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Puck Daddy

 

The following posts were written for Yahoo! Sports Puck Daddy blog.  It will updated infrequently because I always forget that this part of Bourne’s Blog exists.  Enjoy.

Oh, one more thing – the posts are as they were turned in, so they’re before editor polishing.  My bad on that.

*****

The Cost of an Injury Is Steep

-by Justin Bourne

I sat on my couch and aimed my face at the TV for 16th consecutive hour, teeth wired together to keep my jaw immobile, body packed full of liquid Percocet.

My laptop was on my lap and the TV was playing old seasons of Entourage, but I wasn’t really involved in either of them, I was just there, existing, literally waiting for my injury to heal.  What else could I do but set my brain to “hibernate” and wait for winter’s chill to pass?

When my face shattered after a teammate’s slap-bomb exploded into my jaw-line, I was allowed to be around the team, but didn’t want to be.  My face was swollen, I could barely mumble, and I was in a constant zone.  At least with this injury people knew it was legit – when I tore my MCL at the start of the season, I sat in the stands with no visible injury and sloughed off a few cheap shots about being soft.  Pretty standard hockey player stuff, but it gets trying after awhile.

When injuries nag, and time drags on, you drift from the team.  It’s not intentional, it’s not a mean thing, it’s just like a few decent people from high school – you never made a conscious effort to cut them out of your life, you just…drift.

Teams take extended road trips with regularity, and can’t justify the cost of a hotel room and meals for a guy who has no chance of getting on the ice in the next week, so you stay behind.  Plus, as the staff is quick to assure you, you’ll be better off staying home and being able to access the team gym, and if your injury permits, get a couple solo skates in during mornings.

For most pros, the problem is that whatever random city in North America (or beyond) they play in is really just a temporarily parking spot for whatever belongings you managed to bring with them that year. It’s not really home – with longtime friends, family and a support network.

So you sit. You watch TV. You drink. 

Why not?  Guys with long-term injuries won’t see game action for weeks, and the team isn’t home for days, so you have to do something.  If you’re lucky enough to have been in a city long enough, maybe you’ve tracked down a local friend, or better yet, maybe there’s another injured player on your team.  If you have neither?  Good luck staying sane.

Pain is tolerable – it’s that mental side that takes its toll. It’s not just time lost, its opportunity cost.  You only ask your body for so many good healthy years in a sport as fast and physical as hockey, and it can eat away at a guy watching his job be filled by a player who didn’t used to be competition, but now suddenly is.  You can slide down the depth chart without ever seeing a shift.

That’s not to confuse low-grade self pity with high-grade depression. Marc Savard is battling symptoms of post-traumatic concussion syndrome from the “legal” Matt Cooke hit last year, and one of his major symptoms is legit depression, as opposed to the kind of down-in-the-dumps funk my piddly injuries put me through.  Those demons are tougher to battle than anyone you encounter on the ice.

While Kyle Okposo and Mark Streit are enduring their months-long recoveries from serious shoulder surgeries, you can bet they’ll go through some tough times too.  They’re about to become forced-friends as simultaneous injury guys, which probably appeals to neither of them, given the decade-plus age difference.  I’m sure they’ll get along just fine, but my hunch is Streit isn’t going over to Kyle’s house to play Halo when the team is on the road.

Trying to earn your paycheck when you can’t do what they pay you to do is frustrating, so they’ll be doing everything they can to show they care – doing lower body workouts, skating but not shooting, biking but not happy.

Professional hockey player becomes professional time-killer, a guy constantly clock watching with their life on pause, waiting for someone to hit “play” again.  Okposo will have to cast aside thoughts of progress, minimize his new role as captain, and try to – if I may quote Too Short – get in where he fit in.

When the time comes for Kyle, Mark and Marc to return, you can be certain they’ll be champing at the bit to get back on the ice.  But will they be excited to get back into physical confrontations?  They won’t easily forget the months they spent trying to recover from the last battle-wound-turned-battle-scar.  They’re bound to be hesitant.

On the road back to recovery, the costs of injury can be steep.

*****

The New Era of Coaching

-by Justin Bourne

 

There was a time in the NHL when you needed two simple things to win: a great roster, and someone behind the bench who could maximize his team’s effort.  Sure, coaches had some ideas about the power play. Yes, they had basic systems. But, more often than not, the team with the best players – or the coach who got the most out of his players – won.

Great coaches from that era were intimidating figures, men like Mike Keenan, Pat Burns and Pat Quinn.  They were a breed of leaders who could squeeze water from a desert rock, and their players respected them, partly because they were given no choice.

Today however, the competitive landscape is different. The divide between the great players and the merely “good” has been shrinking like the polar ice caps.

This narrowing of the gap has meant an increased emphasis on tactical coaching.  The trap was the NHL’s version of growing pains – or maybe it was more of an era of awakening for coaches.  Wait a sec, I can have a pretty big influence on this game using X’s and O’s.  Coaches with bad teams figuring out that there was, in fact, ways to save face despite having a pathetic group of humans on their bench.

And with that, the emotion-based, motivation-through-intimidation type of coaches that we all love to watch so much started to go extinct.

