Facts, stats, and observations about the Oilers defence corps 20 games in.
Scoring **** GP, G-A-P PPP P/GP
Souray ***** 19, 7-8-15(7) 0.79
Visnovsky ** 20, 4-8-12(7) 0.60
Gilbert **** 20, 2-9-11(5) 0.55
Grebeshkov * 17, 1-7-8 (3) 0.47
Strudwick ** 17, 0-3-3 (0) 0.18
Staios ***** 18, 1-1-2 (0) 0.11
Smid ******** 9, 0-2-2 (0) 0.22
The Oilers rely more heavily on scoring from the back end than almost any other NHL squad. Oilers currently (thru Monday's games) feature 3 of the top 25 defence scorers in the NHL (Souray 9th, Visnovsky 19th, Gilbert 25th). All 3 rank among Oilers' top 5 scorers; only Nashville and San Jose even have 2 D in their top 5, all other teams 1 or 0. Similarly, Oilers are the only team with 4 defencemen in their top 8.
Sheldon Souray leads the Oilers in goals with 7, while no forward has managed more than 5. The other 29 NHL teams have a forward as their leading goal scorer, although in Nashville there is a tie between a D (Shea Weber) and a F (Jason Arnott).
Tom Gilbert's splits:
as of Nov 1: 10 GP, 0-1-1, -6
since Nov 1: 10 GP, 2-8-10, +3
Dennis Grebeshkov's splits:
Oct 12-Oct 18: 4 GP, 0-4-4, +3
Oct 22-Nov 9: 7 GP, 1-0-1, -8
Nov 10-Nov 20: 6 GP, 0-3-3, +3
Time on ice: Visnovsky is leaned on heavily at evens, 18:35 per game. The rest of the big four all come in right around 16 minutes, Staios 14, Strudwick and Smid 12. Visnovsky also leads the PP at a shade under 5 minutes a game, but ranks a distant 6th among penalty killers at under 1:00 per. Souray makes huge contributions to both special teams (4:45 and 3:55) and thus joins Visnovsky with 24+ minutes of total ice time. The PP has been divided 70/30 between Visnovsky/Souray and Gilbert/Grebeshkov, which is tough to argue with given both of the big money guys have earned a good reputation as a power player. It'll be interesting to see how this morphs as MacT tinkers with the pairings. It's also tough to argue with no other defenceman on the team averaging more than 0:10 PP TOI/G. Meanwhile, Staios and Souray anchor the PK, with Strudwick, Gilbert and to a lesser extent Grebs contributing appreciable time (if not results).
Special teams: On the PP so far, Souray has been The Man. He has been on the ice for 12 of the 15 5v4 goals, with an impressive +8.21/60. Visnovsky, Grebs, and Gilbert are all between 5 and 5.5. The PP is only +2.94 when Souray is OFF the ice, whereas the other guys all see the PP improve from the low +5s to +7 or 8 when they leave the ice. On the PK, Strudwick impressed until the most recent game, and still leads the way with a modest -3.03/60. Gilbert and Souray are semi-respectable around -7, but the other guys are in minus double digits per 60 which is flat out terrible. Visnovsky trails at worse than -14 ... egads.
Corsi numbers of Oilers D (even strength):
Visnovsky +21, Souray +16, Grebeshkov +10, Gilbert -6, Smid -6, Staios -67, Strudwick -82.
ZoneShift of Oilers D (even strength):
Grebeshkov +16, Souray +12, Visnovsky +10, Gilbert +1, Smid -6, Strudwick -22, Staios -28.
From these last sets of numbers it is clear that our third pairing is getting killed out there at evens. Despite the fact Strudwick has started exactly the same number plays in the offensive and defensive zones (52 each), Oilers have been outshot a staggering 134-69 with him on the ice. Staios actually has started more shifts in the offensive zone (73-64), yet the shots against are nearly as bad at 150-93. This has begun to show up on the scoreboard in recent games.
Steve Staios' splits:
First 9 games: +5
Next 9 games: -4
Jason Strudwick's splits:
First 10 games +3:
Last 7 games: -4
On the other hand, there’s this from the same source (timeonice.com):
Sv% ON: Smid .983 (in limited minutes), Strudwick .948, Staios .947, Visnovsky .941, Souray .932, Gilbert .906, Grebeshkov .904
... which suggests that perhaps the two veterans are limiting the quality of the shots they allow even as they are getting clobbered in the territorial play. The next two on the list are also veterans who have the decided advantage of creating stuff in the other end. Meanwhile Gilbert and especially Grebeshkov have been doing well in driving the play judging from the above Corsi and ZoneShift numbers, yet both are minus players because … their goalies stink? they’ve been giving up ten bell chances? The Dice Are Rattling? Yet more grist for the Corsi/shots/shot quality debate that has been a recurring – and fascinating – theme of the Oilogosphere since I’ve been around and before. At this point I have concluded nothing more than the answer lies somewhere in the middle between quantity and quality, and neither can be trusted on their own to tell the whole story.
The Oilers' current group makes an interesting case study towards this discussion which I will continue to follow with interest.
Interesting to look beyond goals to shots differential. The Kings have outshot their opponents in 15 of 20 games, the Oilers in just 5 of 20. The Kings are averaging 27.8 shots per game, the Oil 27.6, but in the defensive zone the difference is stark: 24.8 shots allowed by the Kings, a spectacular number; and 33.2 against the Oil, a spectacularly bad number. Oilers rank 28th in the league in shots allowed, ahead of just Florida and Tampa Bay. The Kings, meanwhile, ranked 28th last year; this year they rank an astonishing first overall in the National Hockey League, 0.9 shots per game better than San Jose and 2.2 shots clear of the rest of the league. (I had to check that on two different sites before I believed it!)
All of this must be put in the context that the Oilers have played the fewest home games in the NHL and the Kings the fewest road games. So they've had friendlier crowds, friendlier match-ups, and very possibly friendlier shot counters on their side. Nonetheless, it's a promising start for the young Kings and their new-but-old coach, Terry Murray.
Kings' problem seems to be at the back end of the roster: Matt Moulson -4, Peter Harrold -4, Brian Boyle -7, Tom Preissing -7, Raitis Ivanans -8, Derek Armstrong -8, Denis Gauthier -8.
Up front: Kings have 3 forwards (Dustin Brown, Alex Frolov, Jarret Stoll) with 6 or more goals, which is 3 more than the Oilers have. Anze Kopitar, Patrick O'Sullivan, Michal Handzus and 19-year-old Oscar Moller bring an attack that is fairly balanced across three lines.
On the blue: L.A.'s top 4 defenders in TOI are all plus players: Doughty 23:18, +5; Quincey 22:02, +3; O'Donnell 21:22, +2; Greene 18:59, +1. All four are playing 16-17 minutes ES TOI per game; the other guys are 12 minutes or less but are getting lit up.
Between the pipes: For all the LaBarbera Love in the 'sphere, the emerging goalie in LaLaLand appears to be Erik Ersberg, who for the second straight year has significantly superior percentages to LaBarbera in Pts%, GAA, and Sv%:
2007-08: GP, Pts%, GAA , Sv%
Ersberg: 14, .545, 2.48, .927
LaBar'a: 45, .429, 3.00, .910
2008-09: GP, Pts%, GAA, Sv%
Ersberg: 12, .545, 2.32, .898
LaBar'a: 11, .389, 3.06, .884
Interesting to see how their Sv% plummet as the team reduces shots allowed. But that's a discussion for another day.
Ex-Oiler watch: Jarret (Minus Touch) Stoll has been on the ice for 9 ES GF, just 3 GA: on a per/60 basis that translates to +2.49/-0.83. Is this the same player that posted +1.51/-3.09 with the Oil last year? On the PK unit he hasn't been on the ice for a single goal against in close to 40 minutes TOI. Surprisingly his least contribution is on the PP where he is clearly second unit.
Matt Greene (pictured) just seems to be tooling along, his "offensive" totals a pretty typical 20 GP, 0-3-3, but so far he's keeping his head above water with +2.32/-2.13. Last night in the Kings 6-2 loss in Calgary, Greene posted an assist, +1, with 3 blocks, 2 hits, 1 shot, and 0 penalties in 19:58 TOI. I watched a chunk of that game and Matt was one of the few Kings who played well. Oiler fans will salivate at the memory of Greene's flaws, but I suspect we'll notice a different aspect of his game when he's dressed in opposition silks, namely that the big lug just gets in the way an awful lot.
Keys: Playing with five days' rust it is essential that the Oilers are up to the early tempo against an opponent on the back end of back-to-backs. Oilers should have the energy advantage at the back end of the game.
If there are two things I have learned on the Oilogosphere, they are that 1) Kevin Lowe screwed up by trading Chris Pronger for magic beans, and 2) Kevin Lowe screwed up by signing Sheldon Souray as an unrestricted free agent a year later.
After a little more horse-trading the magic beans roughly translate into Ladi Smid, Riley Nash, and Jordan Eberle with a dash of Erik Cole. Meanwhile the cost of obtaining Souray was zero assets, just a contract. A hefty one, but we got to keep our beans.
