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USA Today

  

Justin writes a column for the NHL section of USA Today, starting here.   The following articles move from his most recent contributions, to his initial blog entries for them.

*****

Operation Sneak-In-Versteeg

-by Justin Bourne

 

With just over 50 seconds left in Sunday’s Blackhawks/Sharks game in which the Hawks eeked out a 2-1 win, David Bolland took what could have been a crucial tripping penalty.  To make matters worse for the Hawks, Bolland is one of their top penalty killers.

So the puck drops to start the powerplay, and there’s David Bolland on the ice – clearing the zone, going 100 miles an hour while pressuring the defense and getting enough of a block on a slapshot to redirect it wide, thwarting the Sharks’ best scoring chance.

What the heck just happened?  Is that Kris Versteeg in the box?

The ol’ switcheroo is no mistake. 

Coaches try this all the time, so much so that players started doing it unprompted.  If you can take the two minute sit-down for a teammate who kills more penalties than you, you try to do that for him.  It’s team first, especially in playoffs.

It all looks pretty innocent.  After causing a delayed penalty, players will skate to their own bench for a change, acting like they have no idea they just took a penalty.  It looks obnoxious when the guy has to get flagged down by an official and take him off the bench, because, well, it is.  But it can serve a purpose.

You can get lost in the crowd of changing players, and it’s the linesman’s job to track down the right number.  But if he comes over at a whistle and doesn’t know the exact offender (something they occasionally admit to), often a coach will send a guy who doesn’t kill penalties to make sure he has all his best PK personnel at his disposal.  Over time, teams have started sending the wrong guy before the linesman even opens his mouth.

It makes sense.  You might as well test the linesman. You can’t get a penalty for an official not being thorough in his work.

Of course, the linesman HAS to catch something like that.  But the reality is, they often don’t care (or think) to put the effort in.  They may not have seen the penalty that got called, so if a guy is skating to the box, they’ll assume the guy knows he took the penalty and has decided to not be difficult for once.  What a treat!  And as long as the right team is getting the powerplay, why not be sufficiently happy?

In the case of Chicago vs. San Jose, “why not be sufficiently happy?” was answered in a single highlight.  Getting the actual perpetrator matters – Bolland is second on Chicago in average penalty-kill time-on-ice per game for a reason.

It comes down to communication between the officials.  Teams are going to push them for every inch they can get.  That’s one of the games-within-the games that are an understood part of every officiated sport.

If it were golf, we’d call penalties on ourselves, but hockey ain’t no gentleman’s game.  It’s a chaotic exercise in winning, and if a loophole can be found, a loophole will be used.

So good on ya, Chicago.  Heck of a penalty kill.

 *****

The Logo on the Front (Not the Name on the Back)

-by Justin Bourne

 

In hockey, the bond between a group of men sporting the same crest takes some time to develop.  Pulling that logoed sweater over your head on day one doesn’t automatically make you buddies with the players to your left and right, but if you hope to have playoff success seven/eight months from then, you have to start finding a connection.

Early in the season, you find yourself playing for the back half of your jersey, not because you’re a bad person, but because there really isn’t an “us” to play for yet.

Like your newly assigned teammates, you want to make the right plays so you can move up the depth chart, get more powerplay time, get more points and further your own career.  After all, like most jobs, you usually took it in the first place to get a paycheck, not to help Mcdonald’s see a higher profit margin.  Early on, taking a hit to make a play for the team is a nice idea, but getting out of the way and staying healthy has some shiny, painless perks too.

To find that crucial level of unity necessary to enjoy success as a team, you need a few of “those moments”.  Some teams never have them, and thus, never gel and never find themselves as a serious championship contender.  But, thanks to the rule of “whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger”, other teams will come from seemingly nowhere, don the Cinderella dress and shock the world.  Hello, Phoenix Coyotes.

“Those moments” are unexpected – you might get hit from behind, roll over, look up and see a guy you weren’t so sure even liked you swoop in, grab the guy who hit you and beat the living tar out of him.  Maybe he takes some of his own lumps in the process.

Thanks man.

And you’ve got his back next time.  Other teams start to realize that messing with one guy means tangling with the whole squad. 

Your team may be down 4-1 heading into the third period, when the quiet guy who hasn’t spoken up all year stands up between periods and lets fly with a passionate monologue.  If the team comes back and finds a way to win, it’s a new, neat feeling in the dressing room after.  Your team is getting more comfortable, and becoming more cohesive.  You’re finding your stride.

The gains that come from this aren’t concrete, but they’re there.  From brawls and comebacks to sick goals and displays of heart, this is how you find your team’s identity.  This is when you start playing for front half of your jersey.

The underachievers squander the regular season moments that could have united them.  Maybe someone tells the quiet guy trying to speak to shut up, instead of hearing him out.  Maybe they don’t stick up for each other – and believe me, there’s no worse locker room moment than a guy coming into the room upset because he had to fight for himself after almost having his neck broken.  We don’t see those moments, but those are the teams that we’ll end up looking at their roster saying “man, how did they finish so poorly with that lineup?” Will the San Jose Sharks fit into that mold yet again?

I played on a team so devoid of unifying moments, that our coach realized he had to play facilitator.  He lined us up on the goal-line and bag-skated us for so long that three kids vomited.  We hated his guts.  But the point was, WE hated his guts.  It sounds a bit “evil genius” of the guy, but he immediately left the rink and let us sit there and hate him together, free of his presence.  We had climbed the mountain together, and had gone through it as a group.  And, not coincidentally, we started getting better as a team, just weeks before playoffs.  (Maybe it just helped that we were really, really fit?)

As fans and media members, we’re unable to see which teams have had those moments.  If we were to ask the guys, they wouldn’t be able to pinpoint just how many moments they’ve had, if they’ve had any, or how close they’ve become throughout the trials and tribulations of the year. They’d all say they’ve become “super-close”, because nobody looks at a microphone and says “this team isn’t close” if they want to stay a part of said team.

The changes that occur from these moments are so incremental that you don’t notice how attached you’ve become to the crest on your chest, sometimes until you block a shot with your ribs, and while icing it think “that was a good idea, I’d do it again.”  That’s when you realize you’re in it to win it.

Wayne Gretzky’s autobiography includes a few paragraphs about walking past the ’82-’83 Islanders locker room after losing in the Cup finals, and how he braced himself to see the jubilation, champagne and partying he assumed was already in full swing.  But the only people he saw partying were the wives.  The players were all sitting, icing down injuries, exhausted.  It was then, Gretzky says, that he learned what it takes to win.

In playoffs, there’s no way to quantify which of the 16 teams will sacrifice for each other, and place crucial wins before healthy ribs.  That passion for your team’s logo that may not have been there in September makes all the difference this time of the year.

There’s 16 teams left, and while will can only take them so far, it can also push a good team over the top.  Playoffs take an Everest-sized mountain of effort, and it can’t be done alone.  It’s time to find out not who has the best players, but who’s become the best team.

 

 

*****

It’s Getting Hard to Score Goals

-by Justin Bourne

 

It’s getting to be that time of the year again for fancy-pants goal-scoring dangle-machines…. Hell.

For guys who make a living capitalizing on other players brain-freezes, opportunities are getting sparse.  In the season’s first 20 games, coach sound bites always talk about how it’s early in the year.

“We played pretty well tonight for a game in the first month.  We expect to get better.”

And better they get.

For the finishers – Gaborik, Kovalchuk, Kessel and those types – they never without their skills.  It doesn’t take 60 games to get their hands on point, it doesn’t take 50 games to get their speed up, and it doesn’t take 40 games to get their release quick.  These are just skills these men possess.

For team defense, however, it takes 40 games to get your forecheck tight.  It takes 50 games to get your penalty kill right.  And it takes 60 games to feel fully comfortable in your d-zone coverage.

What that means for the dangle-machines, is the only way to keep their goal-scoring point-getting pace up, is to increase their conversion rate.  And that’s a lot of pressure.

Since my December 12th birthday, John Tavares has skated in 33 games, compiling a whopping two goals over that span.  In his previous 32, he scored 15 times.  And Tavares isn’t some isolated rarity (see: linemate Matt Moulson) – it gets a hell of a lot harder to put pucks in the net as the season goes on.

