Category Archives: NHL as such

Note to NHL: public money and private business do not mix

As gall goes, Gary Bettman has set new standards.

In a live interview on Hockey Night in Canada  the other day, Scott Oake apologized for even broaching the subject, and then he asked a logical question: what’s the NHL commissioner’s view of the City of Glendale’s decision to quit the agreement they had with the Arizona Coyotes?

Why did Oake feel he had to apologize? It was hot news of the moment, and he was speaking to the boss of the outfit that has had a keen interest in the matter.

Apologies or not, Bettman’s answer showed anger unbecoming of a person in his position. And it showed an arrogance that in just a couple of sentences displayed for everybody to see everything that’s wrong with professional sports on the business level.

Corporate welfare is the best description of what professional sports teams have been abusing. They’ve been getting away with public financing of new arenas, special deals, and whatever they could obtain, ripping off the (mostly unsuspecting) taxpayer all along. And, most surprising, shocking, even, they have felt they are entitled.

Which brings us to the outburst of anger one isn’t used to see in a Gary Bettman.

Unhappy council

The good members of the Glendale city council have had enough of the Arizona Coyotes shenanigans. They couldn’t get majority owner Andrew Barroway to talk to them. When they asked the minority owner, Anthony LeBlanc, about reports of some financial transactions that allegedly went against both the letter and the spirit of the deal the city had with the club, all they would get was incoherent obfuscations. Mr. Barroway, thus Mr. LeBlanc, is a busy man. He runs a hedge fund in New York, you see. The message was obvious: he hasn’t time to spare to talk to the hicks who run the city of Glendale.

So, council members decided to look for a hole that would get them out of the deal. They said so publicly that this was their plan. A few weeks later, Mr. Barroway and Mr. LeBlanc managed to find time in their preciously crowded schedules to meet with the mayor of Glendale, his deputy, and a few city officials. No coffee was served, no sandwiches were available. According to some reports, there were a couple bottles of water somewhere in the room.

That wasn’t the important part. The important part was that city representatives told Coyotes’ owners they were unhappy about the entire scenario and would like to open discussions about making a few changes here and there. The Coyotes’ owners said absolutely no way. To top it off, Mr. LeBlanc said they were ambushed. Either he’s illiterate and doesn’t know how to read regular newspapers (or their associated websites), and nobody read it to him, or he just doesn’t care what the city of Glendale has been saying rather publicly for quite some time.

If he wasn’t making it up and this was the first time Mr. LeBlanc had heard about the city’s distinct lack of happiness about the deal, it speaks volumes about his entrepreneurial incompetence.

In either case, ignorance is no excuse.

City in the poorhouse

The city of Glendale has been suffering for quite some time. It has had difficulties meeting its own financial obligations. Compared to just a few years ago, the city government’s workforce has been cut by almost 20 per cent. Enforced furloughs, vacant positions going unfilled, merging departments, you name it, the city has used all of these methods, and then some. Yet, it’s still unable to buy a new firetruck or open a new public library.

There might be studies that would find why this has been happening. There might be studies trying to figure out who or what is guilty of it all. But they are not relevant for the Arizona Coyotes soap opera. The city’s economic situation is what it is, and to be demanding $15 million annually for arena maintenance borders on the unconscionable.

That’s how simple it is.

In fact, for professional sports clubs to be asking for public handouts in the first place is unconscionable.

A bit of theory. Economy is divided into three basic spheres. They are described as core, public purpose, and business spheres. Some classify them as household, government, and business spheres. Names may differ, but other than that, it’s the same thing.

In economic theory, business sphere is strictly separated from the other two spheres. Government can (or may) use policies of economic stimuli to attract or keep an industry (a business, that is), but this just happens to be one of the must muddied areas of economics. Suffice it to say that pure economic theory frowns upon such relationships.

End of the bit of theory.

To be blunt: professional sports clubs do not create anything productive. Enthusiasm about a wicked wrist shot in hockey, or a curved (Beckham-like) shot in football (soccer, that is), or a new kind of kicking in free-style swimming, may (or may not) improve an individual’s mood. But that’s about it.

To limit an individual’s emotional well-being to watching extraordinary feats achieved by professional athletes is a dumbing-down proposition.

That’s one point of view.

To limit access to basic services that a government is supposed to provide just because said government is out of money as it had spent it on helping a professional sports club borders on the criminal.

To stay with Glendale, Arizona: what is more important to its citizens, a new firetruck, a new library, or an old and repeatedly failing hockey club? According to a recent public opinion poll, almost two thirds of Glendale’s citizens prefer the former to the latter.

Enough said?

