That Kid From Austria – Ottawa’s Marco Rossi Impresses On OHL Day In Cornwall

Fall has finally made its warm greeting into Canada and you know what that means. It’s hockey season! After a dreadfully hot summer it felt great getting into the crisp atmosphere of a hockey arena again. And I started my 2018/2019 season with quite the barn burner.

The Ottawa 67s and Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League graced the City of Cornwall with their exhibition presence on Labour Day. It was the first time the OHL had returned to Cornwall since 1993 when the Royals moved to Newmarket.

I didn’t think I was going to hop into scouting mode for an exhibition game but after a couple minutes into the first, I was kicking myself for not bringing a notepad.

Only one player really stood out to me and that’s unusual. I’ll usually pick a couple guys on each team to look at but this time was different. I could only focus on one kid because he was just that good.

I went into this game blind. I’ve been away from the major junior world for a bit now so I didn’t know who was who on the roster. I didn’t know who to look for and I didn’t know if any of these kids were drafted. What I do know is that one kid stole the show.

Mf131db750823a6f50d71d513d4fd0be2arco Rossi is a 16-year-old centre from Feldkirch, Austria.

You read that right.

Austria.

And you know what? This kid is going places.

Unbeknownst to me, Rossi was selected 18th overall in this year’s import draft by this 67s. He committed early which tells me he’s serious about his future. Picking the OHL at an early age is a hard-enough decision to make for North American skaters let alone somebody from across the pond. Commitment is half the battle.

What I saw on the ice was something I’ve seen lacking a lot in today’s junior game. One is hunger and the other is a hockey mind. Marco Rossi was the hungriest guy the ice. He never stopped from puck drop to the game ending horn. Lazy he is not a word in his vocabulary.

He created space if needed and played with his head. Always thinking. He was constantly moving, looking for any opportunity to present itself. He went hard to the net and was one of the only few on both teams who consistently got in the front of it.

It seemed to me that his hockey knowledge is vastly wise for his age. The maturity of play from this 16 year old is astounding. I mean, he still looks like a baby. Even with that white turtleneck tucked underneath.

Rossi_OTT-1024x600

At 5’9 and according to Elite Prospects, 156 pounds, Rossi just flew up and down the ice. There is no worry about cement skates here. His skating ability is right up there on the list of his greatest assets. His edges are so clean, crisp and full of speed. Don’t even get me started on his back check. Which brings me back to the hunger. His hunger for the game made everybody else look a couple speeds slower then normal. Kingston was slow to begin with so they looked like molasses out there whenever Rossi was around.

Another thing I liked about him was that he really wasn’t afraid to throw a check and follow through. So many guys don’t finish their checks these days so it was refreshing to see. There is definitely a hint of the North American style play in his game already.

Rossi clocked in the first goal of the 3-2 shootout win for the 67s. Again, Rossi made the space and the play for himself and provided quite the stick handling procedure and accurate shot. Rossi liked to shoot in this game so it will be interesting to see how he adapts in the OHL. Last season he notched 51 points in 34 games with the GCK U20 Lions in the Elite JR. A league over in Switzerland. That looks great on paper but it might be difficult to translate that into high numbers on North American soil.

Hockey prodigy’s coming out of Austria are not unheard of but they are few and far between. Austria has been a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation since 1912 when they introduced their men’s team. They haven’t claimed a medal since the men claimed bronze in 1947. They are at almost 10,000 players registered with 75 outdoor and indoor rinks in the country. Compare that with Canada who has 631,000 registered players and 8,300 outdoor and indoor rinks. You do the math.

 

 

The National Hockey League is home to a few Austrians. Thomas Vanek, Michael Grabner and Michael Raffl were likely dreamt about by a young Rossi as he skated on the rink. Is it premature to compare him to these fellow Austrian greats? I’d say yes if we were comparing styles of play. But if we’re just talking chances of making a GOOD career out of if? This early snapshot says he’s definitely on the radar. He’s already being lauded as a high pick in the 2020 draft.

What is going to help is he got picked up by a great team. Last year Ottawa was running near the bottom rungs in the standings. That’s a terrible position for the team but it’s great news for a skilled player. More ice time to go around.

I’m hoping for the best with Marco Rossi. He got me excited not only about hockey again but major junior hockey in general. Let’s see how he gets settled with the atmosphere of being on a Canadian hockey team and everything that goes with it. Hopefully his energy and determination will translate well onto the scoresheet. He is a much-needed breath of fresh air on the ice.

 

Hey, has anybody made Marco Polo/Barber Pole joke yet?? Get at it Ottawa 67s fans!!

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John Scott: Is This The Fitting End Of The Enforcer Era?

It’s all over.

As John Scott grins from ear to ear on his teammates shoulders and as he collects the NHL All Star game Most Valuable Player award, it seems to be a fitting ending to a long chapter and era of the National Hockey League.

Without realizing it, John Scott, sitting on top of Taylor Hall and Mark Giordano’s shoulders, is the TRUE last of the enforcers. As he waves to the electric Nashville crowd, the era of goons and enforcers of the NHL close out like a Hollywood movie.

(Photo: Toronto Star)
(Photo: Toronto Star)

Throw away the drama that the NHL created about this guy for a moment and just think about that. Is there any other guy in the National Hockey League at this moment who plays the same role as Scott? There’s no promising that Scott will ever get called back up to the big leagues again. Montreal doesn’t have a spot. He’ll grind it out on The Rock, in St. John’s, Newfoundland as their Canadiens affiliate.

Hollywood honestly could not have written a better ending to the enforcer era even if they hired Mike Myers to do the writing.

This is a crucial time for hockey in general. As more and more criticism and arguments come out based on head shots, concussions, CTE, players committing suicide and depression, the league slowly started to phase out the enforcing role and let it ride quietly into the night. However, most hockey players will tell you that role keeps hockey safer and keeps players in check.

