Subscribe to Bourne's Blog Grab My Feed!Subscribe to Bourne's Blog Subscribe to Comments

Hockey Primetime

 

The following entries were written for Hockey Primetime.com, an up-and-coming hockey site that I’ve got an agreement with  through the 2010-2011 NHL season.

Important note: All posts are as-handed in (before editor polishing), and I rarely remember to update this page.  Soooo, there’s that.

*****

Ode to a Drill Wrecker

-by Justin Bourne

 

The Drill-Wrecker will always have a special place in my heart, now that he no longer possesses the ability to ruin my legs and lungs via bag skate.

Looking back, I can’t help but laugh.

He starts the drill in the wrong direction.  He passes to the wrong line.  His head wobbles about like it’s a bobble, looking for some information, some help.  Quite simply: he’s lost.

Yet, the most endearing quality of the Drill-Wrecker is his inability to not recognize he’s about to destroy the drill, like a puppy about to bite a porcupine.  He drifts to the front of the line, while his teammates who are uncertain of the drill, slide to the back.

He sees something shiny in the stands, and more teammates slide behind him.  They know if they’re not positive about the drill that they shouldn’t do it until they see someone have a go at it first.  They wrongly assume that those who understand will naturally step to the front, right?

But lo, our drill-wrecker still stares on, his mind an ADD-cluttered mess of slide whistles, fireworks and applesauce.

And before you know it, TWEET, the drill begins, snapping him back to reality where he immediately notices… Whoa, I’m up.

Maybe it’s one of those easy drills that’ll sort itself out once I start, he MUST think.  Maybe if I just take a few strides and….

TWEET!

The whistle.  Start over.

What did I do wrong?  I imagine he ponders.

Well, if that direction didn’t work, what if I try….

TWEET!

Crap.

He sets the coach on edge with his layers of ignorance.  He compounds not listening with being a slow learner with being dumb enough to attempt a drill he doesn’t get.  He might be a great guy, but he almost certainly lacks any semblance of self-awareness.

Now the whole team’s in trouble.  If someone else screws this simple drill up, it could be bag skate time and the group can sense it.  Everybody starts gripping their stick just a liiiiittttle too tight and DW, our hero, gets stuffed to the back of the line.

A few borderline plays and just-barely executed turns later, and Sir Wrecksadrill has once again naturally been pushed to the front of the line.  Just then, he snaps to attention, and you can see the panic:

Holy crap, I’m back at the front and I STILL don’t get it.

The team panics with him, and within seconds, the whole line is trying to play coach to this poor, polluted mind.

Ah, but like the saying goes, too many cooks spoil the broth.  Too much advice.  Too many voices.  And too late.

Armed with what little information he gleaned from the helpers in line, he takes off in the right direction.  He passes it to the right line.  And everyone breathes a sigh of relief…. until he misses phase two of the drill.

TWEET! “EVERYBODY ON THE LINE”, coach yells.

And the abuse rains down on Mark Wrecky.

Like a beaten puppy with his tail between his legs, the drill-wrecker starts to do what he does best:  “Blue-line, back! Red-line, back! Far blue, back! Far-end, back!”

And it should be what he does best.  He’s been doing it his whole life.

*****

The Hotel: Forced Friendships

-by Justin Bourne

 

When training camp rolls around to start a fresh new season, there’s a routine everybody follows: you check-in, attend the introductory meeting, and at night, it’s back to your hotel room with some guy you’ve never met.

Wait – it’s not what it sounds like.

Unless you’re some well-established Bill-Guerin-level veteran, nobody gets their own hotel room during camp (so the team doesn’t have to buy double the hotel rooms).  What that means is, you’ve got a new friend, like it or not.  Welcome to the world of hotel-based forced friendships.

You’d be surprised how much “here’s your new friend, like or not” goes on in hockey, especially as a guy on a two-way contract.  You just get told where to live, every month or so.  “Here, you’re staying in this hotel with this guy” “Okay, you can move out of the hotel, we found you a room in one of the guys’ houses” “Hey, you’re going back down, you’re going to stay with…”

You better be able to socialize if you want to be a hockey player.

And when it comes to that week-long training camp, think about it – unless you’re a complete a-hole, which I’ve been known to be on occasion, you’re not just going to ditch your roommate and go to team events without him.  So inevitably, you’ll wait to walk down to dinner with the guy, head to the bus at the same time, and be part of the same plans in the evening.  It’s downright awful.

It’s bad enough that you have a friend picked for you, but guys start to see the two of you as a package deal if they’re headed out to go somewhere fun in the evening – because you are a package – so if your roomie is unpopular, it doesn’t exactly help your cause.

But the social hindrance aside, imagine the different preferences that could mess up your ability to sleep, and thus, your ability to perform on the ice the next day.  It’s like a marriage to someone you didn’t pick, only you’re not in India.

Some guys like the AC set to icicle, some prefer Hawaii. Some guys like the window open, some like the room blacked out.  Some get to bed early while some are night owls.  Some are up at the crack of dawn with a coffee, and some guys need to be dragged out of bed at the last minute.  Some guys like to sleep with the TV on, and I like complete silence.

But then there’s the big one: most guys comprehend compromise, while others are European goal-scorers.  ….ehhh, that was an unfair generalization.  Others are like only-child European goal-scorers.  Much better.  That narrowed it down.

If you happen to be stuck with a guy unwilling to compromise, you can get stuck (as I have) trying to sleep while the guy is watching a movie with the AC churning, loud and near-freezing, while the blinds are open and dreading having to set two alarms to wake the kid up in the morning.

There are, inevitably, a few of these hotel-room-arranged-marriages that fail.  Guys who get started off on the wrong foot and never find a way to like each other over the course of a season.  But at the same time, there’s always the odd occasion where you get to know someone you otherwise might not have, and you hit it off.

When that happens, it’s a blessing.  In a line of work as competitive as hockey, it’s nice to have a familiar face on the bus, in the dressing room and at pre-game meal that you feel like you can talk to without competing at something.

At the very least, everyone has one thing in common: hockey.  So if you haven’t got enough of it by training for it, practicing it, thinking about it and playing it, at least you can finally meet your quota in the hotel room.

All you want is to do is get a little of your own time and a good night’s sleep so you can feel better the next day.  But in reality, you’re looking at night four of dozing off to the soothing tones of Zoolander and fantasizing about ways you could murder your roommate and not have anyone know.

