Category Archives: Hockey in Europe

Facts are no excuse in politically correct world

Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons, at the time of this writing still gainfully employed by the Postmedia company, has committed an unpardonable sin. He did what columnists all over the world are supposed to do. He was controversial, almost to the point of provocative.

He wrote to be read.

Simmons’s regular Sunday contribution to the world of entertainment (professional sports, that is) includes a section named Hear and There.

Simmons hinted that it’s not necessarily one’s skin colour (he avoided gender and every other hot issue of the day) that defines one’s success in whatever endeavour one decides to pursue.

To drive the point home, Simmons compared two careers: Akim Aliu’s and Wayne Simmonds’s. The two are professional hockey players, both of them are black, and each has enjoyed a different level of success.

By the numbers: taken 56th overall in the 2007 NHL draft, Aliu would end up playing just seven NHL games.

Skating for the Los Angeles Kings, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, Buffalo Sabres and now, the last two seasons, Toronto Maple Leafs, Simmonds has played significant minutes in 1,019 NHL games.

Aliu’s greatest achievement: he made coach Bill Peters persona non grata in North American hockey, getting him fired from a Calgary Flames head coaching job. Aliu accused Peters of racist behaviour. The sin had happened a decade before Aliu called Peters out.

Aliu, a Nigerian-born Canadian-Ukrainian former professional ice hockey player, last played for HC Litvínov in the Czech Extraliga (2019-2020). His professional career spanned AHL and ECHL teams in the Blackhawks and Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets organisations before a trade sent him to the Calgary Flames.

Aliu’s crowning achievement: encouraged by NHL’s (and Flames’) reaction to his accusations, he founded a group named Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA).

How dared he?

Simmons’s sin? The next 93 words: “No one wants to say this because of the politically correct police and all, but those who coached Akim Aliu must cringe every time they see him in a news report or a commercial talking about what’s wrong with hockey. Like he would know. By my count, Aliu played for 23 teams in nine different leagues in 12 professional seasons and rarely finished any season with the same team he started with. If that was colour-related, how is it that Wayne Simmonds spent just about the same 12 seasons playing in the NHL?”

That was it.

Having checked with several personal friends within management ranks of HC Litvínov, their replies – independent of one another – were unpleasantly simple and straightforward: we’ve wolfed down a snake on this one (a Czech idiom loosely translated as we’ve fallen for it).

Neither Simmonds nor Aliu were amused.

Simmonds took to Twitter to offer his reply (the quote below leaves all misspellings and unusual turns of phrase untouched):

@Simmonds17

Just a quick msg to the hockey world. I usually don’t have time for this but tonight I do! I really don’t appreciate what your trying to do (Steve Simmons) your article was asinine and in no way reflects the real plight that my self, Akim and other players of colour go through.

You Are Minimizing the pain and suffering and dismissing the actual fight that we as a ppl actually have to endure just to even be accepted in the game of hockey at a lower level nvm the professional ranks. DO NOT EVER use my name or any other player of colour’s name to try and make your point. We will no longer sit by quietly as our characters are assassinated Steve! This will only make us stronger and speak out against ppl of your nature! If you were trying to be cool or funny, you missed your mark. YOUVE BEEN WARNED!!! Ps this is me being nice!

Aliu, (@Dreamer_Aliu78) added his five cents’ worth under a headline saying that hate will never win:

Obviously being in this space there are times that people say negative things about you but you find a way to let it go. But this one got me good. This one got me at my core. … I’ve seen Steve talk negatively about me for some time now and the funny thing is I’ve never spoken to him or met him in my life … people like Steve are what’s wrong with society.

You’re a racist and you’re an arrogant, and you have zero credibility and respect from even your own peers in the media space and athletes alike. And if the Toronto Sun had any integrity whatsoever, you will never write another column again.

End of quote.

Last season’s Stanley Cup champion Nazem Kadri, now of the Calgary Flames, tried to play it somewhat safer, avoiding inflammatory language as much as he could. Kadri tried to build his point around the known rule that columnists write to be read, meaning, their copy has to be around the limits of the barely acceptable.

This is NOT to debate the quality of Simmons’s writing. Suffice it to say that Steve Simmons is the longest-serving member of the Toronto chapter of the Pro Hockey Writers’ Association. To add to his suffering, he has covered the Leafs since 1980.

Ugly head

This entire tropical storm the size of a hurricane inside a teapot is about identity politics.

This tool, used to divide humanity under the motto “Divide and rule,” isn’t new. After all, it even has a Latin name (Divide et impera, and it had existed even before Rome was built: according to historians, the motto started with Philip II of Macedon, who ruled his kingdom from 359 BC until his death in 336 BC.

It’s more interesting to note the hysteria in both Simmonds’s and Aliu’s outbursts: Simmonds bans Simmons from ever using his name (or that of any other player of un-white skin colour). Aliu demands that Toronto Sun fire Simmons on the spot. He’s got some experience in this respect, having achieved a similar goal with Bill Peters in 2019.

The only difference: Peters admitted his guilt, while Simmons expressed an opinion based on undisputable facts.

Yes, there are only a few black hockey players around, at all levels, not only in the penthouse named the NHL.