This weekend was a huge win for John Scott. You can tell with every flash of the camera on him that he’s happier than he’s ever been to be apart of a spectacle like that. He turned into the NHL’s very own “Rudy”, and carried the hearts of thousands. I’m sure his story even turned on new fans to the game as well. I bet Arizona is kicking their behinds now on the amazing marketing campaign they could’ve had. John Scott, Coyotes jerseys would’ve sold out within seconds.

And he earned his keep. Anybody who juggles 4 years of playing hockey at Michigan Tech while earning an ENGINEERING DEGREE is more than deserving of the opportunity.

(Photo: Players Tribune)
(Photo: Players Tribune)

It was a win for Scott but it was also a win for every enforcers who has EVER played the game of hockey no matter what league you’re in. Seeing one of your own be ridiculed by management and league officials then embraced by the entire league’s fan base at a game that showcases the best of the best is a definitive high-five for the job they do night in and night out. (Just FYI, Scott’s not the first tough guy in the All Star game, Mr. Probert was selected in 1988.)

The enforcing occupation is a dirty job but for the past 30 years, someone has had to do it. There’s a lot of pride that goes into the hearts of these guys just from protecting their players. They become respected around the league even if they come with much less talent. They are also some of the most soft-spoken guys you will meet off the ice. Case in point, John Scott.

As the All Star weekend came to a close, it really does feel that we finally come to the end of an exciting and fantastic era of NHL hockey even though I’m afraid of what’s next. Will fighting make a comeback? Maybe. If things get insanely out of hand 10 years from now it just might. But if you want to see a quality scrap in the meantime, you’ll have to make your way to the LNAH.

All in all I can actually say that I have not had this much fun over an All Star game or a player for that matter since I was a kid. Great job Nashville for hosting it as well even though I’d rather have James Hetfield coach then Vince Gill.

Oh, and who do you think will play Gary Bettman in the John Scott movie?

Fighting and the future of the LNAH

Fraser McLaren after a nasty scrap.
Fraser McLaren after a nasty scrap.

With the demise of the goon era already a thing of the past and with current leagues cutting down majorly on fighting, one is left to wonder where do these guys turn. They’re clearly not ready to retire yet and can still useful as an agitator. However, if the 4th liner next to you has better skills with the puck then you can kiss your cushy NHL or AHL job goodbye.

Guys are getting demoted at a steady rate. Paul “BizNasty” Bissonnette wasn’t a part of the Coyotes discussion this year. The Leafs sent Fraser McLaren and Colton Orr packing. After making his way to the NHL the hard way, Rich Clune thought he finally found a steady job with the Nashville Predators. He played one game this year and then headed down to play with Milwaukee. Kevin Westgarth has a Stanley Cup to his name and not one NHL or AHL wanted him. He ended up across the pond with the Belfast Giants.

The culture of the National Hockey League is changing dramatically and anyone can see that. Every team wants to have four sharp, fast, skilled lines now instead of the latter lines filling up with grinders, enforcers, and pests. They need to do more than just fight.

There are a lot of these players around the world that are starting to find themselves out of jobs. Hell, there are a few guys in Major Junior who might not have a job playing pro hockey after their junior career is done. I don’t think fighting will be banned out right but there’s going to come a point where suspensions are going to get heftier and ridiculous in order to deter the player from fighting or players are going to start getting banned from leagues. So where do these guys go is the million dollar question.

There’s only one place.

The LNAH.

Sean McMorrow throws a big right hand.
Sean McMorrow throws a big right hand. (Photo: Sandra Charette http://www.sandracharette.com)

If you are not familiar with the LNAH through my writing yet, I’ll bring you up to speed. With seven teams in Quebec and one in Ontario at the moment, the LNAH is a league where basically anything goes. The “show” is what draws fans from around the world to it. Fighting is king. Staged or not, fighting is promoted in this league. It’s also the league that has those big brawls you may have seen on SportsCentre time and time again.

What people don’t expect when they actually watch a game is that the hockey is decent. The league is filled with former first round draft picks (Cornwall’s Sasha Pokulok went 14th overall to Washington in 2005, two picks later the Atlanta Thrashers picked up long time LNAHer Alex Bourret.), former AHL and ECHLers. It’s a big mix.

The Leafs took Nic Corbeil in the 3rd round of the 2001 draft.
The Leafs took Nic Corbeil in the 3rd round of the 2001 draft.

The LNAH has one thing going for them and that is they will never outlaw fighting. When the time comes that it’s no longer welcome in the NHL, the LNAH will welcome all of the out of work enforcers with open arms. Not even just the enforcers. Guys who play dirty and have one or two scraps a year will come over too.

If the LNAH can market it right, it’s going to become a gold mine. Fans will have nowhere to go but the LNAH if they want to see a fight. It will become popular as hell and teams will pop up all other the place. I could see teams in the Maritimes and North Eastern U.S. jumping into the fold.

Now here’s one thing that I think the current brass of the LNAH won’t like.

To make this sustainable the brawls and sideshow antics have to go or at least get toned down a bit. The LNAH is looked down upon because of this in every other league. I’ve heard from more than one player that they think the league should be banned in its format. Another called it a joke. There are also TONS of fans that feel this way believe it or not.

The other thing that needs to be changed is the “must have played junior in Quebec (and for Cornwall, Ontario)”. The enforcers of the league are on the verge of retirement. You’re going to need somebody to replace them be it straight from Major Junior or buddy in Kazakhstan that likes to throw down. These players are what makes the league. It would be a shame to not let others in eventually. If the league wants to last, this rule needs to go with or without the fighting.

There’s a few other minor rules and things that the LNAH needs to change but they’d be able to do that on the fly year by year.

Take a step back and think about it for a minute. Picture the next 5-10 years.

No more fights in the NHL on TV to look forward to on Saturday nights. Can’t see a beauty tilt between players on the verge of making it live in the AHL. Forget about trying to look for one on a Major Junior level. But we can go down to the arena in our mid-size communities and catch 4 or 5 a game. How about that.

You can’t deny that every single hockey fan on the planet likes a good hockey scrap. Especially live. There’s nothing more exciting than seeing your team get pumped up with momentum after one.

Remember these words.