But let’s forget those peripheral advantages of the deals -- not to mention the fact that Sheldon Souray wants to play in Edmonton and Chris Pronger doesn't -- and simply focus on the two principals. Oilers signed Pronger to a 5-year, $31 MM contract extension in 2005, and Souray to a 5-year, $27 MM UFA deal in 2007. Both were entering their 31-year-old season. Market forces aside, that’s similar enough money that shouldn’t it be reasonable to expect similar performance? But, but, but, the experts scoffed, Sheldon Souray isn’t half the player Chris Pronger is.
After an injury plagued 2007-08 that did nothing to quiet the critics, Souray has jumped out of the gate in ’08-09 with a solid stretch of hockey. Pronger, meanwhile, has rebounded somewhat from a subpar and suspension-spoiled season with what seems to be typically solid play. So for the first time since the deals, we can actually make an on-ice comparison. At the quarter-pole it’s an exceedingly interesting one:
CFP **** Vitals ***** SS
34 ****** Age ******* 32
6’6 **** Height **** 6’4
213 **** Weight **** 233
Souray is two years younger, but with a more extensive injury history. Both are large men.
CFP * Boxcar stats ** SS
22 ******* GP ******* 19
4 ******** G ********* 7
10 ******* A ********* 8
14 ******* P ******** 15
+2 ****** +/- ******* +2
32 ****** PiM ******* 30
Pronger has played all 22 Ducks games, Souray 18.5 of the Oilers 20, but their boxcar numbers are very similar. Pronger is more of a playmaker, Souray a finisher, both as advertised.
CFP * Scoring splits* SS
3-3-6 **** ESP *** 2-5-7
1-6-7 **** PPP *** 4-3-7
0-1-1 **** SHP *** 1-0-1
Virtually identical production in all three situations. Souray’s threat as a goal scorer on the PP is borne out here.
CFP **** Icetime **** SS
25:58 ** TOI/G *** 24:54
17:17 * ES TOI/G * 16:13
4:01 ** SH TOI/G ** 3:55
4:40 ** PP TOI/G ** 4:45
Virtually identical on both special teams. Pronger plays 1 minute a game more at evens. Historically Pronger has played much more than Souray, but after peaking at 30:14 a game in 1999-2000 he has gradually scaled back to 26:00 in 2007-08. Souray meanwhile has seen his ice time gradually rise from ~20:00 when he first came to Montreal to 23:11 his last year there and 24:21 his abbreviated first year here. The gap continues to narrow this early season.
CFP ***** RTSS ****** SS
61 ***** Shots ****** 63
6.6% **** Sh% **** 11.1%
31 ****** MsS ******* 31
25 ****** Hits ****** 17
33 ****** BkS ******* 14
10 ****** GvA ******** 9
14 ****** TkA ******* 11
Shots and missed shots a dead heat. Souray with the higher Sh%, of course. Pronger leads in “defensive points” (hits + shot blocks), but has played 13 home games to Souray’s 5 in front of a friendly local counter; still, the edge has to go to Pronger in measurable defensive contribution. Both have very similar GvA/TkA stats.
CFP *BehindtheNet.ca* SS
-0.03 * QualComp * -0.01
-0.03 * QualTeam * +0.32
+2.18 * GF ON/60 * +2.33
-1.84 * GA ON/60 * -2.12
+9.90 * PP +-/60 * +8.95
-8.73 * PK +-/60 * -8.13
Again, very little to choose here with the obvious exception of QualTeam. I have to say of all the New Statistics that is the one that is giving me the most trouble this early season with its rapid fluctuations. So much so that I queried Gabe Desjardins a while back; he responded: “qualcomp is a lot bigger at the beginning of the year due to huge variations in performance that narrow quite quickly as the year goes on”. However, it must be pointed out that Souray has played most of the season with Lubo Visnovsky, while according to BtN, Pronger played the first month with the likes of Nathan McIver and Bret Hedican. I haven't been following the Ducks, but Carlyle's tendencies have been to run Pronger and Niedermayer both at right defence at evens so that at a given time one of them is likely on the ice. MacT runs his bench differently, but has switched up pairings in the last week or so.
Both players have excellent results on the PP, not so great on the PK, but the difference between the two is positive in both cases; their combined effect on special teams is roughly +1/60.
CFP * Timeonice.com * SS
+8 **** Shots +- **** -8
+2 *** Fenwick +- *** +2
+15 *** Corsi +- *** +16
6.7% *** Sh% ON *** 7.8%
.929 *** Sv% ON *** .932
-25 *** ZoneShift ** +12
These are all team results with that player on the ice. There’s damn little to choose, Oilers have a better Sh% with Souray on the ice, but Souray seems to be a better shooter than Pronger, so maybe that is to be expected. The ZoneShift is a term recently coined by Vic Ferrari, and refers to the location of faceoffs starting and during a players’ shift vs. those at the end of the shift. In Souray’s case he starts slightly more plays in his own zone and ends slightly more in the offensive zone, a pretty good indicator that play is flowing at least somewhat in Oilers’ favour when he is out there. Pronger starts way more often in the offensive zone for some reason, and ends his shift there considerably less often, suggesting a flow of play against the Ducks.
CFP *Contract status* SS
$6.25 MM Cap Hit $5.4 MM
1.75 Seasons to run 3.75
Oh yeah, the bottom line: Souray has a somewhat lower cap hit, and is locked up for two years longer than Pronger, which is either good or bad depending on your opinion of Souray. My own opinion is that Pronger is the better player, but parsing all the above, statistically there’s been precious little to choose between the two in the first quarter.
I will follow this comp with some interest as the season proceeds. It’s early days for many of these types of stats, but so far it’s tough to argue there’s much to choose between the old 44 and the new one. If Visnovsky is out a while that could change things, although Souray has been playing with Gilbert of late anyway, with no apparent drop-off in his effectiveness.
While I had higher expectations of Sheldon than many, I am still pleasantly surprised by how solidly he has contributed to this point. This favourable comparison to one of the elite defenders in the game only reinforces that.
Five years ago this weekend Edmonton hosted the NHL’s first outdoor game. This lifelong fan was one of 57,167 people in attendance that day, but my experiences over thathockey weekend were in some ways entirely unique. I think it’s a story worth (re)telling. Part 2 of 2 follows.
Saturday, November 22, 2003. I had really wanted to go to the Heritage Classic from the day it was announced. An historic occasion for a self-styled hockey historian who has already experienced first-hand more than his share. Yet all fall I had done nothing about it, not even entering the lottery as the ticket requests piled into the Oilers' office by the hundreds of thousands. I can't really afford it, I rationalized, but maybe something will just fall into my lap. Somehow I remained sanguine, strangely confident that somehow it would work out. When Val told me about the CBC contest, I just knew I would win -- and typically I'm a "glass-half-empty" type when it comes to foretelling the future. Even when I was down to the equivalent of pulling my goalie in the trivia game, I maintained my composure. I felt that the contest was for people just like me: the hockey-is-in-my-blood fans who could say "Thanks for the memories" and actually remember. So I felt I deserved to win those tickets and somehow justice would prevail. Of course, my end of the bargain would be to share my experience with those who might share my passion if not my luck on this occasion.
Came the day, and I awoke with said tickets having miraculously materialized only hours earlier. Game day temperature hovered between -16 and -20° C., with a "freshening" breeze from the SE. The promise of a warm-and-fuzzy experience was sure to be challenged on at least one front. Specifically, a cold front. But in a way I welcomed the cold as a factor which would make the occasion more memorable, an Outdoors-in-Canadian-Winter experience.
While the Oilers first NHL game -- whose ticket stub paved the way to this one -- was held on my birthday, the Heritage Classic itself was held on my wife's. (Some would call this a sign.) Unselfish person and loving mother that she is -- not to mention practical about the Great Outdoors in Friggin' November -- she graciously passed on her opportunity so that our son could attend, and spent "her" day mostly alone. She had seen hundreds of games with me in the glory years, and was happy to remember "the boys" as they were. Kevin, meanwhile, had heard the stories (more than once, in some cases) but never saw the team with his own eyes, the Gretzky sale having been completed in his first year.
Kevin and I prepared like tens of thousands of others for an extended outdoor stint. With my cold-weather night-time observing experience and collected layers of clothing, perhaps I was better prepared than many: briefs, thermal socks, two pairs wool socks, two full pairs of longjohns, outer pants, turtleneck, two hoodies, snowmobile suit, Oiler sweater, parka, Sorel boots, wool gloves covered by heavy wool gunner mitts, neck warmer, thick black cloth baseball hat, four hoods, sleeping bag. A thermos of hot coffee for me and of cider for Kevin, and off we trundled like a pair of Michelin Men to the Park'N'Ride. After a few nervous moments outside the stadium seeing a huge line-up awaiting security, I found that they were passing people through very efficiently indeed, and we were able to find out seats just as they began to introduce the so-called megastars. Perfect timing.
Commonwealth Stadium was the place to be that cold November Saturday, providing an interesting perspective on a few things. Seen at a greater distance than I'm used to -- and make no mistake, these were relatively excellent seats on Row 44, just below the underhang -- the games had a surreal element. I saw it as an event, whereas usually my attention is entirely focussed on the action between the boards.
