First Period -- Let's Get Physical?
Speed and scoring are back, the stickhandling skills of Peter Forsberg to Steve Sullivan have been on display and hope is alive in the NHL as comeback hockey is the early story of the 2005-06 NHL season.
No longer will a litany of goaltenders dominate the headlines. And thankfully, a little coaching has been taken out of the game, and a game of chance, instinct and skill has returned.
That being said, there is a passionate component missing, and I'm trying to figure out why:
1) The Rules
Players are clearly hesitant on defense. An unsure player is on his heels and then doesn't react in any way. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The NHL is hoping to program players so they won't instinctively react the way they used to. They are hoping that when players are beaten by speed or agility, a player won't hook a player on the arm and, instead, rely on the goaltender to make the save.
Over the long haul, this is their plan. One has to wonder, however, if we will ever get there and still keep the physicality of the game intact. It is of utmost importance that it does, because the clean, physical nature of hockey is its soul.
Soccer will never be big in the United States because there is no punctuation outside of the occasional goal. There is no physical or fear element that makes it exhilarating to the American sports fan. I would think similar sentiments are accurate in Canada as well. This is who we are.
It might change one day, and that's why the popularity of sport changes. But for now, North Americans, and much of the world, like to watch potentially dangerous things: NFL, NASCAR, "Survivor," WWE, Ultimate Fighting, "The Family Guy," Don Cherry. The NHL needs to try to tweak the game so that it will allow battles in the scoring zones. Diving has become rampant in the game, as each team tries to sell its soul by evening out power-play chances.
Please keep in mind, I'm not whining. The game looks good and skill players are doing great things. But hockey is way more like vinyl records than digital music -- a little scratchiness is needed in this game. An earthy, organic feel is the allure of the game.
2) Post CBA lockout
Remember that these players just sacrificed a year of salary for, in the end, nothing. They are shell-shocked and, deep in their subconscious, perhaps resentful. They are probably still finding their way. Everyone is finding their way.
There was a major detour, and the game, the lifestyle and the industry haven't found their way back yet. It is natural and time should heal this uncertainty. But the rules are different, the national television coverage is different and all of the teams are different. Remember, there has been massive roster turnover. Teams haven't physically gelled on the ice or emotionally off of it. That will take a season as they go through things for the first time. As we get closer to April, I think the game will feel like home again. Right now, the whole industry has a very slight case of vertigo.
Second Period -- Ray for President
This past August, Ray Bourque mentioned to me that he was ready to get more involved with the game. We were talking on a golf course, and he said he was ready to at least dip his toes into the coaching waters. He asked that I not mention it to anyone because he was still unsure of what he and the Bruins wanted, and how it would all be handled.
Reports surfaced last week that Bourque was about to sign with the Bruins as a consultant. He would be on the ice with the defensemen when the Bruins were home and would watch the road games.
Unlike Terrell Owens, No. 77 prefers to handle things quietly. You'll never see Bourque in his driveway doing shirtless dumbbell curls while being interviewed by Mike Emrick and Bob Lobel. If you do, take a plunger, stick it down my throat and suck out every internal organ I have. (I know if that ever happens, it will be time to check out.)
Bourque's life is clearly focused on his wife and three children and sucking the marrow out of parenthood. His son Chris is off playing for the Washington Capitals' AHL team in Hershey, Pa. On Sunday night, he suffered a concussion after a hit from Jonathan Aitken.
Bourque's daughter Melissa is athletic, attractive and smart, and is also about to enter the workforce well-raised and prepared. His youngest son, Ryan, the last of the Bourque litter, is like Chris; he's small, spirited, nasty and fast. He's playing prep school hockey in New England and will be off to a Division 1 NCAA program by the end of the decade.
Ray's wife opened a spa seven months ago that was donned "Best in Boston." So Ray Bourque finds himself with lots of time on his hands. And in about five years, when he will be fully free, he can delve into post-playing hockey life full-time if he wants. He still does well with endorsements and is smart with the money he's made, so finances are not a problem.
All I know is, if I win a $300 million Powerball jackpot, I will buy an NHL team. I will build the coolest hockey arena in the world and I will name Ray Bourque as president. He is a tone-setter, a hockey mind who simplifies things with style and grace. Great administrations start at the top with a personality that sets the tone. There is no greater natural resource out there right now than Raymond Jean Bourque.
I assume he has received 10 offers from around the league to assume such a post. However, parenthood and lowering his GHIN number have been his life the last couple of years. (According to GHIN.com, Ray is currently a 3.7 handicap. Bet accordingly.)
In the meantime, Bourque will soon be working with the Bruins' defensemen, attempting to elevate their game. He will tell them and show them how he played and how he prepared -- smart, nasty and relentless. He will lift them simply with his presence. He was one of the greatest defenseman of all time, one who was near-perfect and visually appealing -- that rare combination of reliability and entertainment. Sounds like a good hire to me.
