Day 39 – June 9, 2010 – Will The Real Conn Smythe Winner Please Stand Up

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With the possibility that the Stanley Cup finals could end tonight, the question of who deserves the Conn Smythe Trophy rages on. Who has been the biggest star in the playoffs? Who has been most responsible for his team’s success?

In trying to form an opinion on who might be most deserving for the Trophy, I began to think about what it takes to win the Stanley Cup. Great players is the obvious first choice but with arguably the game’s biggest stars, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, out of the playoffs for over a month, this cannot be the deciding aspect. Hot goalies are always a popular factor but with this year’s Finals featuring the highest goal total in 29 years, this again cannot be the guide.

Nope.

This year’s Stanley Cup Finals is teaching me (and probably a whole bunch of general managers) a valuable lesson – while stars might get your team national television coverage – they don’t guarantee wins. It’s the supporting cast and chemistry that matter the most.  This doesn’t sound sexy and won’t sell a lot of team merchandise but it makes for teams playing hockey in June.

Consider that in this year’s Finals, 25 different players have been responsible for the 40 goals scored. With the Blackhawks star front line responsible for only four goals, it’s been the lesser-known players like Dave Bolland, Duncan Keith, and Ben Eager that have put the team on their shoulders, and on the verge of the team’s first Stanley Cup in 49 years.

The Flyers’ story has been similar. With leading regular season goal scorers Jeff Carter and Mike Richards only tallying only one score apiece in the Finals, Flyer fans probably would have resigned themselves to another bridesmaid finish to the season. But players like Ville Leino and Scott Hartnell are the ones doing the little things needed to keep the team in the hunt for their first Stanley Cup since 1975.

Each team’s success, though, is about more than just having sixteen guys that know their roles and play them well. Another crucial element, it seems, is chemistry. The Blackhawk players like each other. Whether it’s playing video games or pranks on each other, it is easy to see how connected a group they are by just watching BlackhawksTV.

Similarly, the Flyers have spent the last six weeks rallying around each other. From fighting back to make the playoffs on the last play of regular season, to coming back from a three game to none series deficit AND a 3-0 goal deficit in game seven on the road in Boston, they have embraced the “whatever we need to do to win” mentality.

So whether the Finals end tonight or Friday it doesn’t really matter who wins the Conn Smythe Trophy. The biggest winners will be the fans. Not just those of the winning team, but of any NHL franchise because this year’s Playoffs have shown us that to be successful you don’t need one or two once-in-a-lifetime stars but rather a team of guys that play the game well and truly enjoy doing it together. Who couldn’t root for that?

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Day 37 – June 7, 2010 – Turning Canadian?!?

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Starting on the journey to learn hockey, I expected (and wanted) to learn what it means to love the sport, to understand what it means to be a fan. What I didn’t anticipate is that in process of learning about the National Hockey League, the players, the teams, and the tradition, I would also begin to develop a love for the country that is considered the birthplace of hockey, Canada.

It is true! No longer can I look at Canada and make jokes about the U.S. invading it for silly reasons, it’s perpetually cold temperature or the funny accent. As part of living hockey over the last month, I have started to not just be thankful of Canada for giving us hockey but wishing I was Canadian so it could be a bigger part of my life.

I will never stop loving my country and it’s amazing heritage, as hockey becomes a part of who I am so will a small part of the country it comes from. Trust me there is room.

My developing Canadian side is most evident by:

  • Wishing that Americans would celebrate a hockey victory the way Canada did after winning the Olympic Gold Medal

  • Working in ways to ask people if they have ever seen the movie Strange Brew and quoting lines from it whenever possible
  • Randomly humming O Canada
  • Rooting for the Montreal Canadians against the Flyers solely to give Canada a team in the Stanley Cup Finals
  • Starting to obsessively plan my Don Cherry Halloween costume only to realize no one in New York would “get it”

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Day 31 – June 1, 2010 – Love him or hate him?

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For me, the best part of the being new to hockey at this time of year is having the luxury of watching the Stanley Cup and not caring who wins; I’m just rooting for good hockey. This is certainly a different type of feeling than what Blackhawks and Flyers fans are experiencing, living and dying with every pass of the puck. The only challenge not having a team to root for during the finals is figuring out whether I love or hate Chris Pronger.