*****

Old Man Strength

-by Justin Bourne

 

Towards the end of my hockey career’s on-ice portion, I was convinced I acquired my first bit of something I always wanted.  Most would call it aggression, or think it looks like strength, but I’m certain it was something better: Old Man Strength. 

Really.  I believe old man strength is a real thing.  And I think there’s a lot of savvy NHL veterans that deploy it with regularity against young buzzsaws that bomb around trying to do ten things at once.

It’s not “old man muscle” for a reason – it has nothing to do with raw power – I think it’s a learned type of force, something that you can figure out.  Maybe it’s even teachable.  We’ll know soon enough, cause I’m about to pass along to you what I picked up.

Most of our Dads had old man strength.  In fact, our Dads still have old man strength.  There is no feasible reason why at 6’2” 200lbs and 27 years old I couldn’t beat up my father (if for some reason I had to), but I still feel like he’d just grab my wrists with his 55 year old man-hands, I’d  hang my head, and we’d be on our separate ways.  No one would even get hurt.

Now, that’s an embarrassing statement from a young hockey player.  But when you’re Dad is an old hockey player, you have to assume he’s pretty much figured out how to use the muscle he has.

He’s not using a grip strengthening device, and he doesn’t have superhuman strength, so this is my theory: as you get older, you realize that if you’re in a physical confrontation, it’s pointless to not use every fibre of strength in your body.  It seems obvious, but when you’re younger, you still have inhibitions about how and where to apply force, like you’re not sure what the right amount of effort is.  You almost feel self-conscious, for some reason.

Watching hockey fights between young players (take the WHL, for example) is like watching a cartoon fight, where it’s just a cloud of smoke complete with the odd limb becoming visible, and all the sudden someone emerges from the fracas with a black eye.  There seems to be a little more method to the madness with experienced fighters.

It’s about condensing wasted movement and energy, and concentrating it one particular thing, like a snapshot, a punch, or a body check.

The older you get, the more comfortable you are become going “all-in” with your strength.  Combine that with the fact that some older players have mastered the “I’m not trying that hard” facial expression, and they occasionally catch the young bucks off guard.

There’s another part of it, too.  I’m finding myself now, in rec hockey, lifting opponents sticks with mom-lifting-an-upside-down-car-cause-her-baby-is-in-it strength.  I’m not necessarily stronger than these players, but I have a confidence in my abilities against guys I think I’m better than.  Because of that, I’ve eliminated all hesitation.  You simplify: one job, no multi-tasking.  Just lift the damn stick, then on to the next thing.

While actual muscle-strength can put a ceiling on how intense your old man strength can be, there are some mighty wiry adult men out there that are sneaky strong.

I could bench more when I played college hockey five years ago, but that muscle was rarely properly utilized.  All my coaches ever wanted me to do was to just play with a little bit more of an edge, it just took me awhile to figure out how to do it.

And how to do it is by cutting out excess, the way that pruning limbs off a plant growing outward helps it to grow upward.  You eliminate the waste, and you have the essence of old man-strength: minimizing, going all-in, doing it without hesitation, and just trusting in what you know. 

Rod Brind’Amour, Mark Recchi, Chris Chelios – these guys had plenty of real strength that they used on the ice, but it goes beyond that.

They have old man strength.

*****

 

The Problem You’d Love To Have

-by Justin Bourne

 

For 90% of hockey players, keeping on weight is a chore.

Once the season starts, your job becomes either an hour-plus of on-ice cardio in the morning followed by weights (practice), or a 20 minute sweat in the morning followed by two-plus hours of max exertion (games).

As a result, you ingest more powder than Daryl Strawberry in the 90’s.  The guys who have to pay attention to not getting too thin will keep a shaker on hand, grab a couple scoops, give it a quick mix and bury it.  500 calories, boom.

Chocolate milk is an amazing substitute for expensive mixes.  Since it’s close to the ideal recovery ratio of four carbs to one protein, it pretty much directly mimics any three-dollar Muscle Milk you can track down, and it’s a heck of a lot cheaper. 

You eat, and you eat, and you eat.

I stayed at home during the summertime my college years, and my Mom’s grocery bill always took a beating.  Without fail she’d make an extra entire plate of food, cover it, and it was my job to eat it just before bed.  And I’d still wake up lighter the next day.  It was insane.

As a guy who needed to get bigger, I usually packed on another ten pounds by mass-eating, protein supplementing, and lifting as much weight as humanly possible.  I was fully aware that the second the season started I’d lose five, and hoped to end up plus-five on the previous season.

The reasons it’s so crucial to not get too skinny are everywhere – without the muscles to absorb hits, your structure takes the abuse.  Bones, cartilage, everything is under more pressure.  You’re more likely to get sick. You get flat-out pushed around.  Worse still, come playoffs, it’s easy to get worn down and simply have no energy for those trying weeks.

For the teams entering the Stanley Cup Finals, the five day’s they’re afforded between rounds allows them the time to properly prepare their bodies to be at their best.

NHL players have the luxury of a team of strength and conditioning coaches to emphasize the importance of stretching, and the need to not just eat, but to eat the right things (for the real skinny guys like I was in college, they emphasize the need to eat anything.  It was a Big Mac free-for-all that I regret not capitalizing on more).

NHL teams will have a fridge full of protein shakes, so it’s pretty easy to grab one and mindlessly replace the calories you just sweat out.  There’s no excuse to lose track of your weight.

The problem with the eat-then-eat-then-eat again lifestyle is, it’s sort of what I got used to.

Now I’m sitting behind a computer screen, ten feet from a fridge full of calories I highly doubt I’m burning with my fingertips.  I’m sure a few of you can relate.

So, with the Finals about to start, and the skinny guys trying to de-skinny, let’s all sit here and take a moment to hate them.  As if it’s not enough they get to play hockey for a living, they get to eat McNuggets, too? 

Man.  I took that for granted.

*****

Bringing You In The Dressing Room: Post Elimination

-by Justin Bourne

 

Quiet surrounds you as you walk from the ice to the dressing room after your season has ended.

The only sounds you hear are the player’s sticks, clanking one by one as they drop onto their respective stick rack for the last time.

There’s a low murmur from the medical room, where a doctor is checking out a player who needs some serious tending to. But on the whole, it’s quiet.

