The Dark Side of Hockey: what people never think of

li-boogaard-rypien-belakI don’t know why I decided to take on this topic. I’ve spent the better part of a couple weeks thinking about it. Maybe it’s because I’ve been researching mental illness a whole lot or maybe it’s because Theo Fleury’s biography is on my nightstand staring at me, begging to be read one more time. It could be the recent suicide of Slovakian player Miroslav Hlinka. Either way, I think it’s an important piece to look at.

Hockey is a tough sport. It’s one of the toughest sports (arguably the toughest) out there physically. Everyone can see that. Nobody ever thinks of how the sport can affect your brain. I’m not just talking about the fights where getting popped in the head a few times a night can obviously do damage. I’m talking about the hundreds of ups and downs one goes through their career. Not only on them but on their families as well.

Not everything in life is sunshine and rainbows especially in this sport. Don’t get me wrong, there has been progress made. Gone are the days of partying hard with the boys, breaking curfew and showing up to the ice still hammered. Instead we’ve replaced it for the most part with rigorous training schedules, perfect diets, and the always on the go lifestyle.

From the moment we see our kids lace up their skates for the first time, we expect the NHL dream. Some parents more than others jump into that dream with both feet and become an increasingly volatile whirlwind of mental anguish. I’ve seen parents get mad at their kids for not scoring more, not skating fast enough, not playing the body, telling them they’ll never make it and more. It’s bad enough that these kids will get reprimanded from their coaches but to take it from someone who supposedly loves them is hard on the ol’ self esteem.

(Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Let’s say your kid shrugs off your words and hey, low and behold he actually has some talent. He gets drafted by a Major Junior team and the offers from NCAA teams in the United States come flooding in. All would be well and good if the stress of not knowing which route to take while dealing with full days of school, possibly a part time job and social life were easy. Don’t forget about the millions of people who will chime in to offer their advice. What do you do? Yes, there are counselors now who are ready, willing and able to help decide which path to take but you know what’s still sitting in the back of little Johnny Hockey’s mind eating at him? The fact that you told him he could never make it.

He’s not going to stand for that though! He’s going to prove you wrong! He decides to take the major junior route and play four solid years while hoping he trains hard enough, eats the right foods and does everything by the book to get onto an NHL team. His dilemma? Well, what happens if he doesn’t and you were right. That thought eats at him every single second of every hour. It starts to interfere with his play, so much so that Johnny Hockey has decided to turn himself into a little enforcer and start fighting in games to get his anger out.

Between games he starts to withdraw and isolate himself. Teammates notice but chalk it up to him just “being Johnny” or over exhaustion. Coaches notice and just shrug it off, telling him to just suck it up and get out there.

So now we’ve got a skillful, angry and depressed enforcer of a player. This wouldn’t be so bad if it were still the 80s/90s. The age of the enforcer is quickly dying in today’s game. Players are being taught more to use their skill and take on more of a role. How does this effect little Johnny Hockey? Well, the first round of the draft was promising when he first started. The rounds are coming and going. He’s finally taken in the last round to….it doesn’t even matter what team, it was the last round.

Of course, getting drafted to the NHL alone no matter what round is a great achievement. However not to our little Johnny. He feels that he’s now a failure and will never see the big time. Starts withdrawing more. Maybe he takes up drinking; maybe cocaine. He moves back to his hometown now that his junior career is over with nothing to fall back on. Spends his days in bed.

(photo: Helen Brabon)
(photo: Helen Brabon)

The phone rings. It’s a semi pro team willing to give him a shot. Happy days! Gladly accepting, little Johnny packs up his gear and heads out to his new team.

In middle of nowhere, Europe.

Okay, so it’s not THAT bad. He’s playing hockey for a living!

Yeah, that’s what you think.

The team promised him they were a professional organization. The team also promised him a bi-weekly wage. It’s been a month and he has still to see any of it. The team promised him a fully furnished apartment. It’s a table, stove, fridge and a mattress on the floor; going to have to fill in the rest yourself. His roommate however is another fellow import. At least he’ll have somebody to communicate in his own language with. Good luck with anybody else.

Little Johnny shakes his head but sucks it up. He’s a professional hockey player and damn it, at least he has that going for him.

The team promised him that they would travel by plane. 18 hour train rides later seem to contradict that fact. Well, at least he can rest on his off day. Good luck as the coach has scheduled a practice and oh look at that, you got a game that night.

Frustrated, little Johnny crosschecks the wrong European in the first period of his second professional game. Gloves get dropped and Mr. European catches Johnny with a left hook, sending Johnny to the ground head first knocking him out cold. Concussed, he skates off the ice and gets sent to the team doctor. Doctor thinks he’s alright to play even though he’s slurring his words and seeing double. Coach yells at him to take the next shift because after all they need this win. The coach’s job is on the line.

8171341152_a0fc218c57Johnny deals with this year in and year out. Plays everywhere from mainland Europe, to Midwest USA, to the UK, and finally ending in Quebec, Canada. He racks up the penalty minutes on his fight card not really caring about his point total because, what’s the point? It’s not like he’s going to make it back to the show. His wife, fed up with the constant travelling and seeing her husband get beaten to a bloody pulp every night, threatens divorce. Nobody remembers the talent he once possessed. Night in and night out he’s beaten and bruised up all the while thinking, “what am I even doing this for?”