Without reading or researching, it would be easy to really dislike Pronger based on his antics during the first two games of the Stanley Cup. He’s taken cheap, after the whistle, shots on Chicago captain (and fellow Canadian national teammate) Jonathan Toews; cross checked Chicago big man, Dustin Byfuglien, dangerously to the neck; and stolen the puck from the Blackhawks at the end of the two Stanley Cup games that have taken place so far. Even taking into consideration his role as an agitator, and his team being down 2-0, this kind of behavior feels not below that of a veteran that wears an “A” on his jersey but amateurish.

And after some quick research it doesn’t look like Pronger’s good guy resume gets any stronger. As an Anaheim Duck, Pronger received an eight game suspension for stomping on Canuck forward Ryan Kesler’s leg with his skate. He also got national attention for a back of the head hit on Tomas Holmstrom that left the Red Wings forward needing 13 stitches.

Could Pronger be, though, one of those those guys that every professional sports has? Is he loved by his teammates and their fans and hated by everyone else? In a sport that only seems to get attention when either something huge or horrible happens, has Pronger been judged based on isolated incidents? He may have enemies, but rarely will you find a teammate not willing to support or appreciate him. And in most cases, it’s Pronger’s willingness to stand in front of the media and take the hard questions that makes him so valuable to his team.

During the Olympics, as a member of the struggling Canadian team, Pronger assured reporters that the national team would solve their issues. They went on to win the gold medal. During the last week of the season, when the Flyers needed a win in the final game of the season to make the playoffs, Pronger calmly told reporters it was just another challenge the team needed to overcome.
Take into account that his teammates named him team MVP, that he has been in the Stanley Cup finals three of the last five years (and the other two teams, the Oilers and Ducks, missed the playoffs the year after he left), and his puck-stealing attempts to get under the skin of the younger, less experienced Chicago Blackhawks, and maybe the question isn’t whether anyone should hate or love Chris Pronger but shouldn’t we all wish our favorite team had him?

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Day 26 – May 27, 2010 – Ten Reasons Stanley Cup Finals Need to Start Now

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It’s only been three days and I’m starting to go crazy! It’s one thing to be a truly educated hockey fan or prognosticator because that gives you the ability to compare the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers, rate the players, examine the styles of play, and match up the lines to pass the five days before the Stanley Cup starts.

For a new (and slightly rabid) fan it is different. Along with visiting every NHL team’s site every day for new content, read the pieces written by the great hockey columnists, practice how to stop while skating everyday (while walking to work), and watching game 8 of the 1972 Summit Series, these are the Top Ten signs that I NEED the Stanley Cup to start now:

1. Fell asleep one night debating whether I would touch the Conference trophy if my team won it.

2. Spent 20 minutes trying to convince a co-worker (and not a hockey fan) that the correct way to say Jonathan Toews last name is TAVES not TOWS.

3. Caught myself arguing with Skip Bayless (who was on TV) for not rating Duncan Keith losing teeth or Mike Richards’ short hand goal higher on ESPN’s “Canadian of the Week” segment.

4. Allegedly may have reached out to the Mayor of Huntsville, Alabama, to see how the city might celebrate if native son and Flyer forward Jared Ross wins the Stanley Cup (still waiting for that return call, Mayor Battle).

5. Repeatedly watch Kurt Russell’s pre-game speech as Herb Brooks from “Miracle” before heading into important meetings.

6.  Spent 30 minutes in front of the bathroom mirror deciding which 7 teeth I could live without, Duncan Keith-style.

7.  Have watched so much video of NHL games and interviews that sometimes a slight Canadian accent slips into the way I talk (honestly).

8.  Nearly watched “The Mighty Ducks 2” as part of a marathon of hockey movies.

9.  Started thinking up ways to convince my wife we should travel to Pittsburgh on January 1 to attend the Penguins/Capitals Winter Classic.

10.  Tried to figure out if holding my 18-month old son (26.5 lbs) over my head would be the weight equivalent of lifting the Stanley Cup (unfortunately no; the Cup weighs 34.5 lbs).

What are you doing to pass the time before the start of the Stanley Cup?

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Day 25 – May 26, 2010 – Do You Remember The Goal Heard Round The World?


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One of the best things about just beginning to learn about hockey is that no matter what game is on TV from any era there is almost a 100 percent chance that I have no idea who will win. So when the NHL Network airs the greatest playoff games from the 1979 Stanley Cup playoffs it is like I am watching it live.

