Hockey; Our Beautiful Game.

Hockey; Our Beautiful Game.

“The Beautiful Game”… Football, for those outside of North America. We have renamed it soccer. And I suppose in a way it is beautiful. Green grass, a shiny ball, players racing back and forth on the pitch. But now freeze that pitch, throw some razors on the hardest shoes you can find, give those players a weapon and allow them to hit each other with their bodies and that weapon while chasing a frozen piece of rubber disc around on the frozen pitch. Shoot that disc past a mask-wearing player with hard pillows on his legs and big oven mitts for gloves? I’d say in a way that that’s even more beautiful.

Canadians live and breathe hockey; it’s in our blood. It is far and away our most popular sport and you can even find hockey on Canadian currency (back of the 5-dollar bill). Americans have closed the talent gap considerably that once existed at one time between the two countries and are now considered nearly on par with the Canadians. The Russians, Swedes and Finns are known as Olympic contenders and other European countries are gaining on the powerhouses as well. Passion, pride, cohesiveness between teammates, trust, honesty, integrity…. they are all words spoken in describing hockey. But one word is synonymous with the sport of hockey; competition.

Competition. For everything. It’s not a sport for everyone. If you’re waiting for your turn, then prepare to wait forever. If you want the puck and you want to score, you need to compete to get it, compete to keep it and compete some more to score.

Of the 4 major sports in North America, only hockey is the sport that doesn’t give each team equal chance at possession. There is no bottom of the ninth, kickoff return or inbounds to give your team the ball (puck). It’s a 60 minute battle for possession and competition to see who can not only win the puck but keep it long enough to make a scoring play.

Football may have more body contact for the 10 seconds or so of each play, but no game is played at the speed of hockey with the constant motion of the athlete for an extended amount of time (shift length) that hockey has. Baseball players have their turn at bat and in the field need to be ready for the ball to be hit to them, while a pitcher’s heart rate will be high with the stress, movement and effort of pitching, but hockey has 12 bodies in constant motion for an entire shift, which could be up to 50 seconds. Basketball comes the closest to constant physical exertion, but there is no real body contact allowed, thus having players exert less energy. (If you don’t agree then try skating after taking a big hit that stops all of your momentum).

In hockey, the greatest players in the game sit on the bench and don’t handle the puck for the majority of the game. Your body needs a 2 minute rest after 50 seconds of maximum effort. Thus, the best forwards in the world will top out at 22-23 minutes of 60 and defencemen 26-28 of 60. As a result, hockey is a team sport in which you must draw on all of the players to contribute. It’s why at the end of the game, all players feel as if they’ve contributed and you rarely hear a hockey interviewee substitute “I” for “we”. In football, baseball and basketball, the star players handle the ball the entire game and each get a fair shot. An at-bat, 4 downs and a possession arrow in basketball all give the players their chance at creating offence. In hockey? Get it yourself. Earn it.

Football coaches must design several plays and relay them through the quarterback or middle linebacker’s helmet radio to call each play. Baseball players have their individual chances at the plate, having been guided by a hitting coach or, if in the field, a fielding coach. They have time to check the signs from the third base coach and check him for when to take an extra base or score a run as well. Basketball coaches have the ability to draw plays to get their player a good look for a shot and can relay the code of the play as the starting 5 head up the court. Hockey? No time. Coaches have taught the players some technique or systems in practice but once the game starts it is up to the players to produce. Teaching is over and the coaches rarely ever get a chance to correct systems or individual mistakes during the game, with the exception of the 2 intermissions. A coach turns into a motivator, intimidator or a cheerleader once the puck is dropped.

The best hockey coaches, as can be the case in the other sports, are the coaches that can deal with negative results and get players to remain positive and focused through inevitable miscues. A hockey bench is a small and confined place. It’s like sitting on a large couch with 15 sweaty friends while your dad and his 2 friends stand behind you. There is nowhere to hide, and believe me, you can feel it when the coach is staring bullets at you from behind your back. You can sense frustration, positivity, pride and nervousness from the coaches and there is nothing better in any sport than having a positive coach that believes in his group.

