering take us with regards to the Edmonton Oilers? Well I've been thinking about the Oilers a bit lately, I didn't for a while as the real teams played to win the Cup but now we're at the Oilers' big moment, as it has been for the past eight years, the draft, and with the first big pick from their rebuild, Sam Gagner, soon to follow the prize prospect of the Pronger deal, Ladi Smid, out the door, my thoughts turn to ... despair? My bottle of whiskey? Murder most foul?

 I saw Ekblad play a bit in the WJC but I have no idea about any of these kids, just like you probably don't. I believe in best player available and think the idea of picking a kid who can 'step right into the lineup' is silly. You want to draft the guy who is going to help you win a Stanley Cup. That's the point of it all, right? So pick the guy who you think is going to be have the best career and go from there. I don't know if its Bennett or Ekblad or the German kid or some kid who isn't even ranked in the top five. Nobody does, you're projecting the next ten to twenty years on teenagers and unless you're talking Sidney Crosby who knows? Remember that Jonathan Toews went third overall. Joe Sakic 15th. Anze Kopitar 11th.

 It's a crapshoot.

The problem facing the Oilers and Craig MacTavish is the same problem that they faced last summer. Too many holes. Thanks to Kevin Lowe and Steve Tambellini the Oilers were left bereft of actual NHL players as they reversed the proverbial paper clip into a house idea by trading, well, everyone, for basically nothing.

 The result is that now that they have the prize kids they have few solid veterans to augment them and, on top of that, while Toews and Kane had a whole team of players behind them who were drafted later than the first round the Oilers have fallen down in that regard too.

 You have to really be massively incompetent to be as bad as the Oilers have been and remember they were pretty healthy last year too.

 *Sighs.*

 It looks like MacT has solved the goaltending but while it looked like he had eight top nine forwards last fall (Hall, RNH, Eberle, Perron, Gagner, Yakupov, Gordon, Hemsky) he now has seven and two of those, Gagner and Yakupov, fell off the cliff last season. On the back end, well its the same old story. Last year it seemed they had two top four Dmen in Smid and Petry and the hope was that Ference could step in and Schultz Younger would step up and instead Smid fell off the cliff and got moved, Ference got exposed and Schultz was terrible. Only Martin Marincin was a bright spot.

 So this is the problem. Too many holes. Same as it has been for years.

 And another problem ... the constant devaluing of the players the Oilers have. So you see Ales Hemsky traded for nothing, going to Ottawa and putting up a point a game playing with real players for the first time in years. Playing for a bad hockey team with a lot of bad hockey players means that you probably aren't going to look good and the end result is you have guys who get traded for nothing who then flourish elsewhere. Erik Cole was one of the first examples of this, brought in, immediately put out of position and then ending up taking on tough minutes with Ethan Moreau and Kyle Brodziak while people whined about how he didn't score any goals.

 Anyhow rehashing everything that has happened over the past eight years isn't going to get us anywhere and we'd run out of Internet talking about the failings of this club. They are a joke to everyone outside of Edmonton, deservedly so, and they deserve no benefit of the doubt, I'm sorry. I like MacT, why I don't know. Memories of 2006 and he's articulate and compared to Tambellini anybody is an improvement but really none of these are good reasons. I guess that it's just hope, that's all.

 He has to do a good job this summer, he has to, what's next, another new coach? Bringing in Ramsay was great and Nikitin is an improvement over Fraser (as am I but that's another story right?) although in the case of the latter I sure hope Howson knows something that we do not because buddy has been not so great lately.

 Remember way back when when we talked about luck? That's the problem when you've dug yourself a hole as big as big can be, you've got little room for error. You can bring in Boyd Gordon and Andrew Ference and David Perron but you still have a half dozen holes to fill and so you roll the dice on cheap gambles - Belov, Grebeshkov, Joensuu, LaBarbera - but then none of them work out and on top of that Dubnyk falls apart and Schultz younger and Yakupov regress and Gagner gets hurt and looks like a rookie when he gets back and Nick Schultz falls apart and now the season is over and you've taken a step back, not forward and you have to start wondering how long before Hall asks out.

 So now MacT has added Nikitin and he's a gamble and they're hoping that Schultz the remaining can show that he has a clue and that Marincin doesn't take a step back and that Ference can rebound and that's a lot of ifs and we're just talking about the D here.

 This is the problem.