For a team like the Islanders who throw one guns-a-blazing line at their opponents, teams figure out how to defend them over the course of the year.  They figure out who to match, and how to match them.

It’s one thing to score goals in the NHL.  It’s quite another to continue to after you’ve been red-flagged.

A guy like Tavares was red-flagged out of the gate, but coaches don’t know their team early in the season.  Roles aren’t defined, the sample size from which to judge players on is tiny, and teams have to work on themselves before they can worry about the other team.

As the season slugs on, there are more factors that make getting a goal harder than getting a straight answer from Bettman – it’s an absolute grind to create offense every night.

Defenseman have one thing going for them that forwards do not: the play comes to them.  More accurately, it has to come straight through them to get to anywhere dangerous.  They can conserve energy with smart positioning, accurate transition passing, and good communication.

Forwards, however, have to create.  The pressure to “get up” for every game is bigger when you’re role is being a point-machine – do nothing, and you’ve had a bad game.  If a defenseman does “nothing”, his mission is considered accomplished.

So here go the forwards after the trade deadline – legs pumping, trying to create, pushing back against a tightly woven defense, like playing Red Rover with WWE wrestlers.  Systems are not only in place, but they’re finally effective.

Save for a few games after the trade deadline where new players provide a weak link in their team’s Mr. T-thick-chain, it’s about to get playoff-level difficult.

The value of those players that act as battering rams against the castle door of their opponents sky-rockets post-trade deadline.  This time of year, Chicago isn’t deadly because Patrick Sharp is going to break a trap with his feet, they’re deadly because Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, and Troy Brouwer are going to chuck the puck deep, thump the castle guards and give Toews and Kane the room they need to bring the place to the ground.

With 15 games left, a new type of most valuable player emerges, stepping out of the mold of Tomas Holmstrom and Johan Franzen to prove which teams have what it takes come crunch time.

It’s the toughest part of the regular season to score goals, and for fancy-pants goal-scoring dangle-machines, there’s only one way to describe it:  Hell.

 

 

*****

The Rebirth of my Inner Fan

-by Justin Bourne

 

I was made aware of my place in the hockey hierarchy by Dany Heatley.

When I lived in Kelowna, BC, a couple times a week I would play in a locally-known summer hockey game that includes the likes of Ryan Getzlaf, Duncan Keith, Shea Weber, Scott Hannan, Chuck Kobasew and dozen other NHL names that are well above fringe players. 

The shinny game is good, but I could hang.  I was by no means in the top half of the talent, but I was good enough to score some daily goals and not be a write-off.   Then Heatley moved to town.

This first time I saw him, I was surprised by his size.  Not because he’s built like a guy who lives in the gym – in fact, he’s built like a massive, unsculpted block of clay – but he’s just an imposing figure, in every measurable direction.

When we did get on the ice, it turned out that he was, in fact, in great shape.  And though I always thought he looked “lumbering”, it turned out that he was, in fact, “fast”.  And his shot was really really hard.  And really really accurate.  The guy was, simply put, really really good.

Prior to skating with him, I had heard stories from my WCHA teammates that played against him when he was still with Wisconsin, how he used to stand on the half-wall during the powerplay, cocked for a slapshot the whole time, while the University of Wisconsin coach, Mike Eaves stood on the bench and yelled “GET THE PUCK TO HEEEAAAAATS!  GET THE PUCK TO HEEEAAAATS!”

After seeing it from up close, I immediately recognized that his ability was unattainable for me – a depressing moment for any aspiring NHLer, you can imagine.  So much of it was so obviously god-given.  You simply cannot bench-press yourself a few inches taller, or reaction-ball yourself into that much better hand-eye, or learn to think and overpower the game like him.  You just can’t.

Seven or eight years ago, I started losing interest in the game from a fans perspective.  Playing at a high level was taking the fun out of watching it – Not only did I know the crappy truths about why some guys made it while others of equal talent didn’t (agents, drafts, birth years and size overriding concepts like “who’s the better player?”), but I started to feel like I could do a lot of what I was watching, and in some cases, better.

I never totally drifted from the game, of course.  And, as I trained and grew and improved and developed, I was realizing something.  There was still a couple dozen players around the league that made me think “Wow, not with all the training, nutrition, practice and encouragement could I ever do that”.  And that’s what’s sucked me back into fanhood, and what keeps me here — isn’t it for you?  That awe, the respect for a level of ability you yourself just weren’t blessed with possessing?

If you can get past a little jealousy and envy to admire the abilities of your fellow man, you get to enjoy one of the coolest parts of life.

I don’t enjoy watching lower-level hockey cause I get it, I comprehend what they do.  I’m in awe when Ovechkin, Backstrom and Semin work the puck around like virtuosos.  For me, it’s the same as when people first heard Whitney Houston belt out “Greatest Love of All”, and everyone imagined what it must feel like to be able to sing like that.  Or to paint like Michealangelo, or think like Bobby Fisher, or to swim like Michael Phelps.

I’ve been sucked back into the NHL because Evgeni Malkin is 6’5” and has hands made of some rare concoction of lotion and butter, while the rest of our hands function like a pre-mixed wheelbarrow of sand, gravel and water. 

A week ago, I stood in the zamboni gates while Martin Brodeur played goal directly in front of me, a treat not many hockey fans have ever been afforded.  He played the puck like a d-man, stacked the pads like it was the 80’s, and just did what Marty does – be incredible.

Because of the elite few, I’ve managed to find a little piece of the fandom I had when I was as a kid, when I assumed every player in the league was exceptional.  Just like I could never sing or paint or swim like the most talented people on the planet, I admire certain players because I could never enter the hockey realm in which they live.  Lord knows I tried – I was good, but Crosby?  He’s great.

These are the people I watch the NHL for today.  So thank you, Ovy-wan-kenobe.  The rebirth of my inner fan has been pretty damn great.

*****

Puck Protection, Hitting From Behind

-by Justin Bourne

 

 “He turned” they always say after a hit-from-behind.  “He turned at the last second”.

Eyes collectively roll, and the perpetrator is sent to the penalty box, where upon release, he will be hunted for the rest of the season.

The truth is, sometimes players do turn at the last second.  And what’s worse, is some players are learning that turning a few seconds earlier is actually a pretty decent offensive play.

It’s a new, ridiculous form of puck protection – players will turn their back to an oncoming opponent like a basketball player, as if flashing their back is some sort of force-field that can protect them, essentially taking advantage of an opponent’s obligatory good sportsmanship with a show of the opposite.

Growing up in Canada, I’m tempted to say “it’s a Euro thing”, but it’s not.  It’s a soft player thing, and the stigma of Euros being soft players has generally been crushed by, well, Euros crushing people (See: Kronwall, Niklas; Ruutu, Jarko; Forsberg, Peter).

In basketball, you can turn around to protect the ball, and the “reaching in” rule prevents anyone from committing the aptly named foul. 

In hockey, it used to be that if you turned your body to protect the puck, you had to be strong enough to stop somebody from coming through you to get it.  The guys who weren’t strong enough lost possession, then headed to the bench to get called a slew of words equating them to all things effeminate and dainty.

As awareness of dangerous hits has grown over the past decade, we asked players to not take a run from behind at an opponent who can’t see him coming.  That’s not too much to ask, one would think.

This is not a new quest, this mission to eliminate checks from behind – when I played minor hockey, they sewed mini stop signs below our namebars as a reminder to kids who’ve yet to drive a car that it’s not a good time to proceed forward.  Roughly as effective as wiffle sticks, the patches were a small part of the overall movement against checks from behind.

And so it began that, by turning around, you made your opponent slow down, something the possessor of the puck never had the ability to do before.

There are a couple outcomes that benefit the player who turns away from the checker.  His team can end up on a power play if his foolish opponent chooses to follow-through, or the guy has to seriously let up before contact.  The player with the puck knows the hit is coming, so he’s way less likely to get hurt even if the oncoming skater doesn’t stop.  You can see why it’s happening more – it’s an advantageous offensive strategy.

Mike Green got blasted on a brutal, nauseating hit by the Avalanche’s David Koci a couple weeks ago, and I immediately wanted to jump through my TV…. and get beat up by Koci.  But at least send the message that the hit was a cheapshot.

