Tag Archives: NHL

Canucks fans did the right thing showing their displeasure

Vancouver Canucks’ fans are a bunch of finicky hockey illiterates who do not know what’s good for them even if presented with it on a silver platter.

That seems to be the consensus expressed by most Canadian commentators, especially those of talking-head variety.

A fan revolt forced Canucks ownership’s hand. Gone was president and general manager Mike Gillis, in comes new president of hockey operations Trevor Linden, with no general manager in tow for the time being.

How dare the masses of the unwashed force a professional sports club’s hand?

Whether those commentators had this question in mind, hard to tell, but it shone beautifully through their tsk tsking and sundry such comments.

Of course, the Aquilini brothers could have hardly picked a better candidate to perform an emergency patch-up job on the season ticket, luxury suite and corporate sponsorship downward spiral that has reached dangerous proportions.

Yes, Linden has proven beyond any doubt, reasonable or otherwise, that he knows a thing or two about running a business. Whether that means he can run a hockey club longterm, only time will tell.

But the Canucks needed help now, immediately, and they seem to have got it. While they haven’t released any reasonably documented data regarding all those sales, word around town has it season ticket holders who had been ignoring pleas to renew have begun reconsidering their original indignant refusals.

And all that with the background of five relatively successful seasons, making the playoffs in each and everyone of them, winning the President’s Trophy twice and making it all the way to Game Seven of the Stanley Cup finals. They lost to the Boston Bruins, triggering a show of anger usually seen in Latin America when their favourite football (soccer, for the uninitiated) team loses a game or two. Well, of course, the mayhem has become known only too well to the rest of the country and, indeed, the world, but let’s not forget that, at least, the angry Canucks’ fandom didn’t kill any of their stars.

Surprise, surprise

It was those five relatively successful seasons, confronted with one that looked like a bad soap opera combined with a disaster movie from the times Hollywood knew how to make them that surprised most of the Canadian hockey commentators.

Why, they would ask, are the Vancouverites so livid about one losing season? Just look at the other Canadian NHL clubs: long waiting lists for season tickets no matter that they seem to keep rebuilding with each new season, no significant reduction (if any) in luxury suite and corporate sponsorship sales, sales of jerseys and other paraphernalia still going through the roof. Now, THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is real fandom. Not this fickleness the Vancouverites have shown us.

Really? Are you sure?

Here’s a different way of putting it: Vancouver Canucks’ fans just don’t like it when somebody keeps trying to sell them damaged goods at ever increasing exorbitant prices. Looking at it from this angle, how about asking a different question?

Here it is: are the rest of fans rooting for their teams in times good or bad just a pathetic bunch of morons? After all, they keep swallowing their clubs’ corporate propaganda year after year after year, and see no tangible results year after year after year, either. Is this clinically idiotic or clinically insane? Meaning: do they not know what’s good for them (and their bank accounts)?

We’ll win it all next season: sound familiar? How many times do fans need to hear their club cry wolf? When will they realize the only way to force the team to start doing something that might lead to success is to start showing their displeasure? And start showing it where it hurts the club the most: at the ticket office?

Just look at the Toronto Maple Leafs. Or most other Canadian clubs, for that matter. Ineptitude all over the place, chronic failure to deliver at least a semblance of serious success, losing left, right and centre to teams that come from traditionally non-hockey corners of this continent, and yet: sold out arenas.

Of course, there’s an interesting aside here: many of the Canadian arenas have been sold out simply because season ticket holders and luxury suite owners extended their commitments before the season started. Meaning: when hope still sprung eternal. Except, by season’s second half, you could find alarming numbers of empty seats in those arenas. Sold, yes. Paid for, yes. But empty. Regular snide observations about half-empty arenas, say, in Florida (or other similar places) are slowly but distinctly beginning to sound rather hollow.

What about future?

There are studies saying that the attractiveness of professional sports among general audiences has been eroding the last few years. Some cite the out-of-this-world prices fans have to shell out to attend such games: not only for tickets, but for parking and an occasional bite to eat and sip to drink, too. Others add that it’s so much easier (and cheaper) to watch your favourite team engage in your favourite sport on TV from your couch or, these days, using all kinds of new media, anywhere your life takes you while you watch your club playing.

Sure, nothing beats physical presence – and here comes the catch: oh yeah?

Some of the recent in-depth economic, sociological and demographic studies have been looking at professional sports and their impact on society at large. They have been observing remarkable fan reactions. Here’s the general trend: why should I waste my time (plus money) watching adults playing kids’ games for adult money, when I can engage in that same game with my own kids (or friends), and have much more fun doing it? Time is money, as that old rule has it, after all, so, you’re in fact losing money twice, come to think of it.

Double jeopardy, eh?

Whether Vancouver’s Aquilini brothers are aware of these studies, who knows. But if they don’t, they at least knew instinctively they had to stop the bleeding right here and right now.

Experts will be now engaging in a new blood sport: trying to predict whether Trevor Linden is the answer or not. Why they are not using tea leaves for this exercise remains (and will remain) a sweet mystery. Modern-time precedent shows there is no ready answer. Steve Yzerman in Tampa Bay, Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy in Denver have been successful. But how about, say, Joe Nieuwendyk in Dallas?

So why is it that so many people think Vancouver Canucks’ fans should know better? Translated: they should not object when professional athletes take them (and their support) for granted. Fans should behave like lambs led to slaughter.

Guess what: if we agree that professional sports have long time ago become an integral part of entertainment business, then we ought to agree that paying customer is the king.

So, Vancouver Canucks’ fans have shown their majesty.

Good for them.

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!

What ails the Oilers? Oil Change looks for a diagnosis

So what is this thing called professionalism all about, anyway?

Does it mean that whoever performs whatever job gets paid for it, and that’s it?

Not one bit of that.