Today’s NHL is developing into a more technical one.  The game is far too fluid to become near-scripted like basketball or football, but systems are being implemented in more areas of the ice than ever before.  Coaches chalkboards that used to be covered in the scrawled letters “C,” “RW,” “LW,” and “D” were replaced by whiteboards with “F1, F2, F3, D1, D2,” which are now on their way to being replaced by computers with nothing but X’s as teams implement five-man rotations.

Because of the speed at which hockey moves, the sport grew up as a reaction-based game.  Each player read the play and tried to get open to score, and if there was a guy with a better chance to do it, you gave the puck to him.

As hockey has matured, it’s stayed reactionary, but the reads haven’t become an individual reading his opponent and trying to get the puck and score, rather, they’re reading their own team as much as anything else, while it’s become only one person’s job to pressure the puck.  If he causes a disturbance, then “F2” (or just the next “X” on some teams) will hop on his horse to help him out.

This natural evolution confounds some old-style motivational coaches like John Tortorella, who are still under the impression that when his team loses, it was related to a lack of effort.

Don’t get me wrong – there is value in motivating players.  There just isn’t any value in yelling at guys for hundreds of consecutive days when they clearly have some level of self-motivation – they made the NHL.  As a coach, you need to be able to string together a few incident-free days for the snap-shows to have real merit. If the coach serves it up daily with the morning coffee, the impact is gone. Players block out coaches like teenagers do parents, permanently flipping off the switch on The Coach Who Cried Wolf.

My first experience learning the value of technical coaching came when I was fortunate enough to play for now-St. Louis Blues head coach Davis Payne at the end of the 2007 ECHL season.

His default setting is Systems and Strategy.  He shows his players the respect professionals deserve and allows them to self-motivate – however, if a player abuses that freedom he takes it personally, and reserves the right to go all Iron-Mike-Kennan-in-his-prime on guys. For the most part, Davis focuses on his own job: he adjusts to the opposing team’s systems mid-game, an option only enabled by having a well-coached, prepared team.

Decades ago, the focus for a bench boss was largely in dealing with his players.  When things were going poorly, they changed the lines, not the systems.  And outside of game-time, they dealt with off-ice issues, team chemistry, and the inner workings of their club.

Today, most teams have an assistant who’s a “players coach,” that acts as a pseudo-human-resources-manager to deal with the ever-trying daily issues of keeping 20+ people happy.  As with Davis, today’s head honchos are free to actually coach, which he took the liberty of doing in spades – the whiteboard was always jam-packed with drawings of both teams systems in every area of the ice, in every situation of the game.  You were damn-well expected to not just read it, but to know it.

Young coaches like him (and Mike Babcock, and Scott Gordon, and Dave Tippett and…) are taking over the NHL because they preach a more cerebral game than coaches of say, the Don Cherry era.  They study their opponents, read scouting reports, and have climbed the ranks while standing behind benches of players who had the utmost confidence in their leader’s preparation for the game.

A good roster is still the number one most important key to success, absolutely.  But the emphasis on quality coaching is rising.

Older, accomplished coaches of eras past have struggled to evolve to the successful methods of today.  Those coaches deserve their due credit – they coached the way they needed in their era to get the results they wanted, and they did it well.

But the meteor is close, and the dinosaurs aren’t long for the NHL.  Change is upon us.

*****

Getting Out In Front of It  

Steroids in Hockey

-by Justin Bourne

When players show up at training camp after a summer of lifting, they’re as jacked-up as they can possible get.  Hell, even I usually felt pretty good about my situation.  So it rarely ever crossed my mind that anybody may have used performance-enhancers in the off-season.  After all, why would I think that?  It was possible that a guy or two worked a little harder than me.

It didn’t exactly blow my mind when I walked into a teammate’s bedroom and saw his “medical kit”, but it definitely caught me off-guard.  It would be the first and last time I ever saw steroid paraphernalia, but it was just the beginning of my awareness that the occasional player in professional hockey cheats.

That blind pursuit of a better opportunity or better contract was something I came to understand and grudgingly accept. But I stopped being so understanding when guys like that started climbing up our organization’s depth chart.

The number of players using steroids in our sport is nowhere near as all-or-nothing as the polarizing figures on either side of this contentious debate would have you believe.

Frankly, I have no idea what the numbers would look like – I always knew a teammate or two on every professional team that I was a part of who was on the gas, and there was usually another player most guys suspected beyond that.  Were there more flying under the radar that we were oblivious to?  It’s possible, but I doubt it.

Opposite the dashes of uncertainty that underlie my thoughts on a number of ex-teammates is something I can give you with concrete conviction: anyone outside a locker room that claims to have a finger on the pulse of a number like that is lying.

Dick Pound of the International Olympic Committee claims one out of every three players in the NHL is taking something. Gary Bettman thinks that having only one positive steroid test under the NHL’s current system is a testament to how “effective and meaningful” the program has been, rather than an indictment of its efficiency.  (By the way, Sean Hill was the only player to be nabbed by the NHL, while Jose Theodore and Bryan Berard tested positive under more strict international testing policies in 2005 and received two-year suspensions from international play.) 

I never took steroids, as any ex-teammates who saw my scrawny physique would attest.  I never had a coach or manager or trainer suggest I try. I never watched another player openly “juicing.”  I never had a teammate so much as ask me if I wanted to dabble.