But there were more than a few people who thought: “Why didn’t Green seem remotely aware that he might get hit there?”  Good point.  Why didn’t he?

My best guess is that players tend to think of their back as some sacred, untouchable patch of material – that it’s unlikely anybody would dare breach both league and unwritten player rules by making contact from such an unsafe angle.

That play isn’t an example of turning your back to protect the puck, but it certainly does contribute to the appearance that players seem to believe that their numbers are like a garlic to a vampire, always protected, and all they have to do to get opponents to back off is give them a quick flash of digits.

As we move towards new rules protecting players against head shots, we should at the very least consider clarifying hits from behind, lest we continue to entice players to use the ridiculous (but effective) offensive tactic of turning your back to an oncoming player to buy yourself some time with the puck.

The point is to eliminate hits on players who can’t protect themselves, not to allow softer players an easy out from being hit when they have solid possession.  Players making this choice shouldn’t be under the same protective umbrella as a defenseman going back on a puck with a pursuer behind him waiting to turn his vertebrae into baby powder.

Be clear – I’m not preaching that a player standing an unsafe distance from the boards (two to three feet) is eligible to be fitted for a neck halo. We still need to be cautious. But nobody wants to see physical players coasting into checks for fear of the last second spin.

It’s a contact sport, and guys are skating at mach six with fragile edges.  Let’s not increase the amount of potentially dangerous situations because it makes offensive sense.

 *****

Holiday Distractions

-by Justin Bourne

 

It was the day before our five-day Christmas vacation, a holiday which, for a junior hockey player in midseason, was the equivalent of summer vacation to a school kid.  I’ll admit, we were a tad excited.

Losing 3-1 with five minutes left, our coach called a timeout.

The man knew how to get results, but he wasn’t exactly Tony Robbins. On this particular winter night, he went with: “I swear to god if we lose this game, Bob, Sean and I (our assistant coaches) will make you bring in the Christmas party beer I saw already loaded up in Daffy’s car, and we’ll sit in the stands all night and drink it while you run stairs.  You didn’t give a @%$# about this game, so I don’t give a @%$# about your holiday.”

To better explain, he thought we were losing because we were going through the motions, looking forward to the holiday break and not taking the task-at-hand seriously.  We were losing to a good South Surrey Eagles team that happened to be playing well. 

Full of good will and yuletide joy after the Christmas tidings from our coach, we tore about like cats on nip for the last few minutes, giving a tireless, all-out effort that resulted in us tying up the game in the final thrilling seconds.  This of course, only served to re-affirm our coach’s belief that threatening teenagers is the most effective means of extracting effort from them.

That blessed holiday night, even though we settled for a tie, he let us off the hook.  It was a true Christmas miracle.

The next year, in the game before Christmas, our coach again figured we were losing because of the coming break.  Then in college, our coach blamed our lacksidasical pre-Christmas effort on the holiday too.  It’s not like my team was always on the losing end before Christmas – my coaches just always took the chance to blame any poor plays on Christ’s birth and the resulting “mas”.  Same thing the next year.  And the next year.  Then in pro hockey, a similar thing happened every year, it seemed.  I was noticing a bit of a trend.

Reflecting on this, I can’t help but wonder — our coaches knew the other team had Christmas break coming up too, right?  Were they any better prepared?  If they were, does that mean they were better coached?

It seems to me that the night before the holiday break is an evening off for coaches.  The easy cop-out for your team’s sloppy play isn’t to search for a more effective powerplay breakout, it’s to blame it on jingling bells, corncob pipes and reindeer.

That said, I’d be a liar to claim us players are completely devoid of blame for sloppy pre-holiday battles.  Like any other job, sometimes we show up with more important things on our minds.

Just as someone may be reading this in a cubicle on office hours, sometimes you just don’t feel like bearing down to work.  We’re all just human right?  And, when you’re oh-so-close to a finish line, it’s hard to pull yourself back to the TPS-report/penalty-kill-rotation moment.

Players start the year uncertain of the team they’ll be playing on (and some guys uncertain of the league), if their team will be good, what linemates they’ll have, how the coach will be — just a plethora of “what ifs”.

It takes a long time for the season to take shape, to fall into a routine, to become certain of your role.  And that takes a lot effort, both physical and mental.

So when you’re that close to a few good sleep ins, no travel, turning that mental switch to “off” and riding the rum and eggnog express, players aren’t to be blamed for a few mid-game sugarplum dreams.

It doesn’t mean that they aren’t trying out there.  I know I was.  Players will work their backside off just like in any other game.  But mentally, guys tend to mail it in a bit.

What that “bit” means, is that more than a few on-ice assignments will be missed.  And that creates the type of sloppy hockey you see in a high school gym class where 94.6% of students are chasing the hockey ball around like a puppy after rawhide.

So if you’re the type who likes to watch quality hockey, there are two games you can save your money on attending — the one prior to the break, and of course, the one after.

The one after is just as bad, only because that on/off switch is a little jammed in the “off” position.  Like somehow jamming turking, chocolate and alcohol in the cogs of the machine inhibits its ability to function at 100%.  Odd, I know.

The holidays, though occasionally stressful, are a welcome change in routine for people from all walks of life.  It’s a good time for reflection, and gives us the chance to simply do something different.

So these days, as a hockey columnist, I discovered that the lazy holiday phenomenon isn’t limited to the ice, or the cubicle, but that it extends to the couch too. 

Because unless someone calls a timeout soon, I’m mailing in the rest of this column.

 

*****

Playing Sick

-by Justin Bourne

 

About a week ago, Brendan Witt got hit by a GMC Yukon making an illegal left turn. He jumped, hood rolled, then cursed out the driver.  That night, he was right back at work trying to block shots on the powerplay.

It’s become the newest, freshest example of how tough hockey players are, but also represents the macho “shake it off” culture of our sport.

So to walk into the coaches office on the day of a game and complain about feeling a tad achy, stuffy, and that your throat is sore would be absolute sacrilege.  You can be hacking up furballs like a Persian cat and nobody cares.  Go screen the goalie while we take slapshots or we’ll find someone who will.

Sudafed, also affectionately known in the locker rooms as “chicken soup” or “red devils”, are the go-to cure-all of choice.  You may or may not know, but the name Sudafed is some loose derivative of “pseudo ephedrine”.  And in fact, some types of decongestants have real ephedrine in them, which, in its purest form, is a banned substance. (It’s a stimulant that increases heart rate and opens the lungs.  As a minor sidebar, it’s killed more than a few athletes.) But in this small dose, with the other ingredients, and with your cold, you’ve suddenly got the green light to take them.  Gee golly heck, it’s only Sudafed, right?

Oh, it might be worth mentioning that you’re also green lighted to take these if you’re breathing, existing, or if you just feel like it.  So hockey players do, and often in sizable quantities. Our trainer once bought so many boxes of the stuff some law enforcement agency called to inquire about the possibility he was running a meth lab.  True story.

In a perfect world, your heart wouldn’t have you swallowing cold medication with energy drinks, but hey, we’re all aware the world isn’t perfect.  Some hardcore energy drink fans (and I was not one of these) crushed a Red Bull before every period (with the likely follow-up conversation of “…Doc, I’m having trouble sleeping, can I get an Ambien prescription?”).

Playing sick can actually be a good thing for a slumping player.  Sometimes you end up too sluggish to get where you want to be, and end up in some unfamiliar, sneaky spot to bury a goal, and it justifies the rest of the night where describing your play as “being a liability” would be generous.

Or, on the other hand, it can be a streak killer.  If you’re hot, nothing cools you off like a fever of 101.

My problem with playing sick (and I’m assuming everyone else’s problem), is that it makes no logical sense – without time to get well, it prolongs the illness.  Hockey players rarely get enough rest, and our living involves a cardio workout in a freezing rink every day.  Not exactly your doctor’s advice on getting over that cough.  A couple days rest would have a guy feeling like a million bucks.

But as a player, the code requires that we “man up”, so you drag yourself through seven games of “not quite right”, all the while doing your best to pass-on whatever variety of unwellness you’ve acquired to your teammates.

I remember lying in my bed after puking on game day, sheets wet with cold sweat, and laying out the routine I’d need to go through before the game.

