Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Campus Corner: Tuesday night hoops

Just got back from the Queen's - Ottawa basketball games, which saw some surprising developments. The first game saw the Gee-Gees pick up only their second win of the season (and the other one was against RMC, so that hardly counts) against the 7-10 Gaels. Queen's had shown some signs of turning their poor season around lately after reeling off a couple of wins last weekend, but they left Ottawa in the game for far too long, and it eventually cost them.

The first half was pretty even throughout, with neither team able to build too much momentum. Queen's took a slim 33-32 lead into the break, but the Gaels were outscored 18-10 in the third and weren't able to make up the lost ground. Ottawa took a 12-point lead with 90 seconds left on a Katie Laurier field goal, but Gaels Sarah Barnes and Christine Wallace hit back-to-back threes to bring Queen's within six. That was as close as they got, though, and the game finished 68-63 for the Gee-Gees.

There were both upsides and downsides for Queen's in this one. After the game, head coach Dave Wilson legitimately cast much of the blame on the Gaels' twenty turnovers, but they certainly weren't helped by some interesting officiating. One call in particular that hurt Queen's was a suspect fifth foul on starting point guard Teddi Firmi with five minutes left. Firmi was run over by an Ottawa forward driving the hoop, but the call went against her and the Gaels experienced a severe guard shortage (Jaime Dale didn't dress due to injury), which certainly hurt them down the stretch. Firmi was having a solid game, too, as she put up six points, three assists, and a team-high eight rebounds, with six of them coming from the defensive glass (Aside: can anyone think of another team where the point guard often leads in rebounding?).

On the bright side, Brittany Moore did a nice job at shooting guard in place of Dale for much of the game, knocking down a team-high 18 points and adding three rebounds. Alaina Porter had a strong game with 12 points and four rebounds, while Anne Murphy chipped in eight points and six rebounds. It definitely wasn't a total write-off for the Gaels, and as Firmi pointed out afterwards, it certainly shows they need to bring intensity to every game. I'll have the full story on this one in Friday's Journal.

The men's game also provided an interesting matchup. I was expecting things to be reasonably close, as both teams have been in the national top-10 rankings this year (Ottawa was 13-3 heading into the game and sat sixth in the coaches' poll, while Queen's was 10-6 and unranked). However, it wasn't even a contest at first, as Ottawa stormed out to a 25-7 lead early on. Queen's managed to stop the bleeding, though, largely through the insertion of point guard Baris Ondul (playing in his first game back since his groin injury earlier this year). Ondul still didn't look 100 per cent, especially late in the game, but his tenacious defending and strong distribution of the ball made a huge difference. Queen's outscored Ottawa 24-14 in the second quarter, and only trailed 34-31 at the half.

Another slow start cost the Gaels in the second half, as the Gee-Gees quickly jumped out to a 45-33 lead. They widened the lead to 14 points early in the fourth quarter, but Queen's came back within eight, courtesy of some strong three-point shooting by guard Simon Mitchell. Ottawa again widened the lead, but Queen's started knocking down three-point shots like there was no tomorrow, with Jon Ogden hitting two, Simon adding another and his brother Travis chipping in a fourth. Simon Mitchell's three-pointer cut the lead to three with less than five seconds left, setting the stage for a fantastic finish.

Gael forward Nick DiDonato promptly fouled Ottawa veteran David Labentowicz on the inbound, and he stepped up to the line. Facing the hostile atmosphere of a packed house (with encouragement from the Queen's Bands and the competitive cheerleading squad), Labentowicz cracked and air-balled his first shot. Queen's crowded the key with three defenders on the second attempt, hoping for a rebound, while Ottawa elected to focus on defending downcourt and only sent guard Sean Peter in for a rebound. Labentowicz missed again, but against the odds, one rebounder prevailed over three and Peter came up with the ball. DiDonato quickly fouled him, but he hit one of his shots to put the game out of reach. The Gaels' inbounds pass was intercepted, and the game finished 74-70.

There were several interesting things to note in this one. Gaels' star Mitch Leger had a solid first three quarters, putting up 13 points, eight rebounds, a block and a steal. However, coach Rob Smart sent him to the bench for most of the fourth quarter, and he didn't play at all inside the last ten minutes. It's highly unusual to sit a star in crunch time during such a close game, so there's the possibility of injury: Gaels' fans will certainly hope it was just an odd coaching decision, though, as this team doesn't seem likely to do too much without Mitch.

Also, fourth-year guard Simon Mitchell had another outstanding game. He was called upon to shoulder much of the point guard's role, with Ondul limited to 13 minutes, but he again proved he's very capable in this slot. He knocked down 21 points and added five assists (both team-highs), while also chipping in four defensive rebounds.

The key thing for me was this team's ability to shoot the three when they're hot. Overall, they were a pretty lousy 29.4 per cent from downtown, but towards the end, everything they threw up was going in. The majority of the late shots were contested, but it didn't seem to matter. If they can just channel that more often, they may be able to pull off some playoff success. Their free-throw shooting is also very impressive: five players were perfect from the line, and the team overall converted 84.2 per cent of their foul shots, much better than Ottawa's 67.9 per cent. They were slightly out-rebounded by the Gee-Gees (38 to 35), but pulled down 12 offensive boards against Ottawa's eight. They also showed that they have scoring depth: four players hit double digits (both Mitchells, Leger and Ogden). The Gaels aren't quite up there with the Carletons of this world yet, but they certainly showed they can run with the Ottawas: if they had come out of the gate with the intensity they showed towards the end, they probably would have won this one. Katie McKenna (who's proving to be a great sportswriter when she isn't busy stopping shots for the women's soccer team) will have the full story in Friday's paper.