Professionals, real professionals, that is, are paid to perform their jobs to certain standards, day in, day out. They never ever sink so low as to perform under that set standard. And true professionals accept, too, that once they exceed a standard, that becomes the new standard that they have to perform to day in and day out.

That’s what professionalism is all about.

And that’s what the fifth episode of Oil Change is all about, too.

It aired early evening Sunday on Sportsnet, with first set of repeats scheduled for broadcast for Monday, March 17, thus:

Sportsnet EAST & ONTARIO – 12 a.m./ET

Sportsnet WEST – 9 p.m//MT

The fifth segment of Oil Change opens with assistant coach Steve Smith and Oilers captain Andrew Ference leading young Edmonton kids through a hockey practice, while the Stanley Cup (the REAL thing) arrives in their dressing room. The kids’ expressions upon their return to their dressing room to see every hockey player’s dream trophy right there – where they can touch it and have their pictures taken with it – are priceless.

And so are the gems of wisdom Smith and Ference share with them. They speak of years of self-sacrifice, of hard work, of team work, and of individual effort, and their words carry substantial weight. Both their names are engraved on the cup, after all.

Cut: Ference and new arrival Matt Hendricks are trying to define what has gone wrong with their team that many (local fans, at least) thought would be contending from now onwards all the way to eternity, to say the least.

Judging by the fact each of the two speaks in different environments, it would be quite safe to assume they are expressing themselves independently of one another. And yet, what they are saying and how they are saying it can hardly be much more similar.

What the Oilers lack is consistency, Ference and Hendricks agree. While they concede that some would say that it may be due to youthful exuberance, they reject this notion forthwith.

Here, they are perfectly in tune with their head coach. Dallas Eakins told all and sundry prior to the opening of this season last October that he hated anybody calling this club young. It would be a built-in excuse, he insisted, and he could hardly be more perfectly right.

Hendricks put it best: it’s one thing to play beautiful attacking hockey in your opponents’ zone, but that alone doesn’t win you hockey games. Playing from one backboard all the way to the other, with the entire team subscribing to this plan, that is the only way. From the way he said it it seems not all members of the team’s “talented future core” have yet signed on the dotted line that this would be the only way they would be playing from now on. As Hendricks put it, that would be the only way to play hockey the right way.

Neither Ference nor Hendricks did (or could) offer ways how to solve this conundrum. Neither of them holds a doctorate in group psychology, either.

But what they said was serious enough to force the other guys on the team to sit up and take notice.

A serious documentarist must be able to know what it is that is the most important issue concerning their subjects.

Aquila Productions crews quite obviously are keenly aware of the biggest issue the Oilers face. They approached what they kindly called “lack of consistency,” but what some others might call less charitably “lack of professionalism.” They tackled it with all seriousness. It couldn’t have been too easy for the two veterans, either, to speak on the record as frankly and sincerely as they had.

Hats off to both sides: the people in front of the camera, and those behind it, too.

The fifth episode of Oil Change captures much more than game highlights or unusual behind-the-scenes occasions. The meeting coach Eakins arranged for his young defenceman Martin Marincin, to meet Boston Bruins’ (and Team Slovakia Olympic squad) captain Zdeno Chara was touching, and so was the visit by a couple of Oilers’ players with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in his New York office. And the scenes surrounding the wheeling and dealing around deadline day were breathtaking.

Thanks to the Olympic break, the Oilers’ management, and an Aquila Productions crew, hopped on the chance to spend some useful time with the Oilers’ farm team, the Oklahoma City Barons. Some eye-opening conversations with players most in the know view as coming up to Edmonton in the very near future. Open, frank insights from Barons’ coach Todd Nelson, as well as observations from Oilers’ GM Craig MacTavish.

All of this leaves the viewer much better informed.

But the gist of it all was and is elsewhere.

Such as: where are the Oilers going? Are they aware of the challenges they face with their consistent inconsistency that only a most forgiving person would describe as a sign of immaturity? Do they realize that they happen to have a window of opportunity right now because two of their most respected players have recognized the trouble and are willing to risk their necks by talking about it openly?

This episode, as has become the series’ habit, has turned the spotlight on the issues, with its usual mastery of their television documentary craft.

For fear of repeating oneself: crisp camera, sharp editing, a lot of action (it’s hockey, after all, the fastest team game on earth), no overwhelming verbiage, great music selection, authentic sound.

And an insight into a hockey team to end all insights into a hockey team.

Have Xenon inhalations led Russians to their Olympic medals?

When is it doping and when is it not?

Many Russian athletes quite openly inhaled Xenon gas during the Sochi Olympic Games, a German TV network reported, and they have got off scot-free.

And, the WDR added, it can prove Russian athletes have been using Xenon at least since the Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, in 2004. In fact, the WDR report says, documents created (allegedly) by Russian Ministries of sports and defence (in and of itself a couple of strange bedfellows) have been recommending the use of Xenon specifically to “enhance athletes’ performance.”

The fact that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has ignored its use helped, too.

A bit of basic information: Xenon is a chemical element with the symbol Xe and atomic number 54. It is a colourless, heavy, odourless noble gas, that occurs in the Earth’s atmosphere in trace amounts. Although generally unreactive, xenon can undergo a few chemical reactions such as the formation of xenon hexafluoroplatinate, the first noble gas compound to be synthesized.

Naturally occurring xenon consists of eight stable isotopes. There are also over 40 unstable isotopes that undergo radioactive decay. The isotope ratios of xenon are an important tool for studying the early history of the Solar System. Radioactive xenon-135 is produced from iodine-135 as a result of nuclear fission, and it acts as the most significant neutron absorber in nuclear reactors.

Xenon is used in flash lamps and arc lamps, and as a general anesthetic.

Thus basic information from Google and Wikipedia. So far so good, right?