Slumped deep in their stalls, the players think. Or at least, they look like they’re thinking. They’re not sure what to think yet. It’s a jumble you can understand – imagine that in an instant, you lost your job, friends, and had to move cities in the next few days.

Some guys are already making their plans to return home, while other think about what could’ve been on the ice. They think about the game, where it went wrong, and how they could’ve done better. Some guys just want to know, What now? What of next year?

And just then, a new voice emerges in the room. A new voice, but coming from the same man that demanded high alert all year. During the year, his words were never just words; they were attempts at leading – or better put, manipulating – the players into being better. Yelling after a win, so everyone knows it’s not time to relax. Congratulating the team’s effort after a loss so everyone is encouraged to at least play hard. Words were never just words, but a lesson that was to be learned.

But this voice – this one is softer and, oddly, more human. There’s no charade when that final buzzer sounds. Your coach speaks, and it’s like you’re meeting him for the first time. He’s proud of you. Proud of the effort. The common player perception of coach vs. team vs. opponent is changed, and for just this one day, it feels like he was on your side the whole time. You forget that sometimes, that it was actually just “team” vs. opponent the whole time, and that he was a part of your team.

His new message will end in information. Information like when we’ll meet for exit interviews and to pack up, and when we’ll go get cocktails as a group. For most guys, the latter is about an hour from happening regardless of when the official designated time is. Nobody stays in town long once it’s over. And there’s no time for cliques on the final day of the year, either. We’re all going to the same place.

Coach leaves the room and silence washes over again. There’s small chitchat from a couple guys in the corner, a welcome sound amidst the heavy feeling in the dressing room. 

Then the captain speaks, if only for a few sentences. Something way too corny, like “it’s been an honor playing together.” Everyone is willing to forget that last night they were sitting in the same spot talking about others in the room – specifically, which are to blame for us being down 3-1 in the series. Just yesterday, they were dogs, but today, it’s “been a privilege to serve together, private.” The captain gives the drinking orders: Johnny’s Mud Hut, or some un-trendy place so the guys can actually talk, drink in excess, and maybe talk to a female, dare she choose to hang around when 25 dudes with no tomorrow to walk in.

Someone gets up, and does the handshake/hug with his stallmate, then start moving around the room to hit every stall. Others take their cue and do the same. All at once, you get the good side of your teammates, and regret you couldn’t have done more on the ice to prolong your time together. And just then, tape starts coming off shinpads, and the first jersey is off its back.

It’s usually the first thing taken off for most guys, but on this day, it takes forever to get pulled off the last time. No matter how much of a struggle the season was, you usually end up with a pretty strong affiliation with that sweat-soaked logo.

And all at once, tape. Noise. Guys are talking, ripping tape of shin-pads, elbow pads, gauze pads, wherever. If it was taped or tied, it starts coming undone at the same time.

Nobody’s cold tubbing today; there is no tomorrow. Only serious injuries are iced. The shower is running, and it’s become a race to get home and change, get away from this place and spend the night sussing out what happened over suds.

That night, you aren’t trying to drink away the past – the playoffs, tonight’s loss, the missed opportunities. For hockey players, you’re trying to drink away thoughts of the future. As in, tomorrow. What now? New year, new team, new training regimen? Again?

I’ll take another one, thanks.

Square one. Shake the etch-a-sketch, wipe the whiteboard, it’s back to square one.

What now?

 

*****

Aftermath of Canada USA (Round One)

-by Justin Bourne

 

The reaction to Canada’s loss to the United States has not dropped from the #1 spot in Canadian conversation topics just yet.

I just answered a Facebook message that started like this:

“Couldn’t help but chime in some thoughts…. I’m trying to move on, but have to get these out first.

Best defenceman in order….”

And went on like that for another 800 words are so. “I’m trying to move on” is the most telling phrase about the Canadian psyche right now. To understate it, we’re really really invested in our team, and that loss hurt like a bad breakup.

In the US, the win is still in the top five for Olympic conversation pieces, only diluted because of some journalist-insistence that US NHLers beating Canadian NHLers in one game is somehow the equivalent of a modern day Miracle on Ice.

In most cases, the follow-up to a sporting event like that would be perfect for the quote “hey, careful not to break an ankle jumping off the bandwagon”.  But if Canadians believe in anything, it’s our hockey players.

While the American boys are set to cruise through Switzerland on Wednesday (and they are set to cruise.  They already beat the Swiss once while playing poorly), the Canadian are looking at a long, dangerous trek to the finals, like Frodo trying to deliver The Ring.

Ze Germans, the Russians, and Swedes likely stand in the way of Canada delivering, before getting to what every single Canadian hockey fan wants – another crack at the Americans.

From the coverage of the game down here, I can tell you one thing – Americans DO NOT want to see the Canadians again.  Not because Canada is so good that they’d definitely lose, but because they don’t want to give Canada the chance to take back what may be the greatest thing they accomplished at this Olympics – the right, for four years, to reference that one victory when talking about international hockey.

You get the impression that American hockey fans would rather lose to Switzerland in this round then take silver at the hands of the Canadians in the final.

The Canadian team (and fans) have one thing going for them – the Tiger Woods factor (pre life-tastrophe.  People are intimidated by the general idea that they’re the best (and they wear red!)  With two minutes left in a 4-3 game, and a Canadian team bear-mauling an American squad hanging on for dear life, I wish we could’ve paused life and polled US fans.  I bet half of them thought Canada was going to score.

And truth be told, from the looks of the US players celebration of the Kessler goal, it looked like they thought they were eventually going to get scored on too.  The celebration seemed to be as much shock and surprise as jubilation and euphoria.

Going forward, the Canadians and Americans have to do exactly that – go forward.  The American boys have a legitimately talented team, and can’t feel like winning a round-robin game – even one as big as beating the Canadians for the one seed – is a good enough accomplishment.  In the end, the goal is the gold, and the US squad is in a better position than anyone to capitalize.

Likewise, the Canadians cannot play what-ifs and feel defeated.  The reality for them is, they played a pretty nice game against the Americans, and ran into a hot tender while their own struggled.  Their most important, short-term mission is this: to thump up the Germans in the first period, and rest some of their studs.  Lord knows they’re gonna need ‘em all to beat Russia.

So strap in, hockey fans.  This one ain’t over yet.  Because if the stars align, you never know – we might get treated to round two.

