Thursday, April 30, 2009

Live blog and preview of Canucks - Hawks Game I

I'll be live-blogging tonight's Game I clash between the Vancouver Canucks and the Chicago Blackhawks, perhaps with some of the other Out of Left Field staff. The puck will drop at 9:00 p.m. Eastern (6:00 p.m. Pacific). The game will be on CBC in Canada and Versus in the United States. A full preview of the series is after the jump.

How they got here: Vancouver swept St. Louis in four games, but the series was closer than it appeared. Every game was a hard-fought battle and the Blues, the league's hottest team over the last couple of months of the regular season, gave Vancouver a run for their money. Conversely, it took Chicago six games to knock off the Calgary Flames, but Games Five and Six were 5-1 and 4-1 blowouts for the Blackhawks. Chicago's had two full off-days to recuperate, so fatigue shouldn't be too much of an issue for them. Vancouver's been off for nine days, which could make the Canucks a little slow out of the gate tonight. However, the long layoff also means that some key players will be able to return to the Vancouver lineup tonight (Matthew Sekeres, The Globe and Mail), including Mats Sundin, Sami Salo and Taylor Pyatt.

Advantage: Slight edge to Chicago.

The forwards: The Blackhawks have an impressive group of young players up front, including five guys who notched 20 or more goals this season (Jonathan Toews, Martin Havlat, Patrick Sharp,Patrick Kane and Kris Versteeg). Versteeg led the team with seven points in Round I, but Kane and Sharp added six each. Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Dave Bolland also each had 15 goals or more during the regular season. Defensively, their key forward is Sami Pahlsson, who played a crucial role in the Anaheim Ducks' 2007 Stanley Cup victory, but Ben Eager, Troy Brouwer and Adam Burish are also good at the bang-and-crash side of the game.

For the Canucks, the top line of Alex Burrows and Daniel and Henrik Sedin was the key scoring threat this season. Both Sedins put up 82-point seasons (31 goals and 51 assists for Daniel, 22 and 60 for Henrik), while Burrows added 28 goals and 23 assists. Ryan Kesler and Pavol Demitra also had 20-goal campaigns, while Mats Sundin put up a respectable nine goals and 19 assists in 41 games in a second-line role after joining the team midway through the year. Other forwards who can chip in offensively include Steve Bernier (15 goals, 32 points), Kyle Wellwood (18 goals, 27 points) and Mason Raymond (11 goals, 23 points). On the defensive side, Burrows, Kesler and Wellwood have all proven their worth as great two-way players and Ryan Johnson is one of the league's top shot-blockers and defensive forwards.

Most of the previews you'll read for this series give the Blackhawks a substantial edge in forwards, but this year's regular-season stats suggest that the two groups are pretty even. Both teams have solid top lines and excellent scoring depth, as well as several forwards who can backcheck.

Advantage: Push

The defence:
The Canucks' defence corps has an interesting mix of guys who can contribute at both ends of the ice. Kevin Bieksa and Alex Edler provided much of the offence from the blue line this year, notching 43 and 37 points respectively while recording 11 and 10 goals, but both are strong inside their own blue line as well. Mattias Ohlund and Willie Mitchell excel in their own end and contribute offensively from time to time. Sami Salo is notoriously injury-prone, but has one of the hardest shots in the league, while Shane O'Brien and Ossi Vaananen add depth.

The Blackhawks' defence is much younger, but just as impressive. Brian Campbell remains one of the league's elite offensive defencemen. He had a seven-goal, 45-point season and has improved his defensive play as well. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Cam Barker are stars in the making and Niklas Hjalmarsson and Matt Walker add depth. Many writers give the Canucks the edge on defence, but these lineups look pretty equivalent to me. Chicago allowed an average of 29.3 shots against per game during the first round, slightly better than Vancouver's 32.8 mark but not a considerable difference. The one advantage the Canucks have going for them on the back end is playoff experience. Chicago's defence performed well for the most part in the first round, but they showed some jitters in Games Three in Calgary where the Blackhawks conceded 4 and 6 goals respectively.

Advantage: Push

Both teams have strong goaltenders. Roberto Luongo has been consistently outstanding throughout his time in Vancouver and turned in a tremendous performance against St. Louis in Round I, where he put up a .962 save percentage and a 1.15 goals-against average, leading the league in both categories. Khabibulin recorded a .914 save percentage and a 2.52 goals-against average in Round I while facing less shots per game, so he comes up a bit short there. He does have a Stanley Cup on his resume from Tampa Bay's run in 2004, something Luongo can't match. Khabibulin split time with Cristobal Huet during the regular-season, putting up a 25-8-10 record with three shutouts, a .919 save percentage and a 2.33 goals-against average. He's also 0-9-1 in his last 10 games against Vancouver. Luongo put up a 33-13-16 record in 54 regular-season games with a 2.34 GAA and a .920 save percentage, very similar to Khabibulin's numbers and slightly below his usual standards. However, he was fighting through a groin injury for much of the year and appears to be back in dominant form, so the Canucks get the edge here.

Advantage: Edge to Vancouver.

Power play: Both teams had terrific power-play performances in the first round. The Blackhawks converted seven of 24 opportunities for a 29.2 success rate, while Vancouver was four for 18 for a 22.2 percentage. During the regular season, Chicago was 70 for 363 on the power play (19.3%) and Vancouver was 67 for 357 (18.8%). There's not a huge difference here, but the numbers do favour the Blackhawks.

Advantage: Slight edge to Chicago

Penalty kill: During the regular season, both teams were close to the league average on the penalty kill. Vancouver allowed 69 power-play goals on 371 chances for a 81.4 penalty-killing percentage while Chicago allowed 64 goals on 330 power-play opportunities, giving them a 80.6 penalty-killing percentage. In the postseason, both teams have shot up to among the league leaders. Vancouver has only allowed one goal on 24 opportunities for a 95.8 penalty-killing percentage that's second-best in the league (behind only the Boston Bruins, who haven't allowed a goal in the eight power play attempts against them). The Blackhawks have allowed two goals on 18 opportunities for a 88.9 penalty-killing percentage, tied for fourth-best.

Advantage: Slight edge to Vancouver.

The tally: The forward and defence lineups of both teams are quite even, and Vancouver's penalty-killing edge negates Chicago's power-play edge. The Canucks may be slightly hurt by the long layoff, but the goaltending advantage is what makes the difference in this analysis.

The prediction: Vancouver in six.

Other notes: The last time the teams met on March 27, the game erupted into a brawl (Greg Wyshynski, Puck Daddy) that resulted in 12 penalties and at least one accusation of hair-pulling. Expect some of that bad blood to carry over. It should be a good series; the up-and-coming Hawks against the new-look Canucks, with the history between the sides as an added factor to sweeten the pot. Enjoy it, and come join the live blog tonight!

[Cross-posted to Sporting Madness]

Playoff pool update

Time for a quick update in my playoff bracket standings. After Round 1, I'm leading with 24 points. I managed to get all eight series right in terms of winners (beating all of the TSN experts), but only predicted the exact number of games (six) in the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series. Still, my bracket is still intact, which has to be seen as a victory. My father, Frank Bucholtz, is hot on my heels with 23 points; he picked seven out of eight series correctly, but figured that the Devils would knock off Carolina. However, he got two series exactly right: Pittsburgh in six and Washington in seven. New Queen's Journal co-editor-in-chief Mike Woods and Canadian University Press board guy extraordinaire Ricardo Bortolon are tied for third place with 19 points each. Both picked New Jersey and San Jose to advance incorrectly. Mike was dead-on on the Washington series, while Ricardo called the Detroit sweep. My mother brings up the rear with 14 points; she incorrectly picked Calgary, San Jose and Montreal, but was right on the Pittsburgh series.

Here's my picks for the second round (again, made before Round 1 thanks to the bracket nature of this pool). I have Boston beating Carolina in six games, Washington knocking off Pittsburgh in seven, Anaheim victorious over Detroit in six and Vancouver taking down Chicago in seven. Remember to swing by at 9 p.m. for my live blog of the Canucks - Blackhawks game!