Has anyone asked whether there are enough black athletes to justify this discrepancy? What if these kids were more interested in baseball, basketball, football (any kind: North American and the rest of the world, a.k.a. soccer)? Or track-and-field, even?

And how about the percentage of white kids, all eager to earn their keep playing hockey, and most of them having to settle down as avid hockey fans, white privilege or not?

And how about the demand made by Aliu that Simmons be fired? Cancel culture or cancel culture?

Akim Aliu, now too old to play in a professional hockey league, should perhaps learn and earn a job more useful than releasing such amounts of hot air into the atmosphere, dividing people by their skin colour and not by their abilities.

Wayne Simmonds would (and should) spend his time much better trying to help his team make it beyond the first round of this season’s Stanley Cup, rather than making irresponsible statements.

In any case, the fact this story has ever erupted is a sign of the tragic state our society has found itself. Constant complaints about the fact that life isn’t a rose garden could be funny (to a degree) as a form of strange folklore. As it is, they are taken seriously, and the pattern is threatening. Gone is the era of “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

The saying has been attributed (wrongly, it seems) to 18th century French philosopher François-Marie Arouet, known by his nom de plume Voltaire.

The attribution matters little, the content matters a lot.

What we’ve been witnessing is constant (and unforgivable) erosion of democratic rights and freedoms. Neither Akim Aliu nor Wayne Simmonds would have been able to accuse others of such (non-existent) heinous crimes if those rights and freedoms didn’t exist.

Democracy has a terrible time defending herself: in most cases, she would have to resort to methods that don’t meet her basic standards.

Should she? Yes, in fact, she has to, it says in this corner.

And, meanwhile, Steve Simmons should simply ignore his politically correct, woke and cancel-culture vulture-like attackers, and go on writing, pissing them all off while he’s at it.

Advertisement

Canadians play hockey in Russia, Ottawa isn’t pleased

Ritch Winter has made a very valid point: the Edmonton-based hockey player agent questioned Canadian government’s demand that Canadian hockey players currently playing in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) should quit and leave Russia (and Belarus).

The Canadian Press (CP) quoted Adrien Blanchard, press secretary for Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly as writing: “President (Vladimir) Putin’s war in Ukraine is a war on freedom, on democracy and on the rights of Ukrainians, and all people, to determine their own future.

“As Canadians, these are values we hold dear. Athletes who decide to play and associate with Russia and Belarus should explain their decisions to the public.”

Judging by the wording of the CP story, the news agency asked the government official for his take on the issue: he e-mailed his statement to the agency, and the news story fails to say why and how it happened.

To be fair, the CP did quote Winter, even though it was only midway through the story: “We live in a world where individuals are allowed to make those decisions. It’s just an individual decision related to an employment opportunity.

“Has every player that’s gone, push, tugged and pulled and wrestled with the decision? Yeah, absolutely.

“At the end of the day, they’re husbands and fathers who have responsibilities to their families. If you’re a young family with limited resources because you played mostly in the minors, there’s a desire to take care of your family.

“Sometimes that leads people to the oilfields in Kazakhstan and sometimes it leads them to the KHL.”

Four dozen Canadians are employed by KHL clubs this season, of which 44 ply their trade in Russia or Belarus, and the remaining four play for Kazakhstan clubs.

Winter has three clients playing for KHL clubs.

Breaking contracts?

Winter spoke as an experienced player agent, a person who represents his clients and is concerned about their well-being. He obviously is aware that should these players just get up and leave, they would be breaking their contracts. Being employed as a hockey player in a professional league in a country other than your own involves a bit of complicated paperwork, including some linked to the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). Should you break your valid contract for reasons your current employer finds unacceptable can cause such players all kinds of trouble, including a ban on playing anywhere else.

Not that the week-kneed IIHF would go that far: its current leadership is way too much politically correct to do that, but the risk is there.

Winter didn’t mention another angle, which is understandable: he limited his reaction to pure hockey matters.

The other angle is simple: the government of Canada are acting as if the country were at war with Russia.

Yes, NATO (led by the U.S.) is behind the bellicose rhetoric emanating from 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa (and from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.), but neither the alliance nor her member countries are officially at war with Russia.

That means that all that rhetoric aimed at Russia is nothing but hot air issued on behalf of the United States, whose former Secretary of State, the late Madeleine Albright, but it succinctly when she said that Russia has way too many raw materials, and that isn’t fair.

That would be the same Madeleine Albright who pushed then-President Bill Clinton into abusing NATO and bombing the former Yugoslavian republics into smithereens, neatly sidestepping the United Nations in the process.

Global Affairs Canada (Foreign Affairs is no longer good enough for the current megalomaniac high school substitute drama teacher) instructed Canadians to avoid travelling to Russia and Belarus twice, on the day of the Invasion into Ukraine (Feb. 24), and a few weeks later (March 5).

Naughty players?

The official view: “Our government has been very clear. Canadians should avoid all travel to Russia and Belarus,” said spokesthingie Blanchard. “If they are in Russia or in Belarus, they should leave now. Our ability to provide consular services may become extremely limited.”

The CP asked nine Canadian hockey players who are currently working in the KHL, asking them what assurances they’d received from KHL officials and their teams about their personal safety. The agency was treated to silence.