Finally Johnny realizes he’s getting too old for this. He’s only 33 but his body feels like that of a 70 year old. He’s in the locker room one night thinking about hanging them up. He’s caught with sudden anxiety. What is he going to do after this?! He never went to college or never held a job for more than a few months. Hockey is all he knows; where does he turn?

This is where my story ends and my thinking began. Where do the minor, professional, semi-professional hockey players go when the game is gone? Yes, plenty turn to coaching, opening up hockey schools and whatnot but what if you’re not one of the lucky ones to do so? It’s a daunting and scary thought. You’ve lived out of a suitcase for 10-15 years of your life and you’ve most likely not saved very much. Where do you turn?

There’s not many resources there for the players when they leave the game. A lot don’t know what to do with themselves as it’s all they’ve ever known. It’s almost like a soldier in the military getting back to civilian life.

Now what about all of the medical injuries and diagnoses you’ve captured over the years? Most leagues don’t have a pension plan or medical coverage when you’re done with the game. It’s a very important piece to understanding the life of a semi-pro athlete and what they deal with once the glory fades.

TraffordTerry5328

If I had the money, I would start up a foundation where players could go to help them with the transition of coming back into the real world so to speak. Just as there are some players who can’t handle not making it (see Terry Trafford), there’s some who can’t deal with never playing again. They need to be caught before something turns ugly.

Mental illness is a big topic in the life of a hockey player. Once things start to slow down and they take a step back to look at their life, that’s when everything comes spiralling out of control. I’ve read it in way too many player biographies. We’re getting better with the NHL’s Hockey Talks campaign but it needs to more than once a year. It’s important to know that it’s okay to ask for help.

I know this article was a long one. I just want people to think of the other story of the coin with our hockey heroes. They’re people just like us and some of them even live pay cheque to pay cheque just like you. They’re not as different as you think.

Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @MarchHockey or like the Facebook page and drop me a line! http://www.facebook.com/marchhockey

READ: “The response to The Dark Side of Hockey”

Remembering Lokomotiv Yaroslavl

Lokomotiv_Yaroslavl_memorial_at_Arena-2000Summer and early fall of 2011 was not kind to the hockey world. In the span of four months we lost Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak, and Rick Rypien. As tragic as these players stories are, little did we know that the worst was yet to come.

September 7, 2011.

As 26 players, 11 coaches and a handful of flight crew boarded their plane to Minsk, Belarus, it seemed like any old start to a hockey season. The KHL was starting up their third season after evolving from the Russian Superleague. It is seen as one of the best hockey leagues in the world – second only to the NHL – and the best in Europe and Asia.

The 2011 roster of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl was made up of young lads and NHL veterans. Some winding down on their careers; others just getting started. The team had an impressive season the year before finishing 1st in the Tarasov division with 108 points and losing in the conference finals to Moscow. The team’s top scorer, former NHLer Pavel Demitra, seemed to be on a tear and was eager to build on his formidable play.

The day started off like any other. Conditions were clear at Yaroslavl’s Tunoshna Airport and it was a great day to be flying. Driving to Minsk would take 12 or 13 hours by bus or train so flying was most welcome. Loading the gear up onto the plane then getting comfortable in their seats were names that people from North America would recognize. Canadian and Stanley Cup champion Brad McCrimmon was excited to coach his first KHL squad. It was a new and exciting opportunity to continue his career in a country like Russia. His assistant coaches were also former NHLers Alexander Karpovtsev and Igor Korolev.

Karel Rachunek, Karlis Skrastins, and Josef Vasicek joined Demitra with this team to start the winding down of their careers. Each daunting players in their own right, you could easily see how much of a force Yaroslavl was going to be for this upcoming season. Sadly, we’ll never find out.

As the plane rushed off down the stretch of paved road, it overran the runway. The nose briefly went airborne before stalling and running into a tower mast. When it came back and hit the ground, the plane broke up and immediately caught fire near the Volga River. From the wreckage, all but two perished including the flight crew. Young Alexander Galimov survived the crash but died five days later in hospital. The avionics flight engineer, Alexander Sizov was the only survivor.

As the crash began to be investigated, there were a few shocking revelations that started to come to fruition. The plane overran the runway because of pilot error. The pilot put on the brakes as it began taking off thus skidding along the runway. What’s even more worry some was what came to light after. Both pilots had falsified documents to be able to fly the plane. They were flying illegally and the co-pilot was suffering from a nerve disease. He wasn’t even allowed to fly.

Upon hearing the news, the KHL canceled all of their home openers. The season was delayed by a week or so. Former NHL teams of those players who died paid tribute by wearing honorary patches. The German Ice Hockey Federation retired Robert Dietrich’s number and the Latvian Ice Hockey Federation did the same for Karlis Skrastins. Tributes upon tributes were poured out from hockey fans across the world for a senseless tragedy.

Yaroslavl did not compete that season but did rebuild for the next one. It’s sad and downright scary to think that everything could be taken away from you in an instant of time. However, life and death doesn’t stop for anyone. Not even in the hockey world; the show must go on.

September 7th will always be a dark cloud and reminder to the end of the chilling offseason of 2011. They may be gone but certainly not forgotten.