Third Period -- The Music Man
Jeremy Roenick was on SportsCenter's Budweiser Hot Seat in September and was asked by Brian Kenny who was the most underrated player in the NHL. Roenick's answer: Mattias Norstrom. The man whose last name closely resembles a department store -- only it's the wrong department store. Norstrom is more Home Depot than Nordstrom. He's a nuts and bolts blueliner who is rock solid. He's also a music guy, which makes him perfect for us. Kings vice president of communications and broadcasting Michael Altieri says when he hears Chris Cornell's "Euphoria Morning" CD coming from the Kings' training room, he knows "Matty" is in there breaking a sweat.
Mattias was born in Stockholm, Sweden, on Jan. 2, 1972, and still lives in Sweden during the offseason with his wife and two daughters. He is not sure where he will live after his NHL career is over. He is a stay-at-home defenseman at work and at home.
Question from Buccigross: Why are you underrated?
Norstrom: I don't think I'm underrated. I think I get enough attention for what I do. I'm impressed by those who create and make plays and score goals. My job as a defensive defenseman has ruined the game! [Laughs] It's a lot easier than being a creative player. I do think I get enough recognition.
Buccigross: Let's talk music. What kind of music gets you going?
Norstrom: I would say rock. I like my rock. I really like the alternative rock from the early 1990s: Screaming Trees, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Nirvana. I love that.
[How good was 1991 for music? Rolling Stone's top five albums of the year were:
1) R.E.M. -- "Out Of Time"
2) U2 -- "Achtung Baby"
3) Nirvana -- "Nevermind"
4) Guns N' Roses -- "Use Your Illusion I"
5) Everclear -- "American Music Club"
Buccigross: We all have CDs that we privately enjoy, but publicly do not disclose. I have to admit I own CDs by George Michael, ABBA and Enya that I enjoy. What CD do you cover up when company comes over to the house?
Norstrom: I have to admit I have some Enya at home. And Sade can really sing.
[Mattias said he recently lost the soundtrack to the movie "Singles." It's one of his favorites and plans to buy another one soon. He also endorses System of a Down.]
Buccigross:Do you like going to Home Depot?
Norstrom: I want to know your sources! Yeah, I like building stuff. Back in Sweden, I built a nice 500-square-foot deck at our summer house. It took me a while, but I did it from the ground up. There aren't any special touches. I was happy when I put the level down.
[Mattias has Bauer skates and Easton sticks. He said he doesn't want to sign an equipment deal because if something better comes out, he wants the freedom to use it and not be stuck in a deal. Imagine that? Not selling out for money and taking function over cash.]
Buccigross: What about the new NHL rules?
Norstrom: It is a bit of a learning curve. For some many years as a defenseman, you rub out your man and stay with him. In front of the net, you could pretty much do anything. It's a skating game now. You have to be able to keep up. It's still a big adjustment. But people want to see a fast game. I want to see a fast game when I'm watching on TV. I hope the referees keep it up right through the playoffs. I think when the games get really intense, we will see more physical play. We do need to find a middle ground.
The Mother of All Mailbags
Detroit's Grind Line is looking for a new name, since grinding isn't so much of a part of the new NHL landscape, and since Stevie is playing with Drapes and Maltby instead of D-Mac, I kinda thought of calling them "Stevie's Visormen" since all three players now wear visors. You're so great at naming hockey babies, what would you call this line?
Can't do better than that, Jacki. Winner, winner, chicken dinner.
So what's wrong with the B's? Lack of effort, not playing for 60 minutes? Adjusting to new rules? Injuries? Or are they crumbling under the weight of expectations, a la the '04 Cubs?
I never understood all the hype surrounding the Bruins going into this season. I saw them as essentially the same team that lost in the first round of the playoffs two years ago. They are a good team, certainly a playoff team over the long haul, but not a Stanley Cup-contending team some were trumpeting in August. They are young in net, thin on the blue line and don't have a definitive leader that carries a presence to demand effort and accountability every night.
Hey Butchy (a.k.a. Beverly on the weekends),
Just wanted to pass along this interesting coincidence. I was recently at a conference where I met someone from the host company named Hakan. The next day, I talked with someone from a company called Lube Tech. Hakan? Lube? Coincidence, I think not. Big ups to all the Cams out there.
Maple Ridge, British Columbia
To Loob is to love. Now that No. 8 goes into the Hall of Fame next week, it's time to start pushing for Hakan Loob for Hall status. Remember it's the Hockey Hall of Fame, and international contributions count. Loob in 2006!!!
Thank you for the update on Pat LaFontaine. It seems like just yesterday when I, a skinny college kid, sat in the Red seats (I worked at Domino's to pay for half-season tickets) at the old Aud watching Patty fly up and down the ice with that awesome speed and slick stickhandling, one earphone tuned to the great Rick Jeanneret. And as you mentioned, he's as fantastic a human being as he was a player (Hall of Fame -- enough said). And of equal importance, as a Buffalo native, it's always appreciated when one of our legends is recognized as such. LaFontaine is the greatest American-born NHLer ever. Period.