NFL free agency interviews: Kevin Ewoldt of Hogs Haven

Here's the final post from my series of interviews for this piece for The Good Point on free agency in the NFL, featuring an extended interview with Kevin Ewoldt of the great Washington Redskins site Hogs Haven. Previous posts in this series include my interviews with Sean Yuille of Pride of Detroit and Michael Bean of Behind the Steel Curtain. My questions and Kevin's answers are below, with minor edits for clarity. I also highly recommend this recent post from his site, comparing the Redskins' front office to those of the Patriots and Colts, and this older interview with Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis about the Capitals' franchise-building philosophy and how that might translate to football.

Andrew Bucholtz: Is there any free-agent signing by the Redskins over the last two decades that stands out as particularly bad to you? Did it seem like a bad idea at the time, or did it prove that way in retrospect?

Kevin Ewoldt: There are a lot: Deion Sanders, Steve Spurrier [ed note: free-agent coach], Adam Archuleta, Brandon Lloyd. The ones that sting the most are actually the ones where Washington traded draft picks away in return for the busts. Draft picks are how you keep youth on your roster. For Brandon Lloyd, the Skins traded a third-round pick and a fourth-round pick before awarding him a $10 million signing bonus. For T.J. Duckett, the Skins also traded a third-round pick. In return, T.J. only carried the ball 38 times in his career with Washington. Jason Taylor we acquired for a second-round pick and a sixth-round pick. The players in exchange all played one year (Deion, Duckett, Taylor). Lloyd played basically 1.5 years.

A.B.: Conversely, is there any free-agent signing that stood out as a particularly good move? If so, what worked about it (i.e. the money, the length of contract, filling a needed hole, etc)?

K.E.: London Fletcher stands out as a great signing. The Redskins went in the right direction when Gregg Williams and Joe Gibbs were running the show. London is the anchor of the Skins' defense and is the hands-down vocal leader of the locker room. He plays with heart and is a true leader.

A.B.: In the Leonsis article, you mentioned that "over-extending the length of contracts to aged vets" was the worst quality of the Redskins' front office. How would you rectify this if you were in Vinny Cerrato's shoes? Would you impose hard caps on money or term for veteran players (i.e. no one over 30 is offered more than X million over Y years), would you try to move towards shorter-term contracts throughout the organization, or would you evaluate each situation individually?

K.E.: The Redskins continually trade away draft picks, so their only option in filling holes is free agency. If I were in Vinny's shoes, I would be realistic about the situation. If you take a look at the all the successful franchises, the head coach plays a major role in the draft and free agency: [Bill] Belichick with the Patriots and Bill Cowher those years with the Steelers. The Redskins are very impatient with coaches, so the new incoming coach has to inherit the current roster and they basically have one to two years for success. That is a recipe for failure in my eyes. You need continuity.

A.B.: On a similar note, do you think teams that are active in the free-agent market should focus on younger, riskier players that haven't proven a lot yet or veterans with a track record?

K.E.: I think it depends on the situation and position. I wouldn't rule out either. I would certainly make the player's personality a factor. Brandon Lloyd had publicized issues with his coaches in San Francisco, and it was his downfall in DC as well.

A.B.: With the Haynesworth signing, at the time you wrote, "Lord help us all if this is true." Do you still think it was a bad move, and if so, what's the biggest problem with it (money, term, or just the wrong player)?

K.E.: I think Haynesworth is a good addition IF he stays healthy. If he only plays one or two years, then obviously it would have been a bad deal. Since there will likely be no salary cap next year and the Redskins have a ton of cash there isn't a lot of risk here. The team did not have to give up any draft picks which matters most to me. I'm hoping the Redskins can use their first pound pick this year to help take advantage of all the holes Haynesworth will create (assuming all the stud offensive lineman are off the board).

A.B.: Do you see the Redskins keeping up their big-spending habits in free agency moving forward? Why or why not?

K.E.: Absolutely. As long as Snyder and Cerrato are in charge, nothing will change regarding the big-spending. They always believe we're only one or two players (or coaches) away from a championship. I disagree with that. The team improved when Joe Gibbs was in control. He knew what players fit his system and who was coachable. Greg Blache, the Skins' defensive coordinator, was againt the Jason Taylor trade/signing, but the front office did it anyway. That speaks volumes.

A.B.: Imagine Dan Snyder has asked you to draft a blueprint for building a winning franchise. What would you include under the "Free Agents" section (i.e. what rules would govern your ideal franchise's free-agency moves)?

K.E.: See the Ted Leonsis article. Free agents should compliment the roster and the core group of players on the squad should push them. It is backwards in Washington. The free agents receive their fat checks and simply just play. I do think the front office has improved a bit in their signings. The Skins are now paying the big bucks for players under 30 years old.

Thanks again to Kevin for taking the time to answer my questions. You can check out his site here.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Toronto FC - Kansas City live blog

Welcome to the first match of the Chris Cummins era. Can TFC repeat their success from Wednesday night's win over TFC? Find out in the live blog below. Kickoff is at 5 p.m. Eastern/2 p.m. Pacific. You can check out the It's Called Football pregame show here, featuring Michael Kuhn of Down the Byline.

From Tortorella to Schoenfeld

Yesterday's news that New York Rangers head coach John Tortorella would be suspended by the league for today's Game Six against the Washington Capitals after squirting a fan with water and throwing a water bottle into the crowd [James Mirtle, From The Rink] was interesting, but not unique. Of course, Tortorella is famous for his temper; this video of him tearing a strip off Larry Brooks of the New York Post is hilarious, but it shows that he perhaps isn't the most controlled coach in the world. It's also worth noting that this came after he benched Sean Avery for Game Five for his own lack of control.

However, the most interesting part about this story is that assistant coach/assistant GM Jim Schoenfeld is going to replace Tortorella behind the bench. Schoenfeld, of course, was famously involved in a similar situation back in the 1988 Prince of Wales Conference Finals when he was coaching the New Jersey Devils:

Yep, it's that Jim Schoenfeld who confronted referee Don Koharski after a 6-1 loss to the Bruins in Game Three. Koharski fell down and accused Schoenfeld of pushing him; Schoenfeld came back with "Good, because you fell, you fat pig! Have another donut!" It's gone down in history as one of the most storied coach/referee confrontations, and even made it into Wayne's World.

TSN host James Duthie said on the air a moment ago that Schoenfeld is the only other NHL coach to ever be suspended for a playoff game. That's true, but only to a certain extent. During the Canucks' run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1982, Roger Neilson was the head coach, but he only got the job after GM/coach Harry Neale was suspended for brawling with fans in Quebec during the last part of the regular season. Neilson himself was kicked out of a game against the Chicago Blackhawks during the playoffs for the infamous towel-raising incident that kicked off the Canucks' tradition of Towel Power. He wasn't suspended beyond that, though, but it shows that there's a long history of coaches acting up in the playoffs.

What's funny is how things have changed, though. Back in 1988, the league suspended Schoenfeld for the next game, but the Devils got a restraining order issued by New Jersey Superior Court Judge James F. Madden only 40 minutes before the start of Game Four that allowed Schoenfeld to coach. This triggered a walkout by the game's officials, referee Dave Newell and linesmen Gord Broseker and Ray Scapinello, which delayed the game for over an hour. Eventually, local officials Paul McInnis, Jim Sullivan and Vin Godleski were recruited to work the game. Schoenfeld was later suspended for Game Five and things returned to normal. The Devils lost the series in seven games, and the Bruins lost to the Oilers in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Things appear to be taking a more moderate course this time. The Rangers released a statement Saturday night that they "disagree with the suspension" [Pierre LeBrun,], but there's no sign of a court order yet. President and general manager Glen Sather did send a strongly-worded letter [Jeff Z. Klein, The New York Times] to Gary Bettman about security problems in Washington. I guess they only bother with the courts for important things like digital media rights [Sports Business Journal]. In any case, it's interesting to see how things have changed over the years, and it's hilarious that Schoenfeld is stepping in to Tortorella's shoes.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Whitecaps - Timbers live blog

It's the clash of the northwest titans, and an early preview of a 2011 MLS rivalry. The Vancouver Whitecaps take on the Portland Timbers at Swangard Stadium in USL action. Join me in the live blog below!

Live-blogging notes on Whitecaps and TFC

Just a quick note that I'll be live-blogging the Vancouver-Portland game tonight (the battle of the 2011 expansion teams!) and the Toronto FC - Kansas City game tomorrow here and at The 24th Minute. Kickoff tonight is at 10 p.m. Eastern/7 p.m. Pacific. Tomorrow, it's 4:30 p.m. Eastern/1:30 p.m. Pacific. Come join in the fun then!