The next matchups for the hoops squads will also be interesting: both teams face the Laurentian Voyageurs Friday and the York Lions Saturday. Both women's teams are very strong (York is a league-leading 15-3, while Laurentian is 13-5), but the men's teams are considerably weaker. The Lions are 4-13, while the Voyageurs are 3-14, ahead of only the pitiful 0-17 RMC Paladins. My prediction is two wins for the men and two losses for the women, but you never know what will happen in OUA athletics...

Related links:
- Mark Wacyk's take on the game over at cishoops.ca
- Neate Sager's post on the game and the most recent top-10 rankings

Bring on the auditors!

Ben Knight, the Globe and Mail's esteemed soccer writer, had a great post up today about the Canadian Soccer Association refusing to reveal the terms of their settlement with Fred Nykamp (the chief operating officer they lured from Canada Basketball, kept in limbo for several months, and eventually fired before he could start work). If this were any other government-funded organization, people would be up in arms by now: they've been without a full-time president since Colin Linford's resignation, there's no technical director or COO in sight, they somehow managed to lose substantial money on a U-20 World Cup tournament that shattered attendance records, and now they've wasted an undisclosed amount of money on a settlement that wouldn't have been necessary if they hadn't been so inept in the first place.

It's not disputed that Nykamp deserved a substantial settlement for his shoddy treatment at the hands of the CSA: the taxpayers and average soccer players who fund the agency deserve to learn just how much money was wasted by its own incompetence. As Knight pointed out, a full-fledged audit would answer many of the underlying questions about the CSA, show which parts of the organization should be retained and which ones should have been scrapped long ago, and pave the way for the future success of Canadian soccer. This is unlikely to happen at the moment, given the lack of pressure on the CSA, but if enough fans get angry enough, something might be done.

Links of the day: (perhaps inorganic, but after all, the point is to advertise some great work that I don't have time to write full entries about!)
- Neate has an interesting take on the Ray Emery saga, and also caught the Boston Globe perhaps jumping the gun
- CFRC's Tyler King makes a good point about how untrustworthy the OUA is
- In the same vein, James Mirtle has a hilarious story in the Globe about how no one knows the CIS basketball scoring record
- Mirtle also has a nice post up on his blog considering how hockey's changed since the lockout
- A post I wrote over on my Journal blog about the Belgian Olympic Committee banning their athletes from expressing political opinions this summer

Saturday, January 26, 2008

How the West was won

Some very interesting stuff from the HockeyAnalysis.com power rankings. David Johnson's complied a list looking at adjusted winning percentage (eliminating the extra points from shootouts and OT losses) and strength of schedule, and came to the conclusion that the top 11 teams are in the Western Conference, while the only Eastern in the top half of the league are Ottawa and Philadelphia. As he mentions, this might be a little off: Ottawa's probably better than Phoenix, Colorado or Columbus, but their numbers are hurt by the terrible quality of the teams they play. In fact, many of the lower Eastern teams probably have more wins than they should given the poor quality of their opposition, which in turn would inflate the strength of schedule factor for the top Eastern teams.

What this really shows, though, is the depth of the conferences. The top half of the West is very even (except for Detroit), while the East seems far more imbalanced. Overall, the West is 57-31-7 against the East this year. What's interesting is the divisional breakdown: the Northwest leads with a 21-10-5 record (not surprising due to the depth of its talent), but the Central is close behind with a 19-10-2 mark. The Pacific trails with a 17-11-0 record, but it should improve now that Anaheim's on a hot streak since Scott Niedermayer's return. Even the hapless Los Angeles Kings have a winning record against the East thus far (2-1-0). It will be interesting to see if this edge is shown in tomorrow's All-Star game: is it the top talent from the West that's better, or is it the depth? Personally, I think the difference comes back to goaltending and team defence: all of the top five goalies in GAA are from Western teams, as are 11 of the top 15. Any other theories?

Related: Thanks to Tom Benjamin for the link.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Campus Corner: Can hockey keep it up?

In the final installment of Campus Corner for this week, here's my thoughts on the hockey teams. First, the men's team pulled off a very nice come-from-behind victory against RMC on Wednesday: the Journal was well-represented at the match, with Mike, Josh and myself all making the cross-town trip to Constantine Arena. I mentioned in a comment on Neate's blog earlier that I wasn't too impressed with the arena: to me, it felt way too small and cramped (the section we were sitting in was packed to the brim, and there were constantly people moving around looking for seats). Also, the penalty boxes weren't glassed in, which I haven't seen in a hockey rink before, and the whole arena's covered by white netting, making visibility pretty limited. Others think differently, though.

Anyways, on the game itself: it was a pretty impressive performance from the Gaels. What amazed me the most was one particular coaching decision on the part of Brett Gibson. Pat Doyle was flattened by RMC captain Luke Pierce, got up, skated up behind Pierce, reached around and yanked him down with his stick, taking an obvious and unnecessary penalty away from the play. As Mike pointed out in his article on the game, many coaches would have benched Doyle then and there. Gibson, who had already suspended Doyle for two games following an earlier pattern of poor play, took the opposite tactic though and moved Doyle to the top line with Brady Olsen and Jon Lawrance. The move paid off, with that line accounting for every Gaels' goal.

The other impressive factor was Olsen himself. He scored three times for Queen's, including a second goal that was one of the prettiest I've seen in a long time. Gibson's description of it to Mike was perfect.
“At any level you won’t find a nicer goal, and I’m not exaggerating one bit,” he said. “I stood on the bench and was in awe, I just couldn’t believe it. … There aren’t many kids that can do that.”

This is the third year I've seen Olsen play, and he's improved each year. He's doing particularly well this year, and is third in goals scored in both the OUA and the CIS. Unfortunately, he's in his fourth year of eligibility, so it will be interesting to see if he comes back next year, and if not, what happens to the team in his absence.

