Sunday, January 31, 2010

All Is Not Well in Oilerville

“I thought we were rock bottom a few games ago. We keep creating all time lows for ourselves. We’re pretty fragile right now. As much as you want to be positive on the bench and try to keep guys motivated, you can tell when we play we’re demoralized.”

The words of Ethan Moreau say it all.

In Calgary on Saturday, January 30, the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames were engaged in a different kind of Battle of Alberta: the battle of who gets to end an elongated losing streak.

The Oilers lost, thus pushing the streak to 13 games.

I don’t think I can even describe the room after the game. This team is more than defeated, the room is apoplectic. It’s beyond life support. The shock paddles have failed to jolt life back into the heart of this team.

And if it rains, it pours. The Oil have been riddled with injuries and another one popped up Saturday night. Sheldon Souray broke his hand in a fight with Jarome Iginla.

Right now, I don’t really think it’s coaching or personnel that’s the problem as much as the team’s attitude – or lack thereof. Motivation out of this slump is not going to come from fear, brow beating, or rah rah. It’s a total overhaul of a mindset that has permeated each stall. And that mindset slaps you in the face when you read Moreau’s post-game comments.

I don’t know. What would it hurt to bring in an expert. As a member of the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers (CAPS), I can think of many people whose job it is to revitalize corporate climates. They are really good at their jobs and for sure, the Oilers can muster up the fee – or they can borrow it from Shawn Horcoff.

If there’s any doubt as to the need for such a measure, here’s Andrew Cogliano: “When you get back to back goals…it obviously kills the confidence and kills the group. We’re trying to stay positive but that’s easier said than done. I think everyone is trying to gather themselves up and think about what our next step is.”

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The Untouchable Defenceman is Touchable After All

On Sunday (January 31), the Calgary Flames embarked on a seven-player deal to send defenseman Dion Phaneuf, forward Fredrik Sjostrom and defensive prospect Keith Aulie to Toronto for forwards Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman and Jamal Mayers and defenseman Ian White. Phaneuf’s season has been less than stellar, not to mention he was cut from the Canadian Olympic team. But there is no doubt he has been a formidable force since he entered the league. His point shot and his hits are second to none – well maybe the point shot could be second to Rob Blake (in his prime).

I’m not totally shocked by the trade because the Flames had to do something. Phaneuf was always considered untouchable, but factor in his less than average season and his contract.

Making a deal these days always has to work with the bottom line as much as results and chemistry.

But the trade shocked many, in particular the players in question. The married players admit their minds were scrambling as to how they pack up their household as quickly as they can pack their suitcases.
“I was very surprised,” says Phaneuf, “but on the other hand, I’m very excited to be going to the biggest hockey market in the world.”

White: “It’s difficult going through this. I don’t think you could be prepared for it. I have a young child right now and a family. It’s difficult, especially when you have a couple of hours to pack up a life that you made here.”

Hagman: “Hockey is the same in Calgary and Toronto or wherever. It’s the off-ice stuff that kind of shocks you a little and makes you wonder what you’re going to do.”

Mayers: “Any time you get that call, it does come as a surprise. You first think about your family and logistics in regard to what you’re going to do. That’s probably the most important thing. The easy part for us is going to the rink and have an instant 23 friends.”

You have to know it wasn’t an easy trade. Brent Sutter was Phaneuf’s coach in junior, so you’d have to believe that the bond is like a father-son relationship. But from what we’ve seen on some of these movements, players that may have been slumping a bit on one team will move to another and excel. That would be Toronto’s gain, for sure.

As for the guys in return, Jarome Iginla desperately needs someone he can play with who will complement his offensive talents. He just doesn’t have a playmaker to get him the puck. If the trade doesn’t boost the offensive touch, and soon, the Flames are in dangerous territory of missing the playoffs.

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Saturday, January 30, 2010

The First Team to Blink Wins


The good news for me is Edmonton is in town. That means some of my favorite people are here: JJ the PR man; Sparky the trainer; and Robert the reporter. The only one missing from the mix is Roli the goalie. (Sigh) But I'll bet anything that the Oilers wish he was still with the team.