 

 

*****

Goal Celebrations

-by Justin Bourne

 

I’ll admit, I get annoyed when I see guys over-celebrate a goal.

“Act like you’ve done it before” was a mantra I lived by in both junior and pro hockey.  Every time I saw someone getting super-excited after a goal I always got the impression they felt like they got lucky.  Like, “holy crap, I can’t believe that went in, what a great surprise!”

But let me have my confessional here…. I got a bit too er, confident in college.

Any player who’s any fun has practiced stupid goal celebrations after practice.  The more extreme the planned celebration, the more likely it is your teammates will say “maaayyybe for an overtime winner or ridiculously huge goal.”

And I had prepared for such a situation.

My college team, the University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves, like most teams, plays six out-of-conference games a year.  Naturally, we use four of those to play the University of PeopleActuallyLiveHere? Fairbanks.

Each year, the Governors Cup is awarded to the team with the best record over those four head-to-head games.

As a freshman, we played the first two games in Fairbanks.  There were brutally hard fought games; we won the first, and were up 3 – 1 in the second with 90 seconds left.  We lost 5-3 in regulation.  Enjoy your flight home.

Back in Anchorage, just back from Christmas break, we finished up the series, splitting the games in Anchorage.  The tie-breaker?  A five shooter shoot-out, and I was sent fourth.

In my head, my move (as a right shot) was: fake shot, hope he goes down.  Go to my backhand (his blocker side), and pull it to my forehand, cutting back across the crease.

At my first flinch, their goalie was on his ass, looking like a one-man yard sale in the crease.  Fully caught off gaurd, I simply skated around him, and zipped it on the ice…. When the goalie desperately reached back, and swatted away a sure goal.  We lost the Governors Cup that year.

The point is, by the time I was a senior, I cared about the Fairbanks games.  And, a few weeks prior to starting the series in Fairbanks, Terrell Owens had just pulled a sharpie from his sock and signed the ball after a touchdown, which I thought was hilarious.  That Thursday morning, I was working on miming the sharpie thing out of my skate, fake signing my stick, and handing it to my teammate sliding towards me and acting like a little kid collecting an autograph.

Game one, overtime.  Odd man rush.  I had a clean shot.  I scored, which, you can understand, obviously qualified for ridiculous celebration status — so I did it.

This is how the conversation went with my Dad on the phone, post-game:

“..and then I pretended to pull a sharpie out of my skate and sign my stick”

Dad:  (long pause)

Still Dad:  “….no.   No.  …you didn’t actually, right?”

Lining up for the faceoff to start game two, the unnaturally large-headed Fairbanks forward Kyle Greentree leaned in to have a chat with me.  We had a funny on ice relationship, but his comment took the cake:

That was a pretty fancy celly for somebody who’s had three bad college seasons

Oof.

I’m not generally “that guy” on the ice.  It’s not something I had done before, but something about getting so comfortable on your college team after four years, the rivalry, whatever, it just seemed to fit.

The problem was, it was addicting.

I had taken a little taste of the big celebration drug in pre-season that year, against the US-under 18 team (and I was 23 – nice, Bourne), and did the referee goal point as I faded away from the net after scoring.  Our Athletic Director, Steve Cobb, had a little chit-chat with me about taunting our opponents, and simply, to not do it.  Set an example, son.

Dr. Cobb is from Oklahoma, and likes to pretend like he’s still there.  He advised me that “If I wanted to wrassle with a pig, we’d both get dirty and the pig’ll like it” or something like that.  Stop it, was what I assumed he meant.

Unfortunately, that week, I heard about an Alaska Aces player that did a celebration that I thought was hilarious, so much like I stole the T.O. celly, I grabbed this one too.  I scored a one-timer on a 5 – 3, on a Saturday night where we beat North Dakota, and immediately slipped into the Captain Morgan pose.  I was in too deep now.  I was a celly guy.

It stopped mattering if I deserved the credit or not – as long as the goal was relatively important, I was doing something.  Like in Colorado College, when I fanned on a shot while falling on an overtime breakaway (after skating at the speed of dial-up internet) – the shot went UNDER the goalies awful padstack for the win, so naturally, I did a slow, one-knee-down fist pump down the boards.

When college ended, I got shoved off my high horse pretty damn quick.  Andy Sutton wrapped my visor around my own chin.  Justin Mapletoft broke my nose with his shoulder.  I was getting called up and sent down so much I stopped unpacking. 

It was obvious: I’d have to stop the shenanigans.  I was in Celly Rehab.  In professional puck, you don’t have a pretty-face-protector to stop the blunt-force-rhinoplasty’s some players like to give out for free to people who act like that.

But when I hear the outrage over someone over celebrating these days, I have flashbacks to the time when I was addicted.  It gets a hold of you, and it’s a hard habit to break.  But I know the right thing to say.  So I chime in too.

Deplorable.  That guy’s disgracing the game.

 

 

*****

Coaching Staffs

-by Justin Bourne

 

A hockey team, like any workplace, is made up of a huge number of relationships.  Between the players, players and coaches, coaches and managers, managers and owners.  But by far my favourite relationship to keep tabs on, are the ones between the coaches behind the bench.

Being named head coach isn’t like being elected president.  They rarely get to step in and make sweeping changes to their “cabinet”.  Imagine if Obama stepped in to run the country and had to keep Bush’s staff.  I’m pretty sure he’d hire a professional food-tester to take the first bite anytime “Cheney” was left alone with his meal – I’d feel the same way if I had a scorned coach in waiting offering to “help” me.

And occasionally, assassination-worthy tensions exist between the staff.  This only makes sense, since most assistant coaches will still be striving to be head coaches after not getting the chief gig.  The pay is better, and you get to be the boss.  Your way or the highway.

On some teams it’s obvious who the smarter man is, and it’s not always the big dog.  To stick with my political analogy, those teams have to be run like the Bush administration.  The man in charge is surrounded by smart people offering mountains of advice, and it usually functions alright for awhile.  The problem with this is, the man in charge – who may not be the smartest dude around – might make snap decisions without sufficient consulting.  Scaaary moments.

The difference between the political side and hockey is that at any given moment hockey coaches can have their job title changed.  “Assistant” can become “head” as sure as “head” can become “ex”.  Because of this, head coaches are often oh-so-aware of assistant coaches getting too big for their track suits.

I always truly enjoyed, with all the enthusiasm of a sociologist, the days that the head coach would let the assistant run practice. 