Winter has an explanation, and it sounds not only logical, but also aware of true facts: “There were a number of players caught in the crosshairs last year when all of this happened. They stayed and didn’t see any risk.

“From what the players tell me, the environment isn’t changed from what it has (been) previously. Many of them have balanced that risk and determined that they would play there.”

Yes, there were players who turned down opportunities to play in the KHL this season, Winter explained: “Everybody has a different risk profile. I’ve had Canadian and American clients turn down massive amounts of money compared to what they’ll make here.”

While Russia’s laws differ from those respected in the West, an interesting initiative would keep Russian authorities from abusing Canadian players in the KHL (if they keep their noses clean): Russians are playing in the NHL, Winter points out, and that knowledge might convince Russian authorities that avoiding any unpleasantries might be the best course to take.

Czech government stick to their brown-nosing ways

The Czech government told the NHL to tell its member clubs not to include their Russian players on the forthcoming trip to their country.

The San Jose Sharks and Nashville Predators are supposed to open their seasons Friday, Oct. 7, in Prague’s O2 Arena, with a repeat encounter the very next day.

The Sharks have five players coming out of Russia on their roster, while the Predators have three.

The Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced they wrote to the NHL head office making this point loud and clear.

Czech Deputy Foreign Minister Martin Smolek released a statement making this point official.

“We can confirm that the Czech Foreign Ministry has sent a letter to the NHL to point out that, at this moment, the Czech Republic or any other state in the (visa free) Schengen zone should not issue visas to the Russian players to enter our territory,” Smolek told Czech publications iDnes.cz and iSport.cz.

Former goalie Dominik Hašek, owner of two Stanley Cup rings and an Olympic gold medallist from Nagano 1998, has joined the Czech government. He also demands that Czech athletes under contract in Russian leagues don’t honour their deals and refuse to play in Russia.

An Associated Press (AP) news item quotes Hašek as tweeting earlier this year: “The NHL San Jose Sharks – Nashville Predators match should take place in Prague in October. If the NHL (given the situation) wants to allow any Russian player to play in this match, I will consider it an inexcusable act.”

Hašek expanded his thought by saying that he would work hard “to ensure that this match does not take place in our country.” He would meet with top Czech government officials to make his point of view known, Hašek added.

San Jose Sharks General Manager Mike Grier’s reaction was blunt and to the point: “We’re a team, so, if they say some guys can’t go over then, either we all go or no one goes. But I’m not anticipating any issues right now.”

In theory, if the Sharks don’t appear for their games, they might lose valuable points by forfeiting, should the Czech government remain stubborn.

“I don’t know how it would go as far as forfeits and things like that,” Grier said. “That’s something for the league to handle. But I’m a pretty firm believer (that) we’re a team here, we’re a group, and it’s not the players’ fault. They didn’t do anything wrong. So I don’t think they should be punished for it.

“We stand with them and we’re all together as one in here. If it comes to that and hopefully it doesn’t — and I’m not anticipating that it will – we’ll do things as a group.”

Sharks’ captain Logan Couture echoed his GM’s view: “My view is we’re a team in here. If we go over there, we want everyone on our team to be there. All the guys that are going to make the team are part of our team.”

Meanwhile, the Columbus Blue Jackets (four Russian players) and Colorado Avalanche (two Russians) are supposed to face off in a pair of 2022-23 regular-season games at Nokia Arena in Tampere, Finland, Friday, Nov. 4 and Saturday, Nov. 5.

Finnish authorities haven’t yet said a word about letting Russian NHL players in but, being candidates for NATO membership, one wonders.

In the case of the Czech government, here’s the main issue: even many of their own country’s citizens are angry about their leaders’ brown-nosing ways so far as both NATO and the European Union (EU) are concerned.

Throughout Czech history, many had issues with politicians who demanded the dismantling of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and creating Czechoslovakia in 1918.

The country also offered very little resistance to the Nazi occupation (1939-1945), and during the communist era, her main slogan was “With the Soviets for ever, and no other way,” which they changed after the so-called Velvet Revolution of 1989 into “With the Americans for ever, and no other way.”

Some claim that this ability to bow to superior power has helped the Czechs survive being surrounded by enemies throughout centuries. Considering that Poland and Hungary, next-door neighbours, have been in similar situations and never surrendered, this claim doesn’t hold much water.

And then it reaches such tragicomic scale as to make moronic bans on Russian-born NHL players coming to play hockey in their country.

Meanwhile, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told AP that he has “no concern” with Russian players entering the Czech Republic in two weeks. That, obviously, must have been before he read the Czech Foreign Ministry statement.

Of course, this kind of development won’t have any impact on issues that really matter.

But if it makes the Czechs ashamed of their government enough so as to kick them out, it would help.

Russians still don’t get it: their unsportsmanlike behaviour deserves punishment, not alibis

Russian sports minister Vitalyi Mutjko agrees Team Russia shouldn’t have left the ice after losing to Canada in last month’s world championship finals before O Canada was played. Still, he maintains, if the organizers didn’t open the gate, his country’s players would have never done that.