What an event it was! It had a very Winter Carnival-type feel. I have been to many dozens of games in Commonwealth Stadium, starting with the Games themselves, but I have never, ever been there in the winter. Do we really just leave it sit there unused for half the year?
The experience of watching the timeworn rituals of hockey in the familiar-yet-strange setting of Commonwealth Stadium was like a dream, where context twisted into bizarre visions of unreality. The usual green floor of Commonwealth was replaced by a broad valley of brilliantly-lit white; an island ice rink surrounded by a lake of snow. While utterly appropriate to the occasion of the first outdoor game, the "lake" seemed to act as a buffer between the fans and the participants; seen at an odd, flattish angle the ice surface was seemingly suspended in space, the standard setting of spectators in surround-sound seats strangely sequestered. And my normally sharp sense of time was skewed in mysterious ways, as the utterly modern merged with the ageless.
The challenges of playing outdoors were as old as the game itself, yet utterly new to most of the participants. While a record audience of nearly 3 million viewers watched innovative camera angles on Hockey Night in Canada's first high-definition TV broadcast, to us in the distant stands the action was difficult to follow, the puck the size of a pixel when it was visible at all. One learned to follow it by the context of the play and the players; if, for example, Eric Brewer was skating in a certain direction, one could be sure the puck was going in another.
But all that said, the stands were the place to be, where one could observe the action unfolding live in something close to four dimensions, no matter how strangely warped. From that perspective one could focus less on the hockey game and reflect on Hockey, the Game. Or as Peter Gzowski put it, the Game of Our Lives. The patterns, the passing, the pounding, the poise-under-pressure, the performance art, the passion play.
In many ways the fans were the big story. Layered up as we were, we wedged ourselves together like rowsful of Dave Hunters. Not everybody stuck it out for the whole six hours, but a significant majority did. It was a wonderful celebration of the game of hockey, and simply of being Canadian. One just had to listen to the 57,000-voice Commonwealth Stadium Choir's heartfelt rendition of "O Canada" to recognize that. Normally a reluctant participant in flag-waving and territory-marking, I was surprised to hear my own voice rising to join the throng.
Back to the surreal: the legends game in particular had a dream-like quality, with the perception of both time and space seemingly distorted. For one thing it was a low-scoring game, hardly an Oiler trademark. For all that I had seen the core of the 80s Oilers play some 500 live games, they appeared for this one in their unfamiliar road blues. The Canadiens were wearing a weird sort of photonegative of the famed bleu, blanc, et rouge which made number identification almost impossible. I could see on the big screen suspended on a giant crane at the south end, that the sweaters sported the familiar "CH" (for "Classique Heritage"?).
But with due respect to the greatest franchise in the NHL's long history, it was not the Habs most of us had gone to see. Too many of les anciens glorieux are unfortunately a little more anciens than glorieux. They dominated the league for decades by passing the torch from one generation to the next. Many of the greats have long since died, some famously during their playing days (Georges Vézina, Howie Morenz), some famously in retirement (Rocket Richard), others in obscurity (Doug Harvey, Toe Blake). The majority of living greats are simply too old to participate in an event like this. Their last great team was a quarter century ago, a fully mature group of stars mostly in their 30s at a time that Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier were hitting the pro ranks in the World Hockey Association at the tender age of 17. Unlike the Habs, the Oilers developed all of their great players almost simultaneously, with the entire core of stars being within a couple of years in age. Today, this meant in their young 40s, far younger than almost all of Montreal's legends.
The view of my old favourites was refracted by the prism of time which had eroded their skills today, but which shone in my mind like yesterday. I couldn't read their numbers easily either, but had no trouble identifying any of them through posture, skating stride, mannerisms. I'm sure I could identify Lee Fogolin coming off the bench during a stoppage at 1000 yards: the stooped shoulders and laboured but purposeful stride are still unmistakable.
Familiar plays and patterns occasionally emerged, albeit in slow motion as hard-won muscle memory fought aging legs and a puck in serious need of retraining. For every change on the fly, there was the new Oilers' right defenceman trying to hustle across to his side of the ice to defend against yet another odd-man rush; and boy, do I remember nights like that. No mistaking Paul Coffey making the big turn at his own blueline, his powerful cross-over strides morphing from backwards to lateral to full-steam-ahead, taking a pass in full stride, blasting though the neutral zone and wide on the overmatched defenceman before making a backhand centring pass which barely failed; the puck turned over but Coffey had already used his considerable momentum to round the net and glide effortlessly back into defensive position. Obviously that was Wayne Gretzky hunching over the puck for the exactly correct number of milliseconds before (trying to) unselfishly dishing it off to the man in the best position. Only Glenn Anderson could lean at that impossible angle, defying the laws of gravity while taking the puck on the shortest path to the goalmouth. That had to be Charlie Huddy making a shrewd neutral zone pinch, causing a turnover and taking advantage of his position and momentum to lumber along the right boards as the fourth man on the rush, take another pass, dish it off, duck back to the point. There was Randy Gregg, tall and poised, making a crisp breakout pass; and there was Kevin Lowe, tall and poised, making another. To some they may have looked as similar as two tall pine trees, but to me who has seen each of them make the same play literally thousands of times, they were as unique as my own brothers.
While many "experts" in the (eastern) media viewed Mark Messier's participation as frivolous or worse, fact is Oilers would have been incomplete without the presence of perhaps their most dominant personality. So what if he was still an active player? To me it was the night-in night-out grind with the Rangers at the age of 42 that's the anomaly, not playing with his old buddies who have played out the string in a more conventional time frame. And for an original WHA fan like myself, in Oiler silks Messier embodied the only surviving remnants of the old league; by 2003 the Edmonton native was the only active NHL player who played in the WHA, and the Oilers its only remaining team.
There were of course, several retirees in the game who played in the WHA: Gretzky, Semenko, Chipperfield, Hunter, Linseman, Gingras, Napier, to name a few. But as usual, the Oilers chose to bury that part of their history without a trace. I don't understand it.
As for the Habs, they played hard, and they played well. But beyond Lafleur, Robinson, Lapointe, and Shutt, many of the big names were missing: no Gainey, no Cournoyer, no Savard, no Dryden, to name a few stalwarts of the last great Habs team of the late 1970s. The roster was sprinkled with Stanley Cup champions from the "fluke" Cups of 1986 and '93, good teams with great goaltending. The masked face of that team, Patrick Roy, was nowhere to be seen, but there was no shortage of solid but uncompelling skaters like Carbonneau, Muller, Ludwig, Pepé Lemieux. The Habs did what those Habs always did, play positional hockey to close down space and time on the puck carrier. Not exactly the "firewagon hockey" for which the Habs once were revered, more like the "starve the fire before it catches hockey" of the modern NHL. So in a way they were the exact wrong opponent to let the Oilers put on a show. Time after time a still-imaginative Oiler passing play would die just before the finishing shot.
The view of the ice was further distorted by shimmering haloes of exhaled air around the players' heads, nature's elements in an unnaturally natural setting. Occasionally the puck would crack against the boards in a distinctly outdoors sort of way, and one had to remind oneself that these were some of the greatest athletes this city, this country, this game has ever seen, playing shinny on a cold Saturday afternoon in November. They were having a ball, and so were we in the stands. To see them pick up the ice scrapers between periods teleported me to the neighbourhood rink with my seven-year-old son, or as a seven-year-old myself, holding the handle of the shovel under my chin, trying to keep up with my brothers in the crisp air of Tipton Park. No doubt other minds wandered to more distant eras and lakes and rivers of a truly timeless, Canadian pastime.
A personal highlight was attending with my son. Kevin loved to play the game but is ambivalent about watching it. It might be the fastest team sport in the world, but it's positively glacial compared to video games. And my teenager's usual response rate is about one grunt per four questions asked. But midway through the megastars game, right out of the clear cold blue, Kevin volunteered "This is just great!" And beamed as only he can, right through the neck warmer.
A few other snapshots from the day's activities will stand the test of time. As an erstwhile goalie, I will cherish a couple provided by the custodians of the cord cottage. One was a remarkable period of shutout hockey provided by the recent Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Grant Fuhr, capped by a lightning quick glove grab of a rocket off the still-formidable stick of Stephane Richer. The replay on the big screen was perhaps the day's defining moment for TV viewers: the modern net cam view of Fuhr in classic hockey card pose, silhouetted against a crisp blue sky. The other was Jose Théodore's toque, a practical fashion statement which for this hockey fan made yet another link across time. In 2002 Théodore became the second Habs' goalie to win the Hart Trophy. The first, 40 years earlier in the season before I started to watch hockey, was noted worrywart Jacques Plante, who famously used to knit toques as a stress reliever. Legend does not relate whether he actually wore one in an NHL game, but on this special day his spirit lived on.
The regular "league game" was something of an anti-climax to the megastars, because in many respects it was just another game. Historic, to be sure, and interesting to watch the players deal with the challenges, but I found I had to work rather harder than usual to follow the game at the intellectual level. Two points were on the line, but who won or lost was ultimately unimportant. A lesson which I am still learning at this advanced stage of my life.