Not according to the owners of the Coyotes, a hockey club that’s been losing money left, right and centre since the moment it landed in Phoenix in 1996. Please remember: it came to Phoenix from Winnipeg, a hockey-crazy community that had not been able to sustain it. And it came from Winnipeg to Phoenix, the place where they like their ice at the bottom of their glasses (filled with fire water, mostly), and where most of the locals can hardly care less about the fastest team game in the world.

Why Phoenix in the first place?

The strategic intent was easy to grasp: let’s have NHL hockey spread all over the Excited States. That’s the only way to get a national broadcasting contract and, thus, exposure. Alas, it seems (in hindsight) that Phoenix and environs have been doomed right from the start.

Not only that: blessed with one suspect owner after another, it seems NHL poohbahs would do well to look up in their dictionaries the real meaning of the expression: due diligence.

But the main point is simple: professional sports clubs should not be allowed to even approach governments, hats in hands, asking for taxpayer-subsidized handouts. If there is one industry where this should be forbidden by law, it’s the professional sports industry. (That, by the way, includes the Olympic Games and sundry international events, too.)

The rule should be: if you have the wherewithal to start a professional sports club, you would be logically expected to have enough money to pay for the re-zoning and building permits, for the construction itself, and for the running of the club, too. If one of these pre-conditions is not met, no permits would be forthcoming, and no taxpayer-funded subsidies, either.

And the word to such owners and leagues should be simple: no, you are NOT entitled to anything.

A minor legalistic observation: the Coyotes intend to claim that former city attorney Craig Tindall had nothing to do whatsoever with the contract between Glendale and the hockey club. That, they said they planned to say, makes the hole the city used to call the deal off null and void. They’ll have to convince a number of judges that they have a valid point. For the city, it would suffice to show that the text of the deal passed once (just once!) through said Mr. Tindall’s hands, even if it was for proof-reading purposes only.

Of course, it would be grasping at straws on the Coyotes’ part. And it would be missing two basic points.

First: the locals don’t want you. Stop behaving like a jilted lover who keeps telling her or his departing partner but you can’t leave me! Why not? Because I love you!

Instead, leave while the leaving is (still) good.

And the second point, even more important: grow up and realize that you are not entitled to anything from the public. Grow up and realize that public money and private business just do not mix. Remember that, eventually, if you persist in your attempts to blackmail the public, it may come back to haunt you.

And then, where will you be?

Advertisements

Nostradamus would run away rather than predict Edmonton Oilers’ future

So, now that the original Edmonton Oilers-linked hoopla has died down for a moment, let’s try to have a detached look at what has just happened.

To sum up: until proven otherwise, Oilers’ fans have just been taken down to the river where they were sold a bill of goods. Again.

The Edmonton Oilers will be picking first in this year’s draft, and they are going after Connor McDavid. That’s what all and sundry say. The only thing we know for sure is that they are picking first. The newly installed poohbah Peter Chiarelli is on record as saying he’s not trading the pick no matter what. He is not on record as saying young McDavid it is and will be. Considering the Oilers’ needs can be found elsewhere (blueline, net), what if there’s a blue-chip, NHL-ready defenceman available?

Yes, most commentators would insist, but Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel are generational players, and McDavid even more so than Eichel.

Mumbo-jumbo

Care to explain the word: generational?

Care to elaborate in what sense: generational?

It just so happens that there are several definitions of generations, all of them valid. Some use demographics, others sociology, some others use the economy. All of these definitions have some features in common: a generation defines approach, use of whatever tools, vision, among many other characteristics. The span of a generation is based on the specifics of its definition: an economic generation covers a different number of years than, say, a generation that shares similar tastes in what kind of jeans to wear.

How did the word “generational” make its way into professional hockey? In a debate over one beer too many, that’s how.

A reminder: hockey is a team game. Wayne Gretzky didn’t produce the Stanley Cup in Los Angeles no matter how hard he tried. Mark Messier, despite the frequently-repeated legend, didn’t win the Stanley Cup in New York: he would have been nowhere without, say, Mike Richter in goal.

And if there was a player who re-defined his position, it would have been Wayne Gretzky. And, behind the blueline, Bobby Orr.

Did you notice? These guys re-defined their positions. Not the game. As Wayne Gretzky himself liked to say, nobody’s bigger than the game.

Yes, Connor McDavid keeps turning heads by his play. In junior. Here’s hoping that he’s going to keep turning heads once (and if) he makes the big show. Still, bluntly, he hasn’t re-defined anything. Not yet, in any case. Oh, definitely, he’s playing with flair rarely seen in professional hockey these days, and he doesn’t make too many mistakes, either.

How will all of this junior stuff translate into the NHL?

Nobody knows. Connor McDavid least of all.