This weekend's games for hockey should be pretty good. Tonight's road game against Toronto is huge for the men: the Blues are only two points back, with a game in hand, so it could be decisive in terms of determining the division title. They also play Carleton Saturday night in Napanee. Oddly, despite the similarity in the teams' records (Queen's is 11-10-3 and Carleton is 11-10-2), their playoff positions are hardly similar: Queen's leads a weak Mid-East Division, while Carleton's in third in the Far East (and only a couple points ahead of Concordia and Ottawa). If Queen's can pull out two wins, they'll be in great shape: anything else will make the stretch run very interesting.

The women's team also plays this weekend, after a disappointing tie with UOIT last weekend. They take on two pretty strong teams in Windsor and Laurier. Queen's is currently in the middle of the standings, so a repeat of last year's OUA silver isn't looking all that likely at the moment, but as teams like the Edmonton Oilers and New York Giants have shown, seeding can become irrelevant once you get into the playoffs.

Campus Corner: A sibling rivalry, or lack thereof?

The men's basketball team faces a sharp contrast this weekend. Tonight, they play 14-0 Carleton, the consensus No.1 team in the country (according to the CIS poll, cishoops.ca, and the RPI rankings, which agree on very little apart from Carleton). Tomorrow night, they play a polar opposite team in the 0-14 RMC Paladins (as an aside, why does RMC even bother keeping volleyball and basketball teams? They haven't won a game in either gender in either sport this year, so they're worse than the Miami Dolphins, which is pretty sad).

Tonight's Carleton game should be quite interesting. As Neate Sager noted on The CIS Blog, Carleton's suffering from a flu bug. That, combined with the possibility that the Ravens might overlook tonight's match in preparation for tomorrow's Capital Hoops Classic against Ottawa before 10,000 fans at Scotiabank Place, should at least give the Gaels a slim chance to my way of thinking.

Unfortunately, head coach Rob Smart doesn't seem to agree. Smart told me that the game means "almost nothing" for his team, as they've pretty much already written it off. While certainly a pragmatic and realistic attitude, I'm not entirely convinced that it's the proper one for a coach to take before such a clash. As earlier mentioned, there's a reason we still actually play the games rather than just simulating them on computers. If both the New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens can almost knock off the New England Patriots, there's certainly a chance that Queen's can hang in there with Carleton, and maybe even take the match if they channel the kind of shooting (71% from three-point land!) the Raptors put
up against the Celtics in their upset the other day. Perhaps I'm just a huge fan of underdogs, but I like to believe that there's always some hope. If Queen's can hit 71 per cent of their threes, I'm pretty sure they'll pull off the win: otherwise, it's still a slim chance, but it's definitely there. In any case, the battle of the Smarts (Rob and his younger brother, Carleton coach Dave) alone makes this game worth watching.

By the way, to keep from coming down on Smart too hard: he also made a good point about how Queen's young guys (i.e. Mitch Leger, Jon Ogden) are right up there with, if not better than, Carleton's equivalent young guys. The difference is Queen's relies on its young stars, while Carleton uses them primarily as fill-ins. It's also possible that he's saying one thing to the media to keep expectations low while secretly pumping his guys up for battle. The other alternative is that he's just sick of the inevitable questions about the success his brother's having with Carleton. In fairness, these games don't really mean a ton in terms of playoff positioning either: the 9-5 Gaels are currently fourth in the OUA East, and there doesn't seem to be too much likelihood of them catching Toronto given the Blues' recent success: however, there are still a lot of games to play. They should be able to finish ahead of fifth-place Ryerson, though, as the Rams are currently 5-9. Thus, barring an unexpected run or Jean Van de Velde-esque collapse by the Gaels (or a Phil Mickelson-esque choke-job by the Blues), they should be set to host Ryerson in the first round, a very winnable game.

(Hilarious response by Smart when I asked him if there's a sibling rivalry: "A rivalry involves being close.")

It will also be interesting to see if Queen's can keep any intensity for Saturday night's game against RMC, or if it will all have been drained from them in the Carleton game. Smart said he isn't worried about overconfidence, but you have to think that there might be some going from playing a 14-0 team to matching up against an 0-14 team. RMC's certainly going to pull out all the stops against their cross-town rivals in an attempt to avoid a winless season, and the schedule should help them a bit. I don't think Queen's will let down far enough that RMC will take the game, but it might be closer than you'd think, and the improbable does occur from time to time.

The women's matches should also be interesting. Tonight, 5-10 Queen's takes on 3-12 Carleton. The Gaels then play the winless Paladins Saturday night. These are key games for playoff positioning. Queen's is currently fourth in the OUA East, and has no chance of moving up (third-place Laurentian is 12-4). However, they need to hang on to the fourth seed to host a first-round matchup. They definitely don't want to slip any further than fifth, as the sixth and final playoff seed earns a doomed matchup against the third-place team. Carleton currently occupies sixth place, and will be desperate to try and move up. As Gaels' head coach Dave Wilson noted, it really is a four-point game. The RMC game will also be key: Wilson pointed out that the Paladins have been playing good basketball without getting results, and you know they'll be fired up against a crosstown team that has also struggled.
(By the way, Wilson is one of my favorite coaches: he always has time for the media, and he's one of the most quotable people I've ever interviewed.)

- Neate Sager's piece setting up the weekend at Out of Left Field: he also threw a link my way, which was completely unexpected and very nice of him
- Neate's other piece on basketball at The CIS Blog, referenced above
- The CIShoops.ca weekend preview (By the way, Mark Wacyk got some nice recognition for his work from Michael Grange of the Globe and Mail, my favorite basketball reporter).