But, the topic was coming up more and more in the last year or two of my playing days, so it’s time we face a reality: the use of performance-enhancing drugs is happening in hockey and we should get out in front of it.

When I thought about writing this piece, I realized that I was never once asked to take a drug test in four years of NCAA Div. I hockey, parts of three professional seasons between the AHL and ECHL, and one NHL training camp. (I packed it in after the 2008-2009 season).

If a player can gain size and speed, wouldn’t it be worth risking a mere 20 games for a flunked test if helped you get to the NHL?  Wouldn’t you still come back a better player, justifying your absence?  And that’s in a worse-case scenario, in a world in which people don’t know how to navigate the highways around the league’s steroid testing.  Which they do.

That oft-avoided program is more than a little suspect, and includes spacious loopholes like a five-month gap in testing that takes place between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the next one. (But during playoffs, have at ‘em boys.)  And if you’re in the AHL or ECHL – fighting to climb that last rung to a big-league career (and paycheque), there’s a 12-month gap in testing, which is to say, it never happens.

For a decade, one season would end and I would start the month-and-a-half long process of getting back the muscle I lost over the previous season. From there, I could begin trying to build a bigger, stronger, more mature frame.  I can’t help but wonder how much quicker that progress might have been had I chosen to hammer out a quick “summer cycle”, as they’re commonly known.

My hazy understanding is that a cycle takes something like five weeks, then it takes something like a month for your body to adjust and get rid of all the heightened levels of god-knows-what. If those guess-timates are anywhere near accurate, a guy could feasibly hammer out two summer cycles, which, damn, look out for that dude in training camp.

But slower progress in the gym wasn’t the most frustrating thing. The hardest part for me was watching a guy I thought I was better than move up the ladder because of his physical play.  I constantly struggled to pack on muscle – I just couldn’t protect the puck well enough down low, couldn’t hold my ice in front of the net for long enough, and didn’t win enough battles along the wall. 

I’m not saying getting on the juice would’ve made the difference between the ECHL and NHL for me, but I think it would’ve helped my cause.  After all, I played at 6’2” and 190 pounds (or less).  Would I have been more effective at 200 or 205? Good chance. 

It’s a thin line between making it and being a step away – and jumping from the AHL to the NHL “moves the decimal”, as players will say. In simple terms, an NHL contract means 10 times as much money – from the AHL minimum $35,000 to the NHL minimum of $500,000.  I’d be lying if I said the thought doesn’t cross my mind: “I’ll take a time machine and a needle, thanks.” 

With a carrot that size dangling from the stick, the last thing we need is guys asking themselves the question “is it worth the risk?” when there barely is one.  Our sport isn’t anywhere near baseball’s epidemic of use, but it shouldn’t be that hard to learn from their mistakes and be proactive, should it?  

The threat of getting caught isn’t a high-stress topic amongst the few guys that talked to me about using. (This topic usually only came up after a half-dozen lip-loosening libations). Once a guy says “yes” to “should I do a summer cycle to get strong going into camp?” they only need to figure out answers to a few questions that don’t end in strict enough answers: How long does it take to get out of my system? If I drink some potion before will it flush my system/mask the drugs during the test? Can I be sure nothing will show? Can someone else piss for me? How close do they watch this? Are they taking blood?

And if you’re not in the NHL, none of those questions matter.

I talked to a buddy who played in the AHL last year about his experience with teammates on steroids and he said he saw the exact same exchanges I saw: if guys knew another player was on something and he was being a snap-show, they just made sarcastic jokes like “more juice, psycho.”

It’s barely even a “thing.” Most people barely care.  That said, I think they will care more if the numbers go from a couple guys per team to a half-dozen.

All pro teams do a daily weigh-in to make sure nobody is straying too far from their normal poundage.  Can we not assume any guy gaining substantial weight but not body fat during the season or playoffs is on the juice?  It’s nearly impossible to not lose weight during the year.  Is it possible to make natural strength-gains during the season? 

I’m pretty sure hockey fans don’t want to get put in a position where they’ve “gotta ask the question,” about guys.  I already find myself looking at fighters and thinking “damn, with their specialized role and next-to-no testing, it has to be awfully tempting for those guys.” 

Even to build a rep in the minors where you’re untested, it has to help your chances of landing the big league contract next year. (And yes – when there are whispers, more-often-than-not it’s usually about a team’s heavyweight).

In most sports, steroid use is visible on the body – guys get massive biceps and chest muscles and end up with not-a-whole-lotta neck.  But in hockey, being top-heavy is a disadvantage if you’re not fighting.  Most guys are built with quads like tree trunks – speed and stability take precedence over brawn and bulk in hockey, so players train accordingly.

Between the lower-half first-training plan of hockey players and the layers of padding, it’s easy to see how a juiced-up player could go unnoticed.  But we don’t want to be the league where the men in charge have their eyes closed and hands over their ears going “la-la-la-la I can’t hear you,” intentionally trying to avoid reality.

My main question is, what does the NHL or NHLPA (or the PHPA in the minors, for that matter) have to gain from keeping testing at a minimum? 

Maybe they’re worried that catching players with positive tests will eat away at hockey’s credibility the way baseball’s has been damaged.  I don’t know, I can’t think of any other reason.  And if that’s it, that’s just as dishonest as being the type of guy who jabs so many needles in his ass he ends up throwing bat-shards at people.