 Stauffer was throwing names around and apparently Kulemin and Grabovski were mentioned and I'll tell you right now signing that pair would help turn things around. These are the types of guys that MacT has to chase after, slightly undervalued, good players, and here's hoping that Stauffer is in the know here. Spending big money on mediocrity is not going to get it done, it's going to take smart buys and moving picks or middling prospects for salary dumps that's going to get it done. I've seen a lot of Grabovski and Kulemin these past number of years and would take both in a heartbeat. Your mileage may vary but these are the types of players Edmonton needs. Guys who can play at both ends of the rink who move the puck in the right direction regardless of the opposition.

 This team needs men on it for lack of a better description. The 2006 team was loaded with them. MacT has to find some without dumping what good he has up and coming and if he decides to move the good kids then it has to be home runs, none of this Marincin for Boychuk horseshit that Matheson was floating earlier this week (trading a possible top four Dman that young and cost controlled for a guy on the other side of 30 with one year left on his deal would be a firing offence of course). No more suspects or guys with WJC pedigree from a decade ago or any of this 'character player' bullshit. Keep the few good hockey players that you have. Get more.

 And then maybe we won't have to rely so much on all of the 'ifs' working out and all of the dice landing just so. And then when the GM makes mistakes and they all do, even the great ones, then there's a ton of cushion for it.

 The boy and I are going to help Dad open the camp this weekend so we will literally be incommunicado from around Friday at noon until Sunday. Crazy. I hope the weekend turns out well for the Oilers but I worry. It has been a bad eight years. I'm hopeful but that's just my nature.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Winning




As frequent visitors to this space know by now my son has had tremendous fortune during his short hockey career. As a newbie and spare part last year (up and down your wing, get the puck out of your end, get the puck into their end) he was a champion in both his winter and spring leagues. This past winter he came in as one of the elder statesmen on his team and a larger contributor, first as a defenceman and then as a goalie as he requested the opportunity to backstop his team through the playoffs (he's got guts). It was brutally stressful for his parents but he his team triumphed, making him three for three. The picture above is after that triumph. He is in the middle. This is one of my favourite pictures ever taken.

Three seasons played. Three trophies raised.

This spring his team hit the ice running. It turned out that out of the best seven  players in the league all but two were on the boy's club. In the preseason they destroyed each opponent in turn, outscoring the rest of the league 38-3 in three games. The team was so good that they actually played hockey, passing the puck, making plays, it was absolutely unfair and so the teams were balanced, three of their five best players were moved out and replaced and the end result was that in the first shift of their first regular game they allowed as many goals as they had all preseason.

 Not only did swapping the players out make their roster weaker but it also exposed a goalie who had never played before and had not even faced double figures in shots yet,

 It was a short schedule and the top two teams would go directly to the final. With two weeks left they were in the mix but in danger. They tied the first place team to gain a valuable point and then lost to the last place team (in fact they had gathered a point out of a possible six from that team, two out of six from the first place team and four out of four from the team they were trying to catch. Parity!) That single point out of four should have doomed them but their prey were blanked themselves and so going into the final weekend the two teams were tied. Saturday the boy's team managed a draw against their nemesis, knocking them out of the race (that team managed six of their eight total points against the boy - talk about having their number!) and so they went into their game Sunday only needing a tie to advance to the big game.

 The team had been playing better and better. Their coach was terrific, all enthusiasm and smiles, but talking to each player after the game to point out an improvement they could make. They had been outshooting their opponents, done in by a lack of finish by all but one player who had carried the offence and by their own inexperienced goaltending. One got the sense though that something might break and so on this Sunday it did. With everything on the line they fell behind by one almost immediately and then tore the other team apart. By the time the clock was running down they were up seven to one and a couple of garbage goals did nothing to change the fact that they were going to the final. For the boy, old hat.

 After last season there were few nerves for him. His start to the season had been rough, two months or so between the pipes had dulled his instincts and he was a step behind but he improved as the season went on and so with the final looming he was ready, having played his best games in the previous weekend. I gave him the usual 'you'll be a bit nervous, that's normal, just play your game and enjoy it, you never know when you may play in another' - I should know, for me its been over thirty years :( - and he nodded and smiled.

 Old. Hat.