Except: xenon just happens to enhance the creation of the erythropoietin hormone in human bodies. Too much Latin? How does the abbreviation EPO strike you? Does the name Ben Johnson ring a bell?

As we have been reliably informed by WADA years ago, EPO is a no-no.

Except, Mario Thevis of the doping-control lab in Koln in Germany told WDR, their scientists couldn’t test for xenon because they don’t know how.

Ooops, right?

Of course, Thevis added, there have been scientific tests made on animals, to see how xenon impacted them.

Here’s a verbatim translation of a verbatim quote: “Within one day, 24 hours, that is, creation of EPO increased from 1.6 to 160 per cent. That is a significant increase.”

Would the result in people be similar? Quite possibly, Thevis said.

WADA President, Craig Reedie of Scotland, said his office is going to check this information. “Our commision that deals with the banned substances list, will look into this issue very soon. We will be debating the issue of gas inhalations at the very next post-Olympic meeting.”

What will WADA debate?

“We have to know for sure whether this is doping,” former WADA boss Dick Pound was quoted as saying. “We have to establish whether it would or would not be possible to say during a potential investigation that the rules are unclear on this.”

And his personal take?

“This method was developed exclusively to enhance performance. So far as I am concerned, that constitutes doping.”

Thus Dick Pound.

Another case of the anti-doping crowd playing catch-up.

Of course, these guys have been playing catch-up all along. Logical in most cases, terribly illogical in the case of Swedish hockey star Nicklas Bäckström.

Just about two hours before the opening faceoff in Team Sweden’s gold medal game against Team Canada, Bäckström was pulled off the roster: an anti-doping test found traces of pseudoephedrine in his urine. They had known about it for some two days, and it took the anti-doping crowd all that time to inform the Team Sweden management about their findings.

Here’s the basic scoop on the dope, ooops, medication (courtesy drugs.com): Pseudoephedrine is a decongestant that shrinks blood vessels in the nasal passages. Dilated blood vessels can cause nasal congestion (stuffy nose).

Pseudoephedrine is used to treat nasal and sinus congestion, or congestion of the tubes that drain fluid from your inner ears, called the eustachian tubes.

Having read that, one can easily believe that all that Bäckström did was take a Sudafed or a Claritine or any of the usual over-the-counter medications to unstuff his nose.

Bäckström would not be the first hockey player to suffer severe allergies. One guy, in fact, had to quit hockey altogether, even though on the path to become a useful NHL player. His name is Jan Vopat. The combination of sweat and hockey gear caused swelling all over his body that wouldn’t go away for days on end.

Bäckström has been using the anti-allergic medication for years. His Team Sweden’s physician saw no issues with it. Bäckström had played in a number of international games for Team Sweden during that time, using the anti-allergic medication whenever he needed to be able to breathe, without any complaints or issues raised by anybody.

When the word came down from the mount, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) asked the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to be sensible. So has the NHL. No use: when these guys dig their heels in, that marks the end of the story.

No wonder that the Swedes are now livid about the IOC.

“They ruined our fans’ greatest dream,” said Team Sweden’s GM Tommy Boustedt.

It’s not only the verdict itself but its timing, too, that makes him see red.

“This was crazy! I think it was a political decision. If we knew two days earlier, it wouldn’t have been that terrible, but they evidently wanted to make a bomb out of it.”

So far as Team Sweden’s management is concerned, the IOC’s stuffed shirts wanted to show how hard they fight doping. The future is going to be interesting: Team Sweden’s management is considering a lawsuit against the IOC. Not that anything would overturn the verdict on ice, the Swedes themselves said Team Canada was too good on that particular day, but they want to teach the IOC a lesson.

Former Team Sweden star Ulf Nilsson told aftonbladet.se: “Yes, one has to accept responsibility for what one is doing, but I don’t think you’re using this medication as doping. It would be funny to see the IOC’s stupidity if it wasn’t that tragic.”

Nilsson knows whereof he speaketh: he was found guilty of using ephedrin durting the 1974 world championships in Helsinki. All that because he used an over-the-counter cough sirup.

Not all is black or white, said a former Swedish high jumper, himself an Olympic winner in 2004, Stefan Holm: “We couldn’t let Bäckström play until all the results were in. We got them Sunday afternoon. Yes,” he conceded, “that did take too long, and we have to find out why, but it’s a tough job.”

Funny how quickly he turned from an athlete to a stuffed shirt of a bureaucrat.

If anyone has ever seen hockey players coming to their arenas before their games, most of them are clutching coffee mugs, sipping frantically. An informal statistic: most players consume anywhere between a half of a dozen to a full dozen cups of coffee every day.

Talk about stimulation!

Another proof the Olympic Games is as hypocritical as any event can get. Shameless, to boot. And it keeps getting away with it.

Edmonton Oilers’ woes self-inflicted

Edmonton Oilers should petition the NHL for a minor rule change of major proportions. They should be allowed to decline the advantage of power play whenever an opposing player is whistled for an infraction.

Not out of generosity. Out of self-preservation instinct.

Including Thursday’s game in Denver, the Oilers have given up eight (count them: eight, which happens to lead the entire league) shorthanded goals.

Come to think of it, the empty-netter in Los Angeles two nights earlier should count as a shorthanded goal, too. The Oilers were on a powerplay, called Ilya Bryzgalov off, played six-on-four, didn’t create a single serious chance, and got scored on as the penalized Kings’ player hopped on the ice, got the puck and sent it into the Oilers’ empty net. The Oilers were playing six-on-five skaters at the moment, so, to some theoreticians, it might count as a shorthanded goal, too.

Colorado’s empty-netter with Devan Dubnyk on the bench, raises the same question.

Considering the Oilers haven’t played a full half of this season yet, this is a considerable ratio of futility.