In any case, there are at least as many questions linked to Connor McDavid and his future with (let’s assume) the Oilers as there are answers.

How did we get here?

Let’s try some chronology.

Until the lockout of 2004-2005, the Oilers served as a useful farm team to the richer clubs in the NHL. They would develop young talent and, once those players’ contracts have expired, it’s goodbye, it’s been nice knowing you, Edmonton will for ever remain etched in my heart, but, for the moment, my cheque book is more important.

No need to blame the players: their careers are limited and what they don’t make now, they won’t make in the future. Most of them, at least.

Whether this kind of approach is fair to the rest of the masses of the unwashed is irrelevant here. This kind of approach is what we have. Let’s live with it. There’s not much else we can do about it.

The NHL reigned the players’ salaries in by introducing a salary cap. It would be an extravagant exaggeration to say this solved everything: the ratio between the salary cap and the league’s hockey-related revenues deserved better, and it would take another lockout for the league and its players to at least attempt a new, more flexible, tack.

In any case, next thing you know, the Oilers were in the Stanley Cup finals, extending the eventual winner (Carolina Hurricanes) to seven games, losing by a lousy single goal (empty-net goals, as it happened to end then, do not count).

In the process, the then-coach, Craig MacTavish, managed to outsmart his Detroit Red Wings counterpart, Mike Babcock, and the Oilers went on to eliminate the mighty Wings in the first round.

Less than three weeks after the final game in the Stanley Cup finals, star defenceman Chris Pronger officially asked to be traded. According to insiders, this wasn’t the first time; those same insiders claim Pronger managed to change the Oilers’ dressing room into a poisonous snake pit by the previous Christmas. Stories about reasons for Pronger’s request differ: his wife Lauren didn’t like Edmonton as such, also, she didn’t like it that her husband was recognized by all and sundry whenever the couple decided to go out for a quiet dinner in one of the poshier eateries in town, or she didn’t like alleged extramarital activities some claimed her husband was guilty of.

All of this is irrelevant now.

What is relevant are two things: Pronger went to Anaheim, and the Oilers ended up landing Joffrey Lupul, Ladislav Smid and, eventually Jordan Eberle. Not bad for a general manager (Kevin Lowe) who had to deal from a position of weakness as Pronger had let the entire world know in advance that Edmonton wasn’t his cup of tea.

The roof fell in next season: the Oilers didn’t make the playoffs. That the eventual Cup winner, the Hurricanes, didn’t make it, either, was of little or no consolation. How can one even dare considering comparisons between the fanaticism of Carolina’s supporters with the flames that burn in the hearts of Oilers’ fans?

One issue remained: thanks (or due) to Chris Pronger’s shenanigans, the Oilers’ reputation among potential free agents hit the freezing point. In attempts to lure help, the Oilers simply had to be satisfied with second- or even third-ranked free agents, and they still had to overpay them to attract them.

No, neither Kevin Lowe nor Craig MacTavish turned stupid overnight. The issue was (and remains to this day) they had to play the cards they’d been dealt.

They had to deal with inept ownership, too.

First, the so-called Edmonton Investors Group bought the club from its original owner, Peter Pocklington, in 1998. That would have been nice and dandy, on one condition: if most of the more than 30 participants didn’t think they knew hockey better than people who had been in it professionally, and with considerable success, for decades.

Gone was Glen Sather who had been grooming Kevin Lowe for his position for quite some time. Instead, Lowe was moved into Sather’s office. Prematurely, it seems in hindsight. Why prematurely? Simple because if he had some general-management experience to fall back on, he would have told the meddling Investors Group crowd to stop giving him advice on hockey-related matters, no matter how well-meant.

Enter Daryl Katz, he of the Rexall pharmacy chain fame, and a self-proclaimed Edmonton Oilers’ fan. He made an offer to buy the club that amounted to hostile takeover, as one of the chiefs of the Investors Group said at the time.

Another Katz’s claim to fame: he’s a bosom friend with some of the boys on the bus, Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish, in particular.

Both Lowe and MacTavish are very capable hockey people, and honest, too.

After all, it wasn’t that then-general manager Steve Tambellini fired MacTavish after the dreadful 2008-2009 season. MacTavish stepped down himself because he felt he didn’t have much more to give. That must have taken a lot of courage.

While away from Edmonton,. MacTavish worked on his vocabulary as a TSN commentator, kept up with coaching as the bench boss for Vancouver Canucks’ then-farm in Chicago and, most importantly, earned his Master’s degree in business administration (MBA).

Perfectly impressive.

But in the cold-blooded world of professional sports, with the cutthroat competitiveness that rules ruthlessly all over that kind of universe, two questions emerge:

Should it have been thus?