TFC: Carver leaves unexpectedly

It turns out there was much more to Toronto FC John Carver abandoning the bench to watch Wednesday's victory over Chivas USA than I thought. Paul Attfield of The Globe and Mail suggests that part of the reason for Carver's departure may have been a lack of support from team management, particularly regarding his $750 fine after Sunday's loss. However, the club's announcement only mentioned "personal reasons" [].

Carver spent just over a year with Toronto, recording a 11-15-10 record since taking over the franchise last February. It was by far his longest run at the helm of a franchise; he spent one game as interim manager at Newcastle United and five more as interim manager at Luton Town. Most of his other experience came as a coach and assistant manager.

That's what makes this decision somewhat curious, particularly considering its timing. Carver's record with TFC was good but not great. It might be enough to get him another MLS head coaching position, a speculation reinforced by his comments to Attfield that he plans to stay in North America for the next while. However, it's not likely enough to do much of anything for his managerial prospects in Europe, as MLS isn't all that well-regarded on the other side of the pond overall and his MLS record doesn't stand out as impressive. TFC appear to be on the ascension, though; their win Wednesday over Chivas was huge, and they have more talent than at any other point in their history. If Carver had hung on until the end of the season, his resume would appear much more impressive. However, he does have a lot of experience in an assistant managerial role and has strong connections with Newcastle; Ives Galarcep thinks there may be a connection there.

Don't rule out another MLS job for Carver, though. There are plenty of clubs that may soon be looking to make a coaching change. One of the most interesting possibilities is the defending MLS Cup champion Columbus Crew, who have struggled to an 0-2-3 record so far this year and sit at the bottom of the table. Of course, head coach Sigi Schmid left Columbus for Seattle after last year and has done very well there, while new manager Robert Warzycha doesn't seem to be making much of an impact [Jason Davis, Match Fit USA]. Could Carver turn up there? It's certainly a plausible scenario.

Where does TFC go from here? Well, assistant coaches Chris Cummins and Nick Dasovic will run the team for Sunday's match against the Kansas City Wizards, and GM Mo Johnston is expected to make a decision on the head coaching position early next week. Cummins was the team's first assistant and has experience with English sides Luton Town and Watford, so there's a good chance he'll take over in at least an interim role. Johnston could also return to the touchline himself. In the long run, my bet is that they'll bring someone in from outside. This could be a very attractive club for a manager looking for work, as they have plenty of talent, consistent support and tremendous financial backing in place from MLSE. However, the expectations are high as well, which may dissaude some candidates. We'll have to wait and see how it pans out.

Reaction from around the blogosphere (will be updated throughout the day):
- Dave Clark suggests that Cummins will leave for England if he doesn't get the head job [Sounder at Heart].
- stillkicking calls this "a shock to the fans" [Mistake by the Lake].
- You know it's Toronto when the mayor weighs in on Twitter.
- Ben Van Weelden has an interesting look back at Carver's time in Toronto, plus more on the potential departure of Cummins and Paul Winsper [TFC Connected].

[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute]

Friday, April 24, 2009

NFL free agency interviews: Sean Yuille of Pride of Detroit

All the hype at the moment is around tomorrow's NFL draft, but it's important to remember that free agency plays just as important of a part in the offseason. One team that will be watched closely in both the draft and free agency is the Detroit Lions, who went 0-16 last year and are in full-on rebuilding mode. They hold the #1 and #20 overall picks, plus a second-rounder, two third-rounders, two sixth-rounders and a seventh-round pick, so the draft will be a key part of the turnaround; they've already agreed to a deal to give anticipated #1 pick Matthew Stafford more guaranteed money than any player in NFL history [Kevin Seifert,].

The team may be active in the free agent market as well, though, and it will be interesting to watch and see what they do there. As part of the preparation for this piece on free agency at The Good Point, I spoke with Sean Yuille of Pride of Detroit, the SB Nation Lions blog, about the team's historical moves in free agency and what role free agents will play in their rebuilding efforts. Sean had some great insights, but I couldn't fit them all into the overarching piece, so I figured I'd present them here for those interested in the Lions and free agency as a whole. The interview is below with minor edits for grammar and readability. If you like it, you can also check out Part I of this series, my extended interview with Michael Bean of the great Steelers' site Behind The Steel Curtain.

Andrew Bucholtz: Thanks for taking the time to do this, Sean. In your mind, what's the worst free agency move the Lions have made since the [Scott] Mitchell signing? What was the problem with it (age, money, injury?), and could it have been predicted? You can limit it to the worst move in the last couple of years if that's easier.

Sean Yuille: There isn't one specific move that stands out to me, because generally, the Lions haven't broken the bank for somebody. That never has been their style. Instead, especially once the [Matt] Millen era began, the Lions focused on signing guys that wanted to come to Detroit for a reasonable price. That is part of the reason why the Lions have been so bad over the years since Millen came to Detroit.

If I had to pick one, though, it probably would be bringing Jeff Garcia to Detroit. Joey Harrington's career was on the ropes, and adding in Garcia was basically the nail in Harrington's coffin in Detroit. The two battled for the starting position and when Garcia returned from an injury, he got to play. He started his career in Detroit with a win over the Browns, but after that it was all downhill. He actually lost the job back to Harrington and wasn't even offered a contract the following offseason.

A.B.: What's the most effective free agent signing the Lions have made in that period? Why did it work well?

S.Y.: If you would have asked me this prior to last season, I actually may have answered Jon Kitna. Under Mike Martz, Kitna put up good numbers and did lead the Lions to their best season in quite some time in 2007. What happened in the first month of the 2008 season, however, prevents me from answering with Kitna. He fell apart, so much so that the Lions shelved him even though he hadn't actually experienced a season-ending injury. It turned into a train wreck pretty quickly, and in general it is tough to remember one great signing the Lions made. Usually most of their talent came through the draft. When you pick as high as the Lions have since 2000, you're bound to make a good pick every once in a while.

A.B.: The Lions are obviously in a bit of a rebuilding mode at the moment. What role should free agents play in that process as opposed to draft picks? Also, do you see that role changing down the road (i..e. focus on bringing in players through the draft for the next couple of years and then turn to key free agents once the team has a shot at contending)?

S.Y.: I think free agents should play a big role. When rebuilding a team, overhauling the roster is necessary. You can't replace everyone via the draft, so free agency is very important to bringing new faces to the team. I think once a foundation is established the focus can shift more towards the draft. That way you don't have to worry about signing so many new players, and if there is a big fish out there that is the missing piece of the puzzle, you can spend the money to sign him.

A.B.: Do you see the Lions' handling of free agents changing now that Matt Millen isn't running the team? If so, how do you expect it to change?

S.Y.: I don't see it changing too drastically, but one thing I have noticed is that the Lions are no longer stockpiling their roster with players from the coaches' former teams. Although the Lions did look at a few Titans, it was nothing like the Lions' love fest with ex-Bucs and ex-Rams when Rod Marinelli was the coach and Mike Martz was the offensive coordinator. Every other signing seemed like it was a former Buc or Ram, and that led to an aging roster filled with washed up players. The Lions haven't shied away from signing players that may be past their prime, but at least they are no longer signing them based on the fact that they played for the head coach's former team.

A.B.: If you were assigned to develop a set of guidelines for the Lions regarding free agency, what would they be? (i.e. would you lay out strict restrictions on the money and terms offered to free agents or treat each situation as it goes? Would age affect your guidelines? Would you seek to stock certain positions through free agency and others through the draft?)

S.Y.: I think each situation is different, though age is definitely a factor. In general, though, I would prefer the Lions not go out and spend money like the Redskins do, for example. At the same time, it is not smart to sit back and sign only players that are willing to come in for a cheap price. I think the Lions need to find a healthy medium where they can make a big splash every once in a while and also maintain a comfortable salary cap.

Thanks again to Sean for taking the time to answer my questions. Make sure to keep an eye on his site during the draft later today and the Lions' offseason!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A high and a low for TFC

Last night's 1-0 victory for Toronto FC over league-leaders Chivas USA was simultaneously the best of times and the worst of times for the franchise. On the pitch, it was a tremendous success. Despite the absence of Dwayne De Rosario, the team turned in a solid performance and gave Chivas their first loss of the season. That's pretty stunning, considering that Ives had Chivas at the top and TFC 14th in his most recent power rankings. It was also the first home win of the season for Toronto and an impressive showing from many of their players. Amado Guevara, Adrian Serioux and Danny Dichio were particularly effective.