 The first team the boy played on was an all out team, his second and third were more star driven though in both cases the coaching was terrific and the supporting cast made a difference. This team, a .500 team that somehow finished second (the first place team was miles ahead), had the best player in the league but with a three goal maximum per game his team tied a lot of games 3-3 and lost a few 4-3 and 5-3. They needed to be like the boy's first team and in their last two games they suddenly began to become that team and in the final they were that team through and through.

 Their opponent had a kid who could shut down our star or at least match his three goals every game, on this day he was shut out, checked into the ground by the five D and waves of forwards who got on him as soon as he started to wind up to go. Only a few minutes in a kid so anonymous I had no idea who he was got behind their D and picked the corner. 1-0 and his Dad, beside me, laughed. I told him he would score today he said; it was his son's first ever goal.

 After that, well lets just say I've seen few games with so many twists and turns. A shot by the boy's team trickled over the line, the refs didn't see it and waved it off. Two more cleared off of the goalline. A mercurial little defenceman who had ripped it up in the preseason and then disappeared until the previous game when he scored three made it 2-0 and then they got one back. And then ... a penalty shot for them. We groaned because for all of our carrying the play it looked like the hockey gods were not smiling. And then, the blocker shooting out, the puck bouncing off of the post and staying out.

 Early in the third our star player finally broke free and got one and it was all running downhill from there. The little defenceman got his second with four minutes left and then another player got his first career goal to make it 5-1. They got one in garbage time but that was it. The underdog was champion and it wasn't even close.

 Four for four the boy is now. Four for four. (And he had his best game of the year, by far.)

 On Father's Day we went for lunch and I joked that maybe some day he could play for Capsule, maybe he would be a champion twenty times over by then and then we could see whose mojo was stronger, him winning or me losing.

 What I'm saying is he's a human rabbit's foot. We're taking offers all of you downtrodden NHL franchises. Lineup starts on the right.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Too Much






 Look at those crazy kids!

We have three weddings this year and when you get to our age that's a lot of weddings. Last Saturday we went to the first of these, it was here in Toronto, it was our kids' first babysitter and so they too were invited and for all three of them it was their first wedding.


 I enjoy weddings, I really do. I'm, well, I'm a realist and a cynic about a lot of things but I'm also sentimental and I like to party and I've had the good fortune of being to a lot of fun weddings mostly because I hang around the right type of people, the unpretentious partying type of people I mean.

 I remember one of the first weddings I went to as an adult, we were in our mid twenties, it was a huge affair, set in a ballroom downtown iirc, they had money or their parents did and so we wandered amongst the hundreds of people and we partook of the free bar liberally of course. As the father of the groom began his speech, which would last, well forever, with the words 'A marriage is like a merger' - he was an accountant and all of the accountants in the crowd raised their eyebrows in an explosion of mirth - we rolled our eyes and listened sadly as Van Morrison rollicked in the room next door, a reception that began AT THE SAME TIME AS OURS DID. We sat and we sat and we sat while we heard laughter and dancing and drunken singing and like that scene in Airplane I may have been the last one standing when the speeches finally ended as my tablemates did themselves in one by one.

 Other than that though we've had good times. Good times. DYNOMITE!

 The wedding on Saturday was fun though my fun was dampened by the fact that I was the designated driver. That's okay though. I don't need alcohol to have fun. Not me. /retrieves one of many strategically placed mickeys of gin from hiding spot/.

 This was a Portuguese wedding, my first of these and oh my god the food. Talking to the father of the bride we asked him what was on the menu and he said 'fish, chicken and roast beef' which we took to mean that we would have a choice of one of these options. So after the bread and salad we were surprised when the servers came around and piled our plates with fair sized pieces of fish (two or three of them) and rice. We thought 'oh this is the meal' and so we told the kids to have some as well even though we thought we were told they would have chicken fingers. No matter right?, we were probably high at the time. So we finish our mountains of rice and fish and then about ten minutes later they come out with the chicken and the beef and the potatoes and the veggies.

 Oh man.

 The kids were troopers but as the night wore on they began to tire and especially the boy was struggling as he had been up early to play hockey that morning and he had a slight (massive) stomach ache. They began to agitate to leave and it was around 10:00 and then the seafood buffet came out as well as a massive table of sweets so that delayed our departure and then we were about ready to wrap it up and I was coming back from the bathroom when Home For A Rest began to play, you know that nice easy beginning just before it gets mental.