LNAH. Gold mine.

FOUR LAST ROUND GEMS OF THE 90’S

1297337058015_ORIGINALAn awful lot of people and new fans of the game put a lot of emphasis on first round draft picks. Rightfully so, they’ve worked hard and earned the right to be there. Some may become busts (Patrick Stefan anyone?) and some may excel to the best of their ability in the National Hockey League.

However, what most people don’t realize is that the majority of the players on your favourite teams don’t jump into the NHL pool from the first round, hell, even the second round. They work harder than most to prove they belong with the elite competition. Every once in a while you’ll come across a star players stats and you won’t believe that he was drafted in the later rounds.

This made me think and do some research. How many players made the NHL being drafted in the last round? Well, not too many. That’s why I decided to pick the best ones and see how they stacked up in time.

1990

The 1990 NHL Entry Draft drafted 21 players in the first round. The first five, Owen Nolan, Petr Nedved, Keith Primeau, Mike Ricci and the god himself Jaromir Jagr, should tell you just what kind of talent the NHL was working with. Two goalies even went in the first round as well, Drake Berehowsky to Toronto and of course, Martin Brodeur to New Jersey.

LAST ROUND GEM

12th round, 244th overall – NEW YORK RANGERS
Sergei Nemchinov

3287Nemchinov played 10 years in Russia before he got drafted to the Rangers. Splitting his time between CSKA Moscow an Krylja Sovetov, Nemchinov was a big man to stare down at centre ice. Standing at 6 feet and 200 pounds, the Rangers took a chance in this last round with a Russian. With the 10 years of Russian play under his belt, the Ranger brass probably didn’t think he’d make the hop over the pond.

Well, he did.

Nemchinov became one of the first Russians to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup when he helped the Rangers lift it in 1994. After a brief stint with the Vancouver Canucks and New York Islanders, Nemchnov found himself in New Jersey where he once again lifted the Cup with the Devils in 2000. He finished his NHL career with 761 games played, 152 goals, 193 assists for 345 points. Not bad for a guy who got picked in the last round.

Sergei Nemchinov went on to play two years with Yaroslavl Lokomotiv in the KHL before retiring in 2004. CSKA Moscow gave him a GM job and he also oversaw Russia’s national junior team.

All this for a good lookin’ blonde kid from the USSR.

1991

The 1991 NHL Entry Draft was all about Eric Lindros and the will he or won’t he play with the Quebec Nordiques. Everyone seems to forget who else got picked after him so I’ll help you out. The number two pick went to San Jose and they picked up Pat Falloon. Scott Niedermayer went third to New Jersey, Scott Lachance went fourth to the Islanders and everyone’s “favourite” TSN anchor, Aaron Ward went fifth to the Jets.

Peter Forsberg went 6th to Philadelphia and subsequently traded to Quebec for Lindros but we won’t talk about the “what could have been” if Forsberg stayed in Philly.

LAST ROUND GEM

10th Round, 203rd Overall – WINNIPEG JETS
Igor Ulanov

1362942189_b_igor-ulanov-v-tampe-1997-godOkay, so let’s be honest. Ulanov wasn’t all that great. He became a definite journeyman and probably saw more of North America then I have. Short stints with the Moncton Hawks, Fort Wayne Komets, Indianapolis Ice, Hartford Wolf Pack, San Antonio Rampage and the Toronto Roadrunners all were placed inside his time in the NHL.

But what Ulanov didn’t do on the score sheet, was made up in his way to draw penalties and fights. The guy’s job was to be an agitator and he did it well. I mean, why wouldn’t you have a 6’3, 220 pound Russian who likes to fight on your team?

Ulanov retired from the NHL with 1151 penalty minutes in 739 games.

1994

The 1994 NHL Entry Draft was littered with goalies in the first round. Jamie Storr, Eric Fichaud, Evgeni Ryabchikov and Dan Clouthier were all taken. (Now tell me which ones you actually remember.) Ed Jovanovski went first to Florida, Oleg Tverdovsky second to Anaheim and Radek Bonk went THIRD (ahead of guys like Ryan Smyth, Jeff Friesen, Wade Belak and Mattias Ohlund) to Ottawa.

LAST ROUND GEM

10th round, 257th overall, DETROIT RED WINGS
Thomas Holmstrom

96-tomas-holmstrom-ophi-26839Here’s one that boggles my mind and there must have been more to the story at the time. One of the best forwards and one of the best goalie agitators of all time was chosen in the last round. At the time, one of the scouts for Detroit was Swedish and had an awful good look at Holmstorm. After not making the national team in 1993, Holmstorm went back to his club team where the real eyes began to watch him. The rest is history.

Holmstorm was a massive presence in front of the net. Without stealing Sean Avery’s tactics, Holmstorm was able to throw goalies off their games for a split second to let that puck go in. This last rounder has four Stanley Cups to his name, Winter Olympic gold and 530 points in 1026 games.

The kid from Pitea, Sweden was also inducted into their Hall Of Fame in 2006.

1995

Case in point that not all first rounders reach Sidney Crosby or Nathan McKinnon status: Aki Berg and Chad Kilger were taken third and fourth.  Don’t get me wrong, they did what they needed to do and had the talent to be a solid second or third liner. This was another goalie filled year too, J.S. Giguere went to Hartford (!?), Marty Biron to Buffalo, Brian Boucher to Philly and Marc Denis to Colorado.

LAST ROUND GEM

9th round, 223rd overall, TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Daniil Markov

DaniilMarkov5Before Leafs Nation takes a run at me, hear me out. You want guys like Dany Markov on your team. These agitating grinders know exactly what their job is and when to do it. Plus, he can bang in a goal or two. Not flashy, not a goal scorer, but he can contribute on the ice just as well as his mitts.

Hell, fun fact: Dany Markov scored the 10,000th goal in Philadelphia Flyers history.

But what do Leafs fans most remember him for? This.