Was Kevin Lowe’s “best-before” date in Edmonton Oilers’ hockey operations past? While his knowledge, experience, talent and hard work are unquestionable, would it not have been for the better for everybody concerned if he either moved himself to another side of the operation or (even) offered his services to another organization? Kevin Lowe chose the former for the time being. Let’s see where it leads him (and the Oilers).

The question in Craig MacTavish’s case differs. It is based on a theory developed by Laurence Johnston Peter, a Canadian who rose to fame in the Excited States. As author of the wildly popular book on hierachiology, Peter Principle, he said: “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence … in time every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties … Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.”

Mind, incompetence in this context does not mean stupidity in any shape or form. It only means that the waters around you are too deep for comfort.

So, what was the case with Craig MacTavish?

As anybody who has ever touched any basic study on the theory of negotiations would quickly attest, it is wrong to even mention publicly your shortcomings, in addition to making your time limitations known. That, alas, is precisely what Craig MacTavish did when he was introduced as the Oilers’ new general manager. He would be making bold steps, and he was impatient. Bold steps mean: I haven’t got much time. I’m impatient means: I can hardly wait because I have no time at all.

Both statements must have made 29 other general managers giddy. Craig MacTavish just gave them weapons to help them defeat him.

Being a general manager of a professional sports team doesn’t give one too much time to learn on the job. Craig MacTavish only got two years.

Except: in strolls a guy who just lost his job because his club didn’t make the playoffs. On one hand, it seems to indicate different culture: one misstep, and you’re gone.

Alas, a look that goes deeper reveals a few more missteps. Another proof that the economic theory that holds that quantitative changes accumulate until they reach a tipping point after which they become qualitative changes. Meaning, in Peter Chiarelli’s case, such steps as trading Tyler Seguin to the Dallas Stars. He got, in exchange, players who aren’t bad but who won’t reach Tyler Seguin’s potential if their lives depended on it. All that because of some off-ice misbehaviour and indiscretions attributed to young Mr. Seguin. How come the Dallas Stars managed to put young Mr. Seguin on the straight and narrow before even the next season started?

How will Peter Chiarelli fare in his new job? Fine, he didn’t open his statement by saying he was going to be bold and impatient. He put the young (and most talented) core on notice, instead: you may be out of town before you know what hit you, if we get someone of equal or better value to the club in return.

As a philosophy, this is as it should be. Even Wayne Gretzky wasn’t untouchable, after all.

But as part of your opening statement, before you even shook hands with the guys?

Looking ahead

Will the Oilers be chasing the cup this coming season?

The answer is simple and straightforward: no.

Oh, yes, miracles do happen, but it seems the club has collected on its share of miracles by yet another improbably lucky draft lottery win.

Once we get closer to the free-agent deadline, we’ll know whether those who are now saying that picking Connor McDavid were correct in suggesting that this would help the club immensely. Top players will be lining up to offer the Oilers their services, and at a discount, too.

Besides, considering the Oilers are not trading away their first pick, it remains to be seen whether anything has changed. There have been reported cases of Oilers’ hockey people being overruled (and guess three times who is in a position to do that). The scouts were drooling about NHL-ready defencemen, and the club would end up picking yet another forward.

If this doesn’t change, then the bloodletting made no sense. Except that it made overwhelming headlines about issues that are frightfully overrated, bordering on the irrelevant, at a time when we’re supposed to be deep in thought about whom we’re going to elect to run Alberta for the next few years.

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

 

 

NHL dreaming, Hockey Unlimited fifth episode’s focus

Mechta” is the Russian word Yakov Trenin used.

It means: dream.

That is the reason he, along with many others, has moved several thousand of miles (kilometres, if you wish) away from home, to play in North American junior leagues. These kids hope that an NHL scout is going to notice them, like them enough to go to bat for them at the NHL draft, and they’re going to make it all the way to the show.

They are perfectly aware that a chance of THAT happening if they stayed at home would border on the improbable.

Whether they will make it or not is another question. Even if they don’t, they’re going to return home stronger men.

But their dreams have some pretty solid foundations. Such as: they must have been good in their respective age categories. The North American junior teams wouldn’t have drafted and brought them over if they weren’t.

Hockey Unlimited, an Aquila Productions’ documentary series aired on Rogers Sportsnet Monday, March 2, with repeat broadcasts scheduled for the next couple of weeks (see detailed schedule below). In its fifth episode, Hockey Unlimited opens with a very careful, sensitive and sensible look at a couple of guys, kids, really, who have made the jump.