This seems to be a bit at odds with the latest news coming from Moscow: Russian hockey federation plans to punish a few people for the incident. General manager Andrei Safronov and head coach Oleg Znarok seem to be the targets. That, at least, is what Arkadi Rotenberg is saying. His word carries some weight: he sits on the board of the Russian hockey federation, and he also serves as Dinamo Moscow president.

“Yes, people will face consequences,” Rotenberg says, “and the general manager and head coach were right there to make sure our players stayed to hear Canada’s anthem.”

Of course, considering that International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) President René Fasel is on the record as saying the Russian federation will face a punishment meted out by his organization, Rotenberg’s next words were not surprising: “It wasn’t planned for our players to insult Team Canada, and it wasn’t planned ahead, either.”

Nobody’s talking about planning. Everybody’s talking about lacking sportsmanship and behaviour worthy of a butcher’s dog, to use the local lingo in translation. Besides, Fasel stood there, in shock, watching Team Russia captain Ilya Kovalchuk order his teammates to leave as soon as they collected their medals and shook the Canadian players by the hand. Only very few Russian players, led by superstars Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, stayed, and Kovalchuk skated toward them and very forcefully insisted that they leave the ice before a live orchestra gathered to render the Canadian anthem.

There was no sign of either Safronov or Znarok, and it makes no difference, either: this was not Kovalchuk’s first international tournament, and he would be expected to know the rules.

Besides, ignorance is no excuse.

“Safronov and Znarok are aware of what they did wrong,” thus Rotenberg, “and I believe that this will never happen again.”

A nice change from sports minister Mytjko’s qualifier that, while wrong, Team Russia players were not to blame. If it weren’t for a gate opened by the organizers, they would have stayed. He simply echoed Russian hockey federation president Vladislav Tretiak’s assurances that it was the Czechs who were the guilty party. They could have kept his team on the ice if only they didn’t open the gate.

The only English-written newspaper published in Moscow, The Moscow Times, has come up with an interesting take. The paper described, tongue in cheek, what would happen if Canadian players left the ice before they heard Rossia Sviaschennaia Nasha Derzhava, formerly known as Soyuz Nerushimyi.

“The investigators find,” thus The Moscow Times spoof, “that Team Canada, by leaving the ice before hearing the Russian anthem, have committed a criminal act comparable to abuse of the national flag of Russia. If found guilty, they will have to install toilet seats in all of the KHL arenas all over Russia, as punishment.”

Fine and dandy as it goes.

But let’s cut to the chase: what punishment will Safronov and Znarok face? Any consequences for team captain Kovalchuk?

“First, we’ve got to see what the IIHF is going to do,” said Rotenberg. “We’ll make our decision based on that.”

In his land, they have an expression for this kind of behaviour. They call it alibism.

Team Russia shows no sense of decency

This is called sportsmanship at its best.

After Team Canada won the world championship 2015 title in the O2 Arena in Prague, Czech Republic, Sunday, it took the vanquished team quite some time to skate over and accept their silver medals from International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) President René Fasel.

In fact, Fasel had to keep waving at the Russians for almost a minute to convince them to come over and collect what was deservedly theirs.

But that wouldn’t be the end of it.

What happened then was even more shocking. Not surprising: something like that had happened in other, similar situations, too. And it always involved Russian teams in one shape or another. But one would have expected that the Russians would have learnt their lesson by now and not stoop to this kind of scandalous behaviour yet again. When Team Russia captain Ilya Kovalchuk saw the IIHF dignitaries began distributing gold medals to the winners from Canada, he ordered his teammates to leave the ice. He waited by the door to the bench to see that the entire squad leaves.

To their credit, a small group that included Team Russia’s brightest stars, Alexander Ovechkin and Yevgeni Malkin, remained at the blue line. Kovalchuk kept ordering them to leave forthwith, while Ovechkin was gesticulating back that good manners dictate they should stay there till the end of the ceremony. Or, at least, until Team Canada captain Sidney Crosby receives the championship cup and O Canada had been played.

It took about a minute of embarrassing exchanges. But when the fireworks started and the confetti were fired, Kovalchuk skated over and personally forced the remaining Russian players to leave immediately.

That no Russian player stayed to see Crosby and his teammates skating around with the cup is one thing; that they didn’t wait until an orchestra gathered to play O Canada, is another.

Fasel said he was very disappointed with Team Russia’s behaviour. He said he found it perfectly unacceptable and added that the IIHF is going to debate potential punishment. Team Russia’s behaviour showed profound lack of respect for the other team, and Russian Hockey Federation will be asked for an explanation, Fasel told the Russian TASS news agency, adding Team Russia’s behaviour showed not only lack of sportsmanship, it also broke the IIHF’s rules, and for that, the Russian Hockey Federation can expect proper punishment.

Fasel said some Russian players wanted to be sportsmanlike: “We saw Ovechkin and Malkin who tried to stay. It’s the team management and coaching staff who should have made sure nothing like this happened; they were right there, on the ice, at the time.”

Vladislav Tretyak, the former all-world goalie who now serves as Russian Hockey Federation’s president, said it was all a misunderstanding rather than lack of respect: his players even shook Canadian players’ hands, he said.