Even that success came with caveats, though. For one thing, Chivas was missing several of their stars thanks to injury, including Ante Razov and Maykel Galindo. For another, Guevara's impressive performance appeared largely due to him having more room to operate with De Rosario out. That's good news for the moment, as De Rosario is expected to miss at least one more game with a hamstring injury, but it raises questions of if the two of them can co-exist in the midfield upon his return. Their previous performances together would suggest that it will be difficult.

The low point of the evening came from the stands, though. The Canadian Press is reporting that two Toronto fans are facing serious charges, including possession of a weapon for a dangerous purpose, assault with a weapon, assault causing bodily harm and mischief under $5,000, for launching flares. One flare hit a female fan and burned her thigh, while another did $2,000 worth of damage to the turf.

There's never a good time for this sort of thing to happen, but the current timing is particularly bad, considering the recent concerns raised over the Columbus trip and the spectre of "hooliganism". It looked like the furor from those incidents was about to die down, but you can bet that this will give it new life; flares are especially bad compared to much of what's come before, and someone's been significantly hurt as a result. These are very serious charges, and it won't be easy to sweep them under the rug.

As Duane's written before, the vast majority of Toronto fans are great and wouldn't do anything that might result in injury to anyone. However, you can bet that they're all going to be tarred with the same brush now that someone's been hurt. Subtlety and distinctions tend to be lost in cases like this, which is unfortunate for all the great fans out there who passionately support their team without injuring anyone. However, the childhood cliché tends to hold true in real life, particularly when it comes to media coverage and popular perceptions; it really is all fun and games until someone gets hurt.

[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute].

New NHL team to Toronto takes another step

There's big news in today's Globe and Mail from columnist David Shoalts (as well as Jeff Blair, Roy MacGregor, Paul Waldie, Andrew Willis and Jane Taber) on the idea of another NHL team for Toronto, which I initially wrote about back in October. Then, it was informal conversations between NHL governors; now, it's moved on to a two-and-a-half hour meeting between deputy commissioner Bill Daly and a group of interested businesspeople. Sounds like it's getting more serious by the minute.

The primary problem involved in bringing a new team into southern Ontario is getting the Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres to go along with it thanks to their territorial rights. This is where location becomes a key issue, and it's more of an issue for the Sabres than it is for the Leafs. The Leafs already have a huge market to draw from with the massive suburban population of Toronto, and they're in incredibly good financial shape. There's an almost inexhaustible demand for their product (despite the downturn in their on-ice fortunes of late), so another team in the region is not going to kill them. Their main concerns are to keep the team from being placed in downtown Toronto (leaving them with a sizeable competitive advantage, as that's where the big money and the highest concentration of people are) and to get a suitably massive territorial rights fee.

In Buffalo, it's a different story. There's substantial cross-border support for the team, particularly from the Hamilton and St. Catherines areas. Tickets for Sabres' games are easier to come by and much cheaper than the equivalents for Leafs' games at the Air Canada Centre. Thus, a team in Hamilton (as previously suggested by one Jim Balsillie) would be a considerable blow to the Sabres' cross-border fanbase, and a team in Kitchener (as also mentioned in the Balsillie discussions) would be a similar, if lesser, blow. That's been the main sticking point in these discussions so far.

The new proposal suggests putting an arena in Vaughan, which is a suburb north of Toronto. This is considerably different from the Hamilton and Kitchener proposals, as the Leafs are now between the new franchise and the Sabres. Thus, in theory, most of the Southern Ontario fans who currently go to Sabres' games from Hamilton and St. Catherines would continue to do so. The new franchise would draw from Toronto proper and the northern suburbs. Of course, that doesn't take into account issues with the border or the novelty value of a new Canadian team, which would likely cause some of those cross-border Buffalo fans to switch allegiances. Moreover, I'd venture that those fans are much more likely to transfer than the died-in-the-wool Leafs' fans; the Sabres are more of a marriage of convienience than a true love for many in Southern Ontario who can't afford the prices of the Air Canada Centre. Still, in all likelihood, a new franchise in Vaughan would hurt Buffalo much less than one in Hamilton or Kitchener, and the market research cited by Shoalts suggests that a Vaughan franchise might not appreciably impact the bottom line of either Buffalo or Toronto. That makes a lot of sense, considering the number of people in the area and the massive love for hockey they display. See the map below for an indication of where all these different cities are.

View Southern Ontario in a larger map

Now we come to the specific problem of where to put an arena. Shoalts enumerates several possibilities in the article, and I've marked them on the map below. The first key one is on land owned by Victor De Zen, a perhaps somewhat-sketchy businessman (Shoalts mentions that he's facing fraud charges) who's interested in an arena deal, but not in owning a team. His land is at the intersection of Highway 427 and Highway 7, northwest of the airport. Other possibilities include the area around Woodbine Racetrack and the area around Downsview Airport. All of these would be somewhat accessible from downtown; the Downsview site is near York University, while there are plenty of ways to get to Woodbine and the new transit expansions around Pearson Airport would help with that site. The De Zen site is slightly more remote, but not incredibly so; it's not too far from downtown and it's close to several of the northern suburbs, plus its location just off the highway would also help. See the map below for these three locations, as well as Pearson Airport and the Air Canada Centre as references.

View NHL in Vaughan in a larger map

This would be a pricey move, and would take quite a while. At the moment, there are no firm plans for a new arena. It takes time to draw up blueprints, arrange financing and figure out construction details. Shoalts suggests that the cost of an arena alone could be up to $400 million, which is a hefty chunk of change. You then still would have to pay territorial rights fees to both the Leafs and the Sabres, and those aren't going to be cheap; the Sabres need all the fan support they can get, and the Leafs won't give up their ridiculously lucrative monopoly in southern Ontario for a mess of pottage.

The last payment for territorial rights that I know of was the Mighty Ducks, who paid $25 million to the L.A. Kings in 1993. That doesn't seem like much now, but it was half of their franchise fee of $50 million. If you go by the most recent Forbes valuations, the Leafs are currently worth $448 million U.S., a good part of which is due to their monopoly status. They'll want a lot of cash to give that up, and the Sabres will likely want a similar amount. Even the lowest-valued team on that list, the Phoenix Coyotes, has an estimated value of $142 million (perhaps less these days given the franchise's losses); going by the 50 per cent standard would suggest that a group trying to move Phoenix to Toronto would owe at least $71 million to each of the Leafs and Sabres. Shoalts figures that these rights could go up to $200 million (presumably $100 million to each club), but my thinking is that they could run even higher given the stature of the Leafs and the prestige and numbers of the southern Ontario market.

The final question is where the team would come from. NHL expansion at the moment isn't all that likely, which would suggest relocation would be the next logical option. There are plenty of interesting candidates in that regard, including the cash-strapped Phoenix Coyotes, the attendance-lacking Atlanta Thrashers and the New York Islanders, plagued by arena woes. Something has to be done about all these teams eventually, and Phoenix first of all; the team is hemorraging cash, has an owner looking to cut his losses and is being propped up by the league. That isn't a tenable situation.

The big problem here is that this is still Gary Bettman's league. Moving an American team north of the border would be a colossal loss of face for the commissioner, who has spent most of his time in power trying to sell hockey in the Sun Belt and vault it into major-sport status in the U.S. A second team in Ontario makes tremendous financial sense for the league, but it would also be seen as a retreat from trying to gain mass acceptance in the States. In many places in the U.S., hockey's still seen as a primarily Canadian sport, an image that Bettman has bent over backwards to try and remove. Other possible areas for relocation, such as Kansas City and perhaps even Las Vegas, would be available more quickly and wouldn't carry the stigma of adding another Canadian franchise. Thus, the league may not do anything more than look at this until they're desperate. It would be a terrible economic opportunity to pass up, but Bettman and company have always been more about saving face than making smart business decisions, so it wouldn't surprise me if nothing happens on this front for a while. We'll see how it turns out.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Return of the Keane?