Was it perfect? Certainly not. The utter lack of crowd control made the concourse a seething (in more ways than one) mass of humanity, where the destination eventually became a not-so-simple return to one's seat, leaving one to contemplate alternative uses of an empty thermos. The main game could have been better, and had a happier outcome for the frozen faithful. The Oilers megastars could have won 7-5, not 2-0. Jaroslav Pouzar could have been there. Don Cherry could have been booed off the field, or at least greeted with stony silence. (Some dreams remain forever beyond reach.)
And there were omissions. If they'd put me in charge, I would have added a final touch: to announce the home town in the introduction of every player and in both games, from Edmonton to Espoo, St. John's to St. Petersburg. This would have served as eloquent testimony that the Game of Our Lives is proudly Canadian in origin but now stretches 'round the globe at those latitudes where ice forms naturally.
The dreamlike state in which I experienced this event was entirely appropriate. In earlier, happier days, it had been the dream of a lifetime for a die-hard hockey fan to witness first-hand such a team as the 1980s Edmonton Oilers, without doubt the most exciting team in NHL history, featuring the greatest genius to ever play the game. To have this one last chance to see them make history yet again was for me, what the chance to play together may have been for them.
Five years ago this weekend Edmonton hosted the NHL’s first outdoor game. This lifelong fan was one of 57,167 people in attendance that day, but my experiences over that hockey weekend were in some ways entirely unique. I think it’s a story worth (re)telling. Part 1 of 2 follows.
Friday, November 21, 2003. Earlier in the week, a close friend had given me the heads-up to the Heritage Classic contest on CBC Radio One's Radioactive show. They had a pair of tickets for the person who could produce the earliest ticket from an Oilers’ NHL game. Val thought of me immediately and knowing that I’m a CKUA guy, not to mention a hockey guy who didn't yet have tickets, took the trouble to call. So I trundled in to CBC's new downtown studios with my entire 47-game set of ticket stubs from Season One. (Five exhibition games, 40 regular season games, one international with Moscow Dynamo, and one playoff game; I went to them all.) They were only particularly interested in Game One, October 13, 1979, which of course was included. As luck had it, within a minute of my arrival an elderly lady came in also with a ticket from that game, and they said we were the first two. So they interviewed both of us on-air and decided that as a tie-breaker there will be a live-on-air Oilers' trivia contest on Friday afternoon. I was to face off against the lady's son -- likely to be about my age -- and possibly others who brought their stubs before the deadline, with the winner to receive a brace of tickets to the game.
Friday was an interesting day to say the least. First I took in the morning skate, thanks to an old friend who had received a four pack acknowledging his 25(+) years as an Oiler season ticket holder. They seemed to have been quite stingy doling out tix; there were maybe 5, or 6,000 people there. Room for ten times that many. Although I noticed there were lots of school groups, hockey teams and the like.
It was numbingly cold. I had inadequate gloves, and when I took my hands out to get out my camera or binoculars, well, I just couldn't get them warm again (outside of drastic action which I was unprepared to take). It was fun to see Lafleur and Shutt bearing down on Robinson in a 2-on-1 drill, although the passes were rarely on the mark it seemed. There were a fair number of Habs sweaters and toques in the stands, some people wearing the logo of both teams. A particularly fitting touch was supplied by one wag who posted the score of Guests 6, Home 15 on the temporary scoreboard. I instantly recognized it as the aggregate score of the Little Big Horn Series of 1981. Oilers over Habs 6-3, 3-1, 6-2. Ouch.
For some unexplained, inexplicable reason, there was an interminable 80-minute "intermission" between the two teams' skates. What the hell could they possibly have been doing? Dunno, nobody bothered to turn on the PA. Had a whole bunch of the Oilers' best customers a little nonplussed, to say the least.
But it was for the Oilers that most people came -- and waited, and waited -- and were rewarded by the following starting line-ups for the scrimmage (colours were blue for defence, white for forward, so I had to choose names for the teams):
First All-Star Team - Second All-Star Team
Grant Fuhr -------- G ------- Bill Ranford
Paul Coffey ------- D --------- Kevin Lowe
Charlie Huddy ----- D -------- Lee Fogolin
Esa Tikkanen ------ LW ----- Craig Simpson
Wayne Gretzky ----- C ------- Mark Messier
Jari Kurri -------- RW ---- Glenn Anderson
Obviously, the "action" couldn't possibly live up to those great names, but to think the Oilers have such a proud legacy after only 25 years in the NHL was (almost) enough to warm the heartles of my... wait a minute.
Other trios included the Original NHL Oiler Line of Chipperfield with Hunter and Lumley, and the Rat's Paradise Line of Linseman, Semenko, and McSorley. Other blueliners included Gregg, Muni, and Beukeboom and some guy O'Flynn, # 03. Maybe he won some contest or something, I dunno, but he allowed everybody to take a breather. Meanwhile, I had my own contest to think about. I still didn’t know if I’d be back to see these guys play one last game.
The CBC contest was exciting to say the least, starting with the adventure of trying to park downtown with all the metres off-line during rush hour. I was (as usual) pushing the envelope re: timeliness, and traffic had been terribly slow, so I sent my son in to the studio to tell them while I searched for a parking spot. I tried to rush into the library parkade but miscalculated by a block and went down the up ramp. The attendant came rushing out of the booth flailing his arms, giving me what-for and making me back all the way up the narrow ramp. I finally got parked and hustled off to the studio. By now my pulse rate was about 200 rpm, but I finally got into the studio with time to catch my breath; the other guy was late!
Turned out there were just the two of us, standing on the stage in front of a live, and large, studio audience. Live music (Captain Tractor), party atmosphere, no pressure. (Yeah, sur-re.) Upon introduction I did a pirouette showing the proud #99 on the back of my Oiler sweater, which may have won me a few fans.
The contest was three "periods" of two trivia questions each, six questions in all. I played it just like the Oilers, skating out to an excellent first period and taking a 2-1 lead thanks to my knowledge of Paul Coffey's records, before completely tanking the second to fall behind 3-2 and get myself seriously behind the eight-ball. I was stumped by consecutive questions: where was the 2000 NHL All-Star Game (the tenuous connection to Oilers being that was when the NHL officially retired Gretzky's number); I remembered Canada, I guessed Vancouver but given it was CBC I should have defaulted to the correct answer, Toronto. And where did Mike Comrie play college hockey? "Michigan..." I began, and the host started to congratulate me before I foolishly finished my guess “…State." Wrong: Comrie went to Michigan, his contemporary Shawn Horcoff to Michigan State. I lump the two together, I could have told them Horcoff beat Comrie for the 1999-2000 CCHA scoring title by one point, but I couldn't remember which guy went to which school.
As it turned out, I knew the answers to every last one of my opponent's questions, but not these two. So when he got set up like a sweet Gretzky feed to start the third period, how many goals did Gretzky get in his record year, it was 4-2 and I had no room to manoeuvre. I had to get my two questions right, then hope he missed, then win it in OT. True story: at this moment my mind flashed back to one of my favourite Oiler games of all time, Game 2 of the 1988 Blow Out the Flames series, when the Oilers themselves trailed by 4-2 only to pull off the comeback and complete it in overtime on a memorable goal by Wayne Gretzky. Oilers 5, Calgary 4.
Visualization works; that's pretty much how this one played out. I answered a couple of fairly tough ones: who played the most games in goal for Oilers (Bill Ranford, 449), and who had the first shutout for the Oilers. "Eddie Mio" I responded, biting my tongue on "3-0 over Hartford, December 9, 1979." At this point it didn't matter what I knew, there were no extra points for know-it-alls, and it was out of my hands. And here it came: "Who scored the Oilers' first hat trick... ("B.J. MacDonald" my mind screamed)... at home AND first hat trick on the road?" Egads, I'm thinking, TWO clues, I'm dead, and of all the guys to beat me, it's my old favourite B.J. But my opponent asked him to repeat the question and was clearly stumped. Finally... "Wayne Gretzky?" Good guess, but wrong, and off to OT we go. Once again I got first choice, and answered an easy one about who the Oilers first playoff series was against. (Philadelphia) My opponent was asked who led the Oilers in playoff scoring that spring of 2003, guessed Ryan Smyth instead of the afore-mentioned Shawn Horcoff, and I had won. 5-4, in overtime. Felt just as good as that shorthanded Gretzky slapper over Vernon’s shoulder.
There was quite a big cheer from the audience as I received a pair of the hottest tickets this town has seen in a long time and held them triumphantly aloft. I showed one to my son and said "for you!" My opponent got a nice bunch of prizes too, including the new Gretzky DVD, but I had what I wanted. A few complete strangers came up to shake my hand.
My son and I celebrated by heading to City Hall to see the great NHL exhibit there. 18 beautiful trophies in the silverware collection, including the spectacular new Rocket Richard Trophy which is another gorgeous work of art. I visited the Gretzky Wing of the Art Ross and Hart Trophies, and saw the inscriptions of Grant Fuhr on the Vezina, Mark Messier on the Smythe, Paul Coffey on the Norris, Jari Kurri on the Byng, Edmonton Oilers again and again on the Clarence Campbell Bowl and on the first two plates of the President's Trophy. It had been a pretty spectacular 25 years for NHL hockey here in Edmonton, especially the first dozen.
