NHL Grab Bag: Stars Crush Leafs, on the Ice and on the Internet

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Welcome to a weekly grab bag of thoughts and observations from the past few days and/or decades of NHL hockey.

This Week’s Three Stars of Comedy

Recognizing the three NHL personalities from around the league who produced the most comedic fodder for fans.

The third star: Kevin Bieksa
While everyone was up in arms over this pre-orchestrated line brawl between the Canucks and Flames, one participant chose to focus on the positive:

The second star: Erik Karlsson and Mike Green
Via Reddit, a reminder that sometimes hockey players attack out of anger and sometimes they attack because of the Code. But every once in a while, maybe, just maybe, it’s because they just really need a hug.

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The first star: Well played, Dallas Stars
I’m not sure what happened to the Maple Leafs during Thursday night’s 7-1 loss in Dallas. The game was pretty close for the first half or so and then all of a sudden Toronto just lost focus, almost as if they’d been deeply shamed by some sort of … oh, OK, that would explain it.

What Is the Hockey World Pretending to be Outraged About Now?

Nothing makes hockey folks happier than being outraged about something relatively unimportant. Each week we’ll pick one topic fans are complaining about and try to figure out if it’s justified.

The Issue: Peter Gammons called hockey players thugs and then scored a goal that was too fancy and celebrated too much while wearing the wrong hat.

The Outrage: Or something like that. I’ve honestly lost track.

Is It Justified: Hockey world, can we talk? I know you like to get outraged by things. I accept that. I embrace it. I even made this section of the Grab Bag just to celebrate it.

But you, hockey world, are wearing me out with this stuff.

I realize Peter Gammons and Richard Sherman are both outsiders from other sports who dared to say a few words about hockey, which is never OK because even though we complain about not enough people paying attention to hockey, we instinctively band together to destroy anyone who dares to notice the sport without already being One Of Us.

I realize Nathan Gerbe showed a little creativity in a 1-0 game and we all felt the need to freak out, even though when Tomas Hertl did the exact same move we all freaked out largely because he didn’t do it in a close game.

I realize that P.K. Subban continues to have this maddening habit of being P.K. Subban.

I realize Dion Phaneuf’s hat is … well, actually, I have no idea what that one was all about.

So, yes, by all means, be outraged by all of it. Or flip the script and be outraged at all the people who are outraged. That’s always fun, too.

But this week has been exhausting. It would be nice if we could learn to pick our battles, because we could all use a day off from this stuff every now and then. We are dangerously close to reaching peak hockey outrage. It’s too much. And it’s making me angry. No, not even angry. More than angry. What’s the word I’m looking for?

Oh, right. OK, forget I brought it up.

Obscure Former Player of the Week

NHL history is filled with legendary players whose stories are passed down from generation to generation. This is not one of them.

This week I wrote a post comparing NHLPA ’93 and NHL ’94. We’ll have a little more on that whole debate in a few minutes, but for now I wanted to take a moment to talk about Shawn Chambers.

Chambers, of course, is the journeyman defenseman who’s probably best known to this day for being rated a “1” in NHLPA ’93. Not “no. 1.” Just “1.” His overall rating was a 1. Out of 100. That’s cold.

Perhaps even worse, he was a zero in key categories like speed, passing, shot power, and accuracy, and both offensive and defensive awareness. It all added up to earn him a permanent spot in the memory banks of hockey fans of a certain age, not to mention a reputation as one of the worst video-game athletes of all time.

Which is why it might surprise you to learn that real-life Shawn Chambers was actually a pretty good player. And ironically, the best season of his career was in 1992-93, the same year that EA Sports made him a punch line among gamers. That year, he had 10 goals and 29 assists for 39 points in just 55 games. He followed that up with 11 more goals in 1993-94, and went on the play 13 NHL seasons for five teams, winning Stanley Cups with the 1995 Devils and 1999 Stars.

So why did NHLPA ’93 hate him so much? Probably because when the game was being made in 1992, he was struggling through an injury-plagued season with the Capitals that saw him play just two games. Or maybe he just wasn’t friendly enough with the game’s producers, like certain overrated players we could mention.

But either way, let’s set the record straight: Shawn Chambers was a decent player. It’s still OK to make fun of him, but just remember to feel kind of bad about it.

The Week’s Most Depressing CapGeek Page

In which we select one page on CapGeek.com and stare at it while a single tear rolls down our cheek.

Last week we looked at CapGeek’s new archives, which allow you to search through player earnings back to the early ’90s. We highlighted several historical oddities, including the ludicrous leaderboard for the 1997-98 season.

Look at that top three. It’s hard to pick which one looks more outrageous. Sergei Fedorov at $28 million? That’s A-Rod/Kobe money today, and a hockey player was making it more than 15 years ago? Then again, at least Fedorov was good. How did Chris Gratton make $10 million? That almost makes Joe Sakic’s $17 million seem reasonable.

I heard from a few readers who assumed those numbers must be some sort of CapGeek glitch. But they’re not. They’re the result of something even odder: that one time in NHL history when GMs actually tried to make use of restricted free agency. In this case, by front-loading deals with massive signing bonuses.

The Rangers tried it with Sakic, giving him a $15 million signing bonus on a $21 million deal, but Colorado matched. Carolina tried a similar move to steal Fedorov out of Detroit, but with an even more nefarious twist: It added an additional bonus if his team made the conference finals. The Hurricanes were bad, but the Red Wings were pretty good, so the clause was meant as a poison pill that would make it impossible for Detroit to match. It did anyway, and when it made the conference final, Federov got his entire $26 million bonus in one shot.