Lay here ‘til four, shower at 4:05, suit on, out the door by 4:30.  Vitamin C, Advil at 5:00.  Electrolyte pills, lots of water, those anti-cramping things at 6:00.  A little bike, a little stretch, then a hot coffee.  A Sudafed before warm-up, and one before the game.  I’ll be fine.

When you feel like this, it always comes down to the follow short conversation:

Coach looking at you blankly: “….can you go?”

A fair question.  Because you could.

“I mean, yes… I CAN go”

“Great.”

The only thinking is “if you can, why wouldn’t you?”  Another fair question.

If you’re a remotely important player on your team, your coach isn’t to be blamed for wanting you in there.  Lord knows if a guy on my team who was sort of sick asked to sit a game out, I’d be one of the dozen players laying the sarcasm on thick. “Yeah bud, you better get a warm bowl of soup. You must be blowing your nose, what, eight, nine times an hour?  This must be just terrible for you.

So the tradition lives on, and here’s the thing: it isn’t an epidemic, it isn’t something that needs to be changed, it’s just the reality of our wonderful game.  You’ve gotta be a tough, durable, Yukon-crushing force to be a pro.  It’s the way it is, and it’s a part of the job.  But it still SUCKS.

You can count on one thing – your coach will be standing behind you no matter how he feels, and he expects the same of you.  Come to think of some of the coaching decisions I’ve seen, I’m sure some of those guys are chugging cough syrup in their respective offices.   

As a player, all you can hope is that you end up in an unfamiliar spot, you get a bounce, a point, or some sort of contribution.

At least that way, when you crawl into bed and listen to your Sudafed/energy drink addled heart race you can put the goal on mental replay and justify the misery.

*****

 

A Give and Take With Old-School Coaches

-by Justin Bourne

 

Alright, old school coaches.  Maybe Gordie Howe was the greatest hockey player to ever live.  I’ll make the concession that it’s at least a possibility (though I highly doubt it), but you’ve got to come together with me on a few things:

I’ll admit that Gordie Howe was one of the greatest to play the game if you admit that the new sticks are better than the old ones — because they are.

Today’s sticks don’t break more frequently than wood ones; in fact, they break less often.  NHL players used to use 100 of the damn wood ones per year.  People see that newer sticks are made of a composite material, and then somehow think that means they should last for all eternity.  They’re made to be better, not indestructible.  You do know they’re better, right?

I’ll admit that my generation tries to pass the puck too much if you stop telling us to shoot low.

We love the tic-tac-toe, highlight-reel stuff, because “we’re a generation of fancy-pantses.”  Fine.  And, you’re right.  More often than not, the more effective play would be to get the puck to the net.  Like Gretzky said, you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.  But when I do shoot, you need to know something:

The first thing goalies do in this crazy, confusing era, is go down.  The butterfly covers post to post, so five-hole is the only low option.  Beating a goalie with a shot on the ice to a corner is like a unicorn getting a hole-in-one. Unlikely.  That’s why we shoot high every time“There’s no rebounds there.” – Hey, I know that.  When I shoot low, that indicates I wanted a rebound.  If I shoot high, I could care less where the puck ends up.  I was trying to score.

I’ll admit that dumping the puck in is effective if you admit toe-drags are too.

I know you hate when you see a player try to toe-pull a puck around an opponent – especially when we turn it over. But you’re oddly silent when it works and creates a scoring opportunity.  If it worked every time, everyone would do it.  It’s just not a move every player has in their bag of tricks. Skill guys will turn the puck over occasionally when trying to create an opportunity, and that’s the risk you take by having goal scorers.

And like I said – in turn, I admit that I should dump the puck in on out-numbered rushes.  We probably recover the puck again, about, half the time.  That’s not bad for being on a 2-on-3, I understand.  Sigh… fine.

I’ll finish my checks if you let me fly the zone early.

I know you’re set on this finishing-the-checks thing.  Eventually, by the third period, our opponents defense might be tired of getting hit, and might unload the puck earlier than they want just to avoid getting hit.  That might be effective, fine.

But when I see my teammates getting control of the puck in the d-zone, I’m outta here.  If I’m not open for a pass, it’s because their defenseman went with me – which means more room has opened up for the breakout.  Maybe I’ll get sent in alone for a scoring chance.  Just because once in a blue moon my defenseman will puke on himself and turn the puck over for a scoring opportunity doesn’t mean I’m defensively irresponsible.

I “won’t care” about my personal stats if you make sure I get them.

This isn’t a problem in the NHL, but in the minor leagues (where each goal isn’t always reviewed from six camera angles), we all want our stats to represent our actual stats. That’s not asking too much.  If I tip in a shot, I agree – it was great that “we” scored.  But it’s also worth noting that “I” do that a lot, and that “I” want future teams to know that.  Make sure I get that point after the game so I don’t have to look selfish by asking.  It is important.

And last, I’ll admit that conditioning is totally necessary if you admit that days off are too.

I’m ten times the player when I’m in shape.  I have the energy for that one extra burst, one extra move, that “one extra” that makes all the difference.

That said, your body needs time to recover, dude.  Maybe conditioning will help us win again next weekend, but rest will help us win come playoffs.  Plus, I’m sick of your dumb face screaming “tape-to-tape” every morning of my life.  Don’t be shy to occasionally stay home in your recliner, pet your pitbull, drink your Labatt’s Blue and chuck the movie “Slapshot” in your 12:00-blinking-VHS machine.

So… we’re still cool right?

Am I on the powerplay tonight?

*****

 

Players Less Safe in Era of Salary Cap, Instigator

-by Justin Bourne

 

“Lack of respect” isn’t the only reason large numbers of players are getting their brains double-bounced off the inside of their skulls by opponent’s shoulders, elbows and fists.  There’s just not many reasons reason to turn down a chance to blow a guy up in today’s NHL.  

My Dad, Bob Bourne, played in the NHL for 14 years – 12 of them with the New York Islanders in the 1970s and 80s. My father-in-law, Clark Gillies, had the same numbers – 14 years in the NHL, 12 with the Islanders.

That Islander squad embodied the definition of “team.”  Each year, fringe players shuffled in and out while the core of a dozen players remained intact.  The dominant Edmonton Oiler teams of the late 80s were cut in the same design from a slightly different cloth, where the core stayed constant over a long period of dominance.

These days, the word “core” has come to represent the two or three players. Pittsburgh is built around Crosby, Malkin and Fleury. Detroit has Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Lindstrom. If today’s GM has the chance to form a core big enough to make his team competitive for a decade, you know he’s going to have to trade some guys to squeeze under the $56.8 million salary ceiling (read: Chicago Blackhawks).

Thus, most rosters have become somewhat fluid, with a smaller core and faceless names filling the “role player” spots until that face becomes recognizable, wants more money, and has to be shipped off in favor of the next generic fill in.

You can imagine how that feels for a player in the dressing room.  Each week a new bag shows up attached to a new face, a buddy gets traded away and the team is once again a slightly different beast than it was yesterday, and different still than it will be in the coming weeks.

Needless to say, for a player’s first year in a new jersey, it’s tough to feel too much for that team logo before the trade deadline.  Until that roster is frozen, the only letters that matter in “team” are the “m” and the “e”.

Back when teams were, in fact, teams, players stuck up for one another because they knew each other beyond the “locker room buddy” status. Game seven or seventy, you played the New York Islanders, not the just the players in NYI jerseys. 

Because of that unity, players held grudges for crazy amounts of time when they felt a teammate had been wronged – it was a personal slight to see your teammate get suckered.  Sometimes players would have to wait until the next season for the chance to avenge a liberty taken on one of their guys, but they just waited, no matter how long it took.

One of my favorite stories of Islander vengeance is that they waited week in, week out, for the chance to get at Ken Linseman – a notorious agitator who played for the Flyers.  But, as per that era, an attack on a teammate was an attack on a team, and attacking the Broad Street Bullies was akin to bathing in steak juice and sucker-punching pitbulls. 

But at some point, Linseman became an agitator in his own dressing room. Late in the season, one of the Flyers tough guys lined up for the opening draw and said “He’s all yours tonight.” After a surprised response of “what?”, the Flyer said: “If you go after Linseman, nobody’s gonna do anything.”  That was all the Islanders needed to know and, that night, scores got settled.