Who deserves the Hockey Hall of Fame first? Eric Lindros or Daniel Alfredsson

alfielindros

Each year, a select few hockey players get their names etched into the prestigious Hockey Hall of Fame. Naturally there are also a select few who seem to get snubbed; sometimes year after year. Usually, it’s when it’s too late that they get thrown in. The inductee does not get to witness the fruits of being inducted into the Hall as they are sadly no longer with us.

This drives me nuts to no end. Why wait until they pass away to do tributes or induct them in after the fact? Do these things while they’re alive so they can bask in their accomplishments.

But I digress.
eric_lindros2-640x360
Two of the players I’m writing about in this article are both very worthy to reach the Hall. One just finished up his career so it’ll take a bit of time before he gets thrown in BUT, I bet he’ll make it before a certain black and orange pedigree.

It seems like The Hall hates Eric Lindros.

Maybe it’s because Bobby Clarke is on the selection committee and sort of has it in for him. We all know they don’t get along. However, back in 2007 in an interview with CBC, Clarke said by all means that Lindros deserves a place in there. And he does.

This is where the selection committee needs to throw all the politics and drama aside and just focus on the hockey. The stats and the facts for Eric Lindros are plain as day. Who cares that his family made him refuse to play in the Soo, or that he refused to play for the Nordiques. It’s been almost 30 years (!?); time to grow a pair.

There’s no mistaken the dominance that was displayed by the Big E in the later half of the 90’s. He carried the Philadelphia Flyers to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998 and got ever so close to Lord Stanley. He managed 70 points in a 46 game lockout season in 1995 which garnered him the Hart Trophy. He knew how to throw his big body around to his advantage but yet still kept small with his skill. It was a new breed of hockey player that was built for the time; you hardly see guys like him anymore.

But you know what? Look back at his career before he even hit the NHL. The man was a beast; he was tearing up every league he played in. He played a bit of junior down in Detroit where he had 52 points and 123 PIMs in 14 games.

FOURTEEN. GAMES.

You want to know how bad Philadelphia wanted this kid? This is what the Quebec Nordiques got in return for trading Lindros to Philadelphia: “Traded to Philadelphia by Quebec for Peter Forsberg, Steve Duchesne, Kerry Huffman, Mike Ricci, Ron Hextall, Chris Simon, Philadelphia’s 1st round choices in 1993 (Jocelyn Thibault) and 1994 (Nolan Baumgartner) Entry Draftsand $15,000,000.”

This kid was good and he made the Flyers a contender about five or six years in a row.
Who knows what kind of player he could’ve morphed into if it wasn’t for the injuries and concussions. That kind of label stuck after Scott Stevens threw his shoulder into him on the blue line during the playoffs in 1999. I remember sitting on my couch, watching it as a 12 year old and saying to myself “He’s done.” Lindros never played out a full season either which is shocking when you look at his point totals.

There is no doubt in my mind that Lindros will be in the Hall of Fame. It’s just a question of when.

danielalfredssonWhich brings me to Daniel Alfredsson.

Now unless you live in Eastern Ontario, are a diehard Ottawa Senators fan, or Swedish, chances are you don’t know too much about Alfie’s accomplishments and chances are you don’t really care. Let’s face it. Fans of the NHL often forget that the Ottawa Senators are even a team except for those in Leaf Nation.

Aside from Alfredsson’s  two most known moments, (the hit on Darcy Tucker and the stick throwing incident) nobody can really name off what Alfredsson has done in his career. The guy carried an entire team on his back for almost two decades yet nobody seems to care.

Instead of rhyming off reasons why Daniel Alfredsson is pretty damn amazing, I’m going to let Steve Dangle tackle this in a video he did for Sportsnet a couple weeks back.

So with all that in mind, it begs the question. Does Daniel Alfredsson belong in the Hockey Hall of Fame?

Uh, yes. A big, huge, YES.

Whether you like it or not, you have to admit it.

Who goes into the Hall of Fame first? Well, naturally in the order of things Eric Lindros would get the nod but we’ve been saying this for years and he’s yet to capture his rightful place. Alfredsson is going to have to wait his three years before he’s eligible to be nominated and with the way things are going, hell, we could see them on the same ballot!

In the end of all this, both men deserve their shot. Their contributions to the game of hockey, not only NHL but internationally as well surpass many. The Flyers and the Senators might each win Cups before this happens though.

What do you think?

Let me know in the comments, send me a tweet @MarchHockey, or like the page on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/marchhockey

Hockey in wartime: Lest We Forget

Rangers_Nov11_DSC00144708
(Kitchener Rangers, Remembrance Day jerseys 2013.)

 

As we get closer to Remembrance Day, all hockey teams around the world are donning camo jerseys and incorporating the military, navy and air force into pregame ceremonies to show a gracious tribute. This is a fantastic thing. Honouring our brave men and women that serve our country and strive to make the globe a peaceful place is awe-inspiring.

However, we very rarely think to remember the hockey players who have actively served during war time. The NHL played through both World Wars. During World War II, so many players joined the military either on their own accord or by conscription that that NHL actually thought about shutting down for the 1942-1943 season. To keep public morale high at home, they nixed that notion and played on.

At the very least, over 100 players served their countries during both wars and miraculously only two casualties were sacrificed.

Here’s part one of a brief history of hockey players in the military.

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Scotty_Davidson

 

Allan McLean “Scotty” Davidson was a right winger out of Kingston, Ontario. He and his junior team out of K-town won two Ontario Hockey Association championships before he moved to Calgary and led the senior team to a provincial championship. The year of 1912 saw him turn pro with the Toronto Blueshirts . His rookie year saw him notch 19 goals in 20 games and at the age of 22, he raised the Stanley Cup. With his skill, he was said to have skated faster backwards then anybody who could forwards.

Besides making the hockey history books with his skill, he made hockey history in a not so pleasant way either. With World War One looming, Davidson volunteered his services with the Canadian Expenditionary Force and served with the Eastern Ontario Regiment and attained the rank of lance-corporal. He was the first recorded professional hockey player to do so. Davidson was killed in action when he refused to retreat during a battle in Belguim.  He name is etched in both the Hockey Hall of Fame and the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.