The league should accommodate the Oilers. After all, did it not, decades ago, change rules just to stop the then-Edmonton club’s abuse of their opposition in four-on-four play, when an Oiler and an opposition player were sent off simultaneously? It’s called the Reijo Ruotsalainen rule, after the Finnish defenceman the Oilers would bring over from Europe for the playoffs. He would wreak havoc amongst other teams in four-on-four play, and the NHL saw fit to put an end to it. It created the rule that said that if two opposing players are to be penalized simultaneously, teams would continue playing five-on-five. Much to the Oilers’ chagrin, and their opposition’s relief.

While that decision was quite understandable, what’s going on with the Copper-And-Blue squad these few past seasons isn’t. And that includes some surprising statements directly from their coach Dallas Eakins. He seems to be running out of explanations and positive spins. How about this sample: the Oilers concentrate better and, thus, play better against teams that are better than they are.

Let’s ignore the fact that despite what Dallas Eakins calls better and more concentrated play, the Oilers still end up losing.

The question is: and pray elucidate, how many teams in the NHL are actually worse off than the Oilers? Since professional sports are about results, standings are the only acceptable standard.

Let’s not even go there, lest we remember former Vancouver Canucks’ coach Harry Neale and his perfectly shocked admission that his club didn’t know how to win at home, and it didn’t know to win on the road, and it was running out of places where to lose.

What now?

For those who know, there’s an opening for a Delphic oracle. File your applications forthwith, and good luck.

Was October a month from hell? Oil Change lets you be the judge

If the Edmonton Oilers ever become as good as the documentary series, Oil Change, that has been following them for the last four years, they’d be sitting pretty on top of NHL standings.

The second episode of this season’s show aired on Sportsnet Sunday night. As has been the network’s habit, we can expect repeats throughout the month, till time for the next episode comes in December. Viewers south of the 49th parallel can catch it on the NHL Network. Come to think of it, it airs on NHL Network in Canada from time to time, too.

October was a month from hell for the Oilers, and Oil Change doesn’t sugarcoat it. But its behind-the-scenes looks do give us a key to a more detailed understanding of what does and what doesn’t ail the club. After all, most Oilers’ fans had known for a fact that their beloved team has turned the corner, at long last. Not that we should begin sketching Stanley Cup parade routes right away, but the optimism was palpably there, and pre-season games seemed to confirm it was well-founded.

Guess what: it wasn’t, and experts who warned in their pre-season assessments that the Oilers still had a ways to go must have noticed something that the fans haven’t.

What was it?

Oil Change lets head coach Dallas Eakins try his own explanation. Whether it is really valid, Oil Change wouldn’t say. It is a documentary, after all, not a soapbox for commentators.

In any case, according to Eakins, some of the system changes might be difficult to adjust to as it is, and players’ muscle memories might encounter hard times trying to do the coach’s bidding. As he put it, a player might be trying as hard as he can to do what his coaches told him to do, but – from time to time – he might slip to old and tried habits whether they used to be successful or not. That, says Eakins, is quite understandable. Changing muscle memory simply takes time.

To the show’s credit, not all is doom and gloom.

Joey Moss celebrates his 50th birthday, and Oilers’ players prepare a celebration in style: they gather in Ryan Smyth’s house and surround a wrestling rink where two professionals fight, much to Moss’s enjoyment: professional wrestling is his second-most popular spectator sport.

Much laughter and joy. So much laughter and joy, in fact, that a viewer might ask: are these guys whistling as they walk past the graveyard?

Not really: they go out and deliver a present that Joey Moss must be enjoying the most: down by three, on home ice, to boot, they end up defeating the New Jersey Devils, vanquishing Martin Brodeur in the shootout.

It is most unfortunate that they do not continue winning on a more consistent basis.

All the nibs are in agreement that what ails the Oilers at the moment is inconsistent defence and even more inconsistent goaltending. Oil Change investigates whether the U.S. Marines are coming, and if so, when and whence. Its Aquila Productions crew visits the Oilers’ AHL farm team in Oklahoma City just in time to witness how its group of young defencemen is settling down, signing living quarters leases, practicing and playing. The Barons’ GM Bill Scott is of the view that some of his club’s defencemen are getting quite close to being ready for the show, while head coach Todd Nelson provides further details.

Young defencemen Milan Marincin and Oscar Klefbom tell us what the Oilers’ coaches have asked them to do to get ready for the show.

An almost forgotten name pops up: Oil Change visits with goalie Tyler Bunz. He is now playing for the Bakersfield Condors of Bakersfield, California, an ECHL affiliate of the Oilers. The 2012 Del Wilson Trophy winner for the best goaltender in the WHL (Medicine Hat Tigers), picked 121st player overall by the Oilers in the fifth round of the 2010 NHL draft, is even more removed from the NHL than his colleagues in Oklahoma City, but he’s fighting hard, with his eyes firmly set on his life goal: making the Oilers.

One trend where this season’s Oil Change differs monumentally from its previous three seasons: its crews spend more time with individual players outside of the rink, telling us their stories.

Many might have heard of Andrew Ference’s obsession with the environment, but watching him work in his basement, preparing the right mix for compost to be used in his backyard next spring, now, that’s a sight. And spending time with him and school children, with whom he shares a presentation on what happens to our garbage after it’s been taken away by garbage trucks, as enlightening a scene as can be.

Also: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins meets his brother Adam in Montreal. Adam is five years older than the Oilers’ young centre. He studies kinesiology (some describe it as treatment by movement) at Concordia University. He also became a regular defenceman on the school’s hockey team, Concordia Stingers. As a walk-on, too.

The older brother helped his younger sibling with his rehabilitation practices over the summer, trying to help him recover from a shoulder surgery. But, they both agreed, laughingly, other than that, they’ve always competed. And Ryan says it was his older brother’s example that made him the player he is today.