In that era, the fear of retribution affected the game.  You knew that taking a cheap shot at someone would make the game exponentially less fun because at some point, you were going to feel the same cheap shot you doled out, just twice as hard.  And that makes a guy nervous.  It was probably better to just not take that the first shot, right?  Today, that “fear” is romantically referred to by players of that era as “respect.”

In this era, they call immediate retribution “instigating”, and for that attempt at self-defense, the league tacks on fairly hefty fines and suspensions.  An instigating in the last five minutes of the third even means an automatic ejection for the next evening’s game. It’s a stupid rule that contributes to players’ inability to protect themselves and teammates.

When did we decide that during an emotional game, acting on anger after taking a cheap blow means you’re more of a menace to the game than the initial offender?  You team isn’t going to do it two seasons later anymore.  We need to let the guys react because it’s an intense game.

And partially, this is why we’re seeing so many dangerous plays.  I don’t think Clarke Mcarthur deserved any more punishment than the refs gave him for his borderline hit-from-behind on Liam Reddox over a week ago, but I do think the nearest Oiler player should have had his gloves off before he was within ten feet of Clarke, turned him around, and made him take a tad more precaution the next time he’s in a puck battle with anyone in blue and orange.

The lack of team concept and the unnecessary punishment that comes with immediate retribution have combined to make it so guys don’t defend each other anymore.  They’ve started to rely on the league to punish accordingly.  And since the league isn’t punishing questionable plays severely (if at all), there’s no reason to hold back on any hit.  Enter, head shots.

Each team seems to have a fighter waiting for his chance to justify his spot on the roster, so they fight each other on occasion.  The fighter role spot seems like a sport within a sport – these guys aren’t enforcing anything on the average size players in the league anymore.  Think about it:

Do you think the New York Rangers have Curtis Glencross as a marked man for his clip on Chris Drury?  Probably not by anyone other than the team’s tough guy, and what good is that?  Glencross isn’t going to fight Donald Brashear because he’s not an idiot, and doesn’t have to fight him if he doesn’t want to.  And nobody else on the Rangers considers it their job to protect teammates (I mean, we hire a guy for that, right?), so who’s going to step up?  There’s no on-ice punishment anymore.

A large part of the reason for these hits is because of some of the unpredictable ways in which rule changes affect our game. And so, the league has to recognize that it’s become their job to protect the players.  They put in the instigator, they put in the salary cap, so this has become their responsibility.  Like a good coach, the NHL needs to be able to make the necessary in-season adjustments. 

It’s not “eye for an eye” on the ice protecting today’s players, its “aye for an aye” in the GMs meetings.  So NHL, get to protecting your game’s most valuable commodity – your players.

*****

An Appeal For Change

 -by Justin Bourne

 

In my days as a hockey player, I did nothing but contribute to hockey’s culture of prejudice and homophobia.  I said “fag” more times than a British smoker.  Six months after I left my last professional locker room, I felt a twinge of regret.  Followed by a full-out stomach-punch of regret.  And by the time I finished the first draft of this column, I was disgusted with myself. 

At the time, it seemed harmless.  After all – when you think about the NHL, AHL, ECHL and more, can you call to memory a single open homosexual among them?  There was nobody there to offend.

The lack of a homosexual presence in hockey must mean one of two things: (a) homosexual men don’t play professional hockey or (b) they don’t feel comfortable admitting it — in which case I, and my brethren, were offending some teammates with our close-mindedness, and furthering what must be feelings of unsettled fear, and general exclusion.

For us as a culture, that means another two things.  That either (a) we need scientists doing research on professional hockey players ASAP, because apparently there’s a link between our sport and sexuality.  Or, much more realistically (b) we need to alter the culture of hockey, because homosexuals are being forced to play entire careers masquerading as someone they’re not.

As many times as I called teammates or opponents the “f-word”, I heard it back tenfold. As well as I fit in behind the doors of a dressing room, I had pursuits that made me seem different.  I kept a journal while I played. I’m into piano music and reading.   In the hockey world, that’s your basic formula for eliciting more slurs about sexual orientation than acting in Rent.  It’s always the first shot fired.

Hockey culture is something I’ve known and loved, but I’m not oblivious to the relationship between how players and coaches act behind that dressing room door and how society expects us to act in public.  A telltale sign for us, and team athletes in general, is that since we have to change something about how we act and what we say when we leave the team room, then we’re probably acting improperly in the first place.  And during my playing days, I was aware that was the case.

Progress on this issue has been at a stand-still.  When I ran the idea for this article by my uncle, a sportswriter and editor in his own right, he mentioned a piece he wrote 20 years ago about the general manager of a major junior hockey team in Canada who said something to the effect of “we don’t have any weak-wristed players in this locker room.”

Twenty years later, this attitude has yet to be shucked from hockey.  We can’t wait another two decades ignoring the small but consistent strides of progress that the world outside sport is making.

I recently read a quote in the “Verbatim” section of Time Magazine by Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP, encouraging African Americans to support the right for gays to wed, where he said “black people, of all people, should not oppose equality.”  But really, shouldn’t all of us have learned from the horrible mistakes of our past, not just African Americans?  There’s not a single good reason for any of us to continue to support inequality in any shape or form.  We’ll look back at this time in our history and hang our heads in shame for allowing this culture of prejudice to continue.

It’s insane to think that we still have policies like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”.  Absolutely insane.  Those are the things that when our kids grow up, they’ll look a few decades back and say “Dudes couldn’t fight for their country because they kissed dudes?  Wait; explain that again, I’m lost.  They were fighting for the country, right?”

The goal is to get to a place where our differences aren’t so much as a blip on anyone’s radar.  By the time we have our sixth black President, let’s hope it’s not a story anymore – he’s just the President. 

And maybe the first openly gay NHL star will polarize responses on this issue, but hopefully the 100th is just a guy who will show up in my columns for being “completely overrated, a third-line defensive specialist at best.”

It will be hard to survive the dressing room for the first players to come out.  That simple sentence isn’t a prediction; it’s a fact. Very few things are off-limits for jokes and barbs. Censorship has little influence in the locker rooms of any sport. You have to realize, this is a place where “Right, but your girlfriend has cheated on you like, six times” is a witty comeback.

On the ice, the first gay professionals to stand will likely take more than a few direct verbal shots.  Trash talking on the ice is part of the game and we all look for the easy target. The stuff I used to hear was harmless: I’m “skinny” or “soft” or worse (but not much). 

Whoever the first pioneer is will have to know what he’s in for – he’ll have to be a strong man, possibly in the literal sense.

We’ve somehow made something totally irrelevant to hockey – sexual orientation – such an issue that every gay player has been forced to conclude that their private life is something best hidden. 

Hey, hockey players: not knowing doesn’t change the reality that there are gay men in the professional ranks today.

And maybe it’s not many, because we’ve driven so many away; players who didn’t want to be teased, shunned, and worse, a target for on-ice violence. Who knows how many great players hung up their skates in favor of some lesser talent they possessed, strictly to find acceptance and peace of mind.

So it’s time.

It’s time to acknowledge we’ve been unfair to the gay community, that the culture of our sport can be misogynistic, homophobic and cruel. More importantly, it’s time to make a stand that we want it to change. 

I know I can’t take back the words I said over my time as a hockey player, but this is a start.  I think if you asked any minority group that has won the rights and freedoms that all people deserve, they’d agree on one thing about change — it’s better late than never.

*****

 The Leafs Are Falling

-by Justin Bourne

 

The beginning of the hockey season has a sensitive nature to it — not only is it “if you win or lose” it’s also “how you play the game”. 

And for the Toronto Maple Leafs, “how they’ve played the game” could be answered with “possibly with their helmets on backwards”.  It’s tough to figure out your team identity when all you’ve done is lose.

The franchise took a valiant swing at a fresh start in the off season.  They brought in proven winner Brian Burke to overhaul the team, who then proceeded to sign, cut and trade players like reality was a video game.  Within months, the new-look, toughness-included Toronto team was ready to jump onto the hearts of its opponents.  So far, it’s been the other teams jumping on them.