As a player, it was always nice to hear something new from a different voice.  Plus, the assistant coach has been scheming for so long, thinking “these drills are mindless, if I were head coach I’d…”.  Because of the two months he had to plan a practice, it’s usually something fairly different and refreshing.

Without fail, the head coach will chime in with his ever-important addition to the assistant coach’s drill, which serves the purpose of reminding the team who Daddy is.  Also, it’s wonderful to watch what happens when somebody with a small amount of power gets undermined.  And you thought tension and bitterness was reserved for ex-wives.

During practice, the assistant’s job is usually confined to standing at the side of the net and yelling at the players to “stop in front” after shooting, or some other piece of advice based on improving habits.  Rarely are they allowed to offer outspoken input on the head coaches drills, for fear upsetting the person who assigns their daily tasks.  And when they do get asked to contribute an extra idea, they’re usually caught so far off-guard that they offer a gem like “we just gotta work hard”.  Fascinating insight, just let me grab a pen here…

The best work assistant coaches do for the team is behind closed doors with the coach, offering advice, opinions and insights on the direction of the team, in a setting where their isn’t a power struggle or players to judge.  The overall system and roster are often greatly influenced by their opinions, but it seems important to head coaches to make sure this influence isn’t seen by the players.

Players gossip like high school, and coaches want to be sure that the players “know” who’s making the decision, because in the end, coaches are accountable for their team.  If a team was to feel that the assistant coach was actually the one running the show, it’s only a matter of time before the people in charge find out, and the appropriate changes get made.

Most teams don’t love their coach because he’s the authoritarian who makes the tough decisions, where the assistant gets to be a little more buddy-buddy with the guys.  And head coaches encourage this – that way, the players will be more likely to confide in the assistant, and the coaches can deal with the grumblings of the players without having to open a counseling office.  The staff keeps the pulse of the team without the head coach having to mic up stools at the bar.

And some coaches are better suited to the confidante role.  Maybe they aren’t X’s and O’s guys, but some relate to the needs of players better than others, which is a valuable skill to have.  Players respond to different coaching styles differently, and having someone they can vent, or ask extra questions to, may help certain players get to the right mental place they need to be to succeed.

The problem we seem to have in coach development, is that we view the assistant coach’s position as a training ground for the head coach’s job, and not as a totally different type of role, which it should be.  Coaching staffs work best with a smart man in charge (not the best player when he played, as we tend to do *cough*Gretzky*cough*), a second X’s and O’s guy, and a coach on staff who’ll listen, and relay the needs of the players to the man in charge.  Two or three men on a staff will have better success if they take advantage of each person’s individual skills, instead of viewing it as a man in charge, and two others trying to do the same thing, waiting for their chance.

As a coach, it is success and success alone that makes your resume valuable.  My Dad used to say that the way to be the best coach is to get off the bus with the best players, and there is something to that.  Maybe a team’s potential is sort of fixed, and as a coach, you’re only able to affect it so many degrees in either direction.  But a staff that thinks about the good of the team first, instead of individual fears about job security will be the ones who end up with the most success, and in turn, the shiniest résumé’s.

 

*****

The Truth About YOU, Oh Crazy Hockey Fan

-by Justin Bourne

 

This is a bit of an intervention for the above and WAY beyond hockey fan.

You know those moments when you realize “if I don’t say something to my friend, I can no longer call myself one”?  We’re currently having one of those.

They’re awful moments.  Maybe your friend is being cheated on.  Maybe they’re dressing horribly, gaining weight or drinking too much.  Or, maybe they’re at the post-game skate-around with their favourite team with a hand-knit quilt of their favourite player’s face, holding a birthday card for him to give his mother.

You’ve gone too far.

While addressing over-interested fans may seem like biting the hand that feeds me, I can’t make much less money than I’m currently making as a writer.

As a player, I dreaded certain fans – specifically the ones who overstep their boundaries.  I think what happens is, they follow the team, and want to know more about the players they follow.  Which is just fine.

So, they do a little research.  Look up where they’re from, read up on some interviews, whatever.  And there’s nothing wrong with that either.

But in this internet age of Facebook, Google, Twitter and Wikipedia, it can be awkward when a first-time introduction is followed up with something about my girlfriends sisters husband.  At least pretend like you don’t know way too much about someone you’ve been e-creeping out until the third or fourth conversation, y’know?

I have numerous friends from faces in the crowd, and I still keep in touch with a number of them today.  On the other hand, I cut ties with a few over-zealous hockey fans quicker than you say “the call is coming from inside the house”.

The point is simple.

When I was 22, I met Steve Yzerman at a bar – he was out with about ten other members of Team Canada, the night before the first Olympic practice in Kelowna, having a beer.

After some idle chit-chat about my father, I said “I’m surprised to see you having a beer the night before such a big practice.” To which he responded, like the ultimate father-figure/captain “Y’know Justin, moderation in everything.”

So where’s your moderation, crazy hockey fan?  Listen to Stevey Y.

I’m a huge fan of watching sports, but I just don’t get what the obsessives are trying to accomplish.  Would a lasting relationship be the ultimate success for someone like that?  Is that their Stanley Cup?

I’m just giving you the players perspective, and that is that we simply don’t get it.  Oh, and that we’re weirded out.

I never even played in the NHL and had multiple nights ruined by awkward, over-zealous fans.  Why am I re-signing your hat again?  For that same awkward, forced dialogue we had last time?  You were in to that, eh?

Don’t misconstrue my message.  I loved the fans, and did end up with real friends who started as fans.  But those that I got to know where the ones who were okay with leaving when I said “aaaannyyways”.  It’s a sign that you can read normal, human, social signals, and a good indicator that the person was someone I’d want to talk to next time.

There’s nothing wrong with boosters and fans that go to every event.  There’s something wrong with the ones that drag conversations out like a caveman would his wife.  And my head would hurt as much as cavewoman’s at the end.

So that’s all.  I hope this was your moment of realization, your lightbulb moment, your epiphany, your ROCK BOTTOM.

Now unhook those knitting needles and put away the template of the coaches face.  He doesn’t want what you’re making either.  Go find something else to do!

 

*****

The Shot Block

-by Justin Bourne

 

When your puppy tries to chew on the couch, you give him a whomp on the nose with a newspaper. 

You wait.

Your puppy tries to chew on the couch.