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Campus Corner: A jam-packed weekend for volleyball

Apologies for the absence: been a bit of a crazy week with regards to classes and the paper, so I haven't had a lot of time to post. That should hopefully be remedied over the next little while. Anyways, it's going to be a pretty crazy weekend for Queen's athletics: all three of the major winter sports (volleyball, basketball and hockey) are playing some home games, so I figured I'd put something up here about each of them. Check today's Journal for further info: I've got a preview piece on the weekend in general. This post will focus on the volleyball teams: expect ones later today on basketball and hockey.

To start things off, there's the men's volleyball team. These guys are probably Queen's best shot for an Ontario or national title this fall: they're defending OUA champions, and have proved that they can contend with the likes of McMaster (15-0) and Guelph (12-3), taking each team to five sets in their prior matches on hostile turf. Queen's is also the only Ontario team in the most recent CIS top ten rankings besides No.4 Mac, coming in at No.9. As Coach Willis and the players have made clear, the team got off to a slower than expected start and only seemed to get it together towards the end of their fall schedule. However, their tough schedule of tournament play over the break (9 matches in 11 days) seemed to help, and they emphatically returned to solid form with a five-set win over rivals Western, who had beaten them in the fall.

The men picked up another win on the road against Ryerson last weekend, which they graciously let me tag along for. Ryerson's a pretty good team (7-7) so far, and their insanely small gym definitely makes things tougher, but it would have been nicer for the Gaels to pull out the victory in more dominating style (something the players agreed on after the match). A win is a win though, and it leaves them in good shape coming into this weekend's home games against 7-8 York and 4-11 U of T. The Gaels really need to take advantage of these home games against weaker opponents and come out with full points: Western and Waterloo are both hot on their heels in the standings, and they'd probably much prefer to come out of the regular season with the three seed and a first-round date with York or Ryerson instead of the Mustangs or the Warriors. However, they've made a habit of letting weak opponents hang around for far too long (they've played eight five-set matches so far, more than anyone else in the OUA), so anything could happen this weekend. I'm not covering the men's games, but I'll definitely be watching with interest.

The women's team is also in an interesting spot. Their 4-9 record is far from impressive, but it's good enough to tie them for fourth in the OUA East. They're also in a tight battle for the fourth and final playoff seed with 4-9 Lakehead and 4-10 Ryerson, so their win over Ryerson last weekend could be key. In that win, they really should have put the Rams away in the third set, but things got a little sloppy, Ryerson woke up, and it was far closer than it needed to be. This is clearly a transitory year for the program, with a new head coach (Joely Christian), a scarcity of fourth-year players (backup setter Jenna Willis is the only one) and three rookies in prominent roles (Elyssa Heller, Colleen Ogilvie, and Lorna Button all see regular playing time). However, making the playoffs is a huge momentum-boost for a team, even if they bow out in the first round: just ask Toronto Maple Leaf or New York Islander fans about the psychological difference gaining the last seed makes. It may be tough for the women to get any points from this weekend against 13-2 Toronto and 8-5 York, but a strong showing would prepare them for a difficult road trip to face Laurier and Waterloo next weekend.

A couple of notes common to both teams: first, the basketball teams' home games against Carleton on Friday means that volleyball's been shifted to Saturday night (against York) and Sunday afternoon (against Toronto). The problem is, this leaves both sets of Gaels with less than 24 hours rest against fully rested Varsity Blues teams (who play RMC Saturday afternoon). There's not much that can be done with the schedule, due to Queen's only really having one gym (Bartlett) capable of hosting varsity games. However, the real reason this happened was all the teams were on the road last weekend due to BEWIC Sports Days taking over the gyms. I'm all in favour of intramurals, but it doesn't make sense to me to jeopardize varsity results based on them: would it not have been possible to schedule it so intramurals used all three gyms during the day, but only Ross and Bews around the times of the varsity games? That way, either basketball or volleyball could have hosted the normal Friday/Saturday matchup last weekend and the other sport could have done so this weekend. Of course, I must admit to being partially self-interested here: it would have helped our paper out significantly to not have to scramble for supplied photos last weekend when all the teams were away. Both volleyball coaches told me the quick turnaround was an issue though, so I think there is something here.

Second, this year has been an amazing rookie crop for both teams. The women have brought in Heller, Button, and Ogilvie, all of whom are making tremendous contributions. In fact, all are in the top four on the team in kills and kills per game (with second-year player Louise Hamill). Heller and Ogilvie are also 1-2 in points, and Heller leads the team in points per game. Ogilvie in particular had an impressive game last weekend, recording 15 kills (the most I've ever seen from a middle hitter) and three service aces: she was named our Athlete of the Week for her performance. The men's team has also had a great recruiting crop, bringing in six new players, of whom only Will Bulmer has yet to make an impact (due to injury). Most of them haven't received as much playing time as the women's rookies, due to a strong veteran presence on the men's team, but they've all chipped in at key moments. Joren Zeeman and Niko Rukavina are competing for a starting spot, and both have great upsides. Zeeman hits the ball tremendously hard, and has proven to be a great right-side power hitter with a solid serve. He's eight in the OUA in points per game and ninth in kills per game. He's also third on the team in overall kills, behind only veterans Jeff DeMeza (one of the OUA's best hitters) and Sam Pedlow. Rukavina's seen less court time, but has proven to be a good left-side hitter. He's less overpowering than Zeeman or DeMeza, but he picks his spots well, and is also great defensively. Other rookies have also shone in limited roles: Michael Amoroso's proven to be a capable middle hitter (which will come in handy once fifth-year veterans Chris Vandyk and Nick Gralewicz graduate this year), Dan Rosenbaum has done very well in his role as a backup setter (and proven that this team can still be strong once All-Canadian setter Devon Miller leaves after this year), and Bryan Fautley has shone when called upon, as he did against RMC a couple weeks ago when he led the team with 14 kills. This may be the men's best year to make a run at the nationals, with veterans like Miller, Vandyk and Gralewicz leaving for sure and others like DeMeza possibly moving on, and the strong performances shown by their rookies so far indicating that they can help out down the stretch. However, even if this year doesn't work out, the future is still bright.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Scribblings of the Scribes of Sport: Gare Joyce's Future Greats and Heartbreaks