Many a fan is asking: what’s wrong with Nail Yakupov? This segment features the two games that his coach sent him to watch from the press box, but Oil Change found Slava Malamud, a Russian journalist with the Sport-Express newspaper who attended a few Oilers’ games. Malamud has been watching Yakupov since the young phenom’s junior years, and he offers some precious insights.

This episode is, again, a fast-paced production, filled with the sounds of the game, including the chatter on and off the bench (sub-titled, on occasion, so we know precisely what is said), great music selection, only a few words of narration, sharp camera work and editing.

Great entertainment, not only for those who love hockey in general, and the Edmonton Oilers, in particular. A fascinating teaching tool to help us understand what makes a team tick (and what doesn’t, too).

Beer and shots: Sergei Varlamov’s deadly combination

If only half of what Colorado Avalanche goaltender Sergei Varlamov’s girlfriend (one assumes she’s now his former girlfriend, but who knows) had to say is true, the guy should land behind bars for the six years that the U.S. law allows.

Evgeniya Vavrinyuk spoke to the Denver Post newspaper. A video recording of her story (you can watch it here: http://www.denverpost.com/breakingnews/ci_24436856/translation-media-interview-given-by-semyon-varlamovs-girlfriend), with translation from Russian to English, appeared on the newspaper’s site the other day.

Vavrinyuk told the paper her version of what happened on that night that ended with Varlamov arrested on domestic violence charge, spending one night in a police cell, only to be released the next day on a $5,000 bail.

It’s not too pretty.

In fact, it’s perfectly ugly.

According to Vavrinyuk, Sergei Varlamov got drunk beyond description, whereupon he proceeded to assault her physically, causing her what is known in police jargon and legal circles as bodily harm. It was not the very first time he would do so, Vavrinyuk told the Denver Post. When it happened in Russia during the lockout, she would report the incident to local police at Yaroslavl but nothing would happen: Sergei Varlamov was (still is), after all, a famous hockey player, a celebrity. Vavrinyuk’s complaint was ignored.

She found that matters were somewhat different in North America: women have their rights and authorities have no difficulty with defending them, no matter whatever social status enjoyed by the perpetrator.

In fact, what happened in Mother Russia once the report of Varlamov’s arrest in Denver was made public there confirmed the well-known generalizations about Russians, especially their males, and sports fans in particular. Vavrinyuk received numerous personal threats, her family members were harassed, too, and she fears that a return home would cause her even more grief than what Varlamov had inflicted upon her.

Vavrinyuk told the Denver Post she is not (and never has been) after Varlamov’s money. After all, she worked as a model in Hong Kong and earned enough to sustain herself. She broke her deal in Hong Kong about a year ago because Varlamov insisted that she join him in Denver.

Whether she is or is not after his money is perfectly irrelevant at the moment, but her statement isn’t. If it happens that the whole thing comes to trial and she changes her mind, Varlamov’s lawyers would, perfectly logically, confront her with her statement made in the Denver Post interview. That might carry the day so far as this part of the matter is concerned. Then again, it might not, but it would quite ridiculously complicate the affair.

This is not to say that each and every Russian guy there is drinks too much for his own good and can’t hold his booze too well, to boot. This is not to say, either, that each and every Russian guy is a bully and a dirty male chauvinist pig. There must be (and, one hopes, there are) exceptions. But the legend is too convincing. And, by the way, so are this author’s personal experiences from Russia and with the Russians.

The Avalanche are, of course, perfectly correct when they wouldn’t hesitate to start Varlamov in their nets. Unless and until he’s legally convicted, he’s as innocent as freshly fallen snow. If his goaltending form remains where it’s been the last few weeks, good for the team. Besides, a professional sports team doesn’t exist to judge anybody’s personal character. A professional sports team is here to win and, by extension, make its owners some spending cash.

The picture would change altogether if the paying public turned against Varlamov and, by extension, against the Avalanche paying the goalie and casting a blind eye on his alleged (still alleged, not proven, at this time) shenanigans. Were that to happen, the club might end up running away from the black eye a.k.a. Sergei Varlamov, going faster than speed of light.

If, by the way, the latter were to happen and Varlamov were to be found innocent in court, after all, even if it were to be on a technicality, he would be able to mulct the club in heavy damages. That’s something Avalanche’s lawyers must have taken into consideration, too.

In any case, the Avalanche must have got used to such kind of spotlight by now: its coach, Patrick Roy, was in a similar predicament some time ago when, still the club’s goalie, he got into trouble over domestic violence, too.

But that’s neither here nor there.

Quite a few people keep asking: well, if Sergei Varlamov was such a bully and girlfriend-beater, why did Evgeniya Vavrinyuk stay with him so long? They knew each other for four years, after all, and were partners for about a year.

Any psychologist worth her or his salt knows the answer. There are people (mostly women) whom the psychologists consider to be worthy of the title of Good Samaritans. Why it is mostly women, nobody knows for sure; some say it’s the good old maternal instincts, other just satisfy themselves with knowing that that’s how it is. In any case, it is mostly women who accept hard-drinking, abusive men, saying to themselves it must have been his former girlfriend or wife or parents, or whoever else, who had made him do it, but now that he’s met me, he’s going to change, I’ll teach him to mend his ways, and so on, fill in whatever other such and similar shortsighted and stupid expressions you can think of.

It’s the same with that good, old (and stupid) pick-up phrase: You know, you’re so different, my wife, she just doesn’t understand me – the percentage of women who end up spending years with psychologists trying to help them get out of the breakups is simply shocking.

This, in any case, would go a long way to explain Evgeniya Vavrinyuk’s behaviour.

And what if Sergei Varlamov sees the writing on the wall after his lawyer has whispered in his ear it seems he’s going to get at least four years behind bars, if not the maximum six years? What if he goes for it, leaves the courtroom before the judge returned with her or his sentence, makes straight for the Denver International Airport, and next thing we know he’s back in Yaroslavl, telling the club there they need a good goalie?