He gets whomped.

Eventually, the puppy equates the whomp on the shnozz with chewing on the couch, and stops the chewing.

And yet, some, crazy, brainless anomalies out there (chocolate labs?), never seem to get it.  Chew.  Whomp.  Chew.  Whomp.  Chew.  They keep coming back for more, with the “chew” always being the last word in the tedious game of chew and whomp.

If you understand what I’m talking about, you understand how shot blockers are born.

Nobody has a particularly hard shot until they get into the 13 year-old range.  When you get hit with a slapper at that age, it’s usually on the ice and not that scary.

When you hit 15, however, some guys can really bomb it.  At some point, you get in the lane of a slapshot, and it hits you in the ankle.  And it freakin’ hurts.

The next week, another guy is taking a slapshot.  You get in the lane like a good defensive player should, and it freakin’ hurts again.

The following week, a guy is taking a slapshot.  Because you’re not an idiot, you “clear the lane to let the goalie see the puck”.  A nice euphemism for “that freakin’ hurts, and I’m not an idiot”.

In reality, every team wants those chocolate labs.  The guys who continue to put their well-being on the line, coming back for more, putting muscle and bone in front of frozen rubber that’s as hard as concrete.  He just so badly doesn’t want your opponent to score.  On your team, you always want the guy that fans go “I’m not sure if he’s an idiot or not, but we love that he’s on our side.”  (you want him on the ice, not as a stallmate).

Our sport naturally seems to find the chocolate labs from youth programs, and start to teach them real skills.

They learn to come from the inside-out, to make sure that the shot comes from a worse angle (to elaborate, when the defenseman first gets the puck, the forward trying to block the shot should immediately move to get between the net and puck before making a move in the direction of the defenseman).

They learn to slide on the ice so they cover an area six feet wide instead of the thickness of their legs. They learn when not to slide (that being when the defenseman has offensive talent – don’t slide on Duncan Keith, Matt Carle or Alex Goligoski, because you’ll get walked around). They tuck in their chins and time their slide right.  Lo and behold, we now have an NHL penalty killer.

A good shot blocker (Brendan Witt comes to mind, our a pioneer like Craig Ludwig) can block as many as seven or eight shots a game, vastly cutting down his opponents chances, and taking the stress off your goaltender.

But then there’s the fine line:

A player has been taught to “keep chewing”.  He’s a guy who keeps coming back for more, and will do anything to block a shot.  But how far is too far?

On talented defenseman, like the aforementioned Duncan Keith and crew, you don’t go down because they’re too mobile.  So, to block more of the lane, you can open up your skate so it’s longer.  This also open up the least-protected, most vulnerable part of your foot and ankle to injury.

My captain in college, Charlie Kronschnabel, blocked more shots with his inner ankle than I blocked total shots in our four years, but he also missed a half-dozen games a couple times by breaking said ankle (after he broke it the first time, he kept killing the penalty on one foot, eventually succeeding in icing the puck).

A player on the Montreal Canadiens in the ‘90’s collapsed his trachea by sliding to stop a shot that hit him in the throat.  Players get hit in bad places with regularity.

It’s a tough man’s game, and tough people succeed.  General Managers want and need men who aren’t afraid.

So it needs to be said that the people who make the NHL as defensive specialists, the hard-working, penalty-killing shot-blockers of the league, deserve at least as much praise as the fancy-pants goal scoring crew.  The Jack Russels, if you will.

So keep that in mind when you’re learning the game, when you’re kid is learning the game, or, say, you’re picking a dog. 

Persistence is a lovable, necessary trait, but in the end, what’s it gonna be?  Fetching and fun or bites and bruises?

 

*****

Roster Changes

-by Justin Bourne

 

 

Rosters change at an alarming rate in today’s NHL, with general managers shuffling players like fantasy league owners. Trade him now, maybe we’ll pick him up again next year.  Put him on waivers – if he gets better, we’ll re-sign him then.  Put him on the IR for a few weeks, call some kid up.

For less-than-diehard fans, that makes following a team a whole lot less personal.  And the NHL needs to make return customers out of casual fans if it hopes to grow.  It’s awfully hard to fill a building without the casual fan demographic.  So here’s the logic train I’ve been riding:

When I watch basketball these days, I can actually tolerate watching the Cleveland Cavaliers because of Lebron.  Good luck getting me to type that sentence pre-Lebron.  And because of that, I’ve gotten to know who Delonte West is.  And Zydrunas Ilgauskas.  And now, I prefer watching them to anyone else in the NBA because I know the players.  That’s the ticket I want to buy when I go watch the Suns play here in Phoenix – because of Lebron, sure, but it’ll be a lot more fun knowing who his teammates are too.

By the same logic, it would be a lot more fun for some random fan of the Nashville Predators if when they went to nine games over three years, they didn’t have to re-learn the player names and faces every time.

You’d be able to see a lot more at a Bruins game if you knew who a guy like Milan Lucic is, because you’d know – just because the play is heading the other way, it might be worth keeping an eye on the conversation he’s in behind the play. Oh look, a fight…

The ever-changing rosters make it harder for fans to connect with their hometown team.  They feel less invested.

When you see a guy like Paul Kariya get blasted by Scott Stevens in playoffs years ago, get near-concussed, make it back into the game and score a slapshot goal, it’s ten times more exciting than thinking the play was just a slapshot goal by a random player on the team.  It’s the human element of that play that you appreciate.  What a warrior… 

We have to become personally invested in the players on a given team to feel for them, to want to follow them, to buy their jersey, and to care how they’re doing.  In this area, the NHL is strides behind the NFL and NBA, where individual players are promoted as brands.  Ovechkin and Crosby are the NHL’s biggest names, and those hockey markets have turned around and are growing every year. 

Our lack of promotion of elite names like Kovalchuk and Nash is a major squandering of opportunity, but so is not giving the fans a chance to connect with a “team”.  Given the chance to get to know the nuances of a hard-working, team-first second or third liner, maybe fans buy Matt Cooke jerseys.  Maybe they buy the NHL package to follow “their boys” all year.  And surely they’d go to more games.

This is one of the reasons why our game sometimes suffers business-wise today.  The salary cap did do good things.  It provided parity, and sustains the bottom portion of the league that really needs the help.  Lord knows the Leafs don’t need to sell so much as another button this year to break even, and they just happen to be awful this year.  But at the same time, the cap contributes to the perma-shift of rosters around the league that creates a disconnect between players and fans.