The current system is inadequate because people are using and not getting caught.  That’s not hearsay or rumor, that’s first-hand fact.

For me personally, I’m proud to be a part of the tight-knit community that hockey is – it’s worth trying to protect.

The new CBA is coming up, and this is something that needs to be rectified. A lot of players will be in favor of an increase in testing, too.

Most have nothing to hide.

*****

Locker Room Cliques

-by Justin Bourne

 

While young kids are off to their first day of school, the big kids who play hockey are headed to their first day of training camp. Bags are being unpacked, handshakes are being exchanged, and new friendships are being made.  And if there’s one thing new teammates can count on, it’s that they’ll be able to find the same cliques on this team that existed on every other team they’ve ever been a part of.  It’s only natural.

Most players have learned how to deal with the typical groups that exist behind closed doors – they’ve had to.  But, it’s not exactly jocks, nerds and goths like it used to be.  Here’s a look at the cliques you can find on every professional hockey team:

The College Guys

Overview:  If you ask the college guys, they’ll tell you that they’re the ones capable of grouping words together to form sentences (take Tylenol for any headaches, Midol for any cramps), and occasionally even create coherent thoughts.  If you ask the next group, they’ll tell you the college kids are a bunch of elitist jackasses that deserve to JUST GET PUNCHED IN THE FACE.

Natural Habitat:  Before practice, you can almost always find The College Guy in his stall, drinking coffee and doing a crossword puzzle.  He’s capable of scribbling in 39-down (of a real newspaper, not the one in People Magazine) while soaking in stories from the previous night that are flying around the room.  Even if this group of guys has wittier comebacks and taunts, only a select few (other college dudes) get the snark anyway, so it usually goes unrecognized.

Social Life: Like 95% of the guys that play hockey, these guys like to tear it up, but usually only when the time is right.  They’re spot-pickers, more prone to having a drink at home on a weeknight than sneaking out to some bar.  Still, they haven’t forgotten the college lifestyle, and are a blast to go out with. (I tried to water down my bias as much as possible, but failed.)

The Major Junior Guys

Overview:  These guys grew up with a single focus – to play in the NHL.  While an admirable goal, it’s fitted them with blinders that limit their awareness of a world outside hockey.  They are, in fact, the paint in which the brush of stereotype dips, before painting all hockey players.  Still, they value camaraderie, they love hockey, and they’re usually a hard-nosed group of dudes you’re proud to have on your team.  If you can’t deal with this group, you can’t be a hockey player. Also, they like chicks and booze.  Deal with it.

Natural Habitat:  You can find this untamed beast unnecessarily naked, possibly with a dip of Copenhagen or Grizzly in, and most definitely being social, funny and loud.  They’re roaming the room, getting iced/taped/laying-on-the-medical-tables-cause-it’s-a-fun-hang-out-spot, and b.s’ing about the night before, the game before, the year before.  Think Moe from Slapshot.

Social Life:  Tough to nail down because these guys vary in age so much, but when the night is right, they’ll end up with the best (craziest?) stories of anyone the next day.  Wait, she only had one arm?

The Up-and-Comers

Overview:  These kids can play, but are utterly devoid of those all-important “muscle” things.  They started the year at an NHL training camp, were probably drafted, and everyone (including them) is aware this team is merely a stepping stone.  These guys get to play in situations over currently-better players who are on the decline of their career, which is frustrating when you’re trying to win. You’d love to hate them, but they’re often super-nice, in an innocent, not-yet-jaded kind of way.  But still – it’d be nice to give ‘em a decent slap out of jealousy/quit-being-a-geek-ness.

Natural Habitat:  He’s an absolute monk in the dressing room, vow of silence.  He’s a rookie that got stuck with a corner stall that’s by the ever-rotating locker – every time a new guy moves up or down, and someone comes in to fill that roster spot, they sit beside each other and think dull, productive hockey thoughts.  Again, slap for that.

Social Life:  He plays a lot of Call of Duty or Halo, and has a long-distance girlfriend that he talks to on the phone for an hour-plus a night.  He’s uses his computer to stay in touch with his myriad of high school buddies.  He’s on Facebook.  If he’s feeling spicy, he’ll hit a movie.  He’ll go out with the fellas 2-3 times (when he’s feeling really crazy), guys will be super-excited about it, feed him shots, and he’ll vow to never go out again.  Also, someone probably slapped him.

The Over-the-Hill Guys

Overview:  For the most part, these guys are beauties.  Keep in mind, I didn’t play in the show, I played with guys who were playing in the minors at thirty-plus for the love of the game and the lifestyle, not the dough (like we see from some old NHLers).  I sent an email to a pro-hockey buddy for his thoughts on this, and he wrote back: “I remember talking to {an older guy} on a long bus ride, and he was telling me about how Facebook and cell phones have changed the game.  How on a long bus ride they used to have to pull over to the side of the road so the boys could call their wives {or whoever} from the pay phones with a stack of quarters.”  I always enjoy the words of wisdom (wise or not) from the journeymen. “I used to be a prospect, now I’m a project.” Love it.