Modern electronic communications are faster than the fastest airplane. Before he landed in Russia, a note would have been sent from the Denver court to whatever authorities, the NHL head office being one of them. A copy of the note would make its way to the International Ice Hockey Federation’s head office in Zurich, Switzerland, whence they would go with that same speed to Moscow: Sergei Varlamov is a fugitive and, as such, he’s not allowed to be employed by any hockey club within the IIHF jurisdiction. Certainly, the KHL would say it’s not bound by any such nonsense issued by those guys in Switzerland. But the Russian hockey federation that is an IIHF member would be bound by IIHF’s refusal to issue a transfer card for Varlamov. As a result, Varlamov would be also banned from coming close to the Team Russia training camp before the Sochi Olympics in February 2014.

This, of course, would confirm what several high-ranking Russian hockey people had been saying all along: the Varlamov case is a plot, a conspiracy, to deny Mother Russia the services of its best goaltender in an attempt to make sure Mother Russia doesn’t win the gold medal it so richly deserves at the Sochi Olympics.

Crazy? Not one bit. The country’s president, Vladimir Putin, is a former high-ranking KGB (Soviet-era state security and espionage service) officer, and many of those now serving within all kinds of Russian organizations, have been serving the KGB in one major capacity or another, too. And if anybody knows a thing or two about plots and conspiracies, it would be the good old KGB.

We’re getting into the high-wire balancing act of international politics here. And all that because one goalie drinks too much, can’t hold his liqueur, and ends up beating up his girlfriend.

And a brief note as an observation for those not fluent in the Russian language: the translation below the video, while not a literary gem and/or proof of the actual interpreter’s abilities, is correct and doesn’t miss anything.

Lockout in Russia? Let’s hope not, says Kovy

There are a few issues Russian Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and its player union will have to solve, but not one of them seems to be a catalyst for a lockout.

Thus union president Andrei Kovalenko.

According to the 43-year-old NHL veteran (Quebec Nordiques, Colorado Avalanche, Montreal Canadiens, Edmonton Oilers, Philadelphia Flyers, Carolina Hurricanes and the Boston Bruins), there are no insurmountable issues between the KHL and its player trade union (that’s how it prefers to call itself). And Kovalenko has been his union’s president since its inception in 2009.

“Our collective agreement expires after this season,” Kovalenko told Russian newspaper Sport-Express, “but we hope to have a new deal done by the end of next April.”

There will be changes in the KHL’s structure, what with the addition of several new clubs, including Finland’s Jokerit Helsinki and, possibly, Lada Togliatti. That, the KHL has been saying, would mean an increase in the number of regular season games.

As it is, the KHL has three clubs from outside of the former Soviet Union: Czech Republic’s Lev Praha, Slovakia’s Slovan Bratislava, and Medvescak Zagreb from Croatia. There are also several clubs situated in the former Soviet republics, such as Dinamo Riga in Latvia, Ukraine’s HC Donbass, and so on. That puts a strange emphasis on one of the trade union demands: cut the number of foreigners permitted on each roster.

There’s one more issue here that can have an impact. It would be a political impact of major proportions: the European Union looks askance at limitations put upon its member states’ citizens seeking employment in other countries that belong to EU. A few years ago, it told European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, to clean its act or else. Nobody spelt the “else,” as nobody needed to: the UEFA fell in line forthwith.

Granted, Russia is NOT an EU member. But the Czechs are. And the Slovaks are. And so are the Finns and the Croats. As it is, the KHL is skating on thin ice. It has European Union-based clubs as its members. These clubs now will have to decide by whose rules they are going to play. The KHL’s? They wouldn’t be able to run their business in their home countries. The EU’s? What’s the KHL going to say?

There is, of course, a bit of a way out: they can always claim they’re foreign entities, only playing under a Russian league’s banner. To them, if anyone is a foreigner, it’s the Russians.

If this goes through, lawyers on all sides will have a field day.

Everybody concerned says the relationship between the league and its union is not as antagonistic as seems to be the case between the NHL and its players association (NHLPA). After all, Kovalenko makes no secret of his close cooperation with league president Alexander Medvedev and sundry top league officials. In fact, some contemporaries view this relationship askance. It resembles the bosom friendship between then-NHLPA Executive Director Alan Eagleson and then NHL President John Ziegler too closely for comfort, they say.

But still, disagreements do pop up from time to time.

“I don’t think we’re facing a lockout like the NHL did,” Kovalenko says. “But we do see certain important issues that our players view as the principle of how to proceed in the future.”

Such as?

“Such as the number of games,” says Kovalenko. “We conceded a few points to the league during the Olympic season, but we’d rather not see these things repeated ever again.”

More specifically?

“Training camps opened July 15 for this season,” Kovalenko explains. “We had to move the date by about two weeks (because of the Olympics). We’d like to see it included in the new CBA that training camps will not open before July 20, just as it used to be. Our members don’t like trips that last too long, either. This season, clubs play four away games in a row. That’s because the schedule was compressed due to the Olympics. We would prefer three-game road trips as a maximum.”

But if there is one issue the league and its trade union haven’t been able to see eye to eye, it’s the issue of foreigners on team rosters.

League president Medvedev has hinted some time ago that the limit imposed on clubs would be raised for next season from five to seven. Russian hockey federation didn’t like the idea, and Kovalenko isn’t a particular fan, either: “To include more foreigners would be counterproductive. The foreigners would form cliques and clans within teams, endangering clubs’ team spirit,” Kovalenko argues.