Seeing as there are so many quality sports writers out there these days, and many of them are producing fine books, I figured I’d start occasional posts about the best works by sporting journalists I’ve read recently. To start it off, there’s Future Greats and Heartbreaks by Gare Joyce, which I received for Christmas and promptly read in the next couple days: it's very difficult to put down. The book provides a fantastic look at the profession of hockey scouts with a good deal of access from the inside, as Joyce was able to sit in on the Columbus Blue Jackets’ 2006 draft preparations and was involved with much of their subsequent scouting season. There are also interesting takes on a variety of other topics related to junior hockey, such as the tragic Swift Current Broncos bus crash of 1986, the world junior championships, and the players who never make it to the big leagues.

Another thing that helps this book excel is Joyce’s terrific writing talent. As established in his previous hockey book, When the Lights Went Out (a retrospective on the infamous Canada-USSR brawl at the 1987 World Juniors), the man knows how to tell a story. Despite the meandering path Joyce’s journeys in the footsteps of NHL scouts take him on, he is able to maintain a strong thematic continuity and spin a cohesive narrative out of what could have been a chaotic tale in the hands of a lesser writer.

The Columbus draft war room deliberations form a particularly interesting segment of the book, giving a great amount of insight into how NHL teams decide who to pick where. I found it especially surprising that so little credence is given to Central Scouting’s final rankings, which many in the media often speak of as indisputable. As Joyce points out, each team has their own list, and they frequently differ substantially from the consensus rankings. Joyce also makes a good point: in the end, it doesn’t matter if you got a player far below where you had him ranked if he doesn’t pan out.

Future Greats and Heartbreaks is a remarkable work. There’s far too little written about the scouting profession, which after all, is responsible for both the players who become stars and those who fail spectacularly. This book is a great addition to the realm of hockey literature, and exposes a side of the game many have never seen.

- Alanah has a great interview with Joyce from when the book first came out. Some fascinating stuff here, particularly on Steve Downie and Alexei Cherepanov.
- Joyce's own companion blog to the book. Interesting stuff here includes apiece he wrote on scouting for the Globe and Mail, a neat tale about what scouts get up to away from the rink, an introduction to the book's major characters, and an Edmonton Journal review of the book that touches on some of the other cool aspects and people I haven't mentioned, like Joyce's interview with Akim Aliu.
- Another review of the book by Joe Pelletier of hockeybookreviews.com, touching on some topics I hadn't thought of, such as if Columbus being the only organization that gave Joyce full access skewed his results in favour of their scouting model.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Don't stop believing: they still might be Giants

Today's astonishing New York Giants win over the heavily-favoured Green Bay Packers sets the stage for what could potentially be a fantastic Super Bowl. I must admit I was hoping Brett Favre and the Packers would triumph, setting up the old era-new era clash between Favre and Tom Brady, two of the all-time greats. For a while, it looked like they had a shot, especially at the end of regulation when there was a distinct chance "Wide Left" could enter the sports lexicon (it would have been nicely symmetrical, too). However, Favre threw an overtime pick, the Giants hit a field goal, and the rest is history.

The next act could be even more epic, though: Giants - Patriots II. As MSNBC's Mike Celizic pointed out after the original clash in the last week of the regular season, the Giants showed that beating the Patriots is indeed possible. "The Giants haven’t been accused of being the best team in the NFL," Celizic wrote. "Nor, for that matter, were the Eagles or the Ravens. But all three teams followed the template, and all pushed the Patriots to somewhere that might be near the limits of their extraordinary abilities. All had chances to beat the team that remains — so far — unbeatable. ... . Just because the Patriots have not been beaten doesn’t mean they’re unbeatable. It’s not easy, but nobody ever said it would be or should be. It requires a perfect game. Nothing more and nothing less."

Celizic is absolutely right here: beating the Patriots is still possible. The Patriots are far superior on paper, in every stat imaginable, and in roster depth, but the Giants still have a chance. As previously mentioned, this is why they actually play these games out instead of simulating a season on computers. Sure, a Patriots win may seem almost inevitable, but the Giants' chance for success still is there.

It would be so right on so many levels if the Giants were somehow able to come up with a win. The team that made a heroic effort but failed to stop 16-0 gets a shot to stop 19-0. It would be perfect to see the much-maligned Eli Manning do what his famous brother couldn't this year. It's David versus Goliath (but with the Giants as underdogs), 300 Spartans against a Persian horde, a small group of colonials rebelling against the might of Britain in her prime, the Rebel Alliance against the Galactic Empire. The sporting world proves that such events do happen from time to time: see the Miracle on Ice, Man O'War's loss to 100-to-1 underdog Upset (an appropriate name, to say the least), or more recently, Appalachian State v. Michigan.

The underdog appeals to much of humanity, just because it's so contrary to how things normally play out: we like to see the 97-pound weakling take down the 300-pound bully, the Luton Towns of this world able to compete with the Liverpools. Sure, most of the time it doesn't happen outside of the cinema, but when it does, it's magical.
Underdogs like the Giants represent all of us who have been kicked around by the world in some way or another: those passed over for jobs or promotions, those cut from the team, those told they weren't up to snuff for whatever reason. They can't compete with the big boys for supremacy over the long haul of a regular season, but they don't need to. On any given Sunday (or Saturday, or whatever day games are played on), anything can happen.