While my lack of hockey knowledge will make for a summer of never getting bored with old games, there is also a down side. I don’t have those classic fan memories, the ability to reminisce with friends about where we were when we got the news that Gretzky was traded or when Crosby scored the gold medal winner in the 2010 Olympics.

Or where I was when the Goal Heard The World was scored.

For all the hockey video I have watched over the last three weeks, the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union has been some of the most fascinating. Just getting my head around two countries agreeing to play each other eight times over the course of one month on two continents to settle which team was the best in the world is difficult.

It was an event that when the games were on brought two countries to a complete stand still. It was competition in its purest form, two teams fighting to be called the greatest.

Unlike many hyped sports competitions that never lived up to the billing this one featured not only some of the most pressure-filled hockey ever seen but offered subplots that suited a movie more than real life. While the first seven games of the series would have been enough to call the Summit memorable it was the eighth and final game that made it a classic.

With the series tied at three wins each and one tie, the final game in Moscow would decide which team would be the best in the world. And boy did it deliver.

The drama started before the puck was even dropped. In something straight out of a Hollywood script, the Russians replaced one of the refs slated to call the game with another that they handpicked. And three minutes into the game he made his presence even more obvious by calling two extremely suspect penalties against Canada that resulted in an easy Russian goal. Later, the same ref awarded a 12-minute power play to the Russians after Canadian player, J.P. Parise, was called for a two-minute minor and ten-minute game misconduct for slamming his stick leading Parise to be restrained by teammates as he was in the process of raising his stick to hit the referee.

And it only got better. While the play was so intense that players from both sides were signaling across the ice to opponents that they were going to kill them the fuse on the dynamite wasn’t truly lit until half way through the 3rd period. When Canada finally tied the game late in the third period the Russian goal judges refused to light the red goal lamp, acknowledge that the goal was scored. Beside himself with anger, Canadian head coach, Alan Eagleson, jumped into the stands with the idea of getting to the public address announcer’s booth to make sure the goal was announced. In the process, though, he became entangled with members of the Russian Red Army who, as a result, decided to take him into custody. While being dragged out of the arena, Eagleson was saved by his players who jumped into the stands and started jabbing the arresting soldiers with their sticks.

And oh yeah then we had The Goal Heard Around the World.

With 34 seconds remaining in a tied game (a result that would have given the series to the Soviets due to goal differential), journeyman forward Paul Henderson somehow found space under the pads of Soviet goalie, Vladislav Tretiak, the Goal Heard Around the World had been scored, winning the Summit Series for Canada and sending a hockey-crazed country into a state of delirium.

Now that’s what I call a hockey game!

It may be only three weeks into this journey of discovering the NHL and hockey but discovering these events that make up the fabric of this great game are happening more often and I will never forget where I am when they happened.

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Day 23 – May 24, 2010 – Learning to Fall Before I Can Skate


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Twenty seconds into an interview with ESPN 970AM about my year-long adventure last week I made a rookie mistake. I talked about the Chicago Blackhawks scoring in the final QUARTER.

Ugh.

As soon as the word came out of my mouth I knew it was a mistake and one of the hosts let me know it, too. While escaping his full wrath because it was only my second week of learning about the sport, I realized it was time to step up the pace of my learning to avoid any more basic goofs.

It was time to learn how to skate. On ice. In front of people.

If anything was going to test my will to follow through on this adventure it was facing the embarrassment of stepping on the ice, on skates, having absolutely no idea what to do next.

Things didn’t start out well. Because it was my first time skating, the very competent instructors put me in figure skates to help my balance. FIGURE SKATES. It didn’t help that my class was composed of me and two women who were easily (note the word,“easily”) 30 years older than me.

Thirty minutes, three falls, a mandated change to hockey skates (YES!), and a complement on how well I stopped (while slamming into the wall) from Penny, my 70 year old skating partner, the only positive thing going for me was that I wanted to skate and skate and skate.

As soon as one push off on my left skate managed to glide me over the ice, I felt like a skater. I wanted to stay on the ice all night. I wanted to figure out how to flood the courtyard behind my building (even though it was 75 degrees) and hear my wife finally call me inside at midnight. I even caught myself watching the hockey lessons taking place down the ice like a little brother vowing to one day zip between cones, guiding the puck with my stick and letting rip a shot on goal.