Stanley was there too, but roped off and almost impossible to read at a distance, although very easy to admire. They also had some real nifty Hockey Hall of Fame displays: Frank Mahovlich's rookie sweater, the (unridged) puck with which Nels (Old Poison) Stewart scored his 200th goal, and most interestingly to me, Bill Durnan's old goal gloves. Another in the long line of great Montreal netminders, Durnan was the only ambidextrous goalie in NHL history. When he had time to prepare for an angled attack he switched his stick to the short side post, so both gloves were a weird combination of blocker and catcher. It seems to have been a good strategy: in Durnan's short, seven-year career, he got his own name inscribed on the Vezina six times.
Finally leaving the milling throng at City Hall, we found the right hole to depart the parkade and hit Thanh Thanh for a small celebratory feast Vietnamese style. Saturday would be another busy day...
November 20, 1980 was a Thursday of course, it being exactly one "solar cycle" ago (28 years = 7 leap cycles). It seems like a long time ago but what goes around comes around; there are some interesting parallels between Oiler teams then and now.
In those days the Oilers played most of their midweek home games on Wednesday. 28 years ago yesterday was another such game, an utterly forgettable 6-4 loss to Vancouver, remarakable for just one thing: it was the end of the short coaching career of Bugsy Watson.
In the fall of 1980 Glen Sather was assuming the reins of GM with the departure of Larry Gordon. His first job was to replace himself as coach. In the brash Bryan Watson, Sather saw a lot that reminded him of himself. Both had lengthy NHL careers because they were as long in guile and gamesmanship as they were short in actual talent. A good comparable for Watson among mondern players would be the guy who now wears Bugsy's old #18 for Red Wings, Kirk Maltby, with a little Jerkko Ruutu thrown in for good measure.
Watson's most famous accomplishment was his shadowing of Bobby Hull in the 1966 playoffs in which Bugsy drove Bobby beyond distraction and into revenge mode. Hull had killed in the Wings the previous year's playoffs, and in this, the fourth consecutive Hawks-Wings semi-final Wings coach Sid Abel unleashed his skating pit bull with the single task of taking down Hull. Which he did, with both scoring twice in the series while conducting an ongoing tong war. Wings won in six.
In his classic book on those 1980-81 Oilers, The Game of Our Lives, Peter Gzowski wrote:
'Just a few months earlier, Watson had seemed the perfect man to put some toughness and fire in the Oilers. He must have been one of the most voracious competitors ever to have played the game. Small (five-ten) and stocky -- he played at 170 pounds -- he set league records for penalties; until Dave "The Hammer" Schultz came along to lead Philadelphia's Broad Street Bullies in the 1970s, he was the most penalized player in NHL history, with 2,212 minutes -- more than thirty-six full games -- in the box. Yet no one regarded him as a bully, or an intimidator. He shared many of Sather's characteristics as a player; in a book called The Violent Game, the American sporrtswriter Gary Ronberg singled out the two of them. Ronberg described them as "relatively small rogues," and went on to write that, "They intimidate few players, but have a knack for unnerving them with an impertinent word or gesture, an annoying slash or cross-check. When they fight, it is usually against a bigger and stronger man, but the mismatch is in one sense an advantage -- little men are usually beaten, and when they manage to avoid a thrashing it seems like a victory."
'Although Watson played with nine different teams in his seventeen years in the league, the most vivid memory most fans have of him was as the Detroit Red Wing who stuck so closely to Bobby Hull in a 1966 playoff series... The tactic, sending one defensive specialist out to hobble a superstar, was not new at the time but no one had seen it used to this degree before, and it drove Hull to distraction. As a result of punishment he received in the course of that and other assignments, Watson's face looks like that of a battered pug. The bridge of his nose is concave; scar tissue crinkles over both eyes. He looks, as his nickname Bugsy suggests, like some small-time hood in a Hollywood gangster movie. For all that, though, there is a boyish vitality about his rearranged features, despite their brutish history. Women find him inordinately attractive.'
The Oilers had finished with a flourish the previous season under Sather's tutelage, grabbing the last playoff spot with a late surge and playing the first-overall Flyers tough in a surprisingly close first-round series. But the second year they struggled out of the gate. "Veterans" of the previous season included Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Kevin Lowe, Dave Hunter, Dave Lumley, Dave Semenko: still young and developing players who were subject to ebbs and flows in their physical, mental and emotional games. In this sense they weren't too different from the modern group of Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, Tom Gilbert, Kyle Brodziak, Marc Pouliot, Zack Stortini, all of whom are struggling with the burden of higher expectations after the giddy heights of last spring. And their coach is struggling tight along with them.
In '80-81 the young Oilers and their coach struggled right out of the gate. Gzowski again:
'On his first road trip as coach, Watson was having difficulty adjusting the social distance he felt he ought to maintain from the players. For seventeen years he had been one of the boys; now, he missed the fraternity. Executive robes did not rest easily on his shoulders ... At the morning practive in Buffalo after their defeat by the Sabres, he had felt out of cointrol of the team. At least one player,who had apparently not settled for just a beer after the game, smelled of booze in the morning. Watson was angry with them, and disappointed.'By mid-November the team had struggled to a 4-9-5 start, winning just one of 10 home games (a big one, the first ever Battle of Alberta which Oilers won 5-3 on two goals from Dave Semenko). Other than one frustrating run of 4 consecutive ties during a 6-game homestand -- no overtime in those days -- other home games were even more frustrating losses, many of them to mediocre opposition. In 6 home games the squad had scored 4 goals and failed to win.
Sather, whose patience with his players was legendary, wasn't satisfied with what his friend Bugsy was getting out of them. After that 6-4 loss to the ever-mediocre Canucks he had seen enough. With Peter Pocklington's blessing, Slats turned to the one guy he had the utmost confidence in: himself. That weekend, with the local press congregated in Toronto for the Eskimos' annual Grey Cup victory, Bugsy was fitted with cement shoes and quickly sank out of sight.
Sather: "The most important thing is the team. If my own brother was coaching this club, or playing on it, and it wasn't working out, I'd let him go too."
Although they predictably won the next game, 6-3 over Buffalo, Oilers continued to struggle under Sather. They posted an even worse 4-12-1 W-L-T mark in his first 17 games and made the turn at New Year at 8-21-6, before making a second half surge that took them right into the second round of the playoffs where they were eliminated by the defending champion Islanders. Sather had established firm control of the team and continued in the dual role (later becoming club president as well) as the team blossomed into a powerhouse and ultimately, a dynasty.
Historical footnote: The Grey Cup weekend firing was a time-honoured NHL tradition. Half a century ago, in a situation that closely parallels the Sather-Watson situation, Punch Imlach fired Billy Reay during Grey Cup weekend 1958 and became GM-coach of the Leafs. As described by sportwriter Scott Young (Neil's dad) in his own terrific book, The Leafs I Knew:
Those '58-59 Leafs also went on a late season run to scrape into the playoffs, then made it through to the second round (then known as the Stanley Cup Finals) where they were eliminated by the defending champion Canadiens. Imlach too had established firm control as his team blossomed into a powerhouse cum dynasty.
'November 26, Vancouver. Here for the Grey Cup. Sad but not much surprised to get the news that Billy Reay had been fired as the Leafs' coach and that Imlach would take over for the time being. What a bunch of cunning so-and-sos. They wait until every Toronto sports columnist is three thousand miles away covering the Grey Cup, and sports pages are all full of Grey Cup, and they fire Reay.
'Not that we could have changed the situation. But we might have put the finger on a few people who deserve to share the blame -- and do it before most fans forget, which generally takes about 48 hours; or until the next hockey game.'
In both cases the team was still 3+ seasons away at the time of the Grey Cup firing, but once they won the Cup they held onto it for awhile. Both Punch Imlach and Glen Sather won four Stanleys in the dual role. And Billy Reay and Bugsy Watson became historical footnotes in their own right.
The scoring system is as follows: 10, perfect game; 9, extraordinary game; 8, great game; 7, good game; 6, above average game; 5, average game; 4, below average game; 3, bad game; 2, terrible game; 1, trade this player or send him to the minors.
Oilers 7, Columbus 2. A strange night in which Oilers were outshot 39-19 yet won in a laugher. Despite the offensive support Dwayne Roloson was the key performer frustrating the Jackets time and again. As they pressed they became vulnerable to the counter attack, and the Oilers made their chances count with some outstanding execution in the offensive zone. Nearly a perfect night on special teams, with the powerplay effectively going 3-for-3 (with one goal coming 6 seconds after the expiry of a penalty), and the PK unit killing a creditable 6 out of 7. Dustin Penner was an inspired presence on his return from the press box. A huge turnaround win for the Oil after three consecutive losses including two blowouts in regulation.
Shawn Horcoff – 8: A complete game from Oilers’ most complete player. 4 shots, 3 points, 2 blocked shots, 1 takeaway, a winning night in the faceoff circle. 23:21 TOI including major contributions to both special teams.