Rest In Peace…

lokomotiv-yaroslavl

Vitaly Anikeyenko, Mikhail Balandin, Gennady Churilov, Pavol Demitra, Robert Dietrich, Alexander Galimov, Marat Kalimulin, Alexander Kalyanin, Andrei Kiryukhin, Nikita Klyukin, Stefan Liv, Jan Marek, Sergei Ostapchuk, Karel Rachůnek, Ruslan Salei, Maxim Shuvalov, Kārlis Skrastiņš, Pavel Snurnitsyn, Daniil Sobchenko, Ivan Tkachenko, Pavel Trakhanov, Yuri Urychev, Josef Vašíček, Alexander Vasyunov, Alexander Vyukhin, Artem Yarchuk.

Yuri Bakhvlov, Aleksandr Belyaev, Alexander Karpovtsev, Igor Korolev, Nikolai Krivonosov, Yevgeni Kunnov, Vyacheslav Kuznetsov, Brad McCrimon, Vladimir Piskunov, Yevgeni Sidorov, Andrei Zimin.

Enforcers, Goons and Fighters oh my! A list of NHL tough guys: Part Two

A couple months ago I set out to list some of my favourite lesser known tough guys from years past. Turned out to be a pretty popular subject (naturally), so I here I am with another five guys for part two.

In no particular order…..

Todd Ewen

1. Todd Ewen
Todd Ewen had a pretty so-so career as an enforcer until he managed to knock out Bob Probert with one punch in only his second NHL fight. With that reputation under his belt, Ewen managed to grab a ton of playing time when he was picked up in a trade after the expansion draft by the newly minted Anaheim Mighty Ducks.  Along with his sidekick Stu Grimson, Ewen held the assistant captaincy for the entire three years he was in California. As the popularity of the Ducks started to increase, Ewen was put out on the ice to protect stars like Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne. Hard to believe that the Ducks had one of the best one-two fighting punches in the league at one point.
Ewen ended his NHL career with 1911 penalty minutes.
 

 

2. Ryan VandenBussche

One of the best enforcers to get his start with the Cornwall Royals, VandenBussche managed to play in nine NHL seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers. He is probably best remembered for blooding and knocking out Nick Kypreos thus ending his career.

Watch the video. Kypreos is lights out as soon as the fist makes contact.

3. Andy Bezeau

Okay. I lied. This guy never made the NHL but Christ was he a nut job that deserves to be talked about.

A tough east-coast Canadian, Bezeau was actually drafted by the Boston Bruins in the early 90’s. Never making the show he spent 10 years in the minors, throwing punches for the Moncton Hawks, Fort Wayne Komets, South Carolina Stingrays and Detroit Vipers among others.

The best story he has? Being traded for a pair of washing machines. Even Paul Holmgren can’t make that stuff up.

He even managed to somehow work his way into the London Knights of the British Superleague in the early 2000s.

Watch a compilation of his with a great title:

4. Dave Manson

Nicknamed “Charlie” (I’ll let you make the correlation.), Manson was actually one of the few enforcers who had the hockey skill to back up his play. Playing in 1101 games throughout his NHL career, Manson managed to notched 390 points to compliment his 2792 penalty minutes. Not too shabby.

In one altercation with mediocre legend Sergio Momesso, Manson caught a punch in his throat damaging his larynx permanently. This made his voice raspy from here on out but that just added to his lore.

Oh and the Leafs traded him for Jyrki Lumme so there’s that too.

5. Lyndon Byers

Lyndon ByersByers was a bit of a monster of a man and his role was to protect the stars of the Boston Bruins. He managed to rack up 1081 penalty minutes in only 279 games. He spent most of his career floating between the Bruins and their farm system before packing the skates away in 1995.

After hockey his career went into a complete different direction. He’s now a radio personality for a station in Boston and has made numerous appearances on tv shows throughout the years. Not bad for a kid from Saskatchewan.

Taking on “Legends Row” of the Toronto Maple Leafs: picks one through five

legendsrowRecently, the Toronto Maple Leafs have unveiled plans to erect a statue saluting some of their legends in the form of 10 players jumping over the boards. This statue will take its form in front of the Air Canada Centre where fans can reminisce of good times gone by. The man doing the sculpting, Erik Blome, has already done phenomenal stone work by doing Wayne Gretzky’s statue down in Los Angeles in front of the Staples Center.

So at least it won’t be a laughing-stock.

The Leafs have also revealed that Ted Kennedy will be the first of the alumni to be enshrined. Former captain and five time Stanley Cup champ, Kennedy was acquired by the Leafs in 1942 from the Montreal Canadiens. Retiring at the age of 30, he was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1966. Seems like a no brainer pick with stats like that.

When I was first presented the idea to my own version of the Legends Row, I realized it wouldn’t be fair for me to include players from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s as I never lived through their greatness. While I’m fully aware of what players were phenomenal and how much they mean to Leafs Nation, it just wouldn’t be right to me. Which leaves me with a much shorter list to pick from but I’m down for the task.

I’m also only going to name two that are a given. We already know the greatness of Mats Sundin, Curtis Joseph, Felix Potvin, Tie Domi, Darcy Tucker, and so on. After the first two names, it’s time to give some of the other guys who contributed a time to shine.