[Photo from BSketti]

The Guardian is reporting that Roy Keane may return to English football as the manager of Championship side Ipswich Town. This is a terrific move in my view. As I wrote back when he left Sunderland, Keane has shown his managerial chops before, especially in the Championship; he took a mediocre side up to the Premiership and then held them there. I speculated back then that backroom intrigue involving owner Ellis Short may have been involved in his exit from Sunderland, and it appears that that may have been the case. Keane was far from perfect as a Premier League manager, especially in the transfer market, but he was learning and there's a good chance he'll be able to do well there in the future.

This looks like a good situation for Keane as well. Jim Magilton was just fired, but the team isn't actually in bad shape. They're ninth out of 24 Championship squads at the moment and have some decent talent, including 22-year-old Argentine winger Luciano Civelli, veteran goalkeeper Richard Wright, 20-year-old Canadian star midfielder Jaime Peters and former England U21 international striker Jonathan Stead. They have the foundation of a good club and should be in a decent position to challenge for promotion next season.

Regardless of your view of Keane as a manager though, most would concede that his return will be good for the sport. Keane was always one of the most interesting personalities in soccer as a player, and the same remains true as a manager; he's probably the best character in English football now that Jose Mourinho has gone to Italy. I'm already looking forward to following Ipswich Town under him, as it will certainly be entertaining, no matter what the eventual outcome is.

Update: 5:39 A.M. April 23: Keane has been confirmed as the new Ipswich Town manager [CNN].

Toronto FC - Chivas USA live blog

It's Wednesday night MLS action from Toronto's BMO Field! For a video preview, check out the It's Called Football pre-game show; if text-based previews are more your style, Jason has a good one at Match Fit USA. Put away the hockey jerseys, don your scarves and join me in the live blog below!

NFL free agency interviews: Michael Bean of Behind the Steel Curtain

I've been working on an extensive piece for The Good Point on NFL free agency for most of the last month, and finally finished it off the other day; check it out if you're interested in a look at how different NFL teams view free agency and the strengths and weaknesses of certain approaches. Tremendous thanks are due to Will Leitch of Deadspin and New York Magazine, Michael Bean (Blitzburgh) of Behind The Steel Curtain, Sean Yuille of Pride of Detroit and Kevin Ewoldt of Hogs Haven for taking the time to answer my questions. They all have a great understanding of the NFL and how their teams approach free agency.

Of course, space restrictions and the thematic approach I took meant that I couldn't fit all the information I received from these guys into my article, so I figured I'd run some of the interviews here as companion pieces. First up, Michael Bean. Michael runs Behind The Steel Curtain, one of the best and most popular Pittsburgh Steelers blogs on the planet. My questions and his responses are below (with minimal edits for grammar and clarity):

Andrew Bucholtz: How would you describe the Steelers' philosophy with regards to signing other teams' free agents? Why has it been successful?

Michael Bean: The Steelers' philosophy with regards to signing other teams' free agents is one of caution and prudence. You'll rarely see the Steelers compete in high-priced bidding wars for high profile free agents like Albert Haynesworth, particularly if the FAs are over 30 years of age or past their peak window physically. What you will see the Steelers do is go after undervalued guys coming off their first contract; guys like Mewelde Moore, Keyaron Fox, etc. In many instances, the Steelers' scouting department simply sees something in other guys that other teams do not, and in others, there's simply situations with other teams' rosters that account for why they're available in the first place. Mewelde Moore is a great example - where's there room for him with superstar Adrian Peterson and highly paid Chester Taylor in front of him on the depth chart [ed note: with the Vikings]?

A.B.: Obviously, the Steelers have let some of their own expensive free agents walk over the years, particularly Alan Faneca and Plaxico Burress. What did you think of those moves at the time, and have your thoughts changed since then?

M.B.: No, the Steelers' front office has a nearly impeccable track record of deciding when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em. In the case of Alan Faneca, there's just no way to match an offer that made him the highest paid G in the league. Doesn't make sense any way you carve it up. Same with a guy like Joey Porter, who certainly has proven he has a thing or two left in the tank. But there were James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley ready to step in his place, and at a very, very small fraction of the cost.

A.B.: Does the recent large contract extension given to James Harrison indicate a change in organizational philosophy, or is it just a different situation than with Faneca and Burress? Is he less replaceable?

M.B.: I don't think it represents a change in philosophy, though it's certainly a legitimate question considering Harrison's age. People forget that James Farrior also got a big extension in his 30s, so I don't think their philosophy can be compartmentalized one way or another. In Harrison's case, he's just been the best value in the league the past two years...period. I think that part of this contract represents some 're-payment' of sorts for being so amazing at such a small cost and I think that his unparalleled work ethic makes him a safer bet to stay healthy and productive in the coming years than are most guys his age. Harrison, who's referred to as 'Deebo' by his teammates in homage to the character in the movie Friday, was apparently back in the weight room two days after the Super Bowl, and he was ticked off that none of his teammates were joining him there. Translation? This guy eats, drinks and sleeps football - and as has been relayed on to me from sources closer to the team than me - that's the number-one thing the front office looks for in their determination of who to draft and invest in long-term.

A.B.: Why do the Steelers tend to offer players contract extensions a year before they become free agents? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this system?

M.B.: I think the short answer is that they have typically made up their mind a year before players hit the market whether or not to resign them. If they feel good about investing in the player long term, why wait until their value potentially increases and/or another team has an opportunity to nudge their way into the mix and maybe outbid the Steelers. I'd imagine players are more likely to accept extensions before they hit the open market, particularly younger players playing on rookie contracts where they're eager to sign that usually much larger second deal. On occassion, the disadvantage to that may be that a good young player who hasn't had the chance yet to really prove his worth is ruled out as a viable long-term investment but there's not too many examples to point to like that.

A.B.: What do you think of the team's overall approach to free agents? Would you change anything if you were running the front office?

M.B.: I'd sum up the team's overall approach to free agents in one sentence - if you feel you have the best scouting department in the National Football League and are capable of finding talent year in and year out with more consistency than the rest of the league - why dabble too aggressively in a system that's designed for the players' financial benefit rather than trusting in one's ability to fill personnel needs with younger, cheaper guys whenever possible?

Thanks again to Michael for taking the time to answer my questions. You can check out his blog here.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Vancouver Whitecaps - Austin Aztex live blog

Join me in the live blog below!

Whitecaps and TFC live blogs

A quick note that I'll be live-blogging both tonight's Vancouver Whitecaps - Austin Aztex match (8:30 p.m. Eastern/5:30 p.m. Pacific, and tomorrow's Toronto FC - Chivas USA match (7:30 p.m. Eastern/4:30 p.m. Pacific, GolTV). Join me here or at The 24th Minute for either or both!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

TFC - Dallas live blog

I'll be live-blogging tonight's Toronto FC - FC Dallas match. Game time is 7:00 p.m. Eastern, and it's on GOLTV. Come join me here then!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Whitecaps - Islanders live blog

I'll be live-blogging tonight's USL game between the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Puerto Rico Islanders both here and at The 24th Minute. My match preview is already up over there. Check it out, and then join me in the live blog at 7 p.m. Eastern!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

NHL bracket pool

Yes, this is a little late, but seeing James Mirtle's playoff bracket yesterday inspired me to create my own. Unfortunately, it's nowhere near as pretty, but it's functional. If you're interested in joining my bracket pool for fun, just go to Simply Sports Ware; the pool name is SportingMadness and the password is Sporting. The pick deadline is Friday night at 7 p.m.; that will allow picks to be made after one game in every series has been played. Let's see who comes out on top! Here's my picks:

Round One:

-Vancouver over St. Louis in six games.
- Anaheim over San Jose in seven games
- Detroit over Columbus in six games
- Chicago over Calgary in five games

-Boston over Montreal in five games
-Washington over New York in six games
-Carolina over New Jersey in six games
-Pittsburgh over Philadelphia in six games

Round Two:
- Vancouver over Chicago in five games
- Anaheim over Detroit in six games

- Boston over Carolina in six games
- Washington over Pittsburgh in seven games

Round Three:
- Vancouver over Anaheim in six games
- Boston over Washington in six games

Stanley Cup Final:
- Vancouver over Boston in seven games

Thoughts? Criticisms? Post them in the comments below. There's some reasonably bold picks here, so we'll see how it works out.