Sometimes, nice guys do finish first, empires can be stopped in their tracks, and you don't need secret video tapes to win a Super Bowl. It can't be that way all of the time, of course, as that would diminish the value when the unexpected does happen. Still, hope remains: sometimes it works out, and the tiny snubfighter blows up the battle station, the cold backup goalie stops Iceland's best shooter, or a pair of unknown journalists bring down a presidency. For all those who like to see the little guy come out ahead, as Journey famously wrote, don't stop believing. After all, they still might be Giants.

To Swede, or not to Swede (and if so, which Swede?)

There's lots of discussion going on in Canuck Nation at the moment regarding Hockey Night in Canada panelist Al Strachan's suggestion last night that Mats Sundin may be headed to Vancouver. It's certainly an intriguing notion: the Canucks' major weakness is a lack of deep, consistent scoring, which Sundin would certainly provide. However, given that he's likely to only be a rent-a-player and wind up back in Toronto next season, the question is if he's worth the steep price the Leafs will certainly demand. My thinking is he is, but only if two conditions are met: first, that Vancouver's playing well enough that his addition would be enough to push them over the top into the realm of serious Cup contenders, and second, that the Canucks don't have to mortgage their entire future to grab him.

The first condition seems to be a bit of an iffy proposition at the moment, as the Canucks haven't played consistently lately. After falling behind to Detroit, one of the best teams in the league, they mounted an incredible comeback and only lost in a shootout. However, they then fell 4-3 Saturday to the Los Angeles Kings, one of the worst teams in the league, on Hockey Night in Canada. The Canucks seemed to catch fire later in the game, and easily could have tied it with chances like the one Ryan Kesler had with less than a minute left: however, as Kesler himself said, they never should have been down that far.
"We seemed to be all over them at the beginning, but for us to be down 3-0 to the last-place team in our conference is inexcusable for us," Kesler told Ben Kuzma of the Vancouver Province.

A positive that can be taken from the game was the Canucks' generation of offensive chances: however, their defensive play that has stood out for most of the year was noticeably absent. They'll need to find a way to get both to click simultaneously, and on a consistent basis, if they want to be a serious contender. Interestingly enough, this condition is necessary for more than one reason: not only do the Canucks need to be able to challenge for the Stanley Cup to have a Sundin trade approach the realms of rationality for the organization, but they'll likely need to be in contention in order to have Sundin consider it, due to his no-trade clause.

On Condition II: it's uncertain what the market would require, so this is hard to discuss at the moment. I would certainly jump at the scenario Sportsnet hockey analyst and former Leaf GM Gord Stellick proposed in Rick Westhead's Jan. 9 Toronto Star article: swapping Sundin straight up for Cory Schneider, Mason Raymond and Taylor Ellington. This is nice because Schneider isn't that incredibly valuable to a Canucks team that will live and die on Roberto Luongo's play (and has also been getting strong backup play from Curtis Sanford). Drew MacIntyre has also shown himself to be a good prospect, and has been actually outplaying Schneider so far this year from what I understand, making Schneider a very expendable prospect (but one the goaltending-troubled Leafs might be interested in). Losing Raymond and Ellington would hurt a bit more, but many would happily give up both for a chance to win the Cup: this scenario also allows the Canucks to retain their draft pick this year, a good move considering that this draft is supposed to be very deep. However, my guess is that John Ferguson Jr. (or his successor) would want more for Mats, including picks.

Perhaps a better option is lurking out there in Peter Forsberg. Zanstrom wrote that Forsberg claims to be completely healthy and might be a possibility for the Canucks. If so, the Canucks would be a great fit for him, due to both Swedish ties and potential to contend. They also have enough cap space (especially if Morrison's injury turns out to be longer-term) to make Forsberg a decent offer. His injury problems notwithstanding, this is a gamble the Canucks should try. If it fails and Foppa gets hurt, all they've lost is a chance to make a run this year, rather than pieces of their future.

- Alanah's take on the Sundin/Forsberg situation
- Zanstrom's thoughts

Other links of the day:
- Tom Benjamin's take on the Toronto situation
- James Mirtle on the records teams will need to get into the playoffs


- The always-inspiring Uli Hesse-Lichtenburger of ESPN Soccernet has a great piece on how media oversensationalize even the most routine goals
- Stephen Brunt's take on the possible split between Liverpool owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr (originally with the great headline "Doomed to Walk Alone")
- Brunt's compatriot Ben Knight of the Globe and Mail on Kevin Keegan's return to Tyneside
- Soccernet has Hicks denying the split
- A piece I wrote for my Journal blog about the Premier League title race

- Neate Sager has some interesting thoughts over at The CIS Blog about the NCAA situation
- Speaking of the NCAA: my long-in-the-making piece for the Journal on the situation appeared on Friday: I'll have more on it both here and in Tuesday's Journal
- Mark Wacyk of cishoops.ca on U of T's recent win over the Gaels in CIS basketball
- Sager again on his personal blog, talking about the weekend that was in CIS hockey and basketball


- Bill Simmons' always entertaining mailbag and picks
- Brunt again on the Patriots' triumph over San Diego

- Sager with Brunt's thoughts on why he didn't submit a Hall of Fame ballot: very interesting stuff. I admire Brunt for taking a stand for what he believes, but as Sager points out, it's a shame he's not voting while far lesser minds are
- Jeff Blair on an interesting clause in Scott Rolen's contract
- Blair's globesports.com colleague Larry Millson has a nice retrospective on John McHale, the former Montreal Expos
president who died Thursday

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Why they still play the games

Last weekend in the NFL was a case in point as to why we still bother to actually play out the games, even in this day and age of intensive statistics, research and computer analysis on sporting events. Against the odds and the collected wisdom of the pundits and prognosticators, two underdogs (the San Diego Chargers and New York Giants) knocked off heavily-favoured teams (the Indianapolis Colts and Dallas Cowboys). The classic "any given Sunday" line became true again, which is a great thing for both the league and sport in general. Hopefully, this will continue: it will certainly make next week's
games interesting if the Chargers and Giants can at least give the Patriots and Packers a run for their money. All sense, odds, and logical thought again favours the home teams, but as this past week showed, the league can't simply be turned over to the statisticians and computers. It should be a great round of games.