Natural Habitat:  No wasted movement, ever.  This type of guy tapes his stick while sitting in his stall with a coffee.  His ankle is already taped and he’s changed into his undergear before most of the team shows up, and he has zero intent on leaving that stall until the very millisecond practice starts.  Standard thought from his teammates: What time did that dude get here this morning?

Social Life:  Wild card.  Some of these guys are playing in the lower leagues and not the NHL because they love to party.  As in, too much.  Some of them are just happy to settle down in a city with a wife and not get traded, cut and signed all over the globe.  When they do come out, it’s like winning the lottery to get a bar stool beside them.  Oh, 14 years of pro hockey stories and a couple pitchers of beer?  I’m in.

*****

Of course, the major groups have subsets. 

These mini-crews can come from any of the above cliques.  If you manage to be a part of one of the above groups and one of the ones below with another guy?  Lifetime besties.  …Yes, I said besties.

Bad Relationship with Coach Guys – Do not sit by any of these guys when they’re drinking. Yes, woe IS you.

Good Relationship with Coach Guys – Traitors!  Phonies!  Um… hey wait – why do those guys keep getting so much ice time?

Party Guys –  Always seem to have a secret, always seem to be battling a hangover.  Hmm.

Long-term Injury Guys — Aww, lookit the cute couple doing their own workout again today… Forced friendships: awkward.

French ConnectionI get it, you speak two languages.  Well one of those is English, so if you choose French, I’ll just assume you’re talking shit about me.  Good dudes, but the Denis Lemieux parody of them? Not far off.  Who ownnns the Chiefs?

And last, but not least…

Weird Probably-a-Back-Up-Goalie Guy.  Goalies, while quirky, can fit into any of the groups we’ve talked about today.  But for some reason, one of the two always has a personality that’s, um, a little eclectic, if I may dance around the subject so I don’t end up on a list written in lipstick?

While the majority of guys are able to get along with damn-near-everyone, there’s always a select few that don’t quite have it figured out.

The guy that can dance between them all?  He’s the “great locker room guy.”  The guy that can’t dance between any?  Well… he’s probably applying for an internship at Vogue.

*****

What I Want To See From “Hard Knocks: NHL”

-by Justin Bourne

 

I’m no TV producer, but biting HBO’s “Hard Knocks” and putting out an NHL version is a no-brainer.

If you haven’t seen Hard Knocks, the principle is simple – follow an NFL team from the day players show up for camp, and cut it off when the games get serious.  The show allows fans to get to know the players deeper, while occasionally revealing awesome facts like, say, the odd guy can’t remember all of his kid’s names.

There’s certain things we deserve know.  We need answers to important questions, like just how many times does somebody have to toss a roll at pre-game meal to one of the Flyers goalies before they catch it?

I want to be inside the Canucks dressing room when the first guy makes a “sack up” joke to Sami Salo.  I want to be in the Flyers dressing room when, lo and behold, it turns out that Daniel Carcillo has been dead serious about that pubertystache this whole time.  Really Dan, really?

I can’t imagine how much we’d enjoy seeing a quick clip of guys playing ping pong, where Lou Lamoriello is in the background giving the “come hither” finger to Brian Rolston.  We’d see him put his arm around his shoulder and mouth something along the lines of “we’re gonna take you on a niiice little trip to visit Hoffa- er, Hofstra.”  At least that way we’d be able to make sense of the Devils next transaction report: “Brian Rolston has signed in Siberia and will be back so don’t worry about it’s no big deal he’ll be back we promise just forget about it.”

You can’t tell me fans wouldn’t love to see the intricacies of the game, like how things don’t always work out perfectly with equipment orders.  Just this year I heard that after making Keith Ballard and Roberto Luongo stallmates Mike Gillis mistakenly ordered Louisville Sluggers for Ballard instead of his usual Easton’s.  These things happen.

We’d finally get to see how different guys prepare for different games.  Wouldn’t it be great to know if, much like last year, Matt Cooke still enlists the help of Evander Kane to take his refreshing mid-game naps?

It’s the little things we miss out on.  We usually see the 60 minutes on the ice, the contrived interviews at the podium, and if we’re lucky, maybe read a good quote the next day.  Putting fans behind the scenes, almost close enough to smell the booze on Patrick Kane’s breath, would provide all whole other dimension to our perspective.

Our favourite players are into more than just hockey, and knowing things about their other interests can help us relate to them.  We could take a camera into Anaheim’s dressing room and talk about other sports.  Did you know they’re talking about using more replay in baseball?  Maybe we could get Andy Sutton’s expert opinion on that.

Think about it – with the amount of travel these guys do, not having a show that features their honest conversations deprives us of valuable tips.  I’ve only been behind the scenes a few times, but in that short while I picked up tons of advice.  I heard some players on the Capitals say to not head north and eat poutine, because it can make you choke.  Players on the Flyers were saying that every time they head up to Boston, they just cannot wait to come back.  And according to some of the guys playing here in Phoenix with the Coyotes, they were saying that if you ever get the chance to spend a winter in Winnipeg, you have to take it.

Look, the fact is, it’s the emotional investment in one’s team that makes fans care so much, and filming “Hard Knocks: NHL” would let everyone at home see just how much guys care about each other.  It’s not enough to make anyone cry or anything, but I bet even old pros watching from home like, say, Jeremy Roenick, might even well-up a little watching his old Chicago Blackhawks hanging out, or travelling, or  I dunno, celebrating a big win.