In the dressing room of a losing team, it may take months for someone to say it out loud, but it only takes a couple bad games for the negative thoughts to creep in – “We’re 0 and 2, our goalie is awful, our defense is suspect, and the waterbottle I just picked up is clearly half empty.”

Players around the league, when speaking about their team to each other use the language of what is obviously their makeup.  If they’re a skilled team, two roommates might say something off the cuff while watching SportsCenter like “we’re obviously gonna score enough, we just need that lazy sieve to chip in with a few even average saves and we’ll win tomorrow”.

Every successful team in the history of hockey has thought of themselves as something.  Fast, physical, smart, defensive-minded, whatever.  They rely on the one puzzle piece that they know will help them win, they lean on it, and spend the rest of their time working on the other pieces because they know they at least have that certain something locked up.

For a struggling team like Toronto, it’s impossible to find an identity.  If the on-ice trust in a teammate isn’t there, you can’t play that certain effective, simple style of game. You find yourself trying to beat opponents one-on-one instead of making easy passes, covering for guys who don’t need covering for, and before you know it, your own guy is open after you made the turnover at the other end, all because you didn’t feel like you could rely on the players in the same colors.

And worse, the Leafs have put their GM in a situation where he has to start to reevaluating their personnel.  “Maybe we just don’t have the guys…” is never the first thought for players and coaches, but when the number in that “L” category gets high enough, you start to realize you can only blame-away so many losses on poor decisions and bad bounces.

If the Leafs are able to wake up – and wake-up quick – they have two things working in their favor.  One, is that conquered adversity brings a team together like nothing else.  I played on an ECHL team that started the year 0 and 3, and within hours of the final buzzer blame was flying around like a hummingbird on speed.  And I don’t mean narrow losses.  I mean we got shutout, physically dominated, and just generally beatdown to losertown.

By the time we figured out our forte was working painfully hard, we still had time to get the train back on the tracks.  We snuck into playoffs, and advanced all the way to the conference finals.  It just took some hard work to find out who we were.

In those situations, like the one the Leafs are in now, some wee little baby steps can add up to monster strides.  A teammate jumping to the aid of a teammate in need, a crucial blocked shot to preserve a lead, or even better – a come from behind win, and you’ve poured a foundation  on which you can build a winner.  You start to form that “us” that didn’t exist during the every-man-for-himself preseason, and you begin to figure out just who the collective “you” is – and that bond is a lot stronger than the “all-we-ever-do-is-win” bond that occasionally crumbles the second the team is tested.

The second thing is one of the most powerful team motivators in sports – “Nobody believed in us.”  Just look at the Phoenix Coyotes shooting out of the gate like desert dogs chasing a rabbit around a track.  I have to think that “nobody believed in us” is catching up to “I’m going to Disneyland!” in frequently-used-post-championship-interview clichés.  But that may be because there’s actually something to the uniting quality of that viewpoint.  Whether “nobody believed in us” is true or not, there’s something powerful about seeing your small group as being united against everyone else.

But if the Leafs don’t find themselves – and I mean quick – it’s going to be personnel getting changed, and the second that starts to happen, the nightmare begins.  New players and increased uncertainty helps to right the ship like Hal Gill leaning out of a canoe to grab a fallen hat from the water.

This is the time of year where teams evaluate themselves as much as any analyst, pundit, or jerk-on-his-couch-in-Phoenix.  They think “what makes us special?”, and in Toronto, that’s a fair question for the players in their dressing room right now. 

Tim Jackman says the Islanders are “relentless.”  With another tough start under their belt, we’ll see out about that.

Bill Guerin says the Pens are “deep.” On which he elaborates with “…especially at center.  It’s nuts.”  And that’s who they are – by describing their team as deep, Guerin alludes to the fact that they’re a complete team, working together.

So what’s it going to be for you, Leafs? 

What’s your identity going to be?

*****

 

A New Season Begins

-by Justin Bourne

I always tap my foot like this when I’m nervous.

The puck is about to drop on game one of a season as fresh and clean as the ice looks, and you only get one chance to make that first impression.

That first game, everybody is at their best – the crowd, the anthem singer, the zamboni guy.  That first game, everything finally matters.

Nobody records pre-season stats.  Guys say things like “I’m not blocking that in pre-season”.  The talk has been talked, and the walk is a drop away.

God, the popcorn smells good walking in. 

That unmistakable aroma is hockey’s best gameday trigger.  The walking-in smells are everywhere.  Heading into the rink for weeks of pre-season practices, the rink looked exactly the same on the inside.  It looks like it does now.  But on gameday, the smells remind you – tonight is for real.

And you forget those little things during the summer.  As you walk in that arena, it all hits you at once.  Along with that waft of mini-donuts, roasted nuts and popcorn comes the reminder that tonight could mean real sweat, real pain and real blood.

As you pull into the rink for the season’s first game, police, cones and rope are everywhere.  You forget those little things during the summer, too.

And over there is another reminder that tonight matters.  People are trading money for the right to be entertained, and you’re the entertainer.  You start thinking about big hits and flashing red lights, the hockey player’s home-run.  Once that adrenaline gets pumping, it’s going to be fun to put someone through the boards.

Even pre-game nap feels different.  It’s a deviation from the summer routine, and impossible to sleep.  It doesn’t even feel real that the nap means game time tonight.  Goals and assists actually matter.  Someone is writing it down.  Tonight’s performance goes on hockeydb.com.

 “What if I get a couple bounces tonight, and start the year off with a couple goals?” …the mind drifts. 

A good start means better linemates, which means a better year.  It means powerplay time.  Everything is weighed a disproportionate amount.  If you don’t get the puck out of the zone, you’re the guy who “never gets the puck out of the zone”.  If you lose an edge, you’re the guy who “can’t stand up”.

“I forgot how much tonight matters…”

It starts at morning skate.  The pre-season derelicts that once bogged down practice are gone.  The herd has been thinned.  This is your team.  Those are your real linemates tonight.

Coach’s intensity is higher today.  He hasn’t smiled.  You forget those little things during the summer.

Suddenly, everybody has a spring in their step.  Nobody’s dejected from being benched the game before.  Everybody is a tiny snowball of potential energy, sitting on top of a hill, waiting to be pushed in a certain direction.  That first morning is jovial – 20 guys all certain that this year, their snowball is the one heading to success.

On the ice is the same as it was in the room before morning skate – laughs everywhere.  The lines for that night are written on the dry-erase board, a fitting metaphor for how easily your name, and future, can be wiped away with the brush of a hand.  But at least for today, it’s real.

It’s a smudge-free, fresh start.  So start your snowball in the right direction tonight.

And now, the puck is about to drop on a season as fresh and clean as the ice looks, and you’re on the ice to start the game.

The teams are on the benches, the fans are in the stands, and the ref is waving down to each goalie and goal-judge to make sure everybody is ready for the puck to drop on a new season.

And now my foot.  I always tap my foot like this when I’m nervous.

You forget those little things during the summer.

*****

 

The Off-Season: Barstools or Barbells?

-by Justin Bourne

 

“Hey, welcome to the Islanders. I’m Wade.  Let me know if you need anything,” said the man I presumed to be a member of the public relations staff.

“Nice to meet you, Wade,” I replied, thinking, “Let me know when you get important.”

I’m not a jerk – I was just stressed out and nervous.  I was trying out for an NHL team for the first time in my life, and it felt like I had to constantly be on.  Give the vets their respect.  Kiss the coach’s ass.  Don’t step on any toes.

So in reality, it was nice to meet someone like the PR guy, so I could feel important for a few seconds.

But just then, the strangest thing happened – the PR guy started getting undressed in the team’s change room. 

And when his shirt came off, I confirmed, “Yep, definitely a PR guy.”  But now I was curious about this strange development unfolding to my left. 

“Confirmed”, it turned out, was the wrong word.  I looked over a moment later and he was getting dressed – in goalie gear.

And that was how I met Wade Dubliewicz – a guy whose roster spot was a lot more certain than my judgment.

Every year, on every team, some guy sneaks a year or two (or a career) past the fans without them ever knowing the debacle that hid beneath his gear.

Wade is a solid NHL goaltender, a great guy, and Exhibit A in proving that not all professional athletes are built like professional athletes, no matter how hard they work.