Links of the day:
- Stephen Brunt has a great piece in the Globe and Mail on the Patriots
- Bill Simmons went 3 for 4 straight-up, amazing considering the two underdog wins: he even violated his own rule by taking Eli Manning and the Giants!
- The Vancouver Province's Marc Weber has a great piece on yesterday's decision to allow Canadian schools to apply for NCAA Division II membership (I'll have a story on this in Friday's Queen's Journal).
- James Mirtle weighs in on the NCAA situation on The CIS Blog
- Neate Sager has an interesting angle on how many Canadians are lost to the NCAA already
- Ben Knight on the atrocious current form of Liverpool FC

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Rocket's real fuel

In the wake of his 60 Minutes interview on Sunday, Roger Clemens held a press conference Monday to repeat his denials of steroid use (alleged in George Mitchell's report earlier). The most interesting thing to come out of it was his playing of a (secretly) taped conversation between himself and former trainer Brian McNamee, which he thought would help his cause (aside: who knew that only one party to a conversation had to consent to taping it? Apparently New York and Texas have no problems with people acting like Richard Nixon). As the Globe and Mail's Jeff Blair reports, it actually may have hurt Clemens' case. Clemens shows his outrage at McNamee for telling Mitchell that he used steroids, but never actually accuses McNamee of lying (and McNamee never said he lied on the tape). As Stoeten points out over at Drunk Jays Fans, another interesting moment comes from McNamee's line, "The truth is the truth. It is what it is," which Clemens, not so shockingly, danced around. It's impressive that Clemens comes off second-best in perhaps the most favourable circumstances possible: a secretly recorded conversation with his principal antagonist. As the New York Daily News' Mike Lupica writes, "All that was confirmed is that every time Clemens steps in front of the public these days, he doesn't seem to help himself very much." If Clemens can't even win under these circumstances (or in his own press conference, for that matter), how will he ever survive questioning by Congress? At this rate, he'll convict himself. Blair has another nice post on the Globe's baseball blog detailing just how flawed this conference was.

A good case was made by Glenn Kulkla, a former CFL lineman who admitted to steroid use during his career, who said on TSN's Off The Record today, "Whether he's telling the truth or lying, I don't think he's doing a good job of either." Kulkla went on to say that Clemens' explanation that McNamee's injections contained B12 and lidocaine is flawed: lidocaine shots (a local anesthetic similar to those used by dentists) in the back would likely result in the muscles tearing apart during exercise. Another interesting aspect of this is revealed in Jon Heyman's exclusive interview with McNamee for SI.com while watching Clemens' performance on 60 Minutes. McNamee said that lidocaine and B12 would be administered through the arm rather than the butt. You'd think Clemens would have bothered to check that before crafting his denials.

As Robert MacLeod of the Globe writes, whatever your opinion on where the truth is, this saga makes for great drama. McNamee’s lawyer, Richard Emery, announced “It’s war now,” after Clemens’ conference. It should get even more interesting when Clemens goes before Congress. It looks to me like he's left a pitch hanging up in the zone, as he did so many times this year: here's hoping McNamee, the media and Congress step up to the plate and knock this one out of the park.

Related links:
- Stephen Brunt’s column on Clemens’ 60 Minutes appearance, and how everyone overlooks the NFL’s steroids problem
- Peter Botte in the New York Daily News has more in an interview with McNamee
- ESPN's Patrick Hruby talks to experts on why Clemens' story doesn't make sense
- A hilarious take on this from Jeff Tydeman at Bleacher Report (featuring a line that cracked me up, "Roger Clemens has revealed his strategy in responding to accusations about steroid use: He's going to lie repeatedly and emphatically until hopefully the whole thing goes away.").
- A great collection of cartoons on the Mitchell report and steroids in general (my favorites are here, here, and here).

Monday, January 07, 2008

The System of a Downie

Following the Philadelphia Flyers is the equivalent of watching a train wreck in slow motion, any horror movie, or even most episodes of The Office (or most other comedies for that matter)... you know things are going to go horribly wrong, but you can't turn away. The most recent calamity again has Steve Downie's handiwork written all over it, as he tried to gouge out the eye of Toronto Maple Leafs' forward Jason Blake with his thumb (after a linesman separated the two). This time, though, league discipline czar Colin "Soupy" Campbell (yes, he was actually called that during his playing days with the Canucks) decided that the act didn't even warrant a suspension, which is completely ridiculous. As James Mirtle points out, even Downie's own GM (who incidentally led the Flyers in career penalty minutes until the early 1990s) isn't defending him this time, but Colin Campbell somehow is.