We need to find a way to keep players in the same jersey longer.  Some sort of bonus… maybe one paid by the league.

Like every year you play in the same jersey as the year before, you get a portion of your jersey sales.  I don’t know – just some incentive to keep guys in one place.  Work with me on this.

Because Lord knows they aren’t running out of Mike Grier jerseys at any team stores this weekend.  But if the guy had been a Boston Bruin for his entire 13 year career, you don’t think you’d see a few in the stands?

I like that the trade deadline is exciting in our sport, I do.  And I like that things get shaken up once in awhile.  But for me, it’s fun because I know the players, the teams, and the league inside out.

I want my fiancé to know a few of the players on our local team, the Coyotes, so when we go to the next game she can go “oh there’s that guy who always scores”.  Granted, it’s the Coyotes, so that might not be the exact quote, but you get my drift.

So, whaddya got, hockey minds of the world?  Keep your favourite players in the right jersey.  If not, you know what’s about to happen – Brian Burke will take him and make him a Leaf.

*****

 

The Joys of Team Travel

-by Justin Bourne

 

Travelling is a major part of professional sports, and can be an exhausting and draining experience.

I’ve always loved travelling without a team, because what’s not to love?  You get that mall-style Chinese food, read a book, listen to music, take a nap, and have a few pints.  It’s a near perfect lazy day.  You just need to learn how to cope with the stresses so the day goes smooth – show up early, know your gate, pack light and don’t pay attention to anything beyond that. 

With a team, however, you’re in a stuffy suit.  You generally can’t have a beer (especially on the way to a city you play in the next night).  You’re surrounded by your idiot teammates.  And worst of all, coaches are staring at you thinking (and occasionally saying) “What’s he laughing at?  If I turned the puck over four times in the neutral zone yesterday I certainly wouldn’t be so happy”.

And something always seems to go wrong.  A smooth travel day is a gift from above when you have 30 people connecting with more gear than a travelling circus, needs buses, and has to wait for arena’s to be opened at three a.m. to drop off the equipment.

I asked some pro’s, past and present, to relate an example of just how bad team travel can be:

Dale Hawerchuk (Winnipeg):  “When I was playing for Winnipeg, we were in the Los Angeles airport, and the big earthquake hit.  I remember seeing the ground coming at us like a wave, and I turned towards the exit.  First thing I see is our GM John Ferguson, already the first person halfway to the door, running full tilt while yelling “ITS AN EEEEAAARRRTTHHQQQUUAAAKKKEEE”. 

Josh Gorges (Montreal): “Our plane touched down in LA, and immediately swerves hard to the left.  So, of course, we all get thrown hard to the right, the few people not wearing seatbelts really went flying.  The pilot gets on the intercom and says “sorry, I had to swerve to avoid a cat”. What about the 60 people on the plane, y’know?  I’m pretty sure every guy on the team verbally abused the guy as they got off the plane.”

Chris Higgins (New York Rangers, Hamilton at the time): “My last year in the AHL, we played hard games in Chicago and Milwaukee Friday and Saturday nights, then took the bus from Milwaukee to Hamilton after the game.  It snowed the whole way, and took us like 13 hours.  We got in around 11 a.m., and had an afternoon game at three that same day.  We got off the bus and Doug Jarvis (now Montreal’s assistant, then was the head coach of that AHL team) says – and he means this – “Okay, the gym’s available if you wanna get a workout in, you should probably hit the bikes and get the bus legs out… a quick lift wouldn’t hurt.” – I thought it was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard.”

Eric Nystrom (Calgary): “Do I have a memorable travel moment? Yeah, how about EVERY DAY, because I’m on a plane EVERY DAY.”

Brett McLean (Colorado): I was playing with the Avalanche, and it was too foggy to land in Denver.  We circled for hours, but were running out of fuel, so we had to land in Grand Junction, CO.  And as a Junction, it’s not that Grand.  We had a couple of big stars on the team at the time, and we had to share a few rooms at some rickety old Ramada for the night before busing back to Denver the next day for a game that night.  Not sure any of those guys had stayed anywhere without pillow mints before.”

Bryan Trottier (New York Islanders, Pittsburgh): “In junior, our bus broke down between Flin-Flon and Moose Jaw, no heat, nothing.  This was the old days before cell phones.  It’s minus thirty out, and we’re in the middle of nowhere.  Our trainer literally has to hitchhike to get somewhere where he could find help.  The only reason we survived was because it’s such a long drive that we had all brought sleeping bags, so we bundled up like crazy.  Of course, once someone came out and fixed the bus, there we just carried on like it wasn’t going to happen again.  It did.”

Good to know it wasn’t just me enduring the less-than-smooth travel days.  Even when they went smooth in college, I played in Alaska – lord knows there’s no simple commute between Houghton, Michigan (to play Michigan Tech) and Anchorage, Alaska.  A loss, a mild hangover and a 24 hour commute is something no man should have to endure at the same time.

With irregular sleep, constantly sweating in security lines, on planes and on buses, and eating what is basically mall food and junk snacks, complications are just one extra slap in the face.

So the next time your favorite team inexplicably doesn’t show up and play well, keep in mind – maybe their bad travel makes it “explicable” after all.

*****

The Time to Win is Now

-by Justin Bourne

 

What’s the success rate for prospects developing into legitimate stars?

10 percent?  20? 

It certainly can’t be very high, can it?  How many NHL fans have watched their team “develop” a player for a few years only to realize you could bump your head on the kid’s talent-ceiling?

Not-quite-good-enough players end up in high leagues for a multitude of reasons.  If a scout gives his word that a young kid is going to be a star, the scout’s job performance is now directly related to the kid’s on-ice progress.  Suddenly, that kid has a foam-finger wearing fan behind the organization’s closed doors.

Maybe the kid got some bounces the day the scout came.  Maybe the scout just liked the kid’s tape-job.  Whatever the reason, most prospects never quite turn out like a Travis Zajac.  They just don’t.

Every team has prospects.  Some are good, legitimate hopefuls.  On the other hand, some of them are hopefully good at something else.

So my question to GM’s is this:  Given the success rate of “maybes” becoming “yeah babys”, wouldn’t it make sense to trade your young, potential talent every time for legitimate, today talent?