I was born in the 80s. Get ready to take a slight trip back in time to some of the Leafs mediocre times. Before I start, this is just my personal list so don’t get bent out of shape for some of the players that are named. It’s also in no particular order. I’ll include honorable mentions at the end.

Without further ado, picks one through five. Five through ten will be tomorrow!

1. Wendel Clark

wendelSome say the greatest player to wear #17 (*cough*Rod Brind’Amour would like a word.*cough*), Clark played his junior days out the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades who just seemed to breed hockey enforcers for a few years. Taken first overall by the Leafs in the 1985 NHL Entry Draft, Clark was one of the few who threw punches but had the hockey skill to back it up. In his rookie year, he racked up 227 PIM and never backed down from the physicality that was needed from him. I say this as he wasn’t just known for throwing a few, he had an arsenal of body checks that could change the game’s momentum in an instant.

Obviously a crowd favourite, who can’t forget the time he went after Marty McSorley after he leveled Gilmour in the 1993 Conference Finals? I’m not even going to get into the Gretzky debacle. Or some of his tilts with Probert? Or Russ Courtnall and Clark exploding with the “Hound Line”? In my books, Wendel Clark is the first player to be on my Legends Row. (Just ignore the time he played with the Islanders. The first round pick that was traded for him ended up to be Roberto Luongo.)

Speaking of Gilmour…..

 2. Doug Gilmour

Oh Dougy Gilmour, god love you.

Fun fact; my earliest memories of hockey included seeing Doug Gilmour in cow printed spandex tights in honour of his “Got Milk?” campaign. It really was the 90s.

Anyway, another obvious no brainer to add to the row. Gilmour played his junior years with my hometown Cornwall Royals and actually had the glorious oppourtunity of playing fastball during the summer here as well. Along with Dale Hawerchuk and Danny Daoust, the Royals became legendary for the Seaway City.

Obviously Gilmour was destined to bigger things then just being a Cornwall celebrity. Drafted by St. Louis and after a minor stint with Calgary, Gilmour donned the white and blue of the Leafs starting in the 199-1992 season. A crucial asset to the team, Gilmour was another who didn’t let up. Who’s to say what could have happened if Kerry Fraser never missed the call on Gretzky in 1993.

I’m not going to say anymore; I’m just going to leave this here.


3. Nikolai Borschevsky

borschevskyAfter the demise of the USSR, Russian players were suddenly on the market for the NHL in the beginning of the 90’s. While Borschevsky wasn’t a huge powerhouse with Dynamo Moscow, he started to get into his groove after being traded to Spartek Moscow in 1989. NHL scouts kept their eye on him for the next three years and took in his play at the 1992 Albertville Olympics in which he was a part of the gold medal winning squad.

The Leafs gambled and picked him up in the 1992 NHL Entry Draft and it managed to pay off. Borschevsky exploded for almost a point a game in his rookie year and ended up second in team scoring; second only to Gilmour. Another crucial piece to that 1993 team that keep haunting the Leafs until the current group manage to reach the second round of the playoffs.

It remains to be seen what could have been of Borschevsky if injuries didn’t get the better of him. After two solid years with the Leafs, his stock plummeted and he never regained his monumental performance. I think with him being of the first Russians to make a small dent in the NHL hockey world deserves a nod to my version of the Legends Row.

He also belongs on here just because Steve Dangle named his pet bird Nikolai Birdchevsky. Brilliant.

4. Nik Antropov

Probably one of the most underrated players of his time with the Leafs, Antropov was one player I always had my eyes glued on. I even went as far as buying tickets to an IIHF game between Finland and Kazhakstan on the basis that he was playing. Now that’s dedication right? I mean, who could not go see a guy that scored 26 points in one game. (International against Iceland. 11 god damn goals.)

We all know the 2000s weren’t all that great to the Leafs however, there were a couple of rays of sunshine that stood out. Antropov was drafted 10th overall by Toronto in the 1998 Entry Draft. He came up full-time in the fall of 1999 and for the next 10 years, Antropov contributed solid numbers year after year after year. He’s one of the few was I’m devastated that the Leafs could never get on a roll and win something for. Playing on the same line as Mats Sundin would be no easy feat but Antropov did it with ease and proved that having solid wingmen is a daunting task.

He kept up his stats when he was traded to the Thrashers/Jets and even managed to become a Canadian citizen in the meantime. He played last season with Barys Artana in the KHL.

I should probably start up a Nik Antropov Fan Club.


5. Sergei Berezin

lg_berezin_ap_01Another underrated player to lay in Toronto fandom, Berezin was selected 10th overall in the 1994 draft and after exploding with talent for the next two years in the DEL he finally headed over to North America. A pity that it was with the Leafs who I think at the time didn’t really know what to do with him or develop him into elite player status.

He managed to be selected to the All-Rookie team in 1997 and managed a career high of 59 points in 1999. However after his second career high of 50 points (only 3 points behind Sundin), he was traded off the Phoenix for Mikael Renberg. Yeah, the worked out didn’t it.

The knife in the back for the Leafs came when Berezin, now with the Canadiens, scored their 10,000th goal on home ice. Ouchie.

However, five solid years with the Leafs through the crazy early years of the 2000’s puts him on my list.

Honorable mentions for this half: Jonas Hogland, Peter Zezel, Freddy Modin, Igor Korolev, Garry Valk, oh and Nikolai BIRDschevsky.