Oh, and the scoring system's included in the pool rules. Basically, you get points if you pick the right team to win the series, and you then get more points depending on how close you were to the correct number of games. Point values increase as the rounds go on.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Cuts spread to University of Calgary

The University of Calgary announced [Ben Matchett, University of Calgary Sports Information Director] today that they will cut varsity funding [Neate Sager, The CIS Blog] to the men's soccer and women's field hockey teams. There's a chance that those teams could still survive if they're able to raise funds through alternative methods, but it doesn't look good for them. Tennis and golf have also been lowered to competitive club status. By contrast, women's soccer will be returned to fully-funded status and women's hockey is applying to return to CIS play after winning the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference. After the changes, Calgary will have eight fully-funded team sports (men’s and women’s basketball, football, men’s and women’s hockey, women’s soccer, and men’s and women’s volleyball) and fully-funded teams in cross country, swimming, track and field and wrestling.

This isn't all that surprising, as plenty of American and Canadian schools have been moving towards this kind of streamlined program for some time [myself, Queen's Journal]. Two American schools also announced cuts today; the University of Maine axed volleyball and men's soccer [Mike Webster,] and Wenatchee Valley College (in Washington State) also cut its men's soccer team [Brent Stecker, The Wenatchee World Online]. (Thanks to Austin Winnie for those links, by the way). The economic situation perhaps provided the final impetus to make some of these changes, but things have been moving iin that direction for a while.

It is curious that this move came at Calgary, though. Many of the schools looking at these cuts so far have been in the OUA [myself, Queen's Journal], and have cited the recently increased availability of first-year athletic financial awards as the rationale for their decisions. Canada West has offered these awards for a much longer period of time, so they aren't a sudden or unexpected stress on the department. Instead, Calgary athletic director Kevin Boyles said in the release that the move was made to refocus resources into the more successful programs. The timing is somewhat unusual, though, as Calgary won 12 titles last year, including national titles in women's swimming and women's wrestling as well as Canada West titles in football and men's basketball. It doesn't seem that their current model was terribly flawed from that perspective.

This isn't necessarily a bad move in my mind. Varsity programs need significant resources to be successful, and it's good to see the university attempting to provide those resources. Moreover, men's soccer and women's field hockey haven't been very successful lately at Calgary, and that's the ultimate measurement that has to be used here. It is disappointing to see so many schools viewing men's soccer as an easy cut, though; university soccer is very high-calibre and can often lead to pro contracts for players, such as Trinity Western's Paul Hamilton, who just signed with the Whitecaps [myself, The 24th Minute]. Moreover, soccer's gaining popularity rapidly in Canada, and will only expand further once Vancouver (and potentially Montreal) join Toronto in MLS. Most schools currently don't draw a lot of fans for their soccer games, but that could change dramatically in a few years, by which point it might be desirable to have a soccer team at your university.

One final small point to make here. In his otherwise excellent post on the matter, Neate makes an interesting argument:

"A university doesn't owe people a varsity team. At the same time, it should preserve individual sports such as track, swimming and cross-country for the same reason a school has to have an English or philosophy department. It's sort of central to the idea of university that you offer these sports that might not be sexy, but reveal character and discipline. (Sorry to get so flowery!)"

I agree with the first sentence of that paragraph, but I can't support the rest of it. University sports aren't primarily about participation or learning experiences and individual sports don't reveal any more character or discipline than team sports, at least in my mind. Each sport has its own set of struggles, and athletes in all of them deserve respect. At the end of the day, there's no point in offering sports just for the hell of it. Universities have sports teams so they can go out there and win, earning more exposure and publicity for the school in the process. If I'm running a university sports department, I'm basing my decisions on what teams are likely to win and bring in good publicity, not out of any sense of duty to preserve a sport like track or swimming for aesthetic reasons. Schools should compete in as many sports as they can while maintaining a strong program in each in my mind, and if cuts need to be made to make that a reality, they should be performance-based. It looks like that's what Calgary has done, and they deserve applause for that.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Premier League Punditry 04-12-09

Join us in the live blog below with all your EPL questions and comments!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Whitecaps - Battery live blog

Join me in the live blog below! You can also check out my match preview here.

NDP now support BC Place renovations

This is interesting. After the media flurry the other day about apparent threats [Friends of Soccer] by the party to axe the proposed retractable roof for B.C. Place, which I wrote about here, the NDP has come out with a statement calling the whole thing a "Liberal lie" and claiming that they've always been at war with Eurasia in favour of a retractable roof. That does seem to be a bit of a reversal in my mind thanks to the ads they have ran and the lack of specific provisions for B.C. Place in their platform, but it could also have been a misinterpretation.

Regardless of who's to blame, the important thing for B.C. soccer fans is that both sides in the election now are committed to the renovations, which is a great thing for both the Whitecaps and the B.C. Lions. That's as it should be in my mind; this team and their move to MLS are too important to be used as political pawns. Regardless of who takes the election, the future of the renovations now appears assured, and that's important for B.C. soccer.

Related: NDP Officially Back Down On B.C. Place Attacks [Friends of Soccer]

[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute]

The GBU: Canucks and Kings

I haven't done a GBU post in a while, and it's also been a while since I've written about the Canucks, so I figured I'd kill two birds with one stone after attending last night's win over the L.A. Kings Thursday [Jason Botchford, The Vancouver Province].

The score: Canucks 1, Kings 0.

How I saw it: In person.

The Good:

-Roberto Luongo: Luongo certainly looks back in form these days. After standing on his head to steal a win against the Flames Tuesday [Nucks Misconduct], he was solid against an offensively talented L.A. team. He received considerably more defensive support from the rest of the team Thursday than he had against Calgary, but he still had to make several spectacular saves and didn't get a lot of offensive backing. He was named the game's first star, and was a deserving selection.

-Ryan Kesler: Kesler was selected as the team's season MVP before the game, and he justified his selection with some solid play Thursday night. He was strong at both ends of the ice, skating up a storm, scoring the Canucks' only goal off a wrist shot from the slot and backchecking ferociously. I'm not sure if I would have selected him as the team's MVP as there were so many other deserving candidates (Luongo, the Sedins, Alex Burrows, etc), but he's certainly had a great season. He's very valuable to the team and will be key to their success in the playoffs.

-Ryan Johnson: Johnson doesn't get a ton of credit, but he's one of the team's top defensive forwards. He hustled through every shift, backchecked consistently and blocked some dangerous shots. He and the other energy types like Rick Rypien bring a lot to the Canucks, even though their contributions don't always show up on the scoresheet.

-Alex Edler: Edler's been a strong presence on the Canucks' blueline this season, and he showed his skills again on Thursday. He created offensive chances with some terrific passes and made stellar defensive plays as well. He's added a lot of depth to the blue line, which is always a good thing to have.

The Bad:

-Drew Doughty: The Kings' 19-year-old rookie blueliner has some tremendous skills. He's strong with and without the puck, and showed a particular talent for well-crafted breakout passes. He'll be one to watch in the future.

-Jonathan Quick: Quick's only 23, but he's turned into a very promising goalie this year. He put on a show against the Canucks, stopping 27 of 28 shots and making great saves against Kyle Wellwood and Rick Rypien, to name just a few. He's going to be a key part of a rising Kings squad.

-Anze Kopitar: It seems hard to believe that Kopitar is just 21 years old; he's been very impressive ever since he made it to the NHL. The guy has tremendous skating ability and a great set of hands. He's the Kings' main offensive threat at the moment, and he's only going to get better.

The Ugly:

-The Canucks' offence: Vancouver's offence has been better than usual this year, but this game looked a bit like the last couple of years where the team was pretty much only Luongo. They created some good chances and were stopped by Quick, but they were only able to capitalize once. It's not a crisis situation, as they still got the win and probably would have scored more against a weaker goaltender, but they'll need to give Luongo more offensive support if they want to succeed in the playoffs.

-The Kings' uniforms: I'm not a fan of the purple-and-white. Purple can be fine as a uniform colour if it's well-thought-out and coordinated with the rest of the uniform (the Baltimore Ravens' black and purple jerseys are a great example of this). Purple and white doesn't look good, though, especially in the Kings' current format. Bring back the silver and black!

-"Easter Fin": I've said enough about this already.

Up next: The Canucks face Colorado at noon today [Nucks Misconduct]. They only need one point to clinch the division title and the third playoff seed, and they'll also want to turn in a good showing against a struggling Avalanche team to get set for the playoffs.

What a game!