So, next time you are at a hockey game or even watching a game on TV, look for the demeanour of the coach, the flows of the line changes, the maximum effort of the participants, the post-shift exhaustion of the players and really how little the top players are even on the ice. You’ll see a team of 20 players, backed by coaches that, after 60 minutes (and sometimes more), are exhausted. Win or lose, they will huddle by their goaltender and look at each other to congratulate each other on an honest effort. There is nothing better than playing hockey and being given not only a chance to play, but to compete together as a team and try to win.

Enjoy the season.

Thanks for reading.

~Jeff Ulmer

jeffulmer44@gmail.com

2017 NHL FREE AGENCY PREDICTIONS

NHL Free Agency

Free agency day! It’s like Christmas for hockey fans…Will your team sign the big stud free agent or will he stay where he is for the “hometown discount?” Does his wife like it where he is? Kids in school? What about his workout buddy, has he sold him on how good it is where he plays? Isn’t his agent tight with the guys in Toronto? The Rangers have money to spend…Montreal has holes…everyone needs a Shattenkirk-type defenceman! A lot of questions, to be sure, and nobody knows the answer to any of them…so shouldn’t we just wait and see how it all plays out? Nah, let’s guess and see how right (or wrong) we are…here are my best guesses.

1. Kevin Shattenkirk
-Every team does covet a Shattenkirk-type. But not every team can afford a free agent powerplay quarterback that is looking to cash in on a max term contract. Yes, he didn’t play his best in the playoffs, but if you’re looking for a guy to take the keys and drive the powerplay bus, Washington already has a particular Russian shooter that needs his shot attempts…and Ovechkin is probably the better choice taking most of the shots anyways, to be honest. With strong defencemen over in the West, I think he stays out east and cashes in.
Best Guess? 
 
New York Rangers (7y/6.5 per)
2. Alexander Radulov
 
-A 30 year old that hasn’t had the 80 game grind that most 30 year olds have had…but he has played for Team Russia quite a bit, making his seasons just as long. However, the hunger and “want” that he plays with is noticeably different than his first stint in the NHL. Now with a family, he seems like he “gets it” now. I could see a team giving him 5-6 years, and he will be in high demand. I could also see him waiting a few hours to see who comes in with a 6-7 year offer (while Montreal waits) before ultimately making his decision.
Best Guess?
 
-Montreal Canadiens (5y/6m per)
3. Joe Thornton
 
-Quietly, “Jumbo” hits free agency, after being one of the top assist men in the NHL seemingly forever. Every team could use him, but it will be a team with some cap space that can give him and his family a multi-year deal that will land him. I’m assuming he’d love to stay in San Jose if it can work for both parties, but this being his first crack at being wooed by several teams, let’s assume his family is ok with a drastic move. Would he like to join Shattenkirk in the “Big Apple” and play with his old Davos teammate Rick Nash? What about LA? I would like to say the Rangers but if they land “Shattdeuces” I think they would look at a cheaper option.
Best Guess?
 
-San Jose Sharks (2y/4.5m per)
4. Patrick Marleau
 
-Let’s stay with the “old Sharks” theme. Marleau has been a Shark forever. Wouldn’t he just stay? Couldn’t they have just found a way to keep him on the old “hometown discount?” I’d have to think that there is a reason he’s going to free agency…but his kids and wife must want to stay in San Jose, no? So many questions. For fun, let’s say they are fine with a big move, as maybe a move closer to his home province in Saskatchewan is what he is after…the Flames could use a speedy veteran to pair with those youngsters.
Best Guess?
 
-Calgary Flames (2y/3.75m per)
5. Karl Alzner
 
-Another guy who has waited a while to be wooed by some other suitors. It sounds like Washington will move on, and Alzner has quietly become a steady, dependable D-man to play some big minutes against opposing teams’ top lines. He hasn’t missed a regular season game for years and he won’t be as expensive as a Shattenkirk. Every team would be smart to check in, but only a few may want to spend big money on a non-powerplay guy. He’d be perfect for the Leafs but they won’t want to dip into their “Mathews/Marner/Nylander fund” two years from now…Ottawa would work but he may choose another spot. Buffalo may offer more than he may take but I will take a stab at him wanting to try a Canadian city. We’ll see.
Best Guess?
 