Just like in my interview with ESPN Marquette, I will make mistakes while learning to skate, falling in front of both eight-year old speedsters and 70-year old spinsters, but I don’t mind. Every step so far in this adventure has been too much fun, too exciting to care. And we’re only in the first quarter ;)

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Day 20 – May 21, 2010 – Youngblood!


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“My name is Chris Hayes and I am going to take a year to learn everything I can about the NHL and hockey.”

Everyone who has heard me make that statement over the last three weeks thought the experience would be an exciting one. In truth it has been, but it has been equally exciting to watch it seep into my family’s dynamic.

My wife knows the four teams that are still in the NHL playoffs. She also patiently reads our 18-month old son the hockey books that he now finds lying around the house. And there is no doubt that one of the words he says the most these days is because of Daddy’s little adventure:

While I love that we are becoming a formidable third-line offense, there was some concern as to whether it was fair to not-so-subtly force the hockey experience on my unsuspecting family.

That was until I met Rocque Trem.

I have spoken to Rocque a couple of times since the start of this journey. He is one of the people who writes about hockey that I want to learn from, talk with, and help me experience as much about the game as possible.

Trem is many things. Father of four beautiful children. A hockey fanatic. AND the author of ESPN Cleveland’s “Road to the Cup” blog, a project that didn’t exist before he convinced the station they should allow him to write it. What started out as a simple Q & A morphed into a conversation not just about his love for the game but about the tie that binds his family. Baseball might be America’s past time, and football may be it’s most popular team sport, but one thing I have noticed is that hockey has the unique ability to bind families together tightly. Whether it is Rocque Trem taking shots from his 5-year old son in his driveway on Friday night in Cleveland or Buddy Oakes doing a Predators podcast with his 14-year old son, Jackson, every Monday night in Nashville, it’s clear that once hockey gets in your blood, it only brings your family closer.

Q & A with Rocque Trem, blogger, Road to the Cup (ESPN Cleveland)

Q: How did you get interested in hockey?
A: I lived in the poorest part of Cleveland and had no clue about hockey until seeing the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team beat the Russians. I was hooked. I made my mother buy me a hockey stick, problem was we had no idea where to get them. Back then there were VERY few places that even sold them.

Q: Did you ever want to be a hockey player when you were growing up?
A: Yes. Very much so. But I always thought I started too late.

Q: Who was your favorite player growing up?
A: Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier

Q: What is your favorite team?
A: Pittsburgh Penguins

Q: Who is your favorite player now?
A: Sidney Crosby

Q: How did you get a hockey blog on ESPN Cleveland?
A: I convinced them that it’s insane that a town like Cleveland that has so much hockey interest has ZERO coverage of NHL. Originally we discussed an on-air show but I don’t have time and prefer to write. They’d seen samples of my writing as I’m in the process of writing a book. The blog needs work, both technically and content wise, but it’s getting there.

Q: What has been your best hockey moment?
A: Taking my son Max to an NHL finals game last year. He was literally screaming at the players for being out of position. He’s 5 years old! He was so into the experience that he wouldn’t leave his seat the entire game. Plus he caught a puck. The single greatest sports experience I’ve ever had.

Q: Do you have a hockey bucket list, hockey experiences you want to have?
A: It would be about my kids. Get them to meet players. Get my daughter back on ice. Personally, I’m not a big star guy. I mean what do I have to say to them? I would like to do a SPOOF interview with a player, preferably one with a sense of humor so I don’t get killed.

Q: How are you planning on getting your hockey fix over the summer?
A: Playing. I am in ice and street adult leagues. My children also play in leagues so I will get to see them play all summer, too.

Q: What is the best hockey movie?
A: No questions, Slapshot.

Q: In your opinion, why is hockey the greatest sport in the world?
A: First of all, you have to be skilled in more aspects than any other sport. Hockey players need to be graceful, powerful skaters before they can even think about playing the game. Once that’s mastered, there’s the finesse (puck handling), toughness, hand/eye coordination, quickness, endurance, smarts, attention (the game never stops). But the easiest way to see why hockey is the greatest sport is do what you did to lead you on this yearlong adventure. Just watch a playoff game. Then watch any other sport, NFL, NBA, soccer, golf. The level of excitement is not even close. End of discussion.

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