The expectations were so high (or perhaps it was low). Both teams coming into tonight's game were in dire straights. It was as if they were allergic to winning. Edmonton was wearing a 12-game losing streak, while Calgary was not far behind with nine consecutive losses. I'll bet that's why the PA seems to be turned up a gazillion more decibles -- in anticipation of a long and winding game where fans can only do their best impression of an empty seat as they unhurry their way back from the beer stands. They needed the PA to jolt them awake and out of their seats. It's probably why one reporter felt like the press box was swaying through the night.

Dustin Boyd kicked off the scoring for the Flames at 3:45 into the first period. Sam Gagner then tied it up at 12:25, and then it was all Calgary with five unanswered goals, including a second by Boyd. 

Jarome Iginla scored his 900th career point with his assist on the first Boyd goal. Then he scored a two-man power play goal at 15:13 in the second period. In the third, he fought Sheldon Souray, thus cementing the Gordie Howe hat trick (goal, assist, fight). That should get some people off his back. Hey, he's the face of the franchise, but look at how many head coaches, general managers, and team presidents he's gone through during the course of his career. I dare you. Look it up. (On another note of good cheer on the Iginla name, it is interesting there was no media who noticed his wife Kara carrying the Olympic torch as it went through Calgary last week.)

Country is the theme for this game, which means, all the nice rock music I so enjoy has been thrown to the wayside in lieu of non-stop country music. Alberta's own Paul Brandt sang the national anthem and even sang a song in between the second and third period. He's good, I'll give him that. And not hard on the eyeballs for straight women and the gay guys.

So with a 6-1 finish in favor of the Flames, who get to at least put a bandaid on a massive losing streak and the Oilers going to game 13 without a win, at least the prediction as to this game's outcome has not come true. I figured because neither team seemed to want to win, that it would go to a shootout until 3:00 AM. 

But for one night, at least, all is well in Flamesville, and I need to go to the ear doctor.

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Interview with Peter Bondra

It was February 6, 2007. Peter and I sat next to each other in front of his locker, alone in the Chicago Blackhawks dressing room in Calgary after his morning skate. All the other media and players had left the building. Only the equipment manager was there, tidying up for that night’s game against the Calgary Flames. Peter retired the following season.

His interview is reflective of why I like talking to European players about their experiences. I find it hard to put myself into their place – going to a foreign land where you don’t know the language, culture, or environment. How do you communicate, let alone play a professional sport at the level that is expected?

When did you first know you were going to play in the NHL?

“To be honest, it wasn’t my dream. The situation where I grew up was Communism. At that time, it was pretty impossible, unless you defected, like some players did. I didn’t think I was capable, to be honest.
“I grew up under Communism. My dream was to compete on national teams and the Olympics. As a kid, I went to bed and think about playing hockey. I know a lot of kids now grow up thinking about NHL.

“Looking back at 1990 when I come here that summer, I didn’t know much about NHL. There wasn’t Internet. There wasn’t satellite to see any games. I knew about a couple players. I knew who Gretzky was. Maybe Mario Lemieux. That was pretty much it. I wasn’t ready. I just try and see what happen. If I don’t succeed or I don’t like it for some reason, I will just come back. That was my mentality. That was my talk in my head. I wasn’t here to make a career, make the top, or score 500 goals. I wasn’t sure what kind of player I was. I knew I could skate. Maybe I knew I could score some goals. I had some offensive talents. But I just came here to try it.

“In my pocket, I had $1,500. When I left Slovakia, I told my wife, hey, if I don’t like it or something go wrong, I buy ticket and come back. Or the other way, if I made a team I will like there, you come over and meet me after training camp. That’s what happened.

“I made the team. It was a pretty tough training camp for me. I didn’t speak English. A couple things I knew – the words I knew were pizza and Coke. That’s what happened in Lake Placid, I went for dinner by myself. I got a menu in front of me, I knew pizza and Coke, so I got dinner.

“It was pretty tough. There was the first wave of Europeans coming here that was Hasek, Reichel, Holik…guys from Czechloslovakia. It was hard to compete for a job. It kind of felt like I had a big bulls-eye on my chest. They were very tough scrimmages for me. Everybody try to get a piece of you just because you’re skating a little faster than everybody else. You kind of show a little bit extra. All of a sudden, those guys, they know it. At the same time, when I made the team, it was different. I was already on the side of the players. They tried to protect me.