 This is a wedding standard, at least at the weddings we attend and traditionally I have had a dozen or so at that point and start jumping around and I am quite sure (hopeful) that when I go it will be at the age of ninety or so from a heart attack induced by this. So I come back to the table and sit down and look at my lovely wife, my God she's a beauty, and she gives me a little smile and the slightest nod to the dance floor and up she gets and up I get and next thing we're hopping around like we're absolutely mad and our kids are staring, mouths agape, at a sight they have never seen.

 Almost seventeen years we've been together now, married for thirteen, isn't that something?

 I swear I'll never forget that moment, that smile, that nod, a reminder of something shared between us all of these years, of so many wonderful times. Just a second and my heart ready to burst out of my chest. Isn't that something?

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 Wasn't that Chicago - Los Angeles series unreal? I know there's a term for it but I can't remember it, how people attribute more value to something because it is more recent. That's not the best description of it but you know what I mean, right? The guy who argued with me last year that Jonathan Toews is the greatest Blackhawk ever, greater than Stan Mikita or Bobby Hull. Or that some basketball player a few years into his career is better than Jordan or, in the most ridiculous examples of this, that a player is better than another player based on his work of the past week. So Jonathan Toews is the best player in the world, better than Crosby, although now I guess that's Anze Kopitar, except he's European so probably not, right?

 With that said I have been around a long long time and I cannot remember a series played at such a high level as that Western final just completed. It was dramatic and it was unreal hockey and in the end it came down to a coin flip. If these teams played one hundred series they would probably each win fifty. Fantastic hockey and of course it reiterates what I talk about here a lot. Luck, man, luck. If the Kings get one less bounce (every single goal in game seven came off of a relatively crazy bounce) then Chicago moves on and we're talking dynasty if they beat the Rangers or as close to a dynasty as we will see in these times. Instead two blocked shots bounce right to a Kings' shooter, Carter goes offside and knocks a puck out of midair, Gaborik picks off a rebound perfectly and then Martinez puts one in off of Leddy's shoulder. Just nuts. (Though from the other point of view we can talk about the goal Toews scored of course and that is just a starting point for Chicago luck).

 That's the way it goes. Hockey is a flat circle of violence and degradation and puck luck and the sorrow of Leaf fans. /creates little Hossa out of Slovakian beer can/

 I had the Hawks winning and the Habs too, the latter was more of a hunch which was dumb because those never work out. That left me at 9 and 5 for these playoffs and by round my all time records are as follows:

First: 53-19 Second : 18-18 Conference Finals: 12-6 Stanley Cup Final: 4-4

Funny huh? In two rounds I kick it and two I'm even steven. I looked back and in the final I wrongly picked the Oilers (should have won), Sens (stupid anti Pronger sentiment), Wings in 2009 (should have won) and the Canucks (losing losers who lose).

 Honestly though those three all went seven games and of course here is the crux of it all.

 Either the Kings or the Rangers have a good shot at this. The West is the best, we all know this, there is no argument against this but the Rangers are quality, this isn't the Panthers or Capitals sneaking in to get strafed by a juggernaut. I had the four western powerhouses and Boston in my first tier and then the Ducks and then after that the rest with the Rangers at the top of the East, which makes going with my gut on the Habs that much dumber.

 I'm not going to run through all of the pros and cons because this has been done a thousand times but here are some quick thoughts:

- the Kings have a ton of elite talent, more than the Rangers, this is a huge deal

- the Kings are unreal up the middle, Stepan (who I like) would be the King's third best centre

- in Doughty LA has the best defenceman in the league imo

- the Rangers actually have a little more depth up front and are the faster team

- McDonough is healthy and is pretty amazing himself

- obviously if things go according to the past six weeks Lundqvist is vastly better than Quick but its goaltending so it may not

- two great coaches, I really rate Vigneault highly

  Should the Kings win? Yes and they are my pick. Some folks point to the rest New York has had but I think by this point unless a guy is relied upon too much they'll just keep going. Chara is an example of this last year and maybe Doughty could wear down, he was making some mistakes near the end of the conference final so this may be an issue for Los Angeles. The possibility of injuries aside I think that the Rangers have a shot but they will need Lundqvist to steal one or two games or for Quick to give one or two away or they will need some luck.

 Of course all three of these things are absolutely possible and so the Rangers have a shot but in the end I am picking the Kings in six because I always pick series to end in six but mostly because LA has Kopitar and Gaborik and Carter who are three elite offensive talents and when you are so good that you have Justin Williams on your third line then you're a really good team and probably the best in the league.