But former Czech goalie Petr Bříza, who served on the organizing committee, said wherever Team Russia showed up, difficulties would follow.

When they came to Ostrava, instead of staying in a hotel reserved for all teams that played there, the Russians demanded that they be accommodated in Kravaře, an Ostrava suburb. Then, when they saw it took them longer than it took others to get to the ČEZ Arena, they demanded that the organizers provide them with police escort, so their team bus can get to and from the arena breaking all traffic rules.

In fact, Team Russia was scandalized its team bus had to wait at a railway crossing for a train to pass. Organizers in Ostrava started asking publicly whether they should have made the railway change its schedule, and Team Russia dropped the subject.

And, Bříza added, “They brought a few problems with them to Prague, too, issues that hadn’t been here before their arrival. The eight teams that had been here were living side by side quite famously, but then the Russians came and the first thing they did was they blocked off a hallway in the arena and demanded to stay in a different hotel. That created serious security issues for us, and if anything had happened, it would have been linked to the championship, no question. And then, they topped it off with such lack of sportsmanship and respect for others, including the entire event,” Bříza concluded.

It seems it may be useful for the organizers of the forthcoming World Cup (NHL and NHLPA) to remind Team Russia management in advance that there are basic rules of decency and sportsmanship that one should keep in mind even following bitter defeat.

And if they can’t live with it, disinvite them, no matter the star power that the event would lose.

Ex-employee hates Jágr’s management style

Jaromír Jágr may be a fantastic hockey player but he’s not much so far as owning a hockey club is concerned.

Thus the former sports manager of the Rytíři Kladno club Martin Vejvoda.

The club that has given hockey a number of stars, including Jágr himself, was in dire straits after the 2010-11 season. When it looked as if Czech top league in Kladno would be gone, Jaromír Jágr rode in on a white stallion and bought the club.

It helped so far as the books were concerned. It didn’t help much on the ice, ex-manager Vejvoda claimed in a story published by the isport.cz website the other day. Last season, Kladno, once the proud Czech Extraleague champion, was relegated. This year, the club managed to make the so-called first league’s tournament that decides which team would be elevated, but that was as far as it got.

Once the club’s competitive season was over, Jágr signalled from North America that it would not be over so far as the players’ work was concerned. They would still be paid for the next two months, Jágr said, so, he expected them to start serious practices that would prepare them for the next season.

That didn’t sit well with the players. And since Jágr expressed doubts about the quality of his club’s management, former sports manager (equals something close to general manager in North America, but not completely) Martin Vejvoda felt he was slighted.

So, he went on Facebook and suggested Jágr ought to keep his mouth shut.

“It’s one thing to employ people, and another matter to solve things,” Vejvoda said. “You can’t do that without having the authority. Coaches should have it, too. What system to play, who’s going to play. They weren’t free to do their job.”

Besides, nobody dares run the day-to-day operations, either. Jágr, claims Vejvoda, announced through the media that his preference for the club’s new coach would be Jindřich Lidický, but the hiring process is at a standstill until Jágr returns from North America by the end of April.

Lidický is a name that resonates with many Kladno fans. He was a star forward with the club in one of its famous incarnations decades ago. His younger version has been coaching Kladno’s junior teams. Apparently he was quite successful, too. Jágr, who knows his club will require a bit of rejuvenation, is on record as saying that Lidický has not only brought the kids up, but he also knows them. That’s why Lidický would be perfect for the job.

Ex-manager Vejvoda summed this situation thusly:

“After the relegation season (last game took place April 20), the owner would show up in the arena at the end of July. The club brings in new assistant coaches but not the head coach after it had been relegated. The club enters the new season with seven defencemen, aged 22.5 years on average. There’s nobody to run the day-to-day operations, with subsequent deduction of points (for this transgression).”

Strong sentiments. Made stronger by the fact that Kladno alumni such as Jiří Tlustý, Ondřej Pavelec and Radek Smoleňák express their agreement by signalling they like what Vejvoda said on Facebook.

Vancouver Canucks’ forward Radim Vrbata owns one third of the Mlada Boleslav club in the first league, the isport.cz journalists mention pointedly. Yet, their story continues, Vrbata has delegated a lot of decision-making powers onto others. They have the right to make decisions during the season without consulting their boss. Only the most important issues depend on Vrbata’s participation. Unlike in Kladno, where Jaromír Jágr has to have the last word on everything.

“And it’s difficult to get hold of him,” added ex-manager Vejvoda. “I was told I’d be responsible for hockey operations. It didn’t happen. I recall a game at Prostějov where some players’ attitudes were unacceptable. Even though nobody cared about defence before the season, I was of the view that there should be not only fines, but that some of those guys deserved to be fired or transferred into a lower league. But I couldn’t do a thing without the owner’s permission,” Vejvoda added.

Whatever Jágr says, people take it seriously.

“He (Jágr) was active in the club’s work over the summer,” said Vejvoda, “and that was very good. Except, as soon as he left for overseas, our hands were tied. It can’t work that way,” said Vejvoda. He decided to fix the defence situation by himself, was told he was overstepping his mandate and, by mid-November, he had enough and resigned.