St. Louis Bruise Brothers: Tony Twist and Kelly Chase

b40e1e15454d95ed8fa40fd756001548In the late 80’s and early 90’s, a junior team in the middle of wheat country Canada seemed to become the heavyweight champs in producing NHL caliber hockey enforcers. The long list that donned the blue and yellow of the Saskatoon Blades included fighting legends Joey Kocur, Darcy Hordichuk, Dave Brown, Wendel Clark and more recently, the late Wade Belak. However, in 1987 the Western Hockey League squad assembled one of the best one-two punches that not only the team ever seen but one of the best the National Hockey League ever set their eyes on.

Both weighing in at over 200 pounds and a tall 6 feet, Tony Twist and Kelly Chase took no prisoners when they took to the ice. Twist’s reputation around the league was that he threw hammers and he fought to hurt. You had one shot; you better make it worth your while. Chase came into the NHL two years after having led the WHL in penalty minutes with 343. Fun fact: None of those minutes were misconducts; they were all fighting majors.

A native of Prince George, British Columbia, Twist is not only a legend of the St. Louis Blues but of the ill-fated Quebec Nordiques as well. You can tell from his stats he was only there to do one thing: intimidate. Many nights were spent bloodying up opponents who dared to take a run at the superstar player on Twist’s side. A student of the enforcing game, Twist would watch tapes upon tapes of fights; trying to master his art in time for the next game. You may even say he was obsessed.

Chase on the other hand had a little bit of skill bestowed upon him. Not much but when you’re throwing punches night in and night out, you’ll take what you can get. Among teaming up with Twist in St. Louis, Chase was similarly involved with another ill-fated team, the Hartford Whalers. Chase took it upon himself to mentor the young players that came in and mold them to the game. His leadership abilities both on and off the ice gave him the title of King Clancy Memorial Trophy winner in 1998. His hard work not going unnoticed.

The two did have the chance to tango when they were not becoming brothers on the St. Louis Blues. Chase having just been acquired from the Whalers was facing Twist while he was donning the blue and yellow on night. Behind the Blues bench was “Iron” Mike Keenan; barking orders at Twist to take Chase down a notch. The two did what they had to do as it was mostly water under the bridge but one hell of a tangle they went through.

 

Tony Twist’s career was cut short just as he was starting to become the undisputed heavyweight champion if you will. During the 1999 offseason, Twist was thrown from his motorcycle after being cut off. After beating off internal bleeding, a broken and dislocated pelvis, plus ligament damage to his left knee, Twist figured a message was being sent that he better hang up the skates. After all, one wrong hit during the season could mess his leg up bad. With 1121 penalty minutes in 445 games, it begs the question of what Twist could have been had he not been injured.

chaseKelly Chase played on a little under half a season longer after coming back to St. Louis after a very short stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs. When all the smoke had settled, Chase racked up 2017 penalty minutes in 458 games over a 12 year NHL career. Some of you may remember him on CBC’s Skating With The Stars where hockey players teamed up with figure skaters in an ice dancing competition.

Noted around the league as the “Bruise Brothers”, Twist and Chase are lined up in my Enforcer Hall of Fame side by side. Seeing both of these gigantic men come flying down the wings with a look of determination, fear and willingness to inflict considerable amounts of pain to their opponents gives them the respect they very well deserved.

Washington Capitals sign Australian Nathan Walker

Photo: capsinpictures.com
Photo: capsinpictures.com

Even if he doesn’t leave a legacy on the ice, Nathan Walker will go down in the hockey history books.

The Washington Capitals have signed Walker to a three year entry level contract making him the first Australian to play in the big leagues.

It’s been a long time coming for Walker who was originally born in Wales, UK but made Australia his home at an early age. The 20 year old Aussie has worked through the hockey system the hard way. Coming from a country in the southern hemisphere and one that is not particularly a hockey hotbed, it’s safe to say he was far from the radar of many scouts.

Hockey always has an eye for talent though. In 2007 Walker made the jump from youth hockey in Australia to suiting up for the U18 HC Vitkovice in the Czech Republic. Between them and the U20 team, Walker made a name for himself as a fast and stick skilled winger. At 17, he played in the Spengler Cup.

The benefit of being a hockey player from Australia is using the North American off-season to continue playing top level hockey in your home country. The Australian Ice Hockey League takes place during Australia’s winter which is Canada and the United States’ summer. Walker got to hone his craft all year round. Scouts finally took notice.

The Youngstown Phantoms of the United States Hockey League took a liking to this young lad and offered a chance. One that proved to be successful as Walker was almost a point a game player. Good thing too as the brass from the Washington Capitals took a liking and kept their eye on him. Signed to a developmental deal and invited to development camp, the Capitals sent the young 19 year old down to Hershey. The Bears were having a pretty good season on their own when Walker suited up for 43 games.

CapitalsDevelepmentCampDay4-8-of-46Impressing the folks with the Caps proved necessary and Walker did just that. He not only became history as the first Australian to be selected in an NHL Draft (2014, 3rd round, 89th overall), but he is now the first Australian to be signed to an NHL contract.

It doesn’t matter where you come from or where you play the game. If you’re good, you’re good. Someone will catch their eye on you eventually. The hockey world is small and filled with connections upon connections of people who spread the abilities of players through word of mouth. A note to players all over the world: Don’t ever give up hope.

The Washington Capitals open up their 2014/2015 season at home on October 9th when the Montreal Canadiens come to play.

Remember that date. It’ll be the answer to a trivia question some day.

The Maniwaki Mauler: Gino Odjick

Photo: Ken Levine  /Allsport
Photo: Ken Levine /Allsport

It’s no secret that I love my enforcers. There’s just something about that role on the ice that can’t fill any other part of my hockey loving heart. I also can’t help but see my youth fly by me this summer. The Hall of Fame class of 2014 is made up of players that I use to have posters and hockey cards of. Adorning the walls of my room with the likes of Mike Modano, Peter Forsberg, and Eric Lindros was a man who was born and raised just a few highways down from me. That man wore the black, orange and yellow of the 1990’s Vancouver Canucks and helped instill fear into anyone who stepped in the path of Trevor Linden or Pavel Bure.

He answers to the name of “The Maniwaki Mauler” or “The Algonquin Assassin”. Gino-Odjick-Canucks-e1326866926668

Now these names may come across as a bit murderous in nature. Make no mistake of it; on the ice, that’s what Gino Odjick intended to do.

Born on the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation reserve in 1970, Odjick grew to be a monstorous 6’3”. Add a pair of skates and you can just feel his presence staring down at you without him even being there. A proud member of the Algonquin nation, the reserve was situated near the Gatineau Rivers and just west of Maniwaki, Quebec. Currently, the town holds a population of just over a thousand. When Odjick was growing up, it was less than 500. Getting to the NHL, hell even playing recreational hockey, was sometimes just a dream of many a kid from the reserve.

During the 1970’s and 1980’s, the natives of most reserves and the populations of nearby cities could not seem to cohabitate in peace. Racial tensions were rampant and it was here where Odjick learned what would soon become his trade and calling: fighting.

By the time the 1990 NHL Entry Draft rolled around, Odjick had completed two years of major junior with the Laval Titan. He made a name for himself as he collected close to 600 penalty minutes during the regular seasons. The Canucks saw they had an enforcer in the making and knew he’d be an important cause to the roster they were shaping. A young team that featured superstars in the making like Linden, Bure, and Petr Nedved, it came as no shock when bench boss Pat Quinn would throw Odjick on the line with each player. Quinn considered him one of his own and Bure, another outsider if you will, became the best of friends of Odjick.

Odjick’s toothless grin is the poster for the quintessential hockey player. The only player that could top it would be Bobby Clarke’s as he’s hoisting the Cup in the mid 70’s.

Odjick played eight seasons with the Canucks and remained a fan favourite through all of them. If you want to see why, just watch the video. The arena became alive each time Odjick whipped off his gloves.

To get old is inevitable. I remember watching that game in it’s entirety when I was a little girl and watching that now makes me feel ancient. Gino has long since retired from the NHL, in fact it’s been almost 13 years since he laced them up for a professional NHL game. However, it never tires me to watch these clips and admire guys like Odjick who night in and night out, defended their teams. Defended their teammates. Made for damn sure that anybody who crossed that red line or blue line would get a shoulder full. I miss the hockey of those days.

Gino Odjick has recently come public with a rare terminal disease. Diagnosed with AL amyloidosis, the disease, in layman’s terms, hardens the arteries and eventually your heart. It’s not for certain how much time Odjick has left. Stories like these make you realize just how much you can take your life for granted. Odjick may have gotten traded to a few more other teams in the latter part of his career but it was Vancouver that took him in as their own son. Gino lives out west to this day and is very active in the native community.
Odjick finished his career with 2567 penalty minutes. He may not have had the flashy stick skills; nor did he have elite scoring capabilities. He may not have won any awards. Odjick is just a man from a native reserve who defied the odds. Let’s hope you continue to defy the odds Gino.

Let’s hear another arena chant your name once more.

gino-odjick

Top five Team Canada squads

In honour of Canada Day, I’ve decided to throw together a little list of my top five Team Canada showings. In my “rankings” I consider the roster, the era of when the team played and how well they did. Remember, this is just my opinion and it will probably defer a lot from most. I won’t be naming the Summit Series either because everyone knows about that one. So sit back, grab your Timmie’s or Molson, eat some poutine and read about some of my country’s greatest teams.

5. Men’s Olympic Team – Sochi, Russia 2014

(Photo: Hockey Canada)
(Photo: Hockey Canada)

I know, I’m starting off with one that everybody knows about but I have to mention it. The only thing better than winning gold on Russian soil, is winning it at home. However, the 2014 squad proves that they were miles ahead of the Vancouver 2010 victory. Dominating their last two games against the US and Sweden, Team Canada (“senior” team, not junior) hasn’t shown this much power since the early 90’s.

A younger, faster Team Canada emerged. The changing of the old guard is indeed in play as players like Jamie Benn, Matt Duchene, John Tavares, Alex Pietrangelo, showed the world why we have the best developmental system going. Sweden didn’t hold a flame to how we played in the gold medal game. If you thought this team was scary; if the NHL will allow players to participate, just wait until the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

4. The 1987 Canada Cup team

The forerunner to the World Cup in the 90’s and early 2000’s, the Canada Cup was an exhibition tournament that took place before the NHL regular season. The NHL didn’t allow its players into the Olympics yet so this was one of the ways where the best hockey countries could compete for the title of World’s best. Players from the USSR weren’t allowed to play in North America just yet either and the Canada Cup was used as a way to see how the Russians were building their skill. Canada went undefeated to take the gold.

Some even put the Canada/USSR match-ups in this tournament ahead of the 1972 Summit Series as the best exhibition hockey ever seen. Want to know why? Just read off this lineup for Team Canada:

Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Ray Bourque, Paul Coffey, Mark Messier, Dale Hawerchuk, Doug Gilmour, Ron Hextall, Kelly Hrudey, Claude Lemieux, Rick Tocchet, Larry Murphy, Glenn Anderson, Craig Hartsburg, Mike Gartner, Brian Propp, James Patrick, Normand Rochefort and Grant Fuhr.

On paper, that line up is golden before the first skate blade hits the ice. I’m all for fairness though and giving credit where credit is due, case in point; the Russians lineup was insane as well. I’ll name off some of the more familiar names: Sergei Makarov, Vyacheslav Fetisov, Valeri Kamensky, Igor Larionov, Sergei Nemchinov, and Anatoli Semenov. The Soviets only lost one game. Guess to who.

By the way, this is was the only time Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux played on the same line together. Hell, the winning goal was scored by Lemieux from Gretzky. I’ve watched highlights of the games and how they dominated the ice is just unbelievable. It’s something that I personally think we’ll never see again.

3. Women’s Olympic Team – Salt Lake City, USA 2002

In the late 90’s, women’s hockey was just starting to get its push and the recognition it deserved. It wasn’t anywhere near being a global sport as both the US and Canada were the top two teams year after year. The only difference from present day is that other countries are quickly gaining speed and getting stronger. Back then, well, poor old Sweden was in for it.
The 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan were the first to include women’s hockey as an Olympic sport. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was in grade five and almost all of my school work was done around the Olympics. (In fact, my teacher decided to have her fun and give me a complete project on Russia. From beginning of time until present. Jokes on her, she gave me 100%) Actually, you know what’s funny? Russia never qualified for the tournament. JAPAN AND CHINA DID.

Anyway, Canada, the US and to a lesser extent Finland, dominated the pool. Most games finished in shutouts with box scores set in the double digits. (Also, Canada almost a gave up a close one to China, finishing 2-0. Seems like we always do this every single Olympics. See: Belarus 2002, Latvia 9b150c27-2f31-4d21-9421-e9376eb7a4132014) Everyone knew who would be in the final. It was just playing the waiting game until then. Low and behold, the Red, White and Blue became victorious, shocking the world.

Enter Salt Lake City 2002.

Looking for revenge the women of Team Canada stepped up their game a notch. Maybe with the luck of planting a loonie at center ice underneath the surface, they were out for blood. Canada was undefeated in their pool and managed 26 goals for against the likes of Sweden, Russia and Kazakhstan. There was only one team with a better record: USA.

In front of almost 10,000 die hard Team USA faithful, the red and white notched three bangers to seal the deal. Caroline Ouellette, Hayley Wickenheiser and Jayna Hefford were three names that Canada will never forget. They haven’t let up since either.

2. Men’s Junior team – World Juniors, 1987 aka the Punch-up in Piestany

If you don’t know me by now, you’ll know that I have a keen love of enforcers and fighting in hockey; I’m all for it when there’s legitimate cause. If you know your hockey, you’ll also know that this team didn’t even medal or place. They got thrown out of the tournament. So why am I including it? Well, this tournament is the one that started our nation’s love of the junior tournament.

The 1987 World Juniors took place in Pietsany, Czechoslovakia and with international politics at the time in the midst of a nuclear meltdown with the Cold War, it’s safe to say that North America and the USSR didn’t really like each other. Especially on the ice.

When these two teams met, the Russians were already out of medal contention. Canada, on the other hand, had a really huge chance at a gold medal. If they scored more than four goals, victory was theirs. Naturally, there was tons of animosity in the air. Especially when after scoring the opening goal, Theo Fleury did his famous slide towards the Soviet bench and pointed his stick towards them like a machine gun, opening fire. That probably didn’t sit well.

Towards the end of the second period, Canada was up with a comfy 4-2 lead. However, after a fight, Soviet player Pavel Kostichkin two handed Fleury obviously retaliating for his previous actions. Well, all hell broke loose after that.

A line brawl went into motion with Evegeny Davydov the first to jump the bench. All bets were off now as both teams cleared the benches. Valdimir Konstantinov broke Greg Hagwood’s nose, Mike Keane dummied Valeri Zelepukin, Stephane Roy got pretty much jumped and yet nobody stopped it. The inexperience of the refs assigned to this game played a pretty big factor in this melee.

Then the refs left the rink. Beautiful. How do you stop two big, bad hockey countries from killing? Well, you shut the lights off! That’s how!

Anyway, the brawl was eventually simmered down and the game canceled. The IIHF threw out both teams and suspended them. We may have not won gold, but that event is the exact reason why Canadians care about junior hockey so much.

1. Men’s Olympic Team – Vancouver, Canada 2010

Okay. I’ll admit it on the internet. I was in the bathroom when Sidney Crosby scored the “golden” goal. That was the only part of the tournament I missed. Yes, I’m a horrible Canadian. That being said, I’ve never EVER seen a country come together like Canada did for that game, hell, for those Olympics. Everyone was beaming with pride at every moment.

That’s the reason it takes the top spot. Not because we won gold, not because of hockey but because of our love for Canada. The red and white. The true north strong and free. The patriotism this country had for those cold two weeks in February 2010 might not ever be felt again in my lifetime. Hell, I was on the other side of the country but you could still feel it. I hope every Canadian, and I mean every Canadian, where ever you are in the world, gets a chance to feel like I did that day. Proud of your country.

Happy Birthday Canada.

Hartnell Down to Columbus…..for BJs

(Photo: Rich Lee, flickr)
(Photo: Rich Lee, flickr)

 

I don’t usually comment or write about the bigger stories that the NHL warrants because they’re a dime a dozen. Every hockey blogger on earth will have a reaction, either positive or negative, to every single thing that happens in the NHL. I like focusing my time and words to the lesser known stories and not as popular hockey leagues and teams of the world.

However being as my favourite NHL team, the Philadelphia Flyers, has made the first blockbuster trade of the offseason, (and…a bit of a stupid one at that), I figured I’ll poke my head into the dilemma and give my two cents.

Newly acquired General Manager Ron Hextall has made his first big splash since becoming reacquainted with the Flyers organization. Today he sent forward Scott Hartnell to the Columbus Blue Jackets for another former Flyer, Columbus assistant captain R.J. Umberger and a fourth round pick in 2015.

For those of you who have heard the name R.J. Umberger before but can’t remember why, well, this is probably the reason:

Hextall’s reasoning for the trade is trying to get the Flyers quicker up front and have more leverage and cap space to work with. Granted, that’s exceptional reasoning but to throw one of the teams’ best forwards in recent memory and one of the best players who do so much for the community down the drain and to another squad? Well, I think there has to be more to it than that.

Columbus was going to buy out Umberger and he was set to become a UFA; that was no secret. For the Blue Jackets, trading him and keeping their buyout is a fantastic win and probably one that shocked them. On Philly’s side, they retain a shorter contract with Umberger with gives them flexibility with the cap even though they’re only saving $150,000.

(AP Photo/Terry Gilliam)
(AP Photo/Terry Gilliam)

This deal seemingly came out of nowhere which leads me to believe that something went on behind the scenes and Hexy had to scramble and go for anything that was out there to unload Hartnell. Hell, Hartnell even changed his Twitter bio to “Columbus, Ohio” not even 10 minutes after the trade was announced. He even also would have had to waive his No-Trade Clause. I don’t know any insider info so take what you will of this with a grain of salt.

On another note, is the Columbus Blue Jackets the only team the Flyers can trade with?! Over the past three years, the Flyers have traded Jeff Carter, Sergei Bobrovsky and now Scott Hartnell to the BJs.

One more little stat: Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, James Van Riemsdyk and now Scott Hartnell were all traded on June 23rd. A day that lives in Flyers infamy now.

Now let’s get ready for the Leafs to do something stupid this summer so we can put this behind us.

Sports Apparel and Women

p13672599p275wThis is going to be more of a rant than anything else so bare with me.

Us women have come a long way. Now there’s still a ways to go between equality and the sporting world but this isn’t about what happens on the ice, field, court, diamond, whatever. I’m not going to get all political or feminist on you because quite frankly, that’s not my thing. (Kudos to those who do however.) I’m going to talk about something that has been bothering me for years.

Sports fashion.

I’m not talking about the latest Versace, Stella McCartney, Thierry Mugler threads. (Shocked that I know who they are, aren’t you? Yeah, I surprise myself too sometimes.) Nor am I talking about the pink jerseys and t-shirts or diamond encrusted logos. I’m talking about sizing.

Let me paint a picture. I’m about 5’8′ and all my life I’ve been referred to as being well built. By that I mean, broad manly shoulders, broad hips, huge muscular legs and to put it bluntly…..a large rack. (Sigh. Go ahead and picture it, I’ll wait…..done? Moving on.) You can easily see where I’m going with this, can’t you?

There are many other women in the world who are just what I described above and here’s our dilemma. When it comes to wanting to support our favourite teams through apparel, we are faced with two categories. Women’s section or men’s section.

51kpACV0WnL._SY300_In the women’s section we have the best designed shirts, beautiful logos and colours, unique abstract patterns, tailored perfectly to fit a women’s curves but there’s one problem. A size XL won’t even fit my left arm. Okay, no worries! (Don’t even get me started on plus size.) We’ll just head over to the men’s side.

The men’s side has the more generic looking t-shirts and whatnot but it’s our team so let’s get pumped! Problem? Yeah, a size small fits me like a dress.

See the dilemma? There’s no happy medium for women who are built like I am. I’ve heard people tell me to just lose weight and I’ll fit into it. Sorry sweetie, but it’s kinda hard to change my bone structure. Well, buy from the mens and shrink it! Yeah, no, a shirt will only shrink so much.

This isn’t a shot at smaller women either so don’t get me wrong. They wear that apparel with pride and I couldn’t be happier seeing more women in teams colours that perfectly accentuate their curves and bodies.

I just wish I could join them some day.