Another incident in the same game that's potentially even more serious (in terms of career damage) but has gotten less attention was Derian Hatcher's head-hunting. In a moment that was both tragic and darkly comic, Hatcher tried to nail Alex Steen with an incredibly dirty jumping hit/elbow, but fails miserably. Steen ducks, and Hatcher winds up hitting teammate Joffrey Lupul, knocking his helmet off, and driving his head into the ice. You can see the video here. As one CBC commentator (I think it's Greg Millen) points out on the clip, "What is he thinking?!" The results: Lupul winds up in hospital with a spinal contusion and a concussion. If this was another team's player, people would be baying for Hatcher's blood as well as Downie's. It's tough to assess a suspension based purely on intent, but if there ever was a time to do it, this would be it. (Interestingly, Hatcher may be facing a suspension for a different incident, where he reportedly bit the finger of the New Jersey Devils' Travis Zajac. The man should change his name to Mike Tyson already!)

These incidents are merely the symptoms of the problem: the disease goes right to the organization's roots. Despite GM Paul Holmgren's attempts to evade blame in the Downie incident, he is directly responsible for a large part of the continuing stupidity involving the Flyers. It is not a coincidence that one organization has racked up five suspensions so far this season. Bobby Clarke, one of the dirtiest players who ever lived (consider his slash on Kharlamov back in the 1972 Summit Series as an example) is the former GM and current senior vice-president, responsible for much of the pervading organizational culture in Philly these days. Holmgren, a former Broad Street Bully (and the aforementioned former penalty king of the Flyers), is cast from much of the same mould, and so is head coach John Stevens, who racked up 1399 penalty minutes in 834 career AHL games. They've filled their team with Downies, Hatchers, and Boulerices (if you missed any of the earlier incidents, including Jesse Boulerice's attack on Ryan Kesler, check out my post here about them), and now they should pay the price. Kudos to the league for threatening action against the team if these incidents continue, but a giant raspberry to Campbell for neglecting to take any action against Downie or Hatcher.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

A gritty victory

Canada beat Sweden 3-2 in overtime to take home the World Junior Championships' gold medals. It was a solid performance from the juniors against the only team to beat them at these championships in their last 24 games. There were definitely worrisome moments, such as Sweden's tying goal with less than a minute to go (which brought back all the reasons I hate no-touch icing: in regular hockey, Matt Halischuck gets the puck Shaun Matthias shot down the ice and perhaps even scores an empty-netter to seal the victory, but under international rules, it's still icing even though there were no Swedes anywhere near the puck. For a while, it looked like the many posts and crossbars the Canadians hit might come back to haunt them, and Canadian fans with international hockey memories don't fancy shootouts in championships against Swedes (particularly when one of them is named Forsberg). However, in the end, it was Canada's determination and grit that won them the victory. They came up the hard way after the loss to Sweden in the opening round, beating a good Finnish team in the quarterfinals and topping the favoured Americans in the semis. This Canadian team had plenty of talent, and the NHL scouts were certainly watching (perhaps the stock of Drew Doughty and Steve Stamkos has gone up the most of the players in this coming year's draft). What mattered more, though, was their drive, intensity, and uncompromising will to win. As TSN's Bob McKenzie said, "This was not the overwhelming run through the table seen in North Dakota and to some degree in Vancouver. This was hard sledding all the way." A country was watching its youth represent us overseas, and they made Canada proud.

Related: nice takes from Alanah and James Mirtle.

Friday, January 04, 2008

49th Parallel War/Links of the Day

Currently watching the Canada-U.S. showdown at the World Juniors. Good game so far: the first period was a little defensive, but as a Canucks fan, I can hardly complain about that! Canada broke through in the second with a nice goal, and both teams seem to have decided to turn up the offensive pressure as a result. Kyle Turris is having a solid game, and just recorded Canada's second goal on the power play (after the U.S. was called for too many men on the ice) What I find weird about this match is how many, including the Globe's Tim Wharnsby, have labeled the Canadians as underdogs. Sure, they lost once in the group stage this year to a very good Swedish team (who knocked off Russia earlier today to advance to the finals), and came in through a quarterfinal win over Finland, but they've still won the last three world championships, and killed the Russians in the Super Series earlier this year: that deserves a little respect in my books at least. In contrast, the U.S. hasn't accomplished much at this level since their 2004 upset of the Canadians. They have many highly-touted players, but Canada can match them in skill with players like John Tavares and Kyle Turris, and Canada's quotient of hard workers and grinders is second-to-none. The Canadians also realize how important this tournament is to their country, and know they're playing on a national stage: skill guys like Tavares are willing to take whatever role they're given to help the team, while the U.S. philosophy seems to be more about advancing one's own stock and less about the team game. I think that difference in attitude will give Canada enough of an edge to hang on to the lead here and beat the Swedes for the gold.

Also interesting: Canadian starting goaltender Steve Mason got traded right before the game started. Can you imagine that happening at any other tournament?

Links of the Day:
- Alanah's take/open thread on this game
- James Mirtle's thoughts: he also sees the US as favorites
- Wharnsby reports that Canada's set to host the juniors three out of the next four years: should be a nice home-ice advantage
- Zanstorm's review of last night's epic Canucks-Rangers clash
- The Province's Jason Botchford has a nice piece on Ryan Kesler
- Ben Knight has a fascinating column up today: apparently Bayern Munich is trying to lure Jose Mourinho after Ottmar Hitzfeld leaves at the end of the season. That would be something to see!
- Michael Grange has an interesting post on the links between the Raptors and tonight's opponents, the Detroit Pistons
- Bill Simmons' playoff predictions (he also has a cool new column up and some new links)
- Great piece by Dana Kennedy of the Huffington Post on the Tony Parker non-scandal and the woman who started it
- Gene Collier of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has a hilarious column picking out the most trite sporting cliches of the year
- Richard Sandomir of the New York Times dissects the problems with Bryant Gumbel's announcing
- The guys at Orland Kurtenblog found a Dan Cloutier mousepad on EBay