Well, speaking of spirits, Kovalenko knows whereof he speaks: whenever he used to be on an NHL team with another Russian (or, Heaven forbid, more Russians), these guys would stick together even if they hated each other’s guts. And never mind such infamous affairs as Kovalenko’s overnight disappearance on an Edmonton Oilers’ California swing, with his countryman Boris Mironov appearing for the club’s bus departure even later, claiming he had been trying to find Kovalenko. In vain, of course.

But that’s water under the bridge now, and Kovalenko is strictly against players forming cliques and clans within their teams.

His other point seems more valid: “We have to think about bringing up our own young players. Personally, I would prefer a limit of two to three foreigners per team, and those selected based on their top levels of play,” Kovalenko insists.

That kind of thinking limps behind the NHL by a couple of decades. The North American league has adopted, however grudgingly, Glen Sather’s old dictum: “I don’t care where the guy’s coming from. He may be coming from Timbuktu, but if he knows how to play hockey, he’s my kind of guy.”

Kovalenko warns, recognizing he’s talking about the NHL two decades ago: “Only those foreigners who were tops could play. If they were on the same level as the locals, clubs preferred to have Canadians or Americans playing for them.”

This is a sore point for the Russian psyche: they are (and have been for the longest time) of the view that they are the world power. While they might be getting used to sad fact their importance in the world economy (and consequently politics) has shrunk somewhat, they wouldn’t accept even a hint of similar developments so far as their hockey goes.

So, where the debates over limits on foreigners will end is anybody’s guess.

And then there are a few minor issues. Such as how to dress properly for the game. Wearing your sweater tucked into your pants is frowned upon in the NHL, and Russian fans read in their media again and again how their beloved Alexander Ovechkin has suffered. The KHL uses a similar rule, except here, we’re talking about fines. SKA St. Petersburg is a prime example of how it works in the KHL. “The club had to pay four fines for four breaks in one single game,” says Kovalenko, with righteous indignation.

Except, the fines get steeper with each infraction. Where the first fine would come at 10,000 rubles (about $330 Canadian), the infractions that follow double the fines: 40,000 rubles follow 20,000 rubles, and so on, you get the picture. “Our players don’t like it,” says Kovalenko. “It may happen that the player is innocent, he just hadn’t noticed. We would like to convince the league, and the referees, that this isn’t an issue to lose sleep over.”

He’s right there.

But what’s going to happen if Russian players decide they want to get bigger pieces of the pie than they are getting now? That they want to change their league throughout, an astute business proposition as it is and has been, into something resembling a co-operative rather than a corporation?

Nobody would answer this question for the record, but – anonymously – all those asked agreed: this is Russia, not America, we’re talking about. We pamper our players better than Hollywood pampers its celebrities. What are the players supposed to do in return? Why, nothing spectacular. Just play hockey and keep their mouths shut.

NHL, NHLPA to face the world hand in hand

This is bartering at its best: we gave you the Olympics, and now, we expect goods of same or better value in return.

Here it is: the NHL and its union, the NHLPA, are huddled in New York this week. They are preparing their joint talking points for continuing negotiations with the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF).

The World Cup of Hockey, one of the major topics of discussion, is a given. Expect it to happen in 2016.

Except, nothing is as simple as it looks. For example: the IIHF seems to be of the view that early fall, preferably pre-season early fall (or late summer, preferably pre-season late summer) would be the best time to stage the World Cup. Yet, there happens to be a North American school of thought that would rather see the event take place midway through the season. Here’s the logic: we are interrupting our league’s proceedings in February 2014, just as the battles for the Stanley Cup playoffs begin to heat up. It costs us money (and it cost league programmers a few grey hairs, too, to compress an 82-game schedule so as not to lose a single game and still make sure playoffs begin in April). And we’ve done all that just to send our stars to somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Russia. That’s an aggravation for us more than anything, and it’s costing us money. Having the World Cup midway through the season would help us recoup those losses and then some.

The Olympic Games are the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) cash cow. That august body splits its income with international associations (such as the IIHF), and they, in turn, share it with national federations that are their backbone. The NHL is not an international association. It’s not a national federation, either. It can hardly expect Hockey Canada or USA Hockey to go insane all of a sudden and share their shares with the NHL. When the NHL sees just the broadcasting contracts the IOC has managed to impose all over the world (and never mind the tactics used to achieve that), the league must be going bonkers: all that money, and none of it comes our way! We give them our stars’ prestige, and what do we get in return? Feel free to fill in whichever four-letter word comes to mind here.

In any case, no wonder the NHL and the NHLPA would prefer to have the World Cup staged midway through the season: it might maximize their income more than considerably.

There are at least two options to be debated about how to split the World Cup income. One plan lets the NHL and NHLPA keep their (major) share and let the IIHF divide the rest, whether it be among all of its national federations or only those that sent teams to the event. The other plan would see the NHL and NHLPA keep their (major) share and split the rest among the federations that sent teams to the event, with the calculation based on how far this or that particular team had made it. This option would leave IIHF out of the equation completely, something the NHL and the NHLPA would have no issues with. The other side would not be too enthusiastic about it.

Before even beginning to debate the issue of money, the IIHF cries in response: but we’ve got a world championship in May!

Oh yeah? comes a cynical reply. How about NOT having it during the years the World Cup of Hockey is on? The existing proposals mention either every two years or, and that is more probable, every four years: two years after and two years before Olympic Games.

Here’s the rub: world championship happens to be the IIHF’s cash cow. It doesn’t have to share the loot with anybody but its national federations. Not a cent goes IOC’s way. Again: the NHL is NOT a national federation.

The NHL is not altogether pleased with this arrangement, either. It’s of the view that allowing its players to take part in the world championship helps enhance the event’s credibility. Enhanced credibility equals increased income. Yes, the players who go to take part in the world championship belong to clubs that didn’t make the playoffs or were eliminated in the first round, preferably in four games. Still, they are NHL players, and some of them are genuine stars. What’s in it for us, argue the NHL and the NHLPA, but risks? If a star player gets injured, fine, he gets money from his insurance, but what if he’s not available to his NHL team for a few months next season? Stars bring butts into arena seats. A star’s absence costs the NHL (and, by extension, the NHLPA) money. Well?