You might regret a deal or two, but over time wouldn’t you end up with more actual talent than you would if you tried to develop the players in your system?

I’m not suggesting you trade guys like Datsyuk and Zetterberg when you draft them.  Those guys didn’t come into the league as “prospects”; they came in as “good”.  Your team didn’t have to spend a year suffering, just waiting for them to get “there”.

Over-thinking GMs around the league love to bring in young dimes that they think can become quarters.  But what are the odds of that? 

If you set the definition of “making it” in the NHL at 200 games (less than three seasons), and look at the ‘90’s (so they players have had time to develop), only 19 percent of those drafted “made it”.  That’s 464 players of the 2,600 names called – this is what scouts refer to as the “19 percent rule”.  From the third round and beyond?  Of the 2,000 draftees, 261 made it – closer to 13%.  It’s not an exact science, but a ballpark for the success rate of development.

So given the chance to trade two or three dimes for a quarter, isn’t it the safer choice?  Plus, it eliminates the “waiting to develop” time.

This is the Justin Bourne Microwave Theory of Management.  I want my team ready now.

Plenty of draft picks from rounds five, six and beyond make the NHL, but aren’t GMs a little too caught up in those success stories?  How rare is it that those guys become difference makers?

NHL teams need difference makers to win.  There are thousands of players around the world who could play in the NHL, keep up to the speed, play their position, and be fine.  But to win in the NHL, you need those Datsyuks and Zetterbergs.  Crosbys and Malkins.  Ovechkins.  And this game is about winning.

Would a single fan out there be mad to hear their squad traded away next year’s fifth, sixth and seventh round picks for a guy who could play on the power play tomorrow?

Right now, the Phoenix Coyotes have hope in their lineup.  They’ve got Turris, Mueller, Boedker, Tikhonov, Upshall and more.

The problem is they don’t have time to play the “future” game.  They need to win now if they hope to equal the attendance of a high-school football game.

And who in professional sports does have that time?  This is a business.  You gotta win today.  Make this year’s team better!

There’s no point in hanging on to long-term potential when the only short-term potential is loss, loss, loss.

This notion that it’s okay to spend time “developing” while your team has no shot of making playoffs is defeatist.  It’s not even trying.

And if you’re a GM in this situation, how safe do you think your job is?

“Well Jim, your winning percentage with us over four years is just above .300.  Three of the five kids you brought in to develop would be shot and fed to the dogs if this were horse-racing.  The other two are fine.  Okay, we have two good players now.  Tell us why you deserve your job back.”

And you wouldn’t.

Teams act like drafting and developing a player is a free way to make themselves better, but it’s not free.  It costs you a roster spot on a team that underachieved because you refused to trade potential for actual value.

Young players are like homes that have big potential to gain equity over a few years.  But the uncertain housing market has not-so-subtly reminded us that potential occasionally goes unfulfilled.

So trade a few picks you haven’t made yet.  Use those picks and kids with “a long way to go” at your rookie camp as bargaining chips to buy something that’s NHL caliber today.  You don’t have time to lose. 

This is professional sports, cowboy.  The only time to win is now.

 *****

 

Take Your Ball and Go Home, Jim

-by Justin Bourne

Work environments across America vary from service to sales and in between, each offering different types of products and provisions. For the employees, the job descriptions differ.

The work hours vary, and social interactions change. But no matter the job, that one, specific guy is always there: The Guy Who Just. Doesn’t. Get it.

Jim Balsillie is a kafrillionaire. Despite the fact that I made that number up, he’s managed to acquire roughly that number of dollars.  An impressive feat, really.

The perfect Bond villain?

The perfect Bond villain?

Jim wants to own an NHL team.

Barring being the owner of the Maple Leafs, owning an NHL team is probably not the greatest investment. Nothing screams business savvy like buying a product that’s turning more of its owners into paupers than princes.

What being an NHL owner does provide is a little social status. Maybe not friends so much, but at least the chance to be important somewhere (that somewhere specifically being a Canadian city).

Let’s face it: In Canada, the best arm candy needs a different type of “ice”.

Jim, squirming perfectly into the billionaire stereotype, seems to have decided that being rich means the rules don’t apply to him. Money can get you damn near anything in our society, and it appears that he’s willing to spend it all for the glory of owning a team.

Hell, he’ll outbid the nearest competitor by roughly 60 million dollars (plus lawyers fees) to get what he wants and drag it back to his home and native land.

But for all he’s willing to spend, and for all the time he’s willing to commit, he continues to prove what he really seems to be: The guy who just. Doesn’t. Get it. 

Make it seven! Make it seven!

Appealing to Canada’s desire to have more hockey teams is a pretty tainted way to claim people are behind him. That’s like claiming you have the support to build a free hotel from homeless people.

Not only would a Canadian team earn Jim that status he seems to crave, but it’d do well financially too. Of course, that “success” would come at the expense of the NHL moving the Coyotes and losing the Sabres, but … look how bad Canada wants this! Right?

All this “money before rules” showmanship has earned him is the chance to go from unknown, to known for the wrong reasons to millions of people. 

He’s missed the chance to show patience and savvy by buying the Coyotes, improving the organization, and working with the NHL to move them when and where it’s appropriate. Instead, he’s further damaged a reputation that was already as stable as Todd Bertuzzi skating in the middle of a freshly frozen pond.

In an unprecedented feat, Balsillie forced a PROFESSIONAL SPORTS LEAGUE to draft a legal version of the playground classic “no, you can’t play” treaty. Jim may very well be a good guy behind closed doors but, in public, he’s moved his social ineptitude to national fame north of the border. Even the most annoying kid knows to wipe his tears and move along at some point.

There’s a handful of ways Jim Balsillie could have made his purchase bid work. The NHL is not a wealthy league, and must hate the fact that they have to turn away a willing investor on account of his closed-mindedness. A unanimous vote by current owners clearly demonstrated that the man is just not the right fit and not welcome, regardless of money.

But just like the guy standing outside some co-workers’ cubicle telling the long squirrel-hunting-with-a-slingshot story, the guy simply does not understand that he’s been hanging around for too long.

It’s not a sad thing that they told Jim to beat it, like some cruel clique. And I don’t mean to be unkind. It’s just getting kind of awkward watching this.

No matter what they tell him, or how clear it may be to the rest of us, Jim continues to prove one thing about himself.  

He just. Doesn’t. Get it.

Login