This show can happen people.  And after we’ve seen a few episodes we can all sit back and think “huh, until now, I had no idea Ellen Degeneres played goal under the pseudonym ‘Steve Mason.’  Thank god for Hard Knocks: NHL.”

*****

Question & Answer With Eric Nystrom

-by Justin Bourne

 

At least once a month here on Puck Daddy I’ll post a piece that’ll solely consists of a question and answer session with a past or present NHLer.  For a warmup, I started with a buddy (who also happens to be in the Son-Of-An-Islander Club) Eric Nystrom, fresh of his free agent signing with the Minnesota Wild.

Friendship aside, Eric is an underrated NHLer that’s about to be given a chance to break out in the Twin Cities.  He skates better than people realize, and has a skill set he hasn’t really been allowed to use yet.  You don’t score 110 points (in 159 games) at Michigan by just being sandpaper on skates.

While I’m still not used to the sanitized answers a reporter gets when the voice recorder goes on, I think he gave us some pretty good stuff.

Enjoy.

*****

J: I’d like to hear how you feel about the direction things are going in Calgary – You know, with trading Phaneuf and Jokinen re-signing…. what’s going on in out there?

I mean, it’s tough to say, obviously Oli and Alex are back for their second time around – last time, fans and the media were all over Jokinen cause he was making like, five million dollars, and it was stressful for him.  To have him at the price they have him now?  He’s gonna be a bargain.  I think he’s a great player.  And same with Tanguay – he’s back, and they got him for a bargain price. He’s a guy that Iginla loves playing with cause he’s such a great passer.  They could still make a lot of noise.

People are saying that just because they re-signed two guys they’re crazy, but those are two top notch guys that can help make them a scary team.

J: Damn, that’s saying all the right things.  Do you really think Jokinen is worth three million a year now?

E:  Well, he’s a former 90 point guy in the league, you know?  He’s got a lot of offensive capability – in Calgary, there’s a lot of pressure there – knowing him personally, there was times when he felt like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders.  He likes it there, and he’s the type of player that they like there, and like I said, I think they got him for a bargain price this year.

J: Do you think it’s going to get better or worse for the Flames?

E:  It’s hard to tell man, every year teams turn over so much, and obviously they have still have Iginla leading them there.  He really is one of the classiest guys I’ve played with.

I had a great experience there, I learned a ton in Calgary.  There’s a ton of quality guys, I mean, obviously we were disappointed with the way things went last year, but they think they’re moving in the right direction.  It’s hard to tell in the pre-season, but I wouldn’t count them out of anything.

J: One more Calgary question: did you like the Phaneuf trade?

E: It’s hard to say.  Dion’s one of my good friends, it was tough seeing him get traded.  As players, we have no control over that.  He has potential to be a franchise defenseman in the league, and Toronto really wanted to move forward into the future with a player like that, and they gave up a lot in return.  Y’know, Stajan puts up a lot of numbers, and Ian White is a great defenseman who stepped in for us.  Hagman has all the skills, and I was lucky enough to play with Jamal Mayers, who I don’t think gets enough credit, but he’s one of the best guys that I’ve played with, he was an awesome linemate.  So, I think the trade, Toronto got what they wanted but Calgary got what they wanted too.  So, it’s hard to say – Dion was one of my good friends though, so it’s hard to see that happen.

J:  Okay, moving on to Minny…. let’s start simple.  How are you liking it so far?

E:  So far so good, it seems like the guys are pretty upset about the past and they’re looking forward to going in a different direction, so it’s pretty exciting.

J: Nice.  Where do you see yourself fitting in on your new team?

E: Well, it’s still kinda hard to tell – obviously it’s the pre-season and everyone’s still trying to earn their spot.  That’s the one thing with free agency, you go to a whole new environment and you have to kinda start from scratch, where in your old place they sorta know what you’re capable of.  In Minny, they’ve seen me enough, but I still have to earn whatever role I want on the team, and that’s what the pre-season is all about.

J: Alright man, last question:  Are the Minnesota Wild a playoff team?

E: Yeah, of course; of course I think we are.  Every team is so evenly matched that’s a thin line between being in the playoffs and out of the playoffs.  Last year Minnesota just had a tough start, and that kinda hindered them.  There were a few injuries too, so… At the very least, I know one thing: we are absolutely not going to be a fun team to play against.

J:  Well good on ya.  Thanks for the chat, I’ll hit you up later in the year when you’ve, y’know, played some games.

E: Alright man, sounds good.

*****

New Gear Day

-by Justin Bourne

 

When cuts have been made and the team is solidified, there’s about a one week period of free-gear awesomeness.  It’s like Christmas, if your parents knew how to shop for 100-flex right-hand mid-curve squared-with-grip SK-11 RBK one-piece hockey sticks.  Which they don’t.

While sticks and skates take a little time to come in – after all, you have to check out the demos, get your measurements down and all that good stuff – everything else is ready to rock, all shiny and new.