Just finished watching an epic marathon game between the Vancouver Giants and the Spokane Chiefs. It wound up going into the fourth overtime before Spokane's Blake Gal was able to put it away; he wound up with a breakaway in transition after the Chiefs' Dustin Tokarski made a save at the other end. Mike Berube of the Giants caught him and lifted his stick, but wound up knocking the puck into his own net past a surprised Tyson Sexsmith, who was readying himself for a deke from Gal. It was the second-longest game in WHL history.

It's games like this that prove how much fun a good junior hockey game can be. This one was certainly worth the time invested; both of these teams have tons of talent and it was tremendous to watch them battling full-tilt as the night went on. The great thing about the WHL in my mind is the consistent emphasis on defence, checking and goaltending; I've seen plenty of OHL and QMJHL games over the years, but they often seem to turn into just players floating around the offensive zone and refusing to backcheck. Sometimes, good defence is just as much fun to watch as all-out shootouts. Tonight's game, which turned into a great goaltending duel between Tokarski and Sexsmith, was a tremendous example.

This could wind up being a key moment in the WHL playoffs. The defending Memorial Cup champion Chiefs have now won three straight games and lead their series against the Giants 3-2. They're clicking just at the right time, while the Giants seem to be faltering a bit, and the Chiefs now have all the momentum going into Sunday's game back in Spokane. This Vancouver team is no stranger to adversity, though, and they put up a superb 57-10-5 record this year (second in the WHL behind only the Calgary Hitmen). Don't count them out before the final green light flashes.

See Marc Weber's coverage over at The Dub Hub for more details on the game.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Canucks: Escapee from Moreau's island

Through a friend getting some tickets unexpectedly, I managed to make it to last night's Vancouver Canucks - L.A. Kings game. The game was quite good, and I'll have a few thoughts on it to post later. However, what stood out the most from the experience was the Canucks' bizarre mascot logic. Typically, they're no less ridiculous than the vast majority of professional sports teams. Their star mascot is "Fin", an orca, which fits in nicely with the area's heritage and natural surroundings and also with the team's logo. I'm not a fan of mascots in general, but this one isn't too offensive.

However, some brilliant mind thought it would be a good idea to give "Fin" some bunny ears for Easter. The results? Horrific, and potential "Nightmare Fuel". It looks like a mad rabbit/killer whale escaped from the Island of Dr. Moreau. This monster will crush its enemies, see them driven before it, and hear the lamentation of their women (that's what the extra ears are for!). Check it out for yourself below.

[Photos 1-3 from Project 365. Photo 4 from Sabs in Paris. It's from April 2006, so this apparently isn't the first time the Canucks have done this.]

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Whitecaps: NDP threatens to axe retractable roof

The upcoming B.C. provincial election has invaded many areas of life, but sports wasn't really a key issue until now. Tyler Green and Mike Martignago from The TEAM 1040 reported on their blog this afternoon that the provincial New Democrats are threatening to scrap the planned retractable roof for B.C. Place, which of course was a key element in the Whitecaps' successful bid for MLS status. According to the TEAM's sport business commentator Tom Mayenknecht, their goal is "to scrap the plans for a retractable roof and proceed with a simpler replacement fixed roof."

With a retractable roof, as I've written before, B.C. Place could actually become a solid soccer stadium. The renovations are based on Commerzbank Arena in Frankfurt, home to Eintracht Frankfurt of the Bundesliga and a stadium that hosted World Cup matches in 2006. The new design for B.C. Place follows the lines of Commerzbank Arena quite closely and has a lot of potential.

Without that roof, B.C. Place will not be a great facility for soccer. Yes, it's still not horrible, and the Whitecaps have hosted large-scale matches there before (notably a friendly [Tim Booth, USA Today] against David Beckham and the L.A. Galaxy back in 2007). However, the promised B.C. Place renovation was one of the key factors [myself, Sporting Madness] that led the Whitecaps to officially bid for this round of MLS expansion [myself, Out of Left Field]. As Jim Jamieson of the Vancouver Province wrote last year, the Whitecaps were only willing to consider B.C. Place because of the proposed major renovations, and MLS affirmed it as an acceptable venue only with those renovations. If they are cut or scaled back, both the Whitecaps and MLS will be in a very difficult position; MLS can't easily revoke the expansion franchise, but the Whitecaps won't have a suitable arena to play in, thanks to the ongoing mire of politics preventing them from building their preferred waterfront facility any time soon.

This will also hurt the CFL's B.C. Lions, who will share B.C. Place with the Whitecaps. At the moment, B.C. Place isn't a bad arena to watch a football game. It's anything but a great one, though, and it often gets hot and cramped during the summer months. With the new renovations, it should be one of the better arenas in the league; without them, it's acceptable, but not desirable.

The proposed slashing of the retractable roof will additionally limit the facility as a venue for concerts and other events, according to Mayenknecht. Thus, it's not simply the costs that need to be compared, but also the potential lost revenue. He calculates that the net difference between the original retractable roof plan and a cheap fixed roof would work out to only about $125-150 million. Yes, that's a fair bit of money, but is it really enough to sabotage two beloved professional sports teams for?

Moreover, this is a ready-made infrastructure investment, which the NDP should be all in favour of. The plans are completed, the money's been found, and the renovations will provide jobs in the construction community and the services sector once the new facility opens. Green and Martignago go into more detail on the matter in their post:

"PavCo estimates that the full renovation and retractable roof plan will generate $100 M in annual economic activity, cause savings in energy costs associated with a fixed air-supported roof and create more than 2,000 jobs. Government officials have reported that 300 people are already working on-site on the initial phases of the renovation.
Estimates for the economic impact of an MLS franchise playing at BC Place are in the $25 M per annum range. The BC Lions could drive $35 M to $40 M annually with the increased attendance projected from a retractable roof. The 2011 CFL Grey Cup would generate at least $75 M (based on results from the last hosting in 2005)."

Many economists are justifiably skeptical of hard numbers in economic benefits from sports teams, but it is difficult to argue that the renovation wouldn't help the local economy. It's already in the pipeline as well, so cancelling it now would strike quite a blow to the Lions, the Whitecaps and the workers involved. This could come back to haunt the NDP politically, according to Mayenknecht:

“It’s beyond me as to why the BC NDP would even consider such an anti-sports development platform given the proven economic, social and health benefits of a sports and active living agenda for young people,” said Mayenknecht. “I’m sure there will be tens of thousands of sports fans, in particular those close to soccer and football, in the Lower Mainland ridings who will take a close look at this position before voting in May.”

It's disappointing that this has to turn into such a political issue, though. Yes, the Liberal government brought the plan forward in the first place and provided the funding for it, but just because an idea was brought up by your opponent doesn't make it a bad one. There are a lot of aspects of this project that would fit well with the NDP's proclaimed values, particularly the job creation and the economic stimulus. Moreover, if the NDP is elected and they don't scrap the project, they wouldn't likely be blamed for cost overruns or potential problems, as they could trace it back to the Liberals. This move seems more like a way to try and make a political point, rather than reasoned policy based on the good of the province. There are plenty of other issues for the parties to fight about without imperiling the future of sports in Vancouver.

There is perhaps some hope on the matter, as this doesn't appear to be a central plank of the NDP's platform. Maybe it will stir up enough outrage among their own supporters that it will be dropped. Maybe they'll keep it in and lose. If they win and try to implement these cuts, though, it could be a dark day for soccer in Vancouver.

[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute].

Update, April 10: A couple of relevant links from the comments. The Friends of Soccer are quite annoyed by this, and particularly upset about NDP ads that apparently ask voters to choose between social services and stadiums. You can read a more NDP-friendly take here, which suggests that this wouldn't have been an issue if the TEAM didn't make it one.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Jeff Giles takes over at McMaster

Former CFL president Jeff Giles is off to Hamilton. Giles is taking over as the McMaster Marauders' athletic director after Therese Quigley leaves this summer to go to Western. I have more details and analysis over at The CIS Blog.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

The return of Premier League Punditry!

After a couple of weeks off thanks to the interlull and some scheduling issues, Premier League Punditry will make its triumphant return today. We'll kick things off at 1 p.m. Eastern Time. Join us in the live blog below then!