 

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GT_Richardson_portrait

 

Another Kingston, Ontario native, George Richardson was a left winger for Queen’s University. Richardson won a total of four Intercollegiate championships with the Golden Gaels before suiting up for a series against the Ottawa Hockey Club for the Stanley Cup. At 6’1, he was a towering addition to a front line. In 1908, Richardson joined the Frontenacs in their front office.
Richardson also volunteered with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and reached the rank of Captain. 8 months after the death of Davidson, Richardson was killed in action while fighting in Belguim and is now buried in France. Kingston’s Richardson Stadium is named in his honour.

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HobeyBakerPrinceton1

 

A name that most people recognize is American hockey great Hobey Baker. The Princeton University grad played his last collegiate game in Ottawa for the Intercollegiate Hockey Championship of America. The University of Ottawa beat Princeton by a score of 3-2 but that was not the talk of the town. Baker was said to have scored over 120 goals and 100 assists in three years while only taking one penalty. This kid also had the brains to back up his skill as he majored in History, Politics and Economics.

 

Baker became a bank executive and turned down a $20,000 contract to suit up for the Montreal Canadiens in 1916. Baker join the US Air Force when the war was in full swing and became a fighter pilot. With three confirmed kills to his name, Baker was ordered back to America after being stationed in France. One last fateful tour over his squadron’s airfield in Toul, France, Baker crashed his plane nose first into the ground. He made it out but died minutes later in an ambulance. The NCAA hands out the “Hobey Baker Award” each year since 1981 to the best player in NCAA hockey.

 

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If you’re any kind of hockey fan, or if you consider yourself a Leafs fan, you’ll know Conn Smythe. Smythe has eight Stanley Cup titles, was owner of the Leafs for 34 years and helped build Maple Leaf Gardens. What most people don’t know or even realise is that he served in both World Wars and was a POW.

Reaching full lieutenant with the 40th Battery of Hamilton, Smythe and his fellow soldiers headed overseas in 1916. As they faced heavy fire in Ypres, both commanders were killed leaving Smythe in charge. The Battery fought for two months straight near the Somme before reinforcements arrived. That’s nothing compared to what was next.

Conn Smythe is a god damn crazy Canadian war hero.

After getting into a battle with some Germans, the Germans managed to counter-attack their offensive with grenades. So what did Smythe do? Oh just what any other sane person would.  HE RAN INTO THE MIDDLE OF THE FIGHT AND SHANKED THREE GERMANS WHILE HELPING A FEW WOUNDED CANADIAN SOLDIERS BACK TO SAFETY. He earned himself a Military Cross.

hf8nz7z3You know what Smythe, you can have the Maple Leafs too when you come back.

He wouldn’t come back until the end of the war though. In 1917, Smythe had transferred himself to the air force and was shot down by the Germans and subsequently captured. The Germans threw him into solitary confinement a camp at Schweidnitz after he tried to escape not once, but TWICE. Fourteen long months as a prisoner of war and he was finally liberated.

After a few years of fun with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Smythe’s military didn’t stop. He joined up the 30th Battery that was apart of the 7th Toronto Regiment and took off in England in 1942. His bad luck in the military continued as the ammunition depot he stationed to in France was bombed by the Germans in 1944. Leaving him badly wounded, Smythe came back to Canada and would suffer lower body problems for the rest of his life.

But hey, he owned the Leafs.

 

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Glorifying the athlete: The Fame

mikhail grabovskiI was watching a documentary the other day entitled “Miss-interpretation” and the premise was essentially about how the media warps the minds of girls and women into the need of achieving the absolute perfect body. Of course, this is nothing new; it’s been going on for years. Airbrushed supermodels, actresses on starving diets, scantily clad pop stars are seemingly the norm. It’s been like that since I was a kid anyway. However, a different thought crossed my mind. How does mass media affect our interpretation of the athlete?

To no one’s surprise it glorifies them.

But what makes them different from the average Joe from down the street other than the fact that they can shoot a puck or throw a ball a little better? When they first start out, there’s not much difference. It’s when they get thrown into the media masses and revelations of business where it changes. Sponsorship deals, becoming the face of a product, wealthy pay cheques, it all changes where you come from. Not just the player, but everyone around them including their inner circles of family.

However, that’s another thing. Most hockey players don’t come from the same background they used to. Not many sling bales of hay to earn their keep and stay lean and strong over the offseason. Little Dougy from a town of 500 in Eastern Ontario doesn’t hitchhike a million miles to suit up for a team in South Western Quebec. Ricky from Northern Alberta doesn’t have to tape telephone books to his shoulders for make-shift pads. No, most kids involved are already on the entitled track having grown up into a family who can afford to play the game at a competitive level in this day and age. In turn, that can create a bit of an ego. I’m getting a little off track as kids and hockey is an entirely different article for another day but in the same breath these kids look to and dream of being famous for being a professional athlete.

But it all comes back to why? Why do we put these athletes on a pedestal? Why is this hypothetic 8 time Stanley Cup winner better than, oh, let’s say someone who creates a vaccine for Ebola? Why is physical ability valued more by society then brains?

There's also the whole "hockey players are womanizers who are full of themselves" stigma but I'm not going to touch that.
There’s also the whole “hockey players are womanizers who are full of themselves” stigma but I’m not going to touch that.

 

Simple. Because we’ve let them. There’s no turning back the clocks now.

Everyone has the ability to play sports. A lot of people excel at them but only a select few make it. There is also the dangerous aspect of sport in how it affects the stress on one’s body. The ordinary person can relate more to how an athlete feels at the end of the day then to how a scientist or doctor or researcher does.

The physical aspect also crosses a fine line with looks and beauty. The media has already force-fed us what we should ultimately look like day in and day out. Look at the drama Phil Kessel caused in Toronto when he said he barely skated this summer and showed up to training camp a couple of pounds heavier. That’s nonsense.

The media will paint a picture of the quint-essential hockey player and basically it’s this: small-town Canadian boy with a humble upbringing, leads the way and builds his character through his time in junior, spends his summers working out that chiseled body and training; honing his craft, maybe attend college for a bit, turn pro.