The abovementioned Yakov Trenin came all the way from Chelyabinsk. The place is home to Traktor, a Russian KHL club. Yet, not even the potential perspective of playing for his hometown team would change young Yakov Trenin’s dream. He knows, obviously, that to be the best, he has to compete with the best.

Yakov Trenin now skates with the Gatineau Olympiques of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

The other kid featured in this episode of Hockey Unlimited, Edgars Kulda, shares Trenin’s ambition. He came from the capital of Latvia, the ancient and beautiful city of Riga, all the way to a brand new place (everything is relative) called Edmonton. Where Riga’s roots reach to the 2nd century of the past millennium, in Edmonton, everything that comes close to being a century old is a historical artefact. Kulda, too, could have tried to make his hometown KHL team, Dinamo. His ambition aimed higher.

Nothing wrong with that.

Kulda, now an important part of WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings, has made the first step: the Arizona Coyotes have selected him in the seventh round, 193rd player overall, in the 2014 draft. Only one step remains: making it out of the Coyotes’ camp.

These two guys are similar. To a degree. And Hockey Unlimited, without saying it, notices these differences in careful detail. Where Trenin is a shy newcomer, a greenhorn, Kulda is a grizzled veteran. A 2014 Memorial Cup MVP, Kulda comes across as a self-assured kind of guy. Where Trenin still has a bit of difficulty finding the right words to express correctly in English what he wanted to say in Russian, Kulda is firing away with undisguised gusto as if he was born speaking English, with a mistake here and there.

In addition to talking to both guys’ coaches and teammates, Hockey Unlimited gives considerable space to the billets with whom these kids are staying. The loving relationships between the kids and their surrogate parents are obvious. But the billets’ ability to pinpoint these two guys’ character strengths and weaknesses is refreshing.

The next segment of this episode of Hockey Unlimited is perfectly logical.

Player agents don’t appear all of a sudden in players’ lives. They’ve been watching the playing phenoms with at least as much interest as NHL scouts. They reach out to players whom they consider safe investment, nurturing their relationships with both the players and their families. They do all that for free, in the hopes that when their client would make the NHL, they would negotiate a rich contract for him, and their percentage would be a nice return on their investment.

All fine and dandy. Still, it’s refreshing to hear Don Meehan, one of the most powerful player agents in the business today. He’s pretty straightforward when he explains that there might come a time in a player’s career when it would be a good player agent’s job to sit down with him and ask him whether his ambition is limited to playing on an NHL club’s farm team, or whether the time has come to look at other options.

Which brings us neatly to the third story: Wes Goldie became the all-time leading scorer in the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL). He helped the Alaska Aces win the Kelly Cup. He made it all the way to NHL teams’ training camps twice during his career. That would be as far as he would be able to get.

Wes Goldie has retired and he’s repaying his wife and his four children for all the sacrifices they made during his career.

Was it illustrious? You bet. You don’t have to win all of the NHL’s annual awards to have an illustrious hockey career.

Wes Goldie tells his story with enthusiasm that is quite justified. And his family is, just as justifiably, proud of him and his achievements. His career didn’t make him filthy rich. Not so far as his bank account is concerned. But it made him a wiser man. And that should count for something.

As has become its useful habit, Hockey Unlimited also features valuable tips on hockey fitness from high-performance personal trainer Simon Bennett and on-ice skills from NHL instructor Steve Serdachny.

In addition to its brilliant tradecraft, wonderful camera work, editing, music and overall sound selection, Hockey Unlimited’s choice of stories shows that its creators know and love their topics, their heroes, as well as being perfectly aware of the role hockey plays in the everyday life fabric of so many Canadians.

Three cheers! And five stars, too.

 

BROADCAST SCHEDULE

 

Mon. Mar. 2 9 PM PT (Midnight ET) SN Ontario
Mon. Mar. 2 10:30 PM PT (1:30 AM ET) SN One
Thurs. Mar. 5 10:30 AM PT (1:30 PM ET) SN One
Thurs. Mar. 5 9 PM PT (Midnight ET) SN One
Fri. Mar. 6 Noon PT (3 PM ET) SN Pacific, SN West
Fri. Mar. 6 11:30 PM PT (2:30 AM ET) SN Pacific, SN West
Tues. Mar. 10 10 AM PT (1 PM ET) SN Pacific, SN West, SN Ontario, SN East

 

And, as the usual television saying goes, check your local listings to confirm program updates

To be or not to be? Newest Hockey Unlimited episode lets young players answer the question

There’s a world of difference between illusions and ideals. While we should be ready and perfectly willing to ditch illusions whenever we realize we’re only dreaming in Technicolor, we should be defending our ideals to the last breath.

Thus the accepted wisdom.

Here’s the issue: how do we distinguish the former from the latter?