For players, those first few moments of training camp are the professional sports version of the high school standard “How I Spent My Summer”.  It never takes too long to figure out if a teammate was under a squat rack or above a bar stool (or, in the worst-case scenario, under a bar stool).

For some players, that summer of training means bulking up, while for others it means slimming down.  And just like the rest of us, genetics matter.  Some guys can work their tails off trying to shed those few extra pounds, take hydroxycut, swear off beer, and you can still tell that they just weren’t meant to model underwear.

This provides endless fodder for dressing room humor, but of course, most guys are reluctant to point to the pudgy in public. When I bounced the idea off a number of NHLers this summer – Alex Goligoski, Chris Higgins, Brett McLean, Josh Gorges, Kyle Okposo and Eric Nystrom – everyone wanted to play the game, but no one wanted to attach their names.

So without confessing who said what, here’s a brief survey of who’s got the worst body in the NHL?

  • “Probably Tanguay, but he won’t take me saying that too well.  I’ll go with Thornton – he’ll love that.”
  • “Alexander Karpotsev.  It’s not pretty”
  • “It has to be Wade Dubliewicz”
  • “Ryan Whitney – not maybe, not ONE OF, but the definite worst.”
  • “Tanguay – I think he’s an extraordinary player, but um… yeah“
  • “I can’t answer that man!” (…goading) “No man, I can’t” (…more goading) “Ryan Whitney”

In a time where athletes keep evolving into super-human physical specimens, it’s nice to hear that some of the best players have the worst bodies.

Even though fitness training is a huge part of hockey life, there have always been guys who can get the job done – even if they look better suited to an usher’s uniform than the team-issued jersey.

Dale Hawerchuk, a Hockey Hall of Famer, tells a story of Randy Carlyle, a four-time all-star, a Norris Trophy winner and current coach of the Anaheim Ducks:

“Randy Carlyle used to catch a lot of abuse for his body. I remember a time when we were playing in Sweden together, and they used to pick three guys after the game for steroid testing. (In an error they quickly fixed) Carlyle’s results came back positive. God we laughed.  If anyone’s body didn’t have steroids in it, it was his. Great guy and hell of a player, but man…”

Hockey fans can see tall, and they can see short. But they can’t see whether that 210 pounds is Grade A beef or meatloaf.  One of my coaches called it “The Potato Chip Club” – those select few players who (were forced to) have the privilege of fitting in an extra bike ride somewhere in the week.  It’s a real honor.

So now it’s September, and we’ve almost reached that point again, my hockey friends – you’re about to show up for training camp, and about to be subject to inspection.

And you know your coaches and buddies alike will be asking themselves the same question the second they see you:  

What was it for this guy this summer?  Barstools or barbells?

 

 

We signed who??

-by Justin Bourne

We signed who??

 

There’s no better feeling than being one of the chosen few at the core of your hockey team.  It’s secure and safe, like a hug from your grandma, a childhood blanket, or a 15-year contract.

 
I felt it in junior, I felt it in college, and since I was under contract with the Islanders AHL team in Bridgeport, I felt it when I played for their ECHL team in Utah.

 
Other players come and go, getting signed and released while living an uncomfortable shift-to-shift existence. The players with a firm grip on a roster spot watch like judges on a catch-and-release bass-fishing program – “Not big enough” “Too slow” “Too old/too young.” “No fight in him.”

  

  Players roster watch.  They have to. Holding a good spot on a team is like holding The Ring with a thousand Gollum’s creeping around your bed at night.

 
For bubble guys, simply put, getting new players sucks.  They study the wire everyday because it affects them on a personal level.  Each team is chock full of uncertain skaters fighting on a daily basis for power play time, ice time, and to remain on the team.  Every time a new player shows up with the potential to take some of your portion, it’s tempting to introduce his skate-blades to the concrete outside before his first practice.

 
I got to wondering if NHL players reacted to new players on their team as the guys in the lower leagues tended to – by being sour.  I called a buddy that makes the big bucks to see where he stood on the new additions to his team this year.

 
All of Long Island is excited to have John Tavares, right?  Are the players?  Is a guy like Jeff Tambellini pissed because it’ll affect his minutes?

 
Publicly, he’s not.

 
Of course, he’s known he would be playing in the NHL since he was a fetus, so he knows the right things to say.  In his always charming, Crosby-esque manner, he says: “I’m excited.  It gives me the chance to play with someone exciting who can distribute the puck, which helps not just the team, but individuals.  It changes the dynamic of our team.”

 
Fair enough.

 
But it’s also kinda BS (sorry Jeff).

 
Most guys just want their job safe, and despite what Tambellini has the common sense to say, NHL players are no different in this.

 
My opportunities in the AHL happened thanks to excess injuries on Long Island (it’s bad etiquette to wish injuries on players in your spot higher up…  Out loud).  I got called up and jumped on the opportunity.  Playing well enough in my first go round in the American League, I earned myself a second call-up later in the year.

I had been achieving my goal of making it hard for them to send me down, after chipping in with five points in my last eight games, and I couldn’t have been happier about it.  Until dinner that night.

My roommate: “Yeah, they signed that Jesse Joensuu kid they drafted, he’s coming over from Finland for his first practice tomorrow”.

Crap, he’s a right winger.

The next day: “Yeah, they signed that Peter McArthur kid out of BU”

Crap, he’s a forward too.

The next day: “Coach wants to see you after practice”.

Crap.

So we roster watch.

 
If you don’t think a guy like Matt Carle is bummed that Pronger showed up to take some of his power play time, you’re nuts.  It may help their team, but hockey is a profession, a livelihood for these guys.  Individual success matters.

 
At every level, there are hundreds of players per year who are flagged by any team’s general manager as “GOD’S GIFT”, but they usually end up playing more like a dog’s gift.  This is precisely why we love and embrace the young kids who beat the odds and actually end up becoming great – the Kanes, the Kessels, Okposos and Oshies.

 
The NHL, when it comes down to it, is still a business.  Unless a team wins, fans don’t come.  So, the team needs to make the right changes to build a winner, so they can make money.  It’s A to B.  They could care less what the names on the back of the jersey say.

 
And for players, it can be a business too.  When potential competition for your job arrives, it’s just that – not a teammate, but a competitor. 

 
You skate your backside off trying to beat your opponent, so you can beat your teammate too.  The magic of playoffs can only happen because of roster freezes, where no more changes can be made.
There, teammates become teammates, everybody knows their role, and they learn their place.  Teams aren’t picked in training camp.  Your closest enemies are.


“Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer”
–Sun-tzu

 

********

 

August: The “Back to School” Face-Punch

-by Justin Bourne 

 

As a player, every time the calendar turned to August, my stomach turned with it.

It’s no longer “after last hockey season,” it’s now “before next season.”  It’s like being 12 years old and catching a glimpse of that first “back to school sale” sign, and feeling your stomach drop like you’re on a plane in turbulence. 

Only no one expects you to show up for school ready to write the final exam. In hockey, showing up for training camp in less than midseason form gets you cut, embarrassed and financially disabled. And if you show up completely unprepared, get ready to spend a season sharing a bunk bed between three guys in some four-team league.

Every professional hockey player understands the deal. As the beaches swell with people splashing under the hot sun, it’s time to hit the weights and workout until it’s not fun.
The first week of August means new rules are in effect: No More Beer. No ‘Skipping Workouts Because the Sun Is Shining.’ No ‘Days Off.’  Since self-motivation is your only fuel, I found it handy to think of a player I hated and focus on working harder than he was.  It’s survival of the fittest, just in a different context.

Come August, the “holy crap holy crap holy crap” realization of the next season starts punching you in the face at random intervals throughout the day.  Offseason training is one of the biggest battles of the year. With no coaches to push, prod and poke you, August is the time of year that separates the might-be NHLers from the certain-to-be minor leaguers.
 
Epic battles ensue: Beach vs. squats.  Lunges vs. Golf.  Sprints vs. Boating.
 
For those who plan to move up, August days look something like this:

8:30 – Wake-up.  OK, good start.
 9:00 – Eat.  Remember to do that a lot today.  Tons of lean proteins and carbs, got to bulk up for weigh-in.   