Robert Nilsson – 5: Decent game, not a major factor. Just missed the top corner with a wicked rising shot in the first period that an inch the other way would have made the highlight reels.
Andrew Cogliano – 7: Flying all night. A goal, an assist, +2. Had a couple penalties, one dreadful turnover and just 31% in the circle, but the good outweighed the bad by a lot.
Ethan Moreau – 6: The lone minus forward on the team, but contributed mightily to a good night for the PK, and a solid night defensively with 3 hits, 3 blocks, and a takeaway. Questionable decisions with the puck at times.
Steve Staios – 5: Am not liking Steve’s game much of late, but he came up with some big blocks and contributed to a shaky but mostly successful PK unit. Was on the ice for both Columbus goals and none for the Oilers.
Erik Cole – 5: Had some nice puck battles on the boards, had a secondary assist but really didn’t bring much offence to the table. Didn’t even attempt a shot. 0:00 on both special teams, just 13:18 ice time at even strength.
Dustin Penner – 8: Tempted to give a 9. An exceptional performance from the gentle giant in his 200th NHL game. Responded to his benching with his best game as an Oiler, scoring once and contributing directly to three other goals with his massive presence in front of the net. 3 shots, 3 hits, +2, and a thorn in Pascal Leclaire’s side all night long.
Jesse Boulerice – no grade: Scoresheet says he played all of 2:27 with a complete blank in all stats, but the only time I even noticed him was when he was late to the party on a post-whistle scrum.
Dwayne Roloson – 8: Outstanding performance from the veteran playing his 3rd game in 4 nights, facing 112 shots overall. 37 saves for the second night in a row, many of them top notch. Best penalty killer on the team.
Denis Grebeshkov – 6: Seen him good, seen him bad, seen him both at once. Made some real nice high skill plays getting the puck moving in the right direction. Lost a battle to Nash on the 4-2 goal and nearly got burned later in the same shift by Umberger but Roli saved his bacon.
Jason Strudwick – 5: Looks very much like a 7th defenceman. Just a little slow reacting to the puck at times. -1 on Huselius’s goal, but contributed almost 5:00 without a GA on the PK so gets a bare passing grade.
Sheldon Souray – 8: Displayed his booming shot with an unstoppable goal and a rocket off the bar. Beautiful pass to Cogliano for another goal. Was major contributor to both special teams, and finished the night +3 at evens. Was on the ice for 5 goals for and none against. Unnecessary penalty that led to Nash’s goal was his lone blemish.
Kyle Brodziak – 5: Tough night for the kid saddled with Boulerice. Only 8:09 ice time, half of it on the PK. Someone referred to him as a “defensive specialist” but he’s still very much a project in this role.
Lubomir Visnovsky – 7: Tidy night’s work, goal and an assist, +2. Some very nice work with the puck, good positional play, 3 blocked shots. Played with Grebeshkov in the latter part of the game as MacTavish put Gilbert with Souray at both even strength and the first unit PP. That experiment was a major success.
Tom Gilbert – 8: Probably played his best game of the season, a goal, a helper, +3, and 3 blocked shots. Looked composed with the puck when under pressure, a trademark of Tom’s A game, and broke the puck out of his end well.
Marc Pouliot – 7: Finally broke the ice with his first goal of the year which stood up as the game winner. Impressed me with his all-ice game, some real smart plays with the puck in his own end. Also made a "hero play" behind Roloson One of 5 Oilers with 3 blocked shots.
Ales Hemsky – 7: Earned his marks on the PP where he set up two goals, and a third just after the expiry of the Jackets’ last penalty. Was pretty ordinary at even strength otherwise. His turnover at the Columbus blueline late in the second let to Huselius goal that cut the margin to 3-1.
Liam Reddox – 6: Lots to like in this kid. Has good defensive awareness, and lots of try. One of 4 Oilers with 3 hits. Looked alright on the PK though’ was on the ice for the one PPGA.
Sam Gagner – 6: A little better showing for Sam after a very rough stretch. Finished with 2 assists, +2. Made a good play to lead the rush before Penner’s 5-2 goal that ended any doubt. No shots on goal.
Craig MacTavish – 8: The beleaguered coach made all the right calls on this night, bringing Penner into the lineup and inserting him back on the powerplay unit; switching up the top two defence pairings and finding some immediate chemistry; and especially with coming back with Roloson on a night where the armchair experts, yours truly included, thought it was a poor idea to ride the veteran. Roli proved us wrong, and MacT right, with a first star performance.
What has the NHL done to combat this? The league's history of rule changes with respect to manpower situations is more than a little revealing. My trusty NHL Official Guide and Record Book (Major Rule Changes, pp. 10-11) confirms (most of) a sorry trend that has been occurring throughout my lifetime of increasing 'free substitution' for penalized players, resulting in more players on the ice:
1925-26: 'Delayed penalty rules introduced. Each team must have a minimum of four players on the ice at all times.' OK, I'll admit this one wasn't during my lifetime. A team with three or more penalties can only be two men short.
Consequences: No more 5v2 or 4v2 powerplays. Referees become terrified of calling that third penalty no matter what, because it means a long boring conversation with an uncomprehending local timekeeper about who can come out of the box when.
1956-57: 'Player serving a minor penalty allowed to return to the ice when a [powerplay] goal is scored by opposing team.' The 'Montreal Canadiens Rule', meant to somewhat derail the Habs' devastating powerplay. I can probably pinpoint the exact occasion that precipitated this change, which is mentioned elsewhere in the Guide - actually, in the Record Book: November 5, 1955, Jean Béliveau scores three powerplay goals in 44 seconds. All three are assisted by Bert Olmstead. (Both are second, to Bill Mosienko and Gus Bodnar respectively, who combined for a hat trick in just 21 seconds in 1952, although I'm almost certain no powerplay was involved that time.) By season's end Béliveau leads the league in goals (47) and points (88); Olmstead in assists (a record 56). More importantly the emerging Habitant powerhouse wins the Prince of Wales Trophy (then the equivalent of the President's Trophy) by an astonishing 24 points before rolling to their first of five straight Cups. They're too good! They must be stopped at all costs. Let's fiddle with the rules.
Consequences: Players who might think twice about taking what the soccer commentators call a 'professional foul' to prevent a goal-scoring opportunity no longer need to factor in that the penalty might cost his team more than the imminent goal. Now it's a 'good' penalty to take away even a 20% scoring opportunity and turn matters over to an 85% PK unit. The worst result either way is one goal against, a break-even proposition. And when a PP goal is scored, there's one more player allowed on the ice.
1966-67: 'Substitution allowed on coincident major penalties.' A biggie. Before this every fight resulted in a five-minute 4v4. Better yet, a multi-player brawl could result in five minutes of 3v3 action. It was a wonderful self-cleaning mechanism for ugly games - the ice opened up right away, and it became a skill and skating game far away from the boards. The action was often pulsating; a failed 2-on-1 at one end could lead to an immediate 2-on-1 going the other way. Mobile defencemen like Pierre Pilote and speedy two-way forwards like Dave Keon and Henri Richard excelled.
Consequences: Two to four more players on the ice for long stretches of 5 or even 10 minutes after fights/brawls. 3v3 went the way of the dinosaurs. No wait a minute, the dinosaurs were alive and well, running the NHL even then. 3v3 went the way of the unicorn. The dwindling few of us who remember that kind of open-ice magic are written off as demented whiners for the 'good old days', or more likely, ignored completely.
Late 1970s: (not in the book, so apparently not a 'major' change. I'll paraphrase): Substitution allowed on coincidental minors where manpower is already unequal. A 4v3 powerplay was (and remains) a far better opportunity than a 5v4, so if the team on the powerplay could somehow induce coincidental penalties they would greatly improve their chances of scoring. Call this the 'Philadelphia Flyers Rule', because the B.S. Bullies were renowned for this tactic. Their willing and able accomplices, the referees, aided and abetted their cause by being far more willing to call simultaneous penalties than stand alone penalties in a scrum. The obvious question, 'which foul causes the coincidental minors, the initiation or retaliation?', is never addressed. The solution of dealing with Philly's bullying tactics when a man up by issuing them the only penalty in a needless scrum, apparently never occurs to tiny dinosaur brains.
Consequences: Fewer 4v3 powerplays, no matter how legitimate and even the altercation might be. Two more players on the ice in such situations.
1985-86: 'Substitutions allowed in the event of coincidental minor penalties.' Another biggie. The 'Edmonton Oilers Rule' was a Calgary plot masterminded by Cliff Fletcher to slow down the Oilers, no matter what the cost to the game. I was outraged at the time that it was proposed, apoplectic when it got adopted, incensed and appalled when it actually worked (Calgary won a memorable playoff series that very year, largely by gooning it up without fear of open ice consequences), and I remain to this day adamantly opposed to this idea which attacked one of the fundamentals of the game. Like the Canadiens three decades before, the Oilers found a way to continue to dominate, even without their (ahem) 'unfair advantage'. (They still had their other unfair advantage, better players.) But the game suffered dearly.