Youth hockey is not only an expensive proposition. Not only is the equipment beyond the reach of many families, the cost of renting rinks for practices and games can add amounts that make the sport virtually impossible to join. And yet, if future players ever learn what it takes to find success, it’s precisely in the ranks of youth hockey. But the questions do not stop with costs. Eventually, players, parents and (to a degree) coaches face tough moments that see youth hockey’s participants at a crossroads. Many questions, and only one of the several potentially possible answers is correct.

This is the challenge many (or, to be more precise, most) midget league hockey players, their parents and their coaches face. Is the kid a bona fide future NHL superstar? Is the kid a bona fide future honest worker at whatever profession his education takes him?

That’s one of the main topics the fourth episode of the new documentary, Hockey Unlimited, has set to explore. Aired on Sportsnet Monday (with a number of repeat broadcasts to come, check your local listings or below), the Aquila Productions’ show digs deep into the issue and brings in people who have both the knowledge and the experience.

Ken Campbell of The Hockey News has done a lot of research on the topic, and his insights have been of great value to the show, but what took the cake were the honestly shared personal experiences of both the parents and the players.

It’s one thing to enroll your kid into youth hockey, in hopes he would learn a thing or two that might come useful in life, and it’s a completely another matter once the kid is accepted. You become a part of a system, and the system puts some pretty tough demands on both its players and their families. And one only realizes whether these demands and requirements are reasonable after a few seasons had gone by and the players and their families have to figure out whether it is at all worth their while to continue.

Interestingly enough, it was the players themselves who were the most realistic people of all present when it got to assessing their capabilities and future endeavours. It takes a lot of courage for a player to look straight into a television camera, knowing his words are being recorded, and say, I know that I’m not going to make it as a professional athlete. Now’s the time to become serious about my education because there’s life after hockey, too. And they weren’t bitter about it, either. They told Hockey Unlimited’s cameras that they had formed friendships some of which they bet would become life-long, and they learned a lot about sportsmanship, and they got into pretty awesome physical shape, to boot.

It would have been beyond the scope of Hockey Unlimited to answer the next question: is there anything wrong with the system? And if there is, can we fix it? And if we can fix it, how do we go about it?

Why beyond the scope? Because Hockey Unlimited is a documentary. A frightfully good documentary, to be sure, but it’s not the role of such works to answer questions. It’s within their mandate to ask them. That’s all. Asking tough questions is a tough job as it is. Hockey Unlimited does that.

Hockey goes multicultural

It’s one thing to see that there’s regular broadcast of Hockey Night in Canada in the Punjabi language; it’s an altogether different thing to see kids of Punjabi origin learning not only to skate, but to play hockey, too.

This is what’s happening, and Hockey Unlimited takes us right into the heart of things. As the various community leaders say, this is all part of their people becoming Canadian. That includes not only learning and accepting traditional Canadian values, but also taking part in traditional Canadian sports activities.

And is there a more Canadian sports activity than hockey?

From a practical standpoint, how many opportunities does the usual Canadian climate offer for people to indulge in, say, cricket, rugby or soccer?

A rhetorical question if there ever was one.

Just as many watched in awe when players of, say, Korean or Lebanese origin made it all the way to the NHL, it’s obvious the day a player whose parents had come to Canada from India makes it all the way up is not that far away, too.

One question begs an answer: will there be, say, East Indian community-based hockey teams first, or will the kids have enough courage to take on all comers in teams that reflect the wonderful mosaic that is Canada?

Judging by the pictures Hockey Unlimited has shown us, the latter option is correct. A wonderful development that shows how the sport of hockey can bring the nation together at active grassroots levels, perhaps even more than just staring at television screens, watching hockey in the Olympic Games.

A thinking girl’s game

What do the girls who keep making their country proud at sundry Olympic hockey tournaments and world championship events do when there’s no such event happening?

Why, most of them play hockey.

Except: most of them do not return to hockey as their profession. They go back to various schools, colleges and universities, in order to pursue their education and play the game they love in their spare time. Only a tiny minority have decided to turn professional and found employment with the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. Founded in 2007, this league consists of five teams: two are based in Ontario, one in Quebec, one in Alberta and one in Boston, of all places.

There have also been other leagues catering to women’s hockey, but the Canadian Women’s Hockey league has had the most clout amongst all of them.

There are a few issues, and Hockey Unlimited lists the most important challenges the women’s league faces. For example, it is a bit of a stretch to call the players professional. The original plan had the league responsible for all travel, ice rental and uniform costs, plus some equipment, but player salaries weren’t included in the plan. This means that the players, mostly college or university graduates, have found jobs in companies that let them start their weekends early Friday so they can travel to their games. They play a number of games over the weekend, only to return home late Sunday (or early Monday) and be in the office by the time their work schedule kicks in.