-Montreal Canadiens (5y/5m per)
6. Martin Hanzal
 
-Size, skill and plays centre. Again, every team would want him. Few will be wanting to go for a 4 year commitment or longer but I think he will get that. I imagine that he loved the desert and would return there but may be looking away from the rebuild after getting a taste of the playoffs again with the Wild. It seems like everyone knows his name and that he is good, but a lot of fans haven’t seen enough of him to say…let’s say he wants a taste of a different western market and a shot at winning now…and there is one team that looked extremely thin at centre when their #1 centre was lost for the playoffs. Johansen could use some help down the middle….
Best Guess?
 
-Nashville Predators (4y/4.25m per)
7. Justin Williams
 
-Sorry, had to make #7 Mr. Game 7….he’d be perfect in Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary, Pittsburgh or back in Washington. He is such a smart player that you can’t go wrong having him on the ice in big situations, hence the big goals. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind winning with the group that they have assembled in Washington and he looks like a perfect complement for Kuznetsov with the Capitals. Will he want a change of scenery? Will the Capitals spend the money they won’t give Shattenkirk or Alzner and keep Williams while they have Ovie and Backstrom nearing the twilight of their prime? I just think he has the perfect fit there.
Best Guess?
 
-Washington Capitals (2y/3.75m per)
8. Michael Del Zotto
 
-This one just seems like the perfect situation to snag a guy that needs a reclamation project. I’m sure Rangers fans will be quick to point out the “Del Zaster” he can be in his own end but he can skate and may just need a fresh start with a team that can give him some 2nd unit PP time and play him with a “stay at home” defenceman that can cover for him. He can shoot, skate and will have some suitors…I think he is a left-handed version of Justin Schultz, and things have turned out well for him and the Penguins on that reclamation project…
Best Guess?
 
-Pittsburgh Penguins (2y/3m per)
9. Thomas Vanek
 
-He can score. And he’s relatively cheap. Put him on a good line and have him stay around the net on the powerplays…he will nab his 10th 20 goal year. There are a lot of top centres around the NHL that would like to have a smart winger to play with and who isn’t afraid to score from the “dirty areas”. I think a lot of teams check in on him and he goes with his best chance to play on a good powerplay unit…he’d look good playing with the top lefties that they can run out there for the Oilers…
Best Guess?
 
-Edmonton Oilers (2y/2.75m per)
10. Michael Stone
 
-Right handed defenceman…big, can skate and he’s only 27. The only problem is that he made 4 million last year, which may be about as much as most teams will want to spend, and he is bound to create a bidding war after Shattenkirk and Alzner are off of the board. He’d do well to wait for a few hours and let the big dogs make their choices before he makes his, but he will still get a nice contract. Buffalo seems like they are waiting to spend some money on a younger top 4, and Ottawa would like to have him join Karlsson and Ceci as right shooting D-men, I’m sure. The Oilers could do worse as well…
Best Guess?
 
-Ottawa Senators (4y/4.25m per)
Speed Round
 
Several key pieces remain…let’s take a shot.
Sam Gagner (CLB), Andrei Markov (MTL), Radim Vrbata (ARI), Ryan Miller (BUF), Brian Elliott (PHI), Dmitry Kulikov (DET), Shane Doan (EDM), Dan Girardi (TOR), Nail Yakupov (ARI), Jarome Iginla (BOS), Drew Stafford (PHI), Mike Fisher (NSH), Nick Bonino (TOR), Chris Kunitz (PIT), Antti Niemi (PHI), Jonathan Bernier (NYI), Jaromir Jagr (FLA), Scott Hartnell (TOR), Johnny Oduya (VAN), Patrick Sharp (CHI), Benoit Pouliot (MTL), Brian Gionta (NJD), Ales Hemsky (DAL), Ron Hainsey (PIT).
 
Thanks for reading…feel free to leave your predictions or comments. Let’s see how it all shakes out.
Jeff Ulmer