The day after filling out a form that looks like an order sheet at a sushi bar, the trainer has loaded up the stall beneath your gleaming steel nameplate:  There’s shorts and pants and spandex.  There’s long sleeve shirts, short sleeve shirts, and if you’re That Guy, sleeveless ones, all in dry-fit.  Hey look, everyday t-shirts.  There’s long socks or short socks or thin socks or thick socks.  And on that special New Gear Day, there’s the piece de resistance – in pristine condition with team colors, you new helmet, gloves and pants.  You’re ready to go.

So as you can imagine, it’s a happy day.  Or rather, it should be a happy day…

It ends up diving guys into three groups.  You’ve got your Normal Guys, who are happy with their stuff, have some personal touches to add to them, and get on their way.  This is about 85% of the team.  And then there are the other two types of guys:

  1. 2.      The Gear Bitches

A gear bitch is a guy who sucks at life, in my opinion.  He’s spoiled, entitled, and probably thinks he’s better than he actually is.  He manages to take this special day, march to the trainers office (along with a couple people who are there with legitimate problems, like the wrong size helmet), and monopolize the entirety of the equipment guy’s time.

It’s okay to be particular about your gear – we all have our little things, after all – but he needs his problems solved right now.

He’s cutting stuffing out of his gloves, he wants extra shirts so can change them between periods, he likes his laces to be 120” waxed and single-stitched, not 108” un-waxed and double-stitched, stupid lazy trainer.

But his problems will never be solved, not for the entirety of the year.  He’ll claim the equipment guy is brutal at sharpening skates, though no one else will have that problem.  And he will always have new skates on order, because the last ones came with double thick tongues instead of double-long.  Don’t you know he needs to fold the tongues over??

  1. 3.      The “Whatever” Guy

I went to college with a guy who seemed annoyed that sticks need to be taped at all.  One year his sticks came in completely wrong in every way save for the hand, and he had the chance to send them back for whatever it was he wanted.  He barely managed to get out the word “meh” before he started to (grudgingly) tape one up – without cutting, of course, because he would just adjust to whatever the length his sticks showed up so he didn’t have to deal with that annoying hacksaw stuff.

As you may have guessed, he was a defenseman.

And there’s one or two of these guys in most locker rooms.  They’ll grab the twig off the rack, tape it, and never think about it again.  As opposed to the Gear Bitch, who needs 35 minutes alone with his stick to file, grind, cut and pet.  For The Whatever Guy, this special day is no big deal.  It’s just the tools of the trade, mere requirements necessary to play the game of hockey, right?

And logically, he is right.  But come on – can you tell me you don’t get excited when you get a bunch of new stuff?  I would think if western culture has taught us anything, it’s that stuff makes us cooler, and probably way better people (if I correctly remember the lessons I’ve learned from watching the E! Channel with my ladyfriend). 

Between The always apathetic Whatever Guy and the self-important Gear Bitches, you’re probably only dealing with a handful of people. 

For the Normal Guys who manage to walk the line between so-what and selfish, it’s just kids-on-Christmas, tearing off plastic, trying to suppress their excitement about all the new stuff because, “hey, act like you’ve been there before.”

And now, as a rec hockey plug, it kills me to buy new equipment.  I’m gonna run this stuff I have into the ground, because really, $7 bucks for the sharpening and $3 for the tape?  Die.

*****

Bill Guerin Interview

-by Justin Bourne

 

I was fortunate enough to be trying out for the Islanders in 2007-2008 when Bill Guerin was the captain.  Better still, because my Dad was in town, I got to be included in a golf outing with Billy and friends, and thus, a friendship was born.

Well, a one-sided friendship anyway.

….Okay, I have a man-crush on Guerin.  /scribbles his name on a notebook

Anyway, I called him up for a chat yesterday and asked him some hockey questions.  Enjoy.

Justin: How’s things in Philly?

Good, things are good, just trying to make my way and enjoying it.

Good stuff.  I’ll just jump into it here – you’ve scored 20 goals for seven different teams – if I were you, I’d probably be insulted if I had to go somewhere on a tryout contract.  How did you feel about that?

Well, I guess at first I was a little confused about what was going on, and why it was so hard, but, I think when I took the time to not focus on myself and see what was going on around the league – there were a TON of good players in my position – then I didn’t really feel so bad.  It’s a changing landscape, the league, so I feel pretty fortunate to have a tryout.  There’s a lot of guys who don’t.

I guess man.  Did you have a little pity-party at first?

Uummm, not really, I was just kinda confused.  I didn’t know what was going on and I didn’t know what to make of it.  This year was just so much different than anything I had ever seen, it was just strange.

What were your other options, beyond Philly?

You know what, I didn’t really have much else going on, which is another reason I was pretty grateful for the tryout.  And you know, it’s what I could get – I didn’t feel like I was done playing.  I mean, I could’ve retired I guess, but I’m just not…. I’m not ready for that.

So then, how is the tryout going so far?

I think it’s going pretty well, you know, there’s a lot of good players here.  Paul and Peter have been up-front and honest with me, and like I said, all I was asking for was the opportunity, and I think it’s gone pretty well.

Nice.  I heard your elbow is kinda banged up, what’s the prognosis there?

Well, I’m just gonna rest it, just one of those things that you need to give a couple days, make sure there’s no infections, just give it time to heal.  Nothing too serious.