I was wondering, what with the recent squabbles about visors and such going around, why don't players wear goggles like you see in the NBA? I know Moses Malone started wearing them after suffering a fractured orbital bone, and they certainly wouldn't be as intrusive to seeing the puck at your feet as the edge of a visor is. I'm guessing the reasons are twofold: they could create problems in a tussle with another player; and they wouldn't look "cool." But if they keep your eyes in one piece, I'd think that would be more important. Your take?
Marc L. Tavasci
Besides the year's supply of kiwi ESPN provides me in exchange for writing this hockey column, this is my favorite aspect of this column: discussing the beaten-path ideas. Certainly, a high-tech goggle would have extended Al MacInnis' career and made life better for Bryan Berard, to name two. But they probably wouldn't prevent broken orbital bones unless they were slightly oversized goggles. I'm sure Oakley could make a cool, protective goggle.
I see you have a Melbourne reader/watcher who states: "Well, guess what -- in Australia, we will not see even one complete game this year. None. Zip. Nada."
Well, guess what -- add the Pacific to that. I think the NHL grossly underestimates the ESPN reach. On Guam, we face the same thing. I was hoping to at least get a cable cast, but OLN provides no info whatsoever about those of us with DSL. And I used to travel to nearby Palau ("Survivor" venue) and marvel at the fact that I could watch an entire ESPN hockey game at 8 at night. That is all gone thanks to this unfathomable deal with OLN. After waiting a year to see a game again, I may now wait decades. So, we'll put two coconuts at each end of the beach, play some sand hockey and wait for "SportsCenter" and Barry to come on Thursday nights.
YOU HEAR THAT GARY BETTMAN??? YOU'VE PUNKED GUAM!!!!
I love the theme song from "NHL2Night" and listening to it became part of my pregame routine for the intramural hockey season. But after reading your last column, you mentioned that the guys at the South Windsor rink have it as their cell phone ringer. I searched the Internet for hours and could not find it. Do you know how I can get that as my ringtone?
Rick at UMass Amherst
Can anyone out there help Rick? All I got is Kajagoogoo's Greatest Hits and one of them singing largemouth bass thingies.
My question is, do you see Sidney Crosby leaving Pittsburgh when his rookie contract expires? He is Canadian and he can probably get identical contract offers from any team in the league.
Mike in Michigan
No. 87 might leave next week if the Penguins keep playing defense like the 1977 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I had them missing the playoffs in my Eastern Conference preview and Penguins fans were throwing Donnie Iris eight-tracks at me. This team is not making the playoffs. Not a chance. They will be back in the draft lottery.
Brett Hull's retirement got me thinking. If the "new" NHL is too fast for him to compete at 41, would he have been able to compete in a faster NHL three or four years ago? That is, had the rule changes, which have brought about the faster play, been installed years ago, would Brett Hull have been forced to retire earlier? What about the likes of Ron Francis, Mark Messier, Scott Stevens, Al MacInnis, etc.? My point is that if we assume that the rules and play prior to the lockout slowed the game down, then this also extended the career of some of the game's greatest players.
The clutching and grabbing that began in the mid-'90s made defensemen, goalies and coaches rich. Those days are changing. Do you realize there have been more come-from-behind wins in the third period so far this season than there was all of the 2003-04 season? But, to answer your Hull question, he got slower and the league got faster. The same thing is creeping in with Mario Lemieux. He will get most of his points on the power play, where he stands still and shoots. Yes Greg, the slow game extended players' careers. That's what I meant when I wrote a couple of weeks ago that it is a young man's game again, and that's why Ottawa will win the Stanley Cup this year.
With all the talk in this forum about phenomenal 2005 rookies, I seem to be noticing a trend. Now, I don't normally subscribe to the "East Coast Bias" theory, but the discussions do center almost exclusively around East Coast players (Crosby, Ovechkin, Richards, Vanek, Carter). Where is the conversation around Dion Phaneuf? He plays a much more difficult position for a young player to master, hits like a young Scott Stevens, is willing to go toe-to-toe with key players on opposing teams, and plays key minutes on both the PP and PK. Ovechkin would need a road map to find his own end.
Also, I'll never get agreement on this, but Ryan Kesler has been vastly underrated. He plays a defensive specialist role (again difficult for a young player) and plays critical minutes on a skilled Vancouver lineup that neither Vanek nor Carter would crack.
Overland Park, Kansas
Phaneuf is a man. A clear-cut NHL player the minute this season started. If all the players from the 2003 NHL draft were thrown back into the hat right now, who would the Penguins take at No. 1? Probably Eric Staal. But Phaneuf might go No. 2. Go back and look at that 2003 draft. It could go down as one of the deepest first rounds of all time. By the way, the 2006 draft does not look that good after the first three picks or so. So the 2006 draft lottery is going to be very important to the future of teams who don't make the playoffs.
Do you think that there will ever be a Danish player in the NHL? If so, who has a chance to make it?
Kasper Thorsager Jakobsen,
Either Frans Nielsen or Goldmember. Wait, he's from Holland. Isn't that
John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is firstname.lastname@example.org.