9:30 – Get to the gym.  Crap, its leg day.  Ninety minutes of hell: squats, lunges, plyometrics, bike sprints, leg press, one-legged Bosu ball squats, jump squats with the medicine ball, stairs, some agility jumps and skip rope.  Oh, and abs.  Always abs.  Stupid, flipping abs. 
 
11:15 – Eat. Get to the rink. Openly display disdain for the couple drinking on the patio at the pub you just passed.

12:00 – On ice. Mini practice, followed by full on shinny.  Realize that cardio needs to be a bigger focus­– a much bigger focus.
 
1:45 – Eat.  This eating thing is becoming a chore. 

2:30 – NHLer – go wakeboarding behind your boat.  AHLer – go wakeboarding behind your friend’s boat.  ECHLer – go to the beach and talk about the NHLer’s boat.
 
5:00 and beyond – Eat.  A lot.  And well.

For those unsigned players, you field calls from your agent, discuss offers and hope for better opportunities.  In the end, you come to realize that the only thing you can control is your own fitness.  Distractions be damned.
 
And of course, not all players have the same routine. Those fighting to win a job go harder and longer. Some of those with long-term contracts – •cough•Dany Heatley•cough• – can follow a different regimen. 

But come August, anyone who earns a paycheck playing hockey has already endured the misery of returning to the rink.  Since you left the rink at the end of last season, your legs are telling you gravity has doubled, and your lungs say the air has thinned.

Wherever hockey players choose to summer, you’ll find first-line NHLers, minor league pros and college players sharing ice time to get ready for the season. Somehow, sharing means exactly that – everybody chips in a few bucks. Nothing damages the ego quite like scraping together toonies and loonies to cover the fee while the NHLers towel off with hundred dollar bills.  Little help here?
 
If NHL scouts were picking rosters based on these summer training sessions, the league would look very different. Heatley is one of the nicest people around and an NHL All-Star, but that doesn’t mean he’s not the world’s worst shinny player.
 
Last summer, in his first time out, he actually stepped on the puck on a breakaway and fell.  Each summer, I’ve had the “oh god, this isn’t going to be his year” feeling watching him in casual pick-up games, then he goes out and scores 50 in the NHL season.  Clearly, he’s figured something out right.
 
The point is, from the high-end studs, to the low-end shlubs, August means fun time is over for the boys of winter.  Those who fail to grasp that this is crunch-time will not only fail to grasp the Cup, but also fail to stick with a team.

This is my first year where I haven’t been training to play, and there are perks.  I’ve played more golf. I’ve been the guy on the patio enjoying a beer.  But I know it’s not the summer workouts I’m going to miss.

It’s when that first puck hits the ice, with a fresh stat sheet and a new season. For the players who have done their work in August, the potential is limitless.

And just like I’m doing now, they get to do something fun starting at that precise moment: write their own story.

*******

 

A Love-Hate Relationship With Hockey

-by Justin Bourne (revised for the USA Today July 2009)

  

When I first started writing, my jaw was in four pieces.  I was equipped with two plates, 10 screws and a bottom row of teeth that would rival the finest set in any backwoods pub in England. I was once a hockey player – but writing is now my life.

My dad, Bob Bourne, was a pretty good hockey player. The Islanders raised his name to the rafters, inducting him into their team hall-of-fame.  By the end of his career, he had won four Stanley Cups, and worn jerseys with names like “Team Canada” and “Campbell Conference All-Stars”.

But really, I never tried to fill his shoes. In fact, I was never married to hockey. If hockey were a girl, I’m fairly certain I could go to court and get a restraining order. Hey, I just liked it. Maybe I led it on a bit with the late night games and the odd early morning rendezvous, but it knew what we were.

By 16, I was six feet tall and built like Clay Aiken. After I sat down with my gangly limbs and convinced them to work as a team, we started to make progress. I stopped having disappointments on cut day and even started to become an efficient offensive threat.

The skill I had suddenly met size, and I found myself jumping up to one of the most competitive junior hockey leagues in Canada. After enduring a barrage of oranges, some vague death threats and repeatedly having my sexuality questioned by my coach – who was an, um, effective motivator – we won a league championship.  I earned a college scholarship and was off to play NCAA Division 1 hockey at the University of Alaska-Anchorage in the WCHA – the toughest conference in college hockey.

I spent four years chasing around the likes of Tomas Vanek, Zach Parise, TJ Oshie, Kyle Okposo, Phil Kessel, Travis Zajac, Jonathan Toews, David Backes and plenty of others.  Apparently, that was good for my foot speed and general skill set because, as the years passed, I continued to get better.

My big advantage over every other kid with a helmet was that Dad had left a shoe in the door to Long Island when he left, so it was already a tad open for me. I had numerous American League tryout offers, but the New York Islanders represented a chance at the big time.

Make no mistake – I definitely had a little moment the first time I wore that classic Islanders crest, even if it was just on a practice jersey. And, in a pleasant twist, I excelled at rookie camp, which I think caught the scouts off guard. Before I knew it, I was back on the Island, this time for main camp.  Mere months after my Alaskan adventure, I was eating steak on a plane, a few rows ahead of where Bill Guerin was singing the Lizzy McGuire theme song to Mike Comrie because “his kids have Hillary Duff’s singing toothbrush”. 

How the hell did I get here?

 
I wasn’t in the Islanders’ NHL plans, but I caught enough attention to sign a two-way contract with their AHL affiliate in Bridgeport and their ECHL affiliate in Utah. I made the ECHL all-star team that first year and spent the majority of the year after Christmas with the Sound Tigers in the AHL, enjoying an ocean view and rooming with Kip Brennan, a soft little guy who’s afraid to play physical (unless he’s reading this, in which case, um, sorry, sir).

The next season, I didn’t get the AHL offer I wanted, so I signed an open, one-way deal in the ECHL, which meant I would have the freedom to move up to any AHL team that needed a winger during the season. It’s a solid plan – unless your MCL snaps in pre-season like Krackle and Pop’s big brother.

But I worked hard at my rehab and got the green light to go with my team (the Idaho Steelheads) on a road trip to play the Alaska Aces. You know you still love the game when you’re excited to be included in a trip to Alaska in the dead of winter. It was December 12th, my 26th birthday, and my first game back from knee injury. What a birthday present! I was going to return to action in front of a few fans who remembered me from college in my old home rink, Sullivan Arena.

What followed was something I’ll never forget. It was my fifth shift and we were cycling the puck in the offensive zone. The puck got moved back to our defenseman, so I headed to the net. I beat the guy covering me out of the corner and went to screen the goalie. As I got near him, I turned to look towards the point in hopes of tipping the shot. Our defenseman had fired a hard, aerodynamic blast unscreened and untipped, which hit me square on the jawbone. Now that’s a birthday present.

I literally said, “OK” as I was face-down on the ice assessing the damage, like somebody who knew they were about to embark on a journey of hurt. When I tried to bite down and didn’t make contact with my bottom row, I was concerned. When my tongue pointed out to me that, “hey buddy, um, you’ve got some teeth over here and others over there,” I was scared.

I had finally committed to the damn sport, given my heart and agreed to marry it, and there I was, abandoned at the altar.  As close as I once felt I was to the NHL, I knew then that I was going to have plenty of time to re-assess my relationship with her from the couch.

What else could I do?  I started writing her love letters, launched my blog, www.jtbourne.com, and began hacking keys instead of ankles.

 
Now writing about hockey (and other things) is my life. Readers seem to enjoy the insights I can bring as a former player, and I’m enjoying the interaction. The hits I get online are a tad more fun than the ones on the ice, and thankfully, more frequent.  In what was barely a few weeks, a career transition had been made.  I now find myself writing for a half-dozen sports outlets, and getting busier all the time.

I have a new girl in my life, but hockey karma is a funny thing.  I’m engaged to Brianna Gillies, whose dad Clark is in the Hockey Hall-of-Fame– just another reason to believe that hockey wants to keep me in its life. 

Even though I’ve decided to write this season rather than play, something gives me the vibe that hockey isn’t breaking up with me. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion it’s going to keep texting me when it gets drunk, and somehow, someway, it’s going to keep me around. And actually, that’s just fine with me.  Because the truth is, I secretly still love it back.

 

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