Besides, as an aside, the NHL and NHLPA are not at all satisfied with the fact that insurance coverage and sundry matters related to it differ considerably from national federation to national federation. They would like to see something that holds valid for everybody concerned.

There’s another proposal making rounds for these talks. It’s dear to the IIHF, while the NHL and the NHLPA are not so sure. Not yet, at least. It’s the idea to copy the beautiful game (association football, soccer for the uninitiated) and put together something to be known as Champions Cup. Its version on the pitch attract incredible crowds (and broadcast audiences, on television, radio and, these days, in new media). That’s a lot of money.

Why not go for it, full speed ahead? Again, there are numerous issues about competences, responsibilities and shares, and then, there’s one overwhelming fear: what if the Stanley Cup champion loses a game to, say, Lithuania? What’s the public going to say? How will it play in Peoria? as the cliché goes.

The NHL (with NHLPA’s approval, it seems) has already told the IIHF not to even bother dreaming about the league’s participation in the 2018 Olympic Games in South Korea. Let’s have the World Cup, instead, the two groups say. Having the Olympic Games in South Korea does nothing to enhance the worldwide appeal of hockey, they seem to be saying, but having the World Cup in markets that cherish the game, now, that changes our views on international cooperation beyond belief.

Speaking of markets, the NHL (and the NHLPA) is not too sure that staging season-openers overseas (in Europe or in Japan) is the way to go. Financial returns have been far below overwhelming, and the players are not too happy about coming back and plunging, heads first, into the season without much time to adjust to the jet lag of at least six hours.

It’s going to be a long, complicated and difficult path before the NHL and the NHLPA reach a binding agreement with the IIHF. The interesting thing at the moment is that the league and its union are writing a joint songbook so they can sing in unison. The other interesting (and as important) thing is that neither side has mentioned it’s all about sports. There might be an occasional expression of trust that this or that helps enhance the game and spread its popularity, but it’s always quickly linked to revenues that this or that might bring in.

Well, at least they are sincere about it.

Oil Change opens new season with a bang

This year’s Edmonton Oilers’ first-round draft pick was Darnell Nurse. A defenceman, and, as this season’s first episode of Oil Change mentioned, he was the first defenceman the Oilers picked with their first selection since 1989, that is, a quarter of a century ago.

Oilers’ fans should hope this year’s pick would turn out better than his predecessor: Jason Soules would never make an NHL squad. Neither in Edmonton, nor anywhere else.

The fourth-season television documentary premiered on Sportsnet Sunday. It’s going to see a number of repeats before time for the second episode rolls around in November.

It takes off where last season’s Oilers left off, documenting the monumental crash that left the club on the outside of the playoffs picture yet again, looking in with longing and more than a bit of anger.

Oilers’ faithful will remember the avalanche of changes: general manager Steve Tambellini gone, new general manager Craig MacTavish introduced, Scott Howson coming back to take care of player development again, Ralph Krueger gone in a rather sensational twist of events, to be replaced by Dallas Eakins and an unconditional air of no-nonsense approach to life in general and professional sports in particular descending upon the club.

Just keep your cameras rolling and you’ve got a gem of a documentary, right?

Wrong.

Aquila Productions’ creative crews, experienced in producing what has become a series with a huge, cult-like following, both in Canada and in the U.S., know that even improvisation requires structure. What they have achieved is breathtaking. They have created structures where even an experienced film and television watcher would be hard put to find the seams.

Opening with the doom and gloom of last spring, we get to see the behind-the-scenes action before this year’s draft. The club is in a different position than it had been the three previous years: no Nr. 1 pick this time. This opens avenues to an altogether different decision-making process. Does the club select a player who, it thinks, would be the best available no matter what position? Does the club select a player who, it thinks, would fill its particular needs best in the near future? Does the club opt to trading this draft pick for an established player who might (and, then again, might not) fit its needs immediately?

Through the three previous seasons of Oil Change we got used to the Aquila people getting access not many other crews have got anywhere else. This season is different. Not that there isn’t as much access to behind-the-scenes processes. It’s a different kind of access. Judging by the first episode of this season’s Oil Change, the access is organized so as to tell the real story better.

There have been numerous compelling stories during and after the free-agency frenzy, during training camp, during pre-season games, and Oil Change makes sure we witness them as they happen.

Telling the Oilers’ story better than the previous three seasons of Oil Change had, now, that is a most difficult proposition. The Aquila people have been always pushing themselves to be better than they had been the last time out. But there are limits, are there not?

Not really. The story keeps changing and developing, the production crews have to keep up, and they have to keep in mind that they can’t succumb to the wish of making stories more interesting than they are in reality just to keep up with the Joneses.

Speaking of the Joneses, the last couple of seasons have seen an increasing number of made-for-TV shows that follow the ups and downs of their favourite clubs. Some of them are better than others, but there are two qualities that distinguish Oil Change and keep the Joneses in the dust. One is passion, the other is storytelling.

Passion can’t be taught. It either is there, or it isn’t. And the storytelling? Yes, you can teach the theory of storytelling, but can you learn it as a practical ability?

As has become its trade mark, this season’s first episode of Oil Change presents its story with sharp cinematography, brisk editing, smart mix of music and real sound, and as few words as possible. Pictures, after all, are worth thousands of words.

The first few weeks of this NHL season haven’t been all roses for the club. These weeks of blood, sweat and tears will be the topic of the second episode of Oil Change. The Oilers might (and might not) meet the lofty expectations so many fans have had.

One thing we know for sure: there will be no sugar-coating. Not from Oil Change, there won’t.