Consequences: Way more players on the ice, two guys for two minutes every time the rule is invoked (which is frequently). For seven years I undertook the exercise of figuring at the first face-off after coincidental penalties, which players wouldn't be on the ice if the penalties had to be served, and invariably it was the 'third guy high', defensive forwards, the guys whose bloody job is to clog up the ice. The Oilers, who gave up tons of goals 4v4 but scored even more, could no longer turn every missed two-man attack into a 3-on-2 (typically Coffey with either Gretzky-Kurri or Messier-Anderson) going the other way. That's much too exciting. They're too good! They must be stopped at all costs. Let's fiddle with the rules.
1992-93: 'No substitutions allowed in the event of coincidental minor penalties called when both teams are at full strength.' A lame attempt to 'fix' the mistake of 1985-86. (The two rule changes, radical and corrective, should be considered as one moderate change IMO)
Consequences: A significant improvement, but in the NHL's typically half-assed manner it only goes partway. It results in 4v4 opportunities when exactly two minors are called. If three occur, the powerplay is not a 4v3, it's the sameoldsameold 5v4. When two penalties occur to each team, it's no longer two minutes of 3v3, or in the event of 4 minutes to one player and 2 to two different opponents two minutes of 4v3 one way followed by both guys jumping out of the box simultaneously to make it a 5v4 the other way. All of those manpower options have been excised from the game. I don't think I have seen 20 minutes of 3v3 action in the last 20 years, and I watch my share of hockey.
1999-2000: Again paraphrasing a truly minor change (goes to intent, Your Honour). If a team killing a 3v4 penalty in overtime takes a second penalty, the other team gets to ADD a player. While a necessary tinker to the 4v4 OT rule also brought in that season, only in Gary Bettman's NHL would a penalty result in more players on the ice than before.
In Bettman's 'defence', all the other rule changes above preceded his It-Only-Seems-Like-Forever tenure. On the (criminal) 'offence' side of Bettman's ledger, he was in a 'more is more' mood that year, awarding a free point to all teams who could score in overtime, without commensurate cost to the team that allowed said overtime goal. That and 4v4 action sure opened up overtime, at the heavy cost of much more clogging of the ice in regulation time (which of course is at least 92.3% of every game, but hey, he's a basketball guy, who needs an exciting game when you can have an exciting finish?)
Consequences: Very little, two-man advantages are rare in overtime. But this wrinkle exposes the lack of continuity in the 'gimmick' of 4v4 overtime, as Bettman & Co. toy with the fundamentals of the game.
Commentary: The game of hockey was originally designed so that teams have to face multiple manpower situations: 5v5, 5v4, 5v3, 4v5, 4v4, 4v3, 3v5, 3v4, and 3v3, plus various goalie-out scenarios. But with the exception of the partial fix of 1992, all substitution rules (including a few I didn't mention that gradually reduced the manpower disadvantage consequences of a match penalty) have been in the direction of more players on the ice, not fewer, including the virtual eradication of the most exciting variation of even-but-not-full strength, the 3v3 . The NHL is clogging up its own ice with its short-sighted league policies and knee-jerk 'they must be stopped at all costs' rule changes.
The greatest fear in Gary Bettman's NHL is that rather than look for precedents within the league's own history -- with which the league's current brain trust [sic] is frightfully out of touch -- they will attempt some new massive "fix" like full-time 4v4 hockey to open up the ice. To which my response would be "No, no, a thousand times no!" There is nothing like good old-fashioned 5v5 hockey, and the permanent loss of a player might virtually eliminate the physical aspect of the game that most fans love. (When was the last time you saw a big hit in overtime?) I'd just like to see the penalty substitution rules revisited so the full variety of manpower situations would occur more frequently.
Since it worked pretty well week, I will again be hosting a game day thread for Saturday's televised CFL playoff game.
Pregame show at 10 a.m. MST, game at 11. I'll be watching the game alone most likely, and would love a little company. Please drop in and feel welcome to contribute your comments. Anybody among my tiny readership who might actually be going to the game, as DoritoGrande did last week?
On Saturday morning the Eskimos attempt to win their very first Eastern Conference championship. By virtue of their good result in WINNERpeg last weekend, Edmonton has already achieved the distinction of being the first such interloper to win their way in to the "other" conference final.
All of which history means squat today, especially since this isn't even the Grey Cup, it's just on the road there. But it's a fact that the Big Game will held in the same Olympic Stadium a week later. There's a lot of pressure on the host of the Grey Cup to actually get there, and lots of distractions. Should things go awry in the must-win game that precedes it, a lot of Grey Cup tickets become available for below market value. :)
There are precedents: in 1987, the Eskimos won both the western final and the Grey Cup in Vancouver; and in 1993 the Esks won both in McMahon Stadium. Those were particularly sweet championships: a big upset win in the conference final, moving into the beaten hosts own "home conference" dressing room, then upholding the West's honour in the title game to, uh, muted applause.
Can history repeat?
Dad was a peaceful, people person who left his family farm in rural Nova Scotia at age 18 to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force. After a year of training in Ontario he served overseas in the last two years of World War II. Luckily for me he made it back in one piece, otherwise I wouldn't be around to write this.
Dad was many things to many people. I touched on some of his many interests in dedicating a published article to his memory in which I described him as a "family man, educator, community leader, WW II veteran, music lover, sports fan, and stroke unit volunteer". Since this blog is mostly about sports, I’ll just focus on that aspect of him here.
There were a few things about Dad that never wavered in the 52 years I knew him: he loved his country, he loved my mother, he loved the Toronto Maple Leafs and he loved the St. Louis (baseball) Cardinals. His watershed year was 1942, the year he met Mum, enlisted in the air force, and cemented his love of the two sports franchises that both happened to win their respective championships.
While training in Toronto, Dad finally got the chance to see the Leafs play. He bought a seat in the "greys", the upper reaches of Maple Leaf Gardens, for some ridiculous price like 70 cents. The last time I saw Dad, 65 years later, he spoke of this experience and still remembered the kindness of a total stranger who saw a man in uniform and brought him down to the reds to see the champs up close.
In those days Toronto had a ball team, also named the Maple Leafs, in the International League. Tickets were cheap and accessible so Dad went to a number of games. His favourite story, which he never tired of re-re-retelling, was of the time manager (and former major league star pitcher) Burleigh Grimes spit tobacco juice on an umpire. Dad loved a good rhubarb.
Dad's sporting heroes of those days were not just athletes but men of the first rank. Syl Apps was a clean-cut all-Canadian, an Olympian and a hockey star who, like many NHLers, interrupted his career to go overseas. Dad always had all day for players who did that regardless of their team affiliation, and he had particularly fond memories of Boston's unfortunately-named "Kraut Line" of Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, and Bobby Bauer who left the Stanley Cup champion Bruins late in the 1941-42 season to enlist in the RCAF together, subsequently missing over three seasons before reuniting after the war. According to Dad the RCAF had one heck of a hockey club during his time in training.
Similarly Dad had a tremendous amount of respect for Ted Williams, the oft-controversial, now cryogenic baseball star. The Splendid Splinter interrupted his storied career not once but twice to fight in WWII and the Korean war, shaving five prime years off a legendary career whose counting numbers (2654 hits, 521 homers) are still awesome but much less impressive than they should be.
But of all Dad's sporting heroes the one who remained highest on the pedestal was Stan Musial (statued, above). Stan the Man took the major leagues by storm, hitting .426 during a September call-up in 1941 before delivering the first of 16 consecutive seasons of .310 or better in 1942 when the Cards won the pennant and, to Dad's delight, upset the always-favoured Yankees in the World Series. The Cards would win the pennant again in 1943, 1944 and 1946, the gap explained by Musial's own absence in the Navy that caused him to miss the 1945 season. He returned to cop his second MVP award in '46 before leading the Cards to a thrilling 7-game squeaker over Ted Williams and the Red Sox. Dad never tired of telling -- and I never tired of hearing -- the story of Enos Slaughter scoring the winning run all the way from first base on a single, as Red Sox shortstop Johnny Pesky held the ball for an extra second, not realizing that Slaughter was not stopping at third. Amazingly, Pesky is still active in baseball, a bench coach for the Red Sox. I saw the occasion that he was honoured this past season and thought of Dad.
In 1948 Musial had one of the great seasons in baseball history, leading the National League in every hitting category except home runs, where his 39 dingers came up one short of the league leaders Ralph Kiner and Johnny Mize. The difference between Stan the Man and the Triple Crown was a homer that got wiped off the books by a subsequent rain-out.