That’s a wet dream for Pierre McGuire.

(Photo: Aaron Bell/OHL Images)
(Photo: Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

The only reason I’m bringing this up is it is being repeated day in and day out. Listen to any commentator today from any sport and they will throw out tidbits of information of how this player formed the perceived “character” they entitle today. Sometimes I feel like it’s not for the listening audience’s gain but for the commentator’s. A kind of “HA, I know more about this guy then you do.”

In reality, the media doesn’t get that there are millions of different ways these players get to the big time or get to the pro ranks. Their stories aren’t glamorous enough to see the light of day so we fall back on that quint-essential hockey player mentality.

In glorifying that, the need to stay atop of one’s game becomes greater. The anxiety of falling from grace and becoming a laughing-stock of the league or even worse, the nation, is at an all time high. The situation can turn ugly quick.

This isn’t a rant of how we should stop glorifying them, not by a long shot. It’s more of becoming aware of what this can do to one’s psyche whether you’re a player or spectator. Just think about how it can affect an athlete once it’s all taken away. It’s a part of sports psychology that I think should be looked at if it hasn’t already.

And hey, I’d sign an autograph and pose for pictures too if I made millions. Although, if I made millions, I’d already have  PhD in sports psychology and wouldn’t be writing this.

Note to self: Don’t stay up until four or five in the morning while jacked on Red Bull. These words were burned in my brain until I spit them out.

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The NHL is back and it’s just not the same

bryzThe NHL is back for yet another season. Yet here I am, unmoved and slightly not as interested as I was in years past.

To say that the National Hockey League has changed since the days when I was younger would be a huge understatement. The face of everything in the sport has changed 100% completely. From teams and players to broadcasting and television hosts; it’s just not the same. You could attribute it to just growing up and being nostalgic about the past but deep down I think it’s simply much more than that.

In a nostalgic sense, I’m lost without Saturday night viewings of Hockey Night in Canada ringing out from the television screen. I realize it’s still going and I’m anxious to see what it’s going to look like but it hasn’t been the same since TSN bought the rights to its historic theme song. Gone are the days of hearing the Coach’s Corner theme song, listening to Don Cherry and Ron McLean banter back and forth during the first intermission break and people actually stopping what they’re doing to listen to Cherry speak (no joke, my family used to drop what they were doing.). Or during the second intermission, sitting through Satellite Hotstove and not Hotstove Tonight itching to get the third period started.

Afternoon games were unheard of on television. It was a privilege to be able to stay up and watch your favourite team on a school night.

The age of the enforcer is dying out. It’s just going to be a chapter in a hockey history book someday. When guys like Mike Milbury, who beat up a fan in the stands with his own shoe, is calling for the end of fighting in the sport you know times have changed. While I could sit here and list all the points as to why fighting and enforcing needs to stay in the game, there’s no point. With the advancement of how concussions and mental health have affected the competitive athlete, it’s a no brainer to end it when your own health is on the line. However, all these same things could happen with a body check, or a trip, or a slash, or even a hard face wash. Taking fighting out isn’t going to stop that.

(Photo: Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)
(Photo: Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

Everything has a price tag or an endorsement on it. I’m not against making money obviously, but everything just seems so over the top and extravagant. I miss the days of walking into an arena, smelling the fresh PLAIN ice that would just feature the faceoff circles, the goaltenders crease, two blue lines and a red line. Do we really need ref cams? It’s a cool feature but we’re getting a little overboard here.

There’s no loyalty with players anymore. Yes they sign 8 year deals but how many of them actually stick them out? They go where the coin is. You can’t blame them either; that’s all on the owner’s and GM’s but how does one grow attached to a player now? On the same note, there’s a lot of lazy players in the game today. Just want to skate by and grab their cheque. Like, I said, maybe it’s because I’m much older now and see the world differently but I can’t be the only one feeling this way.

That’s why I enjoy the minors and other professional leagues. These guys feel the need to prove something to their fans night in and night out just to keep their jobs. In reality, that’s exactly what it is. Professional hockey is their full time job. With the exception of the NHL and AHL, nobody is getting paid huge wads.

I’m starting to sound like I’m bitter about everything, but I’m not. Hell, if I was offered a $50 million dollar, 8 year contract I’d take it in a heartbeat. Who wouldn’t? But that’s just one area that proves how much the game has changed.

Maybe the spark of the NHL will come back and flicker in my eyes a few more weeks into the season. Maybe it won’t. Things change and evolve over time, that’s just life. Even though it’s changed so much since the days of my youth there’s one thing I can be grateful for.

It gave me the sport I love.

Disclaimer: I realize that there are millions of people around the world who are super excited for this season and I couldn’t be happier! This is just some thoughts coming from someone who has followed the game for over 20 years now.

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The two faces of the NHL Ice Girls saga

(Photo: Len Redkoles/Getty)
(Photo: Len Redkoles/Getty)

The past few months seem to have been a trying time for the Philadelphia Flyers hockey club. One of their biggest decisions was the axing of their Ice Girls skating crew. You know, the girls who don scantily clad outfits and help scrap/shovel the ice in the middle of commercial breaks. (Or maybe they attempt to pump up the crowd. I don’t know, I haven’t really paid all that much attention to them until recently. *shrugs*) During the past couple of exhibition games, a new ice crew made up of men that came to fruition was met with a chorus of boos from the male-dominated fans in the arena.

Just like any other business would, the Flyers catered to their customers and with one loud “You asked! We’ve listened!” announcement, the Ice Girls were back and tryouts are being held in the next couple of weeks.

Now here’s where it gets stupid and why I’m torn between being for them or against them.

Personally, I kind of hold them in the same breath as cheerleaders. I realize some teams do cheer but most just clean the ice and get the crowd pumped. Obviously these Ice Girls are just here to entertain and enthrall the male masses. You also have a pretty strong case for their use of objectifying women. I wholeheartedly agree with both statements. You mean to tell me that in the “internet age”, men can’t go three hours without staring at a half-naked young women? The internet equals countless boobs my friend.