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Campus Corner: Not much fear in this one

Justin Chapdelaine may be the new kid on campus [Neate Sager, Out Of Left Field], but he's hardly intimidated. Of course, that might be a bit easier when you're coming off a spectacular high school campaign where you threw for 1,827 yards and 21 touchdowns, were named a provincial all-star and took your school to the AAA provincial final.Genetics can't hurt either. Chapdelaine's father is famed CIS and CFL player/coach Jacques Chapdelaine, while his mother Kim is a former track and field athlete [Dan Kinvig, Abbotsford News] who competed for Canada, his older sister Kaela plays for the women's national basketball team and his older brother Matt is his new teammate at Queen's.

Still, Chapdelaine shows a surprising amount of confidence for a rookie entering the famed Queen's football program. He said the tradition and history around the program is a motivational boost, not an intimidating factor.

"It's actually flattering being recruited by Coach Sheahan and hopefully being part of that tradition, being part of that history," he said. "I want to eventually win a Vanier Cup here and hopefully be part of the Hall of Fame here one day."

That's a bold claim from a rookie quarterback, but Chapdelaine has faced plenty of pressure at the high-school level and has excelled to date. He said pressure inspires him to greater heights.

"I love the pressure," he said. "It's motivation to me, you know. I want to be that person who always gets the ball off the snap and I want to be that person who makes the last pass of the game with three seconds left when you're losing by a few points."

Chapdelaine's father starred for the SFU Clan in the 1980s, but he said he was always more interested in going to a school outside of B.C.

"Oh yeah, I didn't want to stay in B.C," he said. "UBC and SFU weren't really schools for me; I didn't really like the team, the whole situation with the school and that kind of stuff. But out here, it's that I just wanted to get away from home. University, you want to get away from home sometimes. I wanted to get away from home but stay in Canada, you know?"

The Queen's program looks to be a good situation for the highly sought-after recruit, as he'll have the chance to study under All-Canadian Dan Brannagan for a year and then will have a good shot at taking over the starting role. Chapdelaine said he can learn a lot from Brannagan.

"He's a great quarterback," Chapdelaine said. "He knows the offence well and he has a lot of experience, so that's what I'm going to want to learn from him and hopefully bring to my game."

Chapdelaine said his years of high school football under Denis Kelly have prepared him for pressure-packed situations.

"Hopefully, I'll bring my game from what he's taught me to here and hopefully bring my own swagger to this team," he said. "We play American football out there, so I'll hopefully bring that American swagger."

[Note: You can see the full transcript of my conversation with Justin over at Out Of Left Field. I'll have another post later on my conversation with his brother Matt.]

Thursday, April 02, 2009

It's not dead, Jim!

Reports of the death of fans' interest in the Toronto Maple Leafs have been exaggerated. Bob McCown and Jim Kelley spent the first 15 minutes or so of Prime Time Sports' 5:00-6:00 hour today discussing the idea that no one cares any more because the team isn't in playoff contention, and offered two major arguments as to why this was so; the Leafs' game story from last night was on the fifth page of the Toronto Star's sports section, and there have been less callers than usual who want to talk about the Leafs during their 4:00-5:00 call-in hour. This is a flawed analysis, however.

First, let's examine the placement of the story in the Star. I don't have the print edition handy, but you can see the listing of the stories in today's paper here, which is generally organized by importance. The top story is about hurdler Perdita Felicien's return to competition, which is a reasonably big deal; she's a well-known Olympic athlete and the Star is known for its Olympics coverage. Next is a large supply of Jays' stuff, including a story about Canadian pitcher Scott Richmond claiming the fifth spot in the rotation for the upcoming season; this is also quite interesting, has Canadian content, and is pretty newsworthy, so there's a good case for its importance. After that, story placement gets more subjective, but the next bunch of stories (a surprising Raptors' win, a steroids story, a women's hockey one and a few on athletes in trouble, plus a brief on cricket) all have arguments for their importance. It's not all importance, either; I know from my work with the Journal that story placement often comes down to factors such as length and packaging with similar content as well. The Star does have three different pieces on the Leafs (a game story from Kevin McGran, a column from Dave Feschuk), and a Brian Burke interview about roster changes from Paul Hunter), so it's not like they're ignoring the team. I don't think the placement of those stories really signifies that the Star's sports department thinks Leafs' fans have lost interest; if so, there's no way in hell they'd be running three different stories on the team.

Furthermore, Kelley made the point that game stories are becoming less relevant in the Internet age. I agree with him, but only to an extent; print game stories are less important these days because they're old news, but the online versions of those stories are still rather relevant. When reading the Star or The Globe and Mail online, Leafs' game stories are quite frequently among the most-viewed sports pieces on the site, demonstrating that there's still a considerable appetite for well-written pieces with what happened and players' and coaches' reactions, especially if they're available soon after the event.

This interest has also diversified, as there are far more places to get your news on the team than there ever used to be; in addition to all the newspaper sites, you have plenty of traffic to the CP and AP reports on games available at such sites as and Yahoo! Sports, and you have new and original takes from the blogosphere, which has a great variety of excellent Leafs' sites such as Pension Plan Puppets, Sports and the City and Down Goes Brown, to name just a few. At those sites, it seems interest in the team has only gone up. PPP sent me the link to his traffic numbers, which tell a very interesting story. His site has gone from 5,299 visits and 11,438 page views in March of last season (when the Leafs were still somewhat in the playoff hunt) to 37,655 visits and 122,933 page views this March, both of which appear to be site records.

Of course, there are other factors at play there as well; the evolution of SBN Hockey into a far larger and more formidable network ever since James Mirtle took the reins, the growth of the Leafs' blogosphere (blogs tend to be highly referential, so more bloggers on a topic tends to result in more exposure for prominent blogs on that topic like Pension Plan Puppets) and the site's own natural growth over that time period come to mind. Still, those numbers suggest to me that interest in the Leafs is holding steady at worst and growing at best.

The second idea to consider is McCown's argument that fewer of the callers into his show wanting to discuss the Leafs represents less interest in the Leafs. This seems flawed for a couple of reasons. For one, this is a pretty small sample size McCown is considering. For another thing, McCown's show goes head-to-head with Bill Watters over at AM640, and Chris Zelkovich of the Star reported today on his blog that Watters is increasing his market share against McCown. I haven't listened to Watters' show, but he's known as a hockey guy (he was even the Leafs' assistant general manager for a while). McCown, on the other hand, spends part of his time on hockey, but also frequently covers baseball, basketball, football and sports business stories, and his background is in baseball. Thus, it would seem likely that a higher percentage of the callers interested in the Leafs would migrate to Watters' show or to some of the other more hockey-focused shows in the Toronto area (examples include AM 640's Leafs Lunch or the FAN's HockeyCentral at Noon), while McCown's callers might be interested in the sports he covers that others don't focus on.

Call-in radio is another medium that's changing, though. It used to be that sports talk radio was one of the only places where fans could express their opinions. That certainly isn't the case any more. You can now comment on any of the newspaper stories on games, or talk about the game on any of the legions of hockey forums or message boards, many of which are Leafs-specific. You can visit any of the multitude of Leafs' blogs and comment on the game there, and if you go to a site like Pension Plan Puppets, you can even create your own FanPosts if you have the time and inclination to do so. You can talk about the game with friends over e-mail or instant messaging, or relay your feelings on it to the world via Twitter, Facebook status updates or a variety of other options. You can create your own Leafs-focused mini-blog at sites like Bleacher Report or, share your thoughts through a Tumblr site, or start your own blog through Blogger or WordPress if you're feeling really ambitious. Suffice it to say that call-in radio no longer has a monopoly as an outlet for fans. In fact, waiting on hold for 10+ minutes on the hope that the host deigns to take your call sounds less and less attractive in our modern age, where everything else is available instantly and at your fingertips.

I'm not going to draw any definite conclusions about the state of current broad-based interest in the Leafs, as that's beyond the scope of this analysis. My main point is that McCown chose poor examples to support his argument that people no longer care; I'll leave an in-depth evaluation of that argument's merits to others. As mentioned above, there are several metrics that would suggest that fan interest is still reasonably strong, though. Zelkovich also reports that over a million viewers bothered to tune into the Leafs' Hockey Night in Canada broadcast last week, which would suggest that plenty of people still care. Many hardcore fans are likely still following the team to evaluate their young players and develop ideas about the team's future moves. There is a good chance that some of the bandwagon fans who only care about the team when they're doing well aren't actively following them at the moment, but the Leafs seem to still be the top team in Toronto and one of the top draws in the country. Brian Burke and co. don't appear to have anything to fear from declining fan interest, regardless of what McCown claims.