Living like that shows real commitment.

The league has been trying to find sponsors who would provide enough support for the female players to become really professional athletes.

It is, obviously, a tough job: sponsors have to be convinced women’s hockey attracts a sufficient number of eyeballs to make it worth their while, but to reach that status, women’s hockey needs a strong enough financial backing to promote the game amongst the uninitiated. While it looks like the proverbial vicious circle from the outside looking in, it seems they are making steps in the right direction. They even got such a well-known hockey personality as Brian Burke on board, to help promote their game.

Of course, a philosopher might ask the most provocative question: why is it that we eye professional athletes with love and adoration that should be reserved for other professions? Teachers or nurses come to mind as worthy candidates. Still, if we resign ourselves to just acknowledging that this is how it is, the next question would be: where’s the fairness in all this?

Except: professional sports are (and should be) market-driven entities. No government fiat can help the professional female hockey players. But less shortsightedness and more imagination by potential sponsors would go a long way.

Useful features

As has become usual with Hockey Unlimited, hockey coach Steve Serdachny and fitness guru Simon Bennett teach viewers wonderful tricks, both on the ice and in the gym.

Remember when there’s a television commercial showing, for example, a driver negotiating sharp curves along a high-mountain-level off-road path, and the commercial says the guy we’re watching is a professional driver and he’s doing it on a closed circuit? Or some other attractive activity happening right before our astonished eyes, with a mysterious voice telling us not to try it at home?

Both Serdachny and Bennett are asking us to try what they’re showing us. At home or on the community rink ice. And they make sure to show their tricks in sufficient detail so as to keep us safe.

Hockey Unlimited itself is one of the most useful pieces of programming. It takes its viewers back stage of professional hockey, it shows us the sport in all of its beauty and excitement, and it challenges its viewers to get off their couches, shed their potato skins, and get healthier by becoming more active.

As has been Aquila Productions’ trademark, Hockey Unlimited tells its stories well, to the point, with great camera work, letting the pictures speak for themselves, and letting their heroes tell their stories.

BROADCAST SCHEDULE

 

Feb. 16

12:30 AM ET SN West, SN East, SN Ontario

Feb. 18

8 PM ET SN One

Feb. 21

4:30 PM ET SN Pacific, SN West, SN East, SN Ontario

Feb. 22

1 PM ET SN One
2 PM ET SN Pacific, SN West, SN East, SN Ontario

Feb. 23

7:30 PM ET SN One

Feb. 26

12:30 PM ET SN One

Feb. 27

Midnight ET SN Pacific, SN West, SN East, SN Ontario

Mar. 1

Midnight ET SN One

 

Hockey Unlimited: Episode Three shoots and scores again!

Edmontonians who lived through it will never forget it, and neither will those born decades after that fateful day in August, 1988. Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings.

The hockey world would never be the same, quite a few would predict then. If the greatest player of all time can be traded, so can everyone else.

Hockey’s lost its innocence, moaned many, including some Canadian parliamentarians who even would go so far as to urge the government of the day to stop what they described as blatant sellout to the highest bidder (and, potentially, ban such trades from Canada to the U.S. altogether once and for all). As if professional hockey has ever been about innocence and gentlemanly behaviour.

The irony of it all: the Tories under Brian Mulroney were running the show then. They were engaged in a heated battle about their newly negotiated free trade agreement with the U.S. For the record: the Tories would win the federal election later that year, and it was the free trade agreement that was the top topic of the contest. So, how could (or would) they be able to stand in the way of a perfectly legal deal between two willing business entities, such as the Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings?

Those who were saying that the world of hockey has changed forever were right. It did in many more ways than one. And one of those ways would come as a pleasant surprise bordering on outright shock a couple of decades later.

How? How about seeing Matthew Nieto of Long Beach, California, selected by the San Jose Sharks 47th overall in the 2011 NHL draft, now a regular in his club’s lineup? What’s so special about him? The kid’s come up all the way through California’s newly burgeoning minor hockey system, something that wouldn’t have happened without Gretzky’s arrival in the La-La Land.

And that’s what the first segment of the third episode of Aquila Productions’ Hockey Unlimited is all about. Broadcast by Sportsnet Tuesday, with a number of repeat airings coming during the next few weeks, this brilliant piece of documentary television shows the numbers of enthusiastic kids playing hockey in all kinds of youth competitions, where they used to engage in baseball, basketball or football. Many other sports would cross their minds at the time, but definitely not hockey. The seeds that Gretzky planted have developed into an Anaheim Ducks’ Stanley Cup, and a couple of Stanley Cup wins by the Los Angeles Kings. Hockey has become an integral part of the vibrant local sports scene.