“Two of the young defencemen got injured,” explained Vejvoda. “I brought in (23-year-old) Lukáš Kužel, a passionate player and a fighter. It wasn’t an expensive acquisition, either. Except, I was told I have broken policy rules.”

The isport.cz story doesn’t quote any reaction by Jágr. Either the isport.cz journalists thought accusing Jágr is going to bring in enough eyeballs to justify this lack of tradecraft, or they are trying to confirm what the ex-manager Vejvoda had said: Jágr is difficult to get hold of.

Still, it is interesting: Jágr single-handedly saved the top league team for Kladno. He came in just as it looked that relocation would be imminent.

And these are the thanks he’s getting. There’s an old Czech saying: Pro dobrotu na žebrotu. Meaning, roughly and in verbatim translation, be good to others, and you’ll go begging. Or, better still, no good deed goes unpunished.

Indeed.

Hockey Unlimited offers impressive season finale

There are 30 NHL teams. They have 690 players on their active rosters.

A few thousand players in minor professional leagues are working their behinds off to join the anointed 690. And then there are tens of thousands players in all kinds of sundry competitions, from university level to any other kind of a league. Some of them are in North America, others play overseas. Many of them dream of making the NHL and, ultimately, lifting the Stanley Cup over their heads.

But the 30 NHL teams can only accommodate 690 players all told.

Selecting those few who might have what it takes to make the show is what NHL teams’ scouts’ jobs are all about.

With this being this season’s last installment of Hockey Unlimited, and this year’s NHL draft coming in just a couple of months, the Aquila Productions’ documentary took a behind-the-scenes look at the way NHL clubs search for new talent. With professional insiders leading the way, we get to see the many things that have to happen before a general manager, surrounded by his coaches and scouts, mounts the podium to announce his team’s selection.

Sportsnet aired this season’s Hockey Unlimited finale Thursday, and there are several repeat broadcasts scheduled (see below for additional information).

Finding the future NHL stars makes looking for a needle in a haystack an easy job. Remember, it’s not only the first-rounders who are expected to make an impact within a season or two. It’s the late bloomers who make this exercise so exciting. In fact, as Hockey Unlimited shows, not all first-rounders develop into bona fide NHL players, while quite a few players selected in later rounds of the draft end up becoming stars (Pavel Datsyuk comes to mind).

So what does it take? Analytics, of course, say the insiders, but gut feelings, too, and those are usually based on wealth of experience. Scouts gather this kind of experience through trial and error. They spend many years going from one arena to another in some God-forsaken places, looking for gems no other scouts have noticed. And, of course, talking to the coaches and to the players themselves helps reveal significant angles, also.

To sum up, it’s a tough job, but if a professional sports league such as the NHL wants to survive, somebody’s got to do it.

A visionary’s vision

A visionary Roman Catholic priest, Père (Father) James Athol Murray, loved God, Canada and hockey. Not necessarily (or not always) in that order. The founder of a high school now known as the Athol Murray College of Notre Dame of Wilcox, Saskatchewan, this learning institution has given the hockey world a number of stars, some of whom reminisce in the second segment of this episode of Hockey Unlimited about the time they spent in the community of fewer than 400, studying in the boarding school that earned international fame since its founding in 1927.

That the Notre Dame Hounds form a team most other hockey clubs respect, and very rightfully so, is one thing. The other is that the school educates its students academically and, perhaps most importantly, as human beings, too.

As students and alumni tell us, on top of it all, they form friendships that they expect to last them till death do them part.

It’s one part of what Hockey Unlimited does so well: it puts the game into perspective.

Fighting a frightful battle

Nowhere does Hockey Unlimited show it better (and with more understanding) than in telling the final story of this episode.

Here’s what it’s all about: Noah Fayad, a 14-year-old player on the St. Albert Sabres AAA Bantam team in the Edmonton Major Bantam Hockey League, was becoming more and more tired. His coaches noticed, and his dad asked his son. Alarmed and shocked by the answers, rounds of visits to medical people followed. The diagnosis that came back was overwhelmingly scary: leukemia.

It is quite possible that without young Noah’s active involvement in sports, nobody would have noticed. Or, they would consider the signs a part of the many changes people go through during puberty.

Except, Noah Fayad was physically very fit, indeed, one of the stars on his team. So, the decline in fitness and stamina was more noticeable than if he was a couch potato.

A physician interviewed for Hockey Unlimited said Noah’s prognosis seems encouraging. Not only because of his physical fitness, and not only because medical people detected (and started treating) the disease early enough. The friendship and support shown by his teammates and opposing players alike, must have been a boost, too.

Sabres’ young assistant coach Brady Reid lost his father John to the same disease when he was about Noah’s age. He understands what Noah’s family is going through. And he is proud of his players who wear a sticker with Noah’s initials and number (NF 12) on their helmets to show they are in the battle with their teammate.

And when players from other teams show up wearing similar stickers, or just plain stickers announcing they are trying to help find a cure for leukemia, no words can express how grateful Noah and his family must be.

And Hockey Unlimited, not a show known for too many words, is even quieter here. It lets the pictures do the talking.