There’s also how these women are being treated. Wearing next to nothing in freezing arenas, not being able to wear jackets when they man the doors, not being able to be in the vicinity of ANY player at ANY time whether on the clock or not (it’s not the players prerogative to get up and leave, it’s the girl’s apparently) and much more are just some of the stupid things these girls have to deal with. They also get paid next to nothing. A great article goes into detail about what some of these girls go through and you can read it here.

However, there’s two sides to every story.

In a way, these girls are the embodiment of female empowerment. I’ve read great articles with some of the girls who thoroughly enjoy doing this. It makes them feel good and it makes them feel proud. Both of those things are hard to come by for a woman in this day and age. Sure, they might wear very little clothing but it’s done in a tasteful way. It’s not tacky or slutty. (On the ice that is. You could argue the fact the Ice Girls do sexy calendars. Well guess what, some teams have their players pose and print their own sexy calenders. That’s right, MALE players. And on another note for minor league teams, sold calendars means revenue for the club.)

I would also wager money on this.

dallas_stars_ice_girls_wallpaper_-_800x600I would put money on the fact of if these “fair-weathered feminists” had the body, the moves, the hair, and had the chance to become an Ice Girl and grab the attention that comes with it, they would. No doubt in my mind. (Notice how I say “fair-weathered”, you know the ones I’m talking about.)

If you step back and look at how the Ice Girl is practically just a sub-category of cheerleading, the Ice-Girl really doesn’t come across as such a bad thing. Hell, cheer-leading is a national sport now too. If people want to spin it around and throw a “sex” label on them then well, that’s their problem.

In conclusion, I see both sides of this argument and I agree with both sides. I guess I’m just kind of neutral on the whole subject. Both sides of the coin make really good arguements.

Like I said, I don’t really pay all that much attention to them.

I just know I’d never be able to skate and shovel at the same time. Way too clumsy for that mess.

 

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Sticks, Chicks and Dirty Mitts: Todd McIlrath and his Dark Side of Hockey

Todd McIlrath (Photo: www.facebook.com/GulbransonPhoto)
Todd McIlrath (Photo: http://www.facebook.com/GulbransonPhoto)

I had originally set out to make a part 2 of my article “The Dark Side of Hockey: What people never think of” and delve into the sections with a little more detail. However yesterday, I got a message to my facebook page that immediately required action and have it brought to the forefront of my attention.

When I originally wrote that article I was fed up with hearing how my friends in different teams throughout the world were being treated and how rampant mental illness is in sports with nobody doing a damn thing. I figured at the very least I could write about it and try to bring some awareness to society. I remember thinking that if I could help just one person it would all be worth it.

It was worth it.

Todd McIIrath reached out to me on the afternoon of September 24, 2014 with a lengthy message. Here’s a brief excerpt:

“I stumbled upon your original article about a week after I had been planning to take my own life. I felt as if I was battling something so unique to MY situation until I read the first half of your article. Your article saved my life. I am literally driving from Wisconsin to my hometown in Michigan to admit myself into a facility in an attempt to rebuild. Thank you.”

I could not just leave that message sit and not respond. I responded right away and found out that Todd was in the passenger seat of a car at that very moment with another 5 hours to go before he was admitting himself into a facility in Eastern Michigan. I’m a fairly easy person to get along with so we naturally started a conversation on the topic that fate joined us together with. I then asked the burning question if he’d want to tell his story. With actual enthusiasm he obliged and had the same mentality I did: “If it helps just one person Ash, then it was worth it.” Hey, I had all night. I was all ears.

By the time McIlrath had hit bantam, he knew he was something special in the hockey world. Having played with names such as Erik Condra and Matt Taromina, McIIrath was drafted to the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League in the second round. Weighing his options, he decided to sign an offer with the United States National Team Development Program and stay a bit closer to home.

He was off to a heck of a start for his junior career. As with all athletes however, he was faced with adversity and well, it wasn’t really his strong suit. Tacking onto his drinking and smoking marijuana that started in Grade 8, McIlrath had started using almost every day. Getting caught cheating on an exam saw him lose his scholarship with the USNTDP as the coaching staff no longer had confidence in him to crack the lineup. However, he could return to the team the next season but had to go to high school in his home town and commute to the practices and games. To cope with not only the loss of time but to gain an edge, he turned to the drugs of Ritalin and Ephedrine. This was during the height of ephedrine awareness. Athletes were dying, and I was buying yellow jackets by the bottle on a weekly basis.” In the midst of

McIlrath with Indiana. (Photo: facebook)
McIlrath with Indiana. (Photo: facebook)

this he had managed to commit himself to Notre Dame University and the Fighting Irish hockey team. Towards the end of the school year, a plagiarism incident put the stop to that entirely. He lost the confidence of not only his coaches but his teammates and most importantly, himself. “At this point I was the problem child. I began to alienate myself from my teammates.

The following summer was a blur built around girls, booze and drugs. When he arrived at camp that very fall, the team had brought in two new forwards. They clearly had no use for him. “The writing was on the wall. After getting healty’d (scratched) the first six games of the year,” McIlrath recalls. “I packed my car and went home.”

By now his agent was already in the middle of a three way deal that was trying to send him back to the OHL albeit with the Sarnia Sting. His parents turned him off of that idea as they wanted him to play NCAA so he managed to land himself in the USHL with the Indiana Ice. The season started off great and seemed like all of McIlrath’s problems were behind him until he popped his shoulder out in the middle of November. McIlrath moved home to have surgery and was sent off with a bucket full of pills and self-described “post-rookie season swagger”.  For the first time in his life he was a normal kid, at home, with no responsibilities. Naturally, the partying became out of control. “I can remember playing drinking games with the option to take a shot, or take a pill; on a school night.” Vicodin and booze saw his new found confidence sky rocket. It also gave him an addiction to prescription medication.