“Neil Sheehy come to me and told me to take the Jofa (helmet) off and take the CCM. I asked him why? Because the other team will know you’re European and will go harder against you. I just put a CCM helmet on. Some of those guys try to help you up, protect you when you go to battle. At the same time, you learn the game. I pretty much learn from beginning. Whatever I knew about the game, you come here, it’s different. Totally different game. Different coach. Coaches ask you to do different things. You learn as you go. It was tough at the beginning because coach talk about the game you’re going to play – the system, before the game give you a couple points. It was tough for me to get a couple words from his meeting. Every day was learning. Every day was something new.

“Even in life. My wife try to go to the bank and open an account, pay a bill by check. You go through the process. It was quite an experience for us.”

How do you know how to get to the rink and know what the coach says?

“That’s why you have your teammates that try to help you out. After the first month, I was excited to learn. I wasn’t a guy who was shy. I try to talk to my teammates, to coaches. I wasn’t perfect, but that was maybe what the team liked about me, about my personality. I was a guy who initiated being in conversation with the guys. That’s how you learn the English.”

How different is it when you come into a new locker room to establish yourself?

“My first trade to Ottawa was a little bit tough. I was playing for 14 years almost for one team and I kind of knew the system, the coaches and players. You pretty much feel at home. Being traded to Ottawa, I didn’t know what to expect at the beginning. I knew I come there to play hockey. The adjustments I was going through, I was better the second time because of it.

“No matter where you go, all the guys are same. You got all personalities, everybody’s different, but I’m the guy who try to be a friend to everybody. I just try to bond with the team and do the job which they ask me to do.”

Key to longevity?

“Don’t get satisfied. Compete. Play your expectations. Before you fight for a big contract, you go establish yourself as a player, maybe as a goal scorer. You sign a big contract, and now there’s more pressure to play expectations. You come play every game, every practice and be your best. When you get older, I would say to young players, compete. It’s everything inside of you – how much you’re willing to go to that kind of battle in your own mind, sometimes. When you challenge yourself more and more, you’re going to get better results. That’s why you going to stay in the game.

“And you have to like the game. I’m going to be 39, I guess tomorrow. I still like the game. I’m really happy to come to practice. The lockout year made me realize how much I missed the game. Even this year, early in the season. I would do anything just to come here, whether you win or lose, it’s something special. You appreciate when you’re older, more and more, come to practice, do the preparation for the game.”

How tough is it to have a family in this kind of environment?

“When you have the family around during the season, you try to help as much to your family, to your wife as much as you can, especially when you have kids – with all the schools, activities. They have hockey, each have couple sports. I’m really very proud of my wife and how she handle that stuff now when I’m in Chicago and she’s in Washington. You go to the games and if you don’t have good friends or on the hockey team, I don’t know if I’d be able to do it.

“When I was home, my wife would see me. I was kind of watching every night, four-five games with my kids at the same time. You’re flipping channels. She knew I was not ready to retire. She knew I missed the game.

“It’s tough, especially when my kids are their age, I should be around them as a parent. At the same time, my heart is still in hockey. Hopefully, I will pay them back. Hopefully, when the season is over, I will spend more time with them.

“Anytime I have a day off, I try to fly back. Any time they have school off, they come into Chicago.”

What do you think is the biggest misconception others have about you?

“I’m not sure. Maybe they don’t know me. If they knew me and I was on the same team as them, maybe they would view me differently. Mostly, they look at you, hey, there’s a guy who scored lot of goals, or I’m not sure…maybe he’s selfish. I’m not sure what they think. I hope I convince them wrong when I have a chance to play with them same team. I’m the type of person that gets along with everybody, on the team, on the staff. Maybe because I play with one team for so long, people don’t know much about me.”

How has your role changed as a player?

“Through the beginning was learning the game and not much experience. Later on, I be a team leader, a guy who’s relied for production and be a number one or two player on a team. Coming around to the end, I come to try and help and give people the experience that I have. I can help the young players. The roles are definitely changing. The game itself is changing. You have to understand your role and how you can help the team.”

What has the game taught you personally?

“I grew up with the game, as a hockey player and as a person as well. It gives you a lot of good things for your life. Only good things, I would say, is what I gained from this game. You try to be a good person, not cheater. You gain a lot of good stuff.”

What’s your passion outside of hockey?

“It’s always been in sport. Any time I play anything, I like to win and compete hard, whether it’s tennis or golf. It’s always a challenge. If you’re not good, you try to get better. Because I’m playing the game, you always challenge yourself. Even when I stop playing, I still want to be active in sports.”

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