It is interesting to note that modern baseball metrics applied retroactively to historic figures reveal Musial to be one of the most underrated of baseball's great stars. According to Wikipedia:
"The rise of Bill James and the extensive use of sabermetrics has enhanced Musial's credentials as not only one of the greatest of his generation, but of all baseball history. At Baseball-Reference.com, Musial is consistent among the various test leaders: He ranks fifth all-time among hitters according to the Black Ink Test (behind Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, and Ted Williams), third all-time on the Gray Ink Test (behind Cobb and Hank Aaron), tied with Barry Bonds for second in the Hall of Fame Career Standards Test, behind only Ruth, and ranks first among all hitters and pitchers on the Hall of Fame Monitor Test. Surprisingly, despite his towering reputation with statistic-based aficionados of the game, many common fans are unaware of his achievements, leading ESPN and other organizations to list him as the most underrated athlete of all-time"
Dad had the occasion to see Musial in person a few times over the years, notably a doubleheader against the Braves in Milwaukee County Stadium that the Cards swept, winning the nightcap on a Musial homer in extra innings. A few years later our entire family, en route from St. John's to Edmonton, gathered in that same stadium to see the same two teams meet. I was never quite sure if that was a lucky accident of timing, but it sure worked out. Musial was in his last great season, hitting .330 at age 41, but that day was rested, making a late-inning appearance as a pinch hitter. I was just 6 years old, and I remember Dad saying "Pay attention, you'll want to remember this" and I still do, more the moment than the outcome. There was a buzz in the stadium as one of the game's great gentlemen (3,026 GP, 0 ejections) took his place in the batter's box.
I never saw another live major league ball game with Dad but I can't tell you how many we watched on TV. We both loved the play-by-play commentary of former Cardinal Dizzy Dean and his sidekick Peewee Reese on the Game of the Week, perhaps the most unconventional broadcast team in television history. Dizzy took special delight when the pitcher got a hit, and when the game got boring he would take to singing "The Wabash Cannonball" in the late innings. He was also famous for such twisted commentary as, "I'm telling you Peewee, this here pitcher has just throwed up five straight curves."
In the fall of '63 Dad somehow managed to procure four of the hottest tickets in town and took us to an exhibition hockey game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the San Francisco Seals of the old Western League. We boys were all Leaf fans in those days; I had watched my first serious hockey the previous spring as the first-place Leafs rolled through the playoffs to their second of three straight Stanley Cups. So this was our own chance to see the champs up close. It was something of a barnstorming tour as the teams were playing themselves into shape Original 6 style, but the whole team was there and large as life just 8 rows or so down on the big ice surface of the Edmonton Gardens. No masks or helmets either, just the well-known faces of Johnny Bower, Tim Horton, Allan Stanley, Dave Keon, Red Kelly, Dick Duff, Bob Pulford, George Armstrong, Frank Mahovlich ... the most Hall of Famers I've ever seen on one team to this day. Of course the NHL proper was not even on Edmonton's radar at that point.
Dad and I did see a lot of football together. After our family's permanent move to Edmonton in 1971 we got season's tickets to the Eskimos from 1972 to 1983, stretching exactly from Tom Wilkinson's arrival in Edmonton to Warren Moon's departure and encompassing the greatest dynasty in CFL history. Too many tales for this already rambling essay, but the highest moment was probably the Fog Bowl, the 1973 Western final in which the lead changed hands six times in the second half before the Eskimos pulled it out 25-23 over the Green Riders on a late touchdown catch by Dad's favourite Esk, George McGowan.
In later years I had the opportunity to repay a small portion of my vast debt. I took Dad to a couple of WHA games after Gretzky arrived, and Dad recognized instantly what an extraordinary talent he was. He attended a few games here and there in the early NHL years, including what remains the finest regular season game I have ever seen, a 4-3 Oiler win over the champion Islanders in December of 1981. Gretzky set up the first three goals before scoring the winner with 1:02 to play, his 33rd in 32 games, keeping him ahead of Rocket Richard's 50 in 50 pace. Little did we know that later that month he would utterly destroy that record, but that Islanders' conquest might have been his best game of that entire season. Gretzky's game winner was hardly the end of the drama that night, as in the dying seconds the Islanders' bid for a tying goal was denied by a goal line save by Kevin Lowe.
A year and a half later I was able to score an extra ticket for Game 1 of the 1983 Stanley Cup Finals, the only SCF game Dad ever attended. That was the "Billy Smith game", in which Battlin' Billy made a 1-0 lead stand up from the sixth minute through the 60th, blanking the high powered Oilers with an evil admixture of great goaltending, goal posts, stick wielding, head games, and black magic. Results be damned, it was a great game, the best of that series, and vaulted the Islanders to their fourth and final title.
As I used to bug Dad, he remained a Leaf fan in the regular season but an Oiler fan in the playoffs. There wasn't a whole lot of reason for conflict, and when the two played one another in mostly meaningless contests we went our separate ways with good cheer.
Things took a serious turn for the worse in February 1984 when Dad suffered a major stroke that seriously disabled and nearly killed him. The doctors held out little hope for his future quality of life but he persevered and beat the odds by relearning to walk and talk. He was forced to retire from his job, but turned to volunteer work while maintaining his great loves of music, politics, and sports. Despite great difficulties in speaking he remained a people person whose positive attitude towards life was an inspiration to all who knew him.
Dad continued to follow the Cards, Leafs, Oilers, and Eskimos mostly on TV, and took great delight in the Oilers Stanley Cup triumphs in the subsequent years. Our season ticket days were done, but I was able to take him to a very occasional sporting event. It took great effort on his part so we really had to pick our spots. Eventually he and Mum left the snow and ice of Edmonton for the milder climes of Victoria, but our regular phone conversations would always turn to the latest developments in the world of sports. While the Leafs never did come around, the Cards developed another powerhouse in the current decade. Dad became a huge fan of Albert Pujols who continued the tradition of great Cardinals like Dizzy Dean, Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, and Ozzie Smith. To our delight, the Cards pulled off an unlikely World Series win in 2006, a few months after the Oilers had come oh-so-close to doing likewise. I still recall the phone ringing within minutes of the final out, my Dad's halting voice delivering the words I knew were coming: "The Cardinals have won the World Series!" His once booming voice was weakened by the stroke, but he was triumphant. I silently thanked the baseball gods that he had lived to see that day.
A year later he was gone, a week before Remembrance Day. He had lived his life to the fullest right up to his last days at age 83, having lived on borrowed time and made the most of it for 23 years. A brain scan taken in his last days showed fully a third of his brain had been ravaged by the stroke; the doctor was astonished by what this determined man had accomplished with what was left.
A year has past and on Remembrance Day I again reflect on the most important man in my life. I can't pick up the phone and call him, a particularly bitter pill today of all days. But I think of him often. On Saturday night I watched the Hall of Fame game, and thought of how he would have loved seeing his Leafs put the hurt on the Habs 6-3. I thought of how he would have delighted at the sight of Glenn Anderson, one of his favourite Oilers, finally get the recognition he deserved. And I thought of how he would have thrilled to see Gaye Stewart, who he had seen play for the Leafs that fall of 1942. Stewart would win the Calder Trophy that season before giving the next two years for his country, just as Dad had done. And I thought of how Dad would have wept at Stewart's beautifully composed reading of "In Flanders Fields". I know I did.
Lest we forget.
While I was keen to see how the Bears fared against a top NCAA team, I also went to this game with scouting aforethought. The Pioneers’ roster featured Ken Berry, a draft choice of the then-WHA Oilers and brother of Doug Berry who was breaking in with the Oilers that very season. Little did I know that a childhood friend of the Berrys would be the true find. Or as I said to my seatmate more than once that night: “Berry looks pretty good, but who in the heck is this # 9 ?!” Glenn Anderson was flying on the always-excellent Varsity (now Clare Drake) Arena ice, and made a very positive impression despite being blanked along with his mates in a 2-0 Bears victory.
One person who was likely in the building and certainly paying attention was Lorne Davis. That summer the Oilers drafted Anderson, in the fourth round, 69th overall, in the best ever Entry Draft class of 1979. Oilers’ first three picks, Kevin Lowe, Mark Messier, and Anderson, would go on to win six Stanley Cups together, five of them right here in Edmonton. I remember being thrilled on draft day that I had actually seen two of the guys we picked – Messier and Anderson – during the previous season. I had no problem remembering Anderson’s exciting pell-mell dashes towards goal, and was honestly excited that this was a great pick by the newly-reinvented NHL Oilers.
The following season Andy was back in the same arena, which is hockey’s version of Renfrew/John Ducey Park – hard on the rear end, but a wonderful place to see a game. This time the Bears’ opposition was Canada’s Olympic team that was barnstorming the country in preparation for the Lake Placid Olympics. Father David Bauer’s revised dream team was coached by Drake with assistance from Tom Watt and one Lorne Davis. In fact Team Canada featured six players from that Denver-Alberta exhibition game: Gregg, Spring, Hindmarch, John Devaney, Berry and Anderson. It also featured at least four guys who would go on to play for the Edmonton Oilers: Gregg, Anderson, Berry and (trivia fans take note) netminder Bob Dupuis.
Even though the Bears’ roster had been ravaged by “defections” to the Olympic team, they were no spent force. Drake’s assistant Billy Moores stepped to the forefront and guided a team with 11 newcomers to a third consecutive national championship. On this night they gave Team Canada one of their best games on their season long tour, handing the Red Maple Leaf a rare loss in a spirited 4-3 affair.
I won’t dwell on Glenn’s NHL career in this post, other than to say that at 20 he was one of the most well-rounded and NHL-ready rookies I’ve ever seen, thanks in large part to that year under Drake, Watt, and Davis. Anderson would emerge as one of the earliest and most successful graduates of Hockey Canada’s Program of Excellence, as will finally be confirmed tonight when he finally receives the highest individual honour the game can bestow.