Alright, gear switch.  So you’ve been to…. seven teams?

Ahhh, this would be nine.

Nine, got it.  So, what’s been your favourite city to play in so far?

Well, there’s good things and bad things about playing everywhere it seems, you learn a lot when you travel around.  I just can’t say one place is better or worse than the other; I’ve been on so many teams thus far, so I’ve been lucky to have a positive experience everywhere I’ve been.

Do you consider yourself an east-coast guy or a west coaster?

Ah, the teams I’ve played for have been right down the middle too, four and four, but…. ummm, probably an east coast guy, that’s just where I was born and raised, and I spent the bulk of my career out this way, so yeah, I’m an east coast guy.

Yeah, for some reason I consider myself at east coast guy too, but living out this way, with the weather…. I dunno.

Yeah, that’s pretty tough to beat – I mean, Dallas was really tough to beat, living-wise.  We really enjoyed that.

Yeah, my Dad coached down there for a few years, he just thinks it’s the greatest place.

OH, Texas?  Texas is awesome.  It’s just so much fun living there, the people are just outstanding too. 

Kay, back on track: let’s have the mandatory question about your boy Sidney Crosby.  They’ve had trouble finding the right fit for him there, and there are occasionally questions about his ability to make his linemates better.  Do you think that’s something he does well?

Oh, I mean, without a doubt. He instantly makes whoever’s on his line better. Sid’s a great player, I think he makes everyone better, but what he’s doing is so incredible that you kind of forget to notice anyone else’s improved play.  He’s going to immediately put a couple more goals on the end of your stick and a couple more assists, just because of what it is that he does, but what he’s doing it, it’s just so…. I mean, what he’s doing to the game right now is absolutely incredible.  So to try to notice anybody else?  It’s really difficult.   You just get so trained on what this kid is doing.

Yeah, fair enough.  Other than Sidney who’s the best player you’ve ever played with?

Ummm….. probably Modano.  I played with some pretty good guys at USA hockey things like Hull and Chelios and those guys.  Brian Leetch.

Exchange pleasantries, and, scene.

*****

Waiting for a Contract

-by Justin Bourne

 

For every Ilya Kovalchuk with his bajillion dollar contract, there are a dozen guys stressing about the future, shaking the magic eight-ball and playing the “maybe” game – maybe I’ll get a better offer, maybe I’ll get more opportunity here, maybe I should have stayed in school. 

Thanks to the trickle-down economics of roster-filling, the decision you make in the summer is crucial.  So when that caller ID says “agent”, it’s a fumble-fest to get that call answered and get some information, so you can get to thinking.  Again.

There’s just no feeling like not knowing which city, league or state you’re going to be a part of just a couple weeks from now.  For the low-level player, it can get pretty obscure.  Which ECHL team called? Wait, Kalamazoo is a real place? I need a map.

We all have our priorities – for most guys, they can be boiled down to opportunity, cash and location.  Sure, it’s fun to play in a good city in a great rink on a winning team, but unless you’re a stud with a clear path to a Kovy contract, every summer you weigh those three simple things: opportunity, cash, location.

When I signed my last contract, location was a key priority – someplace close to AHL teams for a quick call up and, ideally, somewhere near the fiancée on the east coast. Unfortunately, when you’re fighting to climb the ladder, no one is particularly concerned about meeting your priorities.

“Really, I can go make $700 Euro a week living in the Netherlands?”  That’s not very close to my fiancée. “Oh yeah, Johnstown of the ECHL wants to give me $750 a week?”  They’re not exactly famous for producing call-ups.  “Hmm, that two-way AHL/ECHL contract sounds good, but that only leaves four right-winger spots I can take.” I think I’ll sign a one-way in the ECHL, Gretzky it up for a bit, and let whatever team wants me call me up.

With my personal decision made, I took less money ($600 a week) to play in Reading, PA – a place that has a reputation for moving players up  and just happens to be close to New York.  And to start, I was headed to the Hershey Bears (AHL) training camp for a tryout.  Okay, 2008-2009, I’m ready to rock.  Let’s do this.

I tore my MCL in Hershey, reported to Reading for one game and then had my less-than-I-could’ve-made contract traded to Boise, Idaho, because the Toronto Maple Leafs acquired two guys and I was getting squeezed out.  Peace out, buddy, thanks for the hustle.

So there I was: making less than I could have made in a place I didn’t want to be in an organization not near AHL teams for call-ups, thinking, perrrrfect, good summer decisions, Bourne.  You ass. 

My situation that year reflects the general state of being for the average pro hockey player – there’s enough uncertainty and insecurity out there to fill a middle school.  Most guys only pray they can someday earn the right to complain on twitter about the woes of earning $1.5 million a year to be a back-up like Dan Ellis.

With most of the big-name NHL pieces in place, it’s starting to become decision time for people who are in the situation I was, only hopefully those guys have fully functioning frontal lobes, where as I apparently had some sort of non-operational placeholder.  I knew I shoulda gone to the Netherlands.

During hockey’s off-season, we hear more about contracts like Kovalchuk’s – the big ones, the ones that alter the course of the playoffs, the ones that make a splash.  But for the majority of players, you just roll the dice and hope to get the best chance possible.

Sometimes you win, sometimes you get traded to Boise.

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