As always, hockey coach Steve Serdachny offers a few tips: this time, on passing the puck. Fitness guru Simon Bennett makes sure we learn the seemingly easy exercise that would make our hips capable of withstanding the toughest tasks we confront them with.

Serving with distinction

Hockey Unlimited is a fine documentary. Yes, it helps that it covers Canadians’ national passion. What makes it so distinctive is the fact that it not only keeps looking for contexts, it also finds them. Its creators respect both their subjects and their audiences, and that shows, too.

Its tradecraft is impeccable, something we’ve got used to with Aquila Productions’ programming. But its ability in looking for and finding stories that would interest even those few Canadians who prefer anything to hockey, now, this is an ability that makes it extraordinary.

It seems that the timing is right, too. Television audiences are slowly but distinctly becoming bored with fast-paced shows that consist of furious factoid hits without giving the viewers any time to at least consider thinking about what they are seeing.

Hockey Unlimited gives their audiences as many facts as it can give them to let them think and form their opinions. It doesn’t force its own opinions on its viewers, either.

This is what great documentary making is all about, and here’s hoping Hockey Unlimited still has a few seasons ahead of it.

 

BROADCAST SCHEDULE:

 

Thurs. Apr. 9

3 PM ET SN One

Fri. Apr. 10

1 PM ET SN Pacific, West, Ontario, East
11:30 PM ET SN One

Tues. Apr. 14

5:30 PM ET SN Pacific, West, Ontario, East

 

 

Who says summer’s got to be boring?

The number of single female kindergarten teachers getting swallowed whole by sharks off the coast of the Adriatic grows exponentially every passing summer. They’ve become the usual front-page material for European newspapers, especially those whose countries have no sea coast.

After all, readers, listeners and viewers prefer lighter fare in their newscasts and news pages during summers. Don’t bore us with political situations and economic upheavals when the mercury is climbing north of 30 Celsius in the shade. Journalists are trying their darndest to oblige. This is true all over the world, North America happily included.

When there’s really nothing happening that the journalists could sink their teeth into, they use their imagination. And now that we have new media, rumours make their way around the globe with the speed of a summer thunderstorm lightning. Thanks to social media, journalists don’t even have to be the original authors any longer, even though membership in the profession helps.

Aliens, UFOs, new infections and whatnot still make the cut, but general population seems to be fed up with this kind of drivel. You can say that Hollywood’s fascination with stories based on the extravagant, combined with the sad decline in their ability to tell these tales coherently, if not convincingly, killed the genre.

Just as reality television, a scam to end all scams, pretends it exposes real stories of real people, the summer season in journalism is trying to pretend it’s based on reality, too.

Such as: have you heard yet Ilya Kovalchuk is on his way back to the NHL?

No?

Here’s the deal: the Russian-born forward who had retired from a huge NHL contract (and the New Jersey Devils) so he could return to Russia and play in the KHL has been talking to Devils’ chief poohbah Lou Lamoriello. Kovalchuk’s return is imminent.

Are you saying you do NOT believe Dino Costa, the slightly shocking radio host? Sure, Costa’s independent treatment of facts became too much even for the Sirius XM’s Mad Dog Radio. But are you saying he’s not worthy of your trust?

Mad Dogs fired Costa almost a year ago. You would think they were depriving his faithful audiences of an original voice that they all clamoured to hear. But not to worry. Enter social media. In this case, Twitter.

How do you get followers? You come up with something out of the ordinary. How do you keep followers? You repeat the routine with regularity not even daily use of strong doses of Metamucil can help you match.

So, anyhow, Kovalchuk’s on his way back. Thus spake Dino Costa. OOOPS: thus tweeted Dino Costa.

That would, of course, mean that Ilya Kovalchuk is a perfect moron.

He is not.

Kovalchuk retired from the NHL, walking away from a 12-year deal worth $77 million in greenbacks. That was the only way how he could leave and join the KHL legally.

As pointed out by NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, to be able to return, Kovalchuk would have two basic options.

First, he would not be allowed to engage in professional hockey for one full year. Considering Kovalchuk came to Russia with a lucrative four-year deal awaiting him, it’s hard to imagine he’d do anything of the kind.

The other option would see all 30 NHL clubs grant him (and the Devils) a unanimous agreement to return. Can you see that happening?

Here are a few more details. If Kovalchuk missed the NHL that much that he would forego professional hockey for a year (and furnish a proof), he would be eligible to return only to the Devils, and he would have to stay there till the end of the 2018-19 season. Then, and only then, would the league remove him from the list of players who voluntarily retired, and – aged 36 – he would be able to sign with some other team.

And what are the chances that, say, the New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers or the Pittsburgh Penguins agree that the hated Devils bring back a reinforcement as potent as Ilya Kovalchuk?

Besides, sundry media (mostly Russian, to be sure) have quoted Kovalchuk as saying he’s frightfully happy in the KHL, the game is different but he’s getting used to it and everybody treats him like a king.

But: Dino Costa has got new followers on his Twitter account. That matters. At least, to him it does.

And he became famous all over the hockey-loving world. Or is it infamous?

Still, his “boring summer story” pales in comparison with the tragedy of the many single female kindergarten teachers swallowed whole by sharks off the coast of the Adriatic.