The following season he was billeted with a family that was fairly well off and had a full bar set up in their basement. He was still addicted to pain meds but had upgraded to oxy-contin from having built up a tolerance to Vicodin. ‘Vicodin isn’t cutting it anymore’ was enough of an explanation for my doctor.” By Christmas he was leading the league in points but to his discredit (or credit depending on how you look at it), he only iced a handful of games sober. “My game day routine involved popping an 80mg tab of oxy before my pregame nap, and snorting half of one before I left for the rink.”

Of course his luck got even worse. His first game back from Christmas break saw him tear his ACL. “To this day, I swear it happened because of what I put my body through on a nightly basis.” It was at this point where he began to struggle with how people saw him.

McIlrath with Bowling Green. (Photo: Christine Towles.)
McIlrath with Bowling Green. (Photo: Christine Towles.)

He donned a narcissistic attitude that would make him lash out at people if they didn’t treat him like a God. He’d avoid people that would try to keep him humble and fed off of the rest that told him how great he was. That summer he committed to Bowling Green State University but instead of going, he decided to stay back one more year in junior to be a big fish in a small pond.

“When I think about BGSU (Bowling Green State University) my brain immediately associates it with coke, girls, alcohol and hockey. In that order.” McIlrath had enjoyed a very positive and acceptable first year at Bowling State. By the end of it, he took a job bouncing at a local bar and that’s when things inevitably turned sour once again. “I was always a yes man, so when someone asked me if I wanted a line (of cocaine), I was in deep.” In fact, he played his entire sophomore year on cocaine and you wouldn’t know it from looking at his numbers. Fate came twisting again when his coach’s friend ran into him at the bar while McIlrath was drunk. The coach brought it up at a pre-season meeting and once again he was back in the dog house. He was jerked around every which way; in and out of the line-up, demoted to defence, encouraged to give up for good among other things. By December of his junior year he didn’t care and just focused on playing for fun. After more partying behaviour, the coached took the matter into his hands and gassed him. It was over. He played his final year and graduated with a major in Psychology. “Yes, the irony isn’t lost on me.”

That was it. Hockey was over.

He spent the next three months in an alcoholic haze and the next two years depressed without a hope in life. A friend however told him about the AAHL; the All-American Hockey League. “This league was absolute hell, but I was playing again. This was verbatim the league you spoke of in your article. Five fights a game, not sure if we were getting paid, three guys in a one bedroom apartment; gong show.” The use of his hockey talent gave him a bit of hope. He managed to catch the eye of an organization in the East Coast Hockey League. Through all of the booze, drugs, highs and lows, McIlrath felt like he was being given a second chance. Determined to not blow it, he obliged when the team offered to fly him out on game day.

“And I kid you not, I tore my ACL again in my third shift!”

A constant string of bad decisions combined with even worse luck started to eat at him. As his depression worsened, it’s here where McIlrath first entertained the idea of taking his life. He managed to get a coaching gig with an independent team but was fired when the owner found out he was a coke head. Defeated he turned back to the AAHL and won a championship with the Battle Creek Revolution and signed on for next year

Winning the AAHL championship with the Battle Creek Revolution.
Winning the AAHL championship with the Battle Creek Revolution.

with the Fort Wayne Komets. The bad luck didn’t stop as a drama with his twitter account made the team let him go and that was the end of that.

Depression came back in full force and after a month of feeling sorry for himself, he managed to call up a friend who got him a coaching gig with a junior B team. Things started to seem normal at a steady pace again. The team placed third in nationals and by the end of the year, he had found himself quite the lady that was smitten with him. He turned her into his wife.

However after a few problems in the relationship arose, McIlrath reached his all-time low. He quit coaching and succumbed to the blackness of his depression. He managed to stay alcohol and drug free for an entire year before these problems existed. Determined to save his marriage, he invested and opened up a hockey school. In its second year of existence, it was all too much. “Everything on the surface was silky smooth, but as cliché as it sounds, I was just another duck on the pond.”  McIlrath knew that his sober living was limited.  “The money started pouring in, and it was flying up my nose faster than I could pay the bills.” He managed to save enough money to pay his employees and the bills on time when they arrive but that was it. “Every spare penny went toward living a rock stars lifestyle when I was barely getting by.

Things continued to be rocky. On Fourth of July weekend of this year, McIlrath blacked out a party and hit rock bottom in his depression. “My plan at this point was to get through the summer, finish my hockey school, have a night out with the boys and take my own life.

“So I decide to take a victory lap. I visit my family, and closest friends over the past few weeks and prepare my exit. I had my spot picked out, and even now I have a rope hidden under a pile of clothes in my car. I decided a jump from 80′ might not kill me so I decided to hang myself from the same height.”

“I woke up this past Monday dripping in sweat. This was going to be the day. But after reading your article for the 50th time it is my goal to be an example of strength rather than becoming a statistic. Especially since I’m going to be a father.”

 

10153131_233704133502040_225210655_nI immediately got McIlrath in touch with Corey Bricknell, a former hockey player who started an organization with other former players called “Fighting the Truth”. FTT is an organization built to help players, whether former or still playing, deal with mental illness and the trials and tribulations of professional hockey. They had reached out to me after reading my article as well and I’m proud to say that I’ve joined their organization in helping create awareness.

Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed about. I applaud Todd McIlrath and think so highly of him for his decision to get help. As I’m writing this, he is in a treatment center in Michigan surrounded by his no doubt loving family and there is not one damn thing he should be ashamed of either. I hope you’re doing well right now Todd, I’m thinking about you tonight. Thank you for telling your story. I know you’ve helped someone.

Depression isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of being strong for too long. It’s time to end the stigma.

#YouAreNotAlone

Feel free to follow me on twitter: @MarchHockey or like the facebook page: www.facebook.com/marchhockey as I continue to add stories to this growing series dedicated to creating awareness of mental illness in the hockey community.

For more information on Fighting The Truth, head to www.fightingthetruth.com or like their facebook page at www.facebook.com/FightingTheTruth

Read about Carson Shields and his Dark Side here: The Beauty, Carson Shields and the Dark Side of JUNIOR Hockey