And, the document shows, if a sport (or any other activity, for that matter) is to grow, it has to rely upon strong grassroots.

Hockey Unlimited takes it one step further: in a brief segment that follows the opener, hockey instructor Steve Serdachny shows one of Gretzky’s patented moves, describes it in detail and shows all and sundry that they can learn it too.

What a catch!

When Manon Rheaume appeared in goal for NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992 and 1993 exhibition games, there were voices that described it as a marketing gimmick for the fledgling franchise, basically telling the young goalie that she must be off her rocker. Well, it seems none of her critics thought of asking her. Hockey Unlimited did. And Manon Rheaume tells her story her own way.

Now 42, and a hockey mom in her own right, living in Detroit, Manon Rheaume’s sons Dylan and Dakoda have both become hockey goalies. The elder, Dylan, has his heart set firmly on blue paint. His younger brother, Dakoda, is still undecided: the left-wing position attracts serious thoughts, too.

Manon Rheaume bristles at the suggestion her Tampa Bay stint was only a gimmick. Not so, she says. It helped her extend her professional career in a number of minor leagues, both in North America and in Europe. It also helped her start her own foundation that now provides scholarships for young female hockey players.

But times have changed, she smiles. When she played professionally with and against men, she would do anything to stop a shot. There used to be guys who genuinely hated being beaten to the punch by a female goaltender. Being stopped by another guy, well, they didn’t like that much, either, but a girl?

Now, when Manon Rheaume sees her own sons going after each shot, no matter how hard, she cringes and her heart beats faster. Moms will be moms. Even moms with one Olympic silver and two world championships gold medals in their cupboards.

And what about those suggestions it was all marketing? Well, as she put it, you still have to go out there and perform.

Who can retire at age 80?

Simon Bennett’s fitness exercise is a proper introduction to the final segment of this episode of Hockey Unlimited. Can you imagine an 80-year-old hockey player calling his 70-year-old teammate a young punk, and the entire club of people their age having some pretty incredible times playing the game they love?

These guys have their own sets of rules. No slap shots, for example, No hitting, either. When one of them happens to fall on the ice, the play stops and teammates and foes help him up again.

And one overwhelming rule: unadulterated fun for everybody concerned.

These guys will remain young for ever. Some of them played when they were kids, then stopped, and now they’re back, some never played organized hockey, some have continued throughout their lives. But they all have one thing in common: while the fastest team game on earth might have slowed down a tad when they are on the ice, it’s the friendships that make it all worth their while. And, their improved health, too.

It’s the wonderful scope that makes the new series, Hockey Unlimited, so special.

Looking at Canada’s pastime from all possible angles, the documentary series speaks of hockey that touches everybody, not only sports teams’ fans. It makes its viewers wish they become active participants. And it’s quite possible it might convince quite a few that now, right now, is the time to grab our pair of skates, find those old hockey sticks, buy a puck or two, and ho for the open spaces!

Hockey Unlimited’s new episode concentrates on family

Family is the cornerstone of society, and it holds true in hockey, too.

The second episode of Hockey Unlimited, Aquila Production’s new half-hour television series for Rogers Sportsnet, concentrates on hockey families.

Premiering on Sportsnet Tuesday, January 20, Hockey Unlimited takes its audiences behind the scenes, presenting Canada’s national sport as a phenomenon worthy of an in-depth look.

One Episode 2 story takes its viewers to witness some down-time away from the rink with the straight-talking, farm-raised Sutter brothers. Brian, Darryl, Duane, Brent, Ron and Rich hold one NHL record that will likely never be broken: an astonishing 5,597 regular season and playoff games between them. The boys and their mom Grace offer their perspective on the family’s secret of success in the game of hockey as they give viewers a tour of the farm, and oversee the fun at their annual Sutter Fund charity golf tournament.

In another feature, Dwight King of the champion Los Angeles Kings, brings the Stanley Cup home for a day the same week that he and his close-knit family, including former NHLer D.J. King, run a popular minor hockey school at the arena on the Flying Dust First Nations Reserve in Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan.

Hockey as a sport is quite an expensive endeavour, and this Episode of Hockey Unlimited takes a close look at cost as a barrier to entry into minor hockey for many families.

Besides, Hockey Unlimited  features valuable tips on hockey fitness from high-performance personal trainer Simon Bennett and on-ice skills from NHL instructor Steve Serdachny.

Episode two of Hockey Unlimited will begin airing on most Sportsnet channels Tuesday, January 20th (2:00 p.m. Sportsnet East), with repeat broadcasts at various times over the following two weeks.