KHL loses three teams, finds three replacements elsewhere

One day you’re up, fighting for cup victory in game seven, and the next day you’re gone.

Well, to be less dramatic: it took a few weeks for Lev Praha of the Russian KHL to start gasping for life. First, they lost to Mike Keenan-led Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the Gagarin Cup finals. Now comes the news its shareholder owners Yevgeni Myshkovskii and Petr Speychal haven’t got enough in the kitty to continue. The club’s budget last season said the club needed $40 million (Canadian) to operate.

According to news out of Prague, no such money is forthcoming, and the club will have to fold.

The owners issued a statement forthwith, denying they are quitting. They are dealing with the situation, they said, and next Monday would be the deadline for a definitive answer. Until then, the owners added in an official statement, all news about the club’s demise are pure speculation.

As (wrongly) attributed to Mark Twain, and paraphrased, news of their death was greatly exaggerated. Except, the reports come from a region known for yet another pearl of wisdom: don’t believe any rumours until they’ve been officially denied.

Just to make matters more involved for the KHL, the venerable Spartak Moscow is headed to the poorhouse, too. In addition, Donbass Donetsk won’t be able to play because of the tense political (and military) situation in Ukraine. Donetsk, after all, is one of the neuralgic points in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia.

Here’s the main issue: for whatever reason, Russian oil and natural gas giant Gazprom has decided to cut its epenses on professional hockey in half. Gazprom just happens to be KHL’s main sponsor. To what degree sponsoring the KHL made any economic sense to Gazprom in the first place is hard to fathom. After all, Team Russia’s main sponsor at international events is another Russian company. One that exports weapons. So says its logo on Team Russia’s official jerseys.

Of course, says the KHL, no need to worry: we have Finland’s Jokerit Helsinki joining as of next season, and a team from Sochi, and another one from Togliatti. The former club, HC Sochi, a.k.a. Sochi Leopards, has former NHL player Vyacheslav (Slava) Butsayev as its coach. The latter, known as Lada, used to be Torpedo. It was kicked out of the KHL in 2011 because it didn’t have a good enough arena. It was renamed Lada because the Soviets used to build their version of the Italian car, Fiat, under the nickname of Lada, in a local car factory.

So far as Lev Praha is concerned, the first signs of trouble emerged earlier this spring. According to early June quotes from Rashid Khabibulin, the team’s sports manager, there were issues when the club tried to negotiate a new lease deal with Prague’s O2 Arena. He didn’t specify what issues then, but now, say some Czech insiders, it is becoming obvious what they were. Lev wanted to pay less than what the arena owners had been asking for.

Several Lev players, approached by the media, tried to put brave faces on: it’s not official yet, they would all say, and they hope the owners will find a way.

Only the owners’ bankers know whether this optimism is justified or not.

And they’re not telling.

Dave King revives Lokomotiv Yaroslavl

This is how legends are born.

Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, the Russian KHL team that rose from the ashes of the aircraft crash that had wiped out the entire club, has made it all the way into conference finals of the KHL Gagarin Cup. The club rode over Dynamo Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg with a vengeance. It now faces Lev Praha.

Thanks to Canada’s Dave King.

Yaroslavl coach Pyotr Vorobyov resigned for health reasons in February, during the Olympic break. A day later, King got his leave from the Phoenix Coyotes and was on his way to Russia.

This isn’t King’s first coaching job in Russia. In fact, during the 2006-07 season, he became the fist Canadian coach in the KHL, guiding Metallurg Magnitogorsk. He opened the door for Barry Smith, Paul Maurice and Mike Keenan.

King’s arrival in Yaroslavl had some pretty emotional connotations. Brad McCrimmon, one of that fatal air crash victims, a former NHL defenceman and a Yaroslavl coach, used to be King’s personal friend. Both hailing from Saskatchewan, they’ve always been on the same wavelength.

King is very much aware that not even time will heal the terrible loss Lokomotiv has suffered. But he is also aware what a major victory can do to help the healing process.

One of Dave King’s advantages: he knows hockey inside-out on both sides of the Big Pond. He has coached in the NHL, he has coached for Canada internationally, even at Olympic level (Calgary, 1988, Albertville, 1992), he has coached in the KHL (Magnitogorsk), he has coached in other European countries in their elite leagues (Sweden, Germany). He has been a keen student of the game as such and of different approaches to it, recording things that he had learned in Russia in a book. Co-authored by veteran journalist Eric Duhatschek, King of Russia: A Year in the Russian Super League was published in 2007, becoming quite a success among hockey fans all over the world.

When King took over at Yaroslavl in February, Lokomotiv was out of the playoffs.

Now, it’s in conference finals, having beaten two clubs whose motto was “Cup or bust.”

Nobody expected that.

Should Lokomotiv win it all, Dave King can count on having a statue of him unveiled right at Yaroslavl’s central square.

And if he doesn’t? Well, he still got the team to a level that nobody had expected it to be just a few months ago.

And, irony of ironies: if Yaroslavl succeeds, and Metallurg Magnitogorsk wins the other conference, two Canadian coaches will be facing each other in the Gagarin Cup finals: King would be coaching against Mike Keenan.

Go Canada go!

%d bloggers like this: