Friday, March 23, 2007

Two cents or $1.85 US on NHL fighting

Remember the days when you could see Ron Duguay’s hair flowing in the wind, as he skated down the wing? When Bobby Clarke ruled the corners? When a Boston-Montreal contest was sure to break out in a bench-clearing brawl?

You didn’t see many checks from behind. Concussions were not being handed out like candy at a children’s festival. And except for the very rare ugly incident (Dave Forbes, Wayne Maki), fighting controlled the frustrations of the game.

There are two issues impacting the respect of the game today:

a.) Helmets
Players see a helmet but not what’s underneath it. It provides a sense of invincibility. Until players’ chinstraps no longer dangle beneath their Adams Apple and until the hockey helmet offers as much protection as the football helmet, heads will continue to be vulnerable.

b.) Fighting
Like it or not, fighting relieves the tension of the game. Yes, players can still get hurt, but much fewer than those who have been impaled, high elbowed, or received checks from behind.

Fighting also sells, particularly in the U.S., where most centers’ newspapers barely put the line score in the back of the section. Who wasn’t talking about the Ottawa-Buffalo game earlier this season? Heck, Ottawa goalie Ray Emery even made CNN news!

The instigator rule, which was initially the answer to eliminating the bench-clearing brawl, actually started the downfall of respect. Frustrated players began using different avenues to relieve tension, other than their fists. Combine that with mandatory helmets and you have Bertuzzi-Moore/Suter-Kariya/McSorley-Brashear, and many more like incidents.

Give me fighting any time over watching a player being hauled off the ice on a stretcher.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Bam Bam Cam

The power forward.

Look the word up in the professional sports dictionary and there’s only one definition: Cam Neely.

“The ultimate power forward,” emphasizes former Bruins coach (from 1974-75 to 1978-79) Don Cherry, perhaps one of Cam Neely’s biggest fans. “He had everything going for him. He was big. He was tough. He controlled them, a 50-goal scorer, hit a ton. There’s nothing he couldn’t do.”

Neely admits he was more of a finesse player when he was younger, but when his body grew bigger with adolescence, “I couldn’t go around people like I used to, so I thought about going through them.”

But even the best description pales in comparison to old game footage. He had to really be seen to be appreciated. There was no one like him. No one.

See for the ultimate Cam Neely experience.

For 13 seasons (three with Vancouver and 10 with Boston), from 1983-84 to 1995-96, Neely scored 395 goals, 299 assists for 694 career points, plus 1,241 penalty minutes in 726 games (57-32-89, 168 PIM in 93 playoff games). He epitomized the meaning of the big, bad Bruin.

Kelly Kisio (former Red Wing, Ranger, Flame, and Shark) played opposite Neely. “In Boston, in that little building, he was tough playing against. You were hoping that night that the coach didn’t match you up against his line.”

Flames head coach Jim Playfair, who won a Memorial Cup with Neely in Portland of the Western Hockey League in 1983, said that while hitting came naturally to him, fighting didn’t. “He had to dig down way down deep to be a fighter.” That said, Neely was very convincing. Just check out old video footage of his duel with Rick Tocchet (

Interesting enough, the 1986-87 Hockey Scouting Report (Michael A. Berger with John Davidson and Jiggs McDonald, published by Summerhill Press in Toronto, 1986 – the year Neely joined the Bruins) reports that the right wing Neely didn’t handle the puck as well as he skated, particularly in heavy traffic areas. He was a defensive liability, wouldn’t score many goals, and might not even win all of his fights. But it did say he didn’t know the meaning of the word “quit,” was a strong skater with balance and speed, difficult to knock down because of his strength, and impossible to intimidate. Neely scored 36 goals and 72 points that very season. The following four seasons, he respectively scored 42, 37, 55, and 51 goals. His first 50 came in just 44 games, and he became the Bruins all-time playoff goal scorer.

Why did the trade to Boston reignite his career? Neely admits that while his style may have better suited the Adams Division and the small arenas of Boston and Buffalo, “They put me with some of the top players on the team and gave me an opportunity to see what I could do.” That didn’t happen in Vancouver. Thus, he grew more confident and could play more physical.

But has there ever really been another Cam Neely-type player?

Kelly Kisio doesn’t think so, even though former NHL C Mark Messier might be close. Hockey scribe and broadcasting legend Stan Fischler thinks perhaps Carolina C Eric Staal or Rangers LW Brendan Shanahan. Former Vancouver teammate Dave Lowry says Calgary RW Jarome Iginla would probably be the closest.

“I don’t think there is one player who has all of the packages he had,” adds Columbus head coach Ken Hitchcock. “You see the Heatleys or Hossas or you see Ovechkin or Kovalev – people who could score like Cam, but I don’t think there is anybody that really has that package.”

Minnesota head coach and former Canadien adversary Jacques Lemaire observes, “You look back; you had a lot of good guys. We (Habs) had a couple good guys. But maybe what was the difference in this guy was he was big. He could fight. He was tougher than the other guys.”

Hitchcock and Cherry compared Neely to Gordie Howe, but if there is one player in the league right now that fits the closest, it’s Jarome Iginla. He’s gritty, can’t be pushed off his feet, finds the back of the net easily, and is perhaps one of the best fighters in the league.

Iginla had entered the league as Neely was leaving. Does he think he compares? “Personally, I don’t know if I’d compare. He’s a pretty big guy. He was extremely tough, was in a lot of fights, more fights than I get into.”

Neely, however, says the rules may have a bearing on why no one has followed his footsteps. “They’re calling so many penalties and a lot of penalties that weren’t penalties in the era that I played.”

Most believe Cam Neely could have the same impact in today’s NHL. Sadly, a bout of injuries forced him to leave the game. Most blame the start of them with the open ice knee on knee hit he received from Ulf Samuelsson in game three of the 1991 conference final between the Bruins and the Penguins. It’s an image few of us can ever forget. (

“It always breaks my heart when I see Ulf Samuelson back of the Phoenix bench,” adds Cherry. “It makes my blood boil. He got the cheap shot of cheap shots to start him on the way with his injuries.”

Which reminds Cherry of his favorite Neely moment. “When he grabbed Claude Lemieux and when he grabbed Ulf Samuelsson, to see them both turtle. I know I should be thinking of his beautiful goals. But I think of both those guys turtling like cowards once he grabbed a hold of them.”

Sunday, March 04, 2007

A high stakes game of "Chicken"

For a new generation of hockey fans, this is as big as The Gretzky Trade. In 1988, the unthinkable happened in Edmonton, when National Hockey League superstar Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings. It sent shockwaves throughout all professional sports and ignited the well-known cliché: If Gretzky can be traded, anyone can be.

Fast forward to 2007 and the NHL Trade Deadline when Edmonton, once again, became front and center in sending another shockwave. Ryan Smyth may not have had the numbers Wayne Gretzky had. He may not be half the hockey player, but Ryan Smyth was the face of the franchise. He was expected to live out his career as an Oiler. Fans expected it. Management expected, and even Smyth expected it.

So what happened on February 27 that went so wrong?

Since the end of his contract loomed near, the Oilers were expected to resign Smyth – perhaps with some negotiation, a little more dough, but it was a no-brainer that the Alberta-born left winger would remain in Edmonton. About an hour after the deadline passed, when trades were still filtering in after league approvals, Ryan Smyth to the Islanders for first-round picks and prospects Robert Nilsson and Ryan O’Marra, plus a 2007 draft pick.

It certainly took everyone by surprise. How can this be? Ryan Smyth? Captain Canada? The fan favorite? Then déjà vu set in. Edmonton: small market team; Smyth: demanding bigger dollars than the team can spend.

It is said the monetary difference was only $100,000 to $200,000. Pocket change in today’s world of big money, even in the NHL. The Oilers were reported to offer $5.4 million or $27 million over five years. Smyth was reportedly asking for $5.5 million. ????? To everyone outside Alberta’s capital city, it was ludicrous. Another report said Smyth would gladly spend $100,000 on a box if the Oilers would up their ante to $5.5 million. General Manager Kevin Lowe said no.

When it was clear at twenty minutes to deadline that the Smyth camp wasn’t budging, Lowe, running out of time and not wanting to lose his star player for nothing on July 1st when his unrestricted free agency set in, made a few calls and pitched him to a handful of teams.

By this time, most teams had already made their deals. You can be sure if some of them knew Smyth was going to be available a lot sooner, they would have moved heaven and earth to get him. He’s a type of player that would fit into any organization. Everyone wants to add a bit of grit to their lineup, particularly a gritty player that can score big goals – albeit not pretty ones, but goals nevertheless.

While the Islanders’ new pickup has immediately impacted their lineup (he has scored a point in each of his first two games – 1 G, 1 A), Smyth still becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year. Edmonton fans are hoping that means that Smyth could still be an Oiler. Others think there should be a new league rule to prevent a team from gaining back a player they gave up at the trade deadline, or at the very least, be made to wait out a season before re-signing.

There are definitely two camps on the issue. One camp is vehemently supporting Lowe and think Smyth is not worth the money he is asking -- not even if it’s $100,000 more. The rest think it's pocket change over a principle.

However, both sides agree that Lowe could have handled it better. If there was going to be a high stakes game of “Chicken” (which Smyth’s agent Don Meehan is very good at), Lowe should have set a drop dead date about four days before the draft. Then he could have shopped Smyth around and got a lot more for him.

Or Lowe should have signed Smyth first, then signed Horcoff and all the supporting cast around him, like the Calgary Flames did with their franchise player Jarome Iginla.

The whole thing kind of makes you wonder what the 2004-05 lockout season was for if it's back to the same old thing of crying poor. I'm sure the owners spend more than $200,000 at Starbucks. But then again, if the dollar difference was only for such a small fraction, you have to wonder why Smyth wouldn’t sign. I mean, how much more will $100,000/$200,000 make when you’re getting paid $5.4 million?

There is that remote possibility that Smyth could become an Oiler again after July 1st. However, once he gets a taste of the eastern travel and being home in his bed every night, the smaller fishbowl, and the notorious New York blank check (see Jaromir Jagr, Alexei Yashin), chances may be pretty slim he’ll ever play in the Western Conference again.