As for Gratton, the Flyers used a $9 million signing bonus to try to lure him away from the Lightning. And unlike with Federov and Sakic, the move worked — the Lightning decided not to match and instead agreed to work out a trade. But Gratton was a bust in Philadelphia, and lasted just one full season there before the Flyers traded him … back to the Lightning. When asked if the deal was an admission of failure, Flyers GM Bobby Clarke didn’t mince words: “I would say so … I screwed up.”

The Flyers learned their lesson and never tried anything like that again.

What Has Don Cherry Gone and Done Now?

Whether it’s “Coach’s Corner,” his regular media appearances, or a Twitter account that’s presumably meant to be performance art, Don Cherry is everywhere. What’s he been up to this week?

Last Saturday was Hockey Day in Canada. (So is every other day, but this was the one that the CBC slaps an official name on and turns into an annual event.) It’s a very Canadian production, with a full day’s worth of touching stories from across the country about the game’s importance to the national culture. Lots of hockey moms, lots of frozen ponds, lots of 5 a.m. practices, that sort of thing. It’s all very heartwarming.

And then Don Cherry showed up and shoved a random woman out of his way on live television.

Now in fairness, she was moving a little slow. And besides, if she didn’t want to take the hit in the back then she should have been wearing one of these.

And yes, those are actual Mounties escorting Don Cherry to a hockey game. That’s just how we roll up north. If he’d just stopped to feed some Tim Hortons to a moose he would have scored a Canadian bingo.

Awesome and/or Horrific Old YouTube Clip of the Week

In addition to being a great source of adorable pets and functionally illiterate commenters, YouTube is a goldmine for old hockey clips. In this section we find one, and break it down in way too much detail.

So, yeah: NHLPA ’93 vs. NHL ’94. That was a fun post. People seemed to like it. In the end, I picked NHLPA ’93 as the winner in a tough, close decision. Some of you agreed, and some of you didn’t.

And some of you went off the board by picking some other game entirely. There were protest votes for Blades of Steel or Ice Hockey and a surprisingly strong showing for NHL ’96. But in terms of write-in votes, one game clearly stood above the rest: NHL ’95.

Look, I played a ton of NHL ’95 and I think it’s easily the third-best game in the series, but it’s the Godfather III of the trilogy. Still, you’re right. It deserves some love. So for this week’s YouTube breakdown, let’s revisit a classic as we watch some random guy play NHL ’95.

• So we start off with the EA Sports logo, which then fades into a screen for something called High Score Productions. Mark Lesser is apparently the programmer behind this game, as well as NHL ’94. Fun fact: When he first took the job, he’d never watched a game of hockey in his life.

• Also, I misread “Mark Lesser” on this screen as “Mark Messier” pretty much every single time for six straight years. Was that just me? It may have been just me.

• And we’re on to the title screen. I think we can all agree that this theme music is fine, but not NHLPA ’93– or NHL ’94–caliber. If the theme music from the NHL series of games was “Demolition,” NHL ’95’s music would be “Crush.” There’s no shame in that. The bar had been set high.

• We don’t get the full credits in this video, but if you ever let them run for a while you would have found an interesting tidbit slipped in toward the end: The player ratings were done by New York Rangers GM Neil Smith and team PR guy John Rosasco. That might help explain why Alexei Kovalev, coming off a 56-point season, was basically the love child Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe in this game. NHL ’94 Jeremy Roenick thought NHL ’95 Alexei Kovalev needed to dial it down a notch.

• We’re on to the main menu, which is clean and well-designed and an absolute disaster because they took out the little animated player intros, replacing them with what appear to be the players’ old passport photos. Just an awful decision. I want to see Mark Messier almost fall down before taking a slap shot, followed by Jeff Beukeboom shadow-boxing.

• Do you think they ever had meetings to decide which players got which animations? I bet they did. “I’ve never heard of that guy, better give him the poke check.” This is the kind of thing I thought about in the early ’90s when my friends were out on dates.

• Our user scrolls past all the teams in the game, then decides to go with the Flyers and the Rangers. Must be a future NBC executive.

• Oh look, it’s John Shrader, who’s replaced Ron Barr as the pregame host. I can’t be the only one who was shocked to learn that Shrader and Barr were both real people, right? According to Wikipedia, Shrader is now a college professor and play-by-play guy for the L.A. Galaxy. I really hope he starts every game by robotically announcing which players are on a hot streak and which are off their game.

• By the way, I always thought that the hot and cold streaks feature in the NHL series were essentially useless, until someone on Twitter told me about this all-time great moment in accidental puns.

• And we’re on to the action. The fans are already booing because the home team lost the opening faceoff. That was a classic NHL ’95 feature, and it always struck me as a little harsh. The game is two seconds old, why are you already yelling at me?

• Oh wait, this game is in Philadelphia. Never mind. Pretty realistic feature, actually.

• We get some early back-and-forth action featuring Messier and Eric Lindros, who we’ll be seeing a lot of because this guy is playing with line changes off like a little baby. It’s about what you’d expect: bodies flying everywhere, guys getting stuck on the goalie, and everyone immediately abandoning their positions to just fly all over the ice wherever they want. It’s chaos. Beautiful, beautiful chaos. Man, I miss this game.

• And Lindros grabs the puck, drives through the entire Rangers team, and scores on a … cheap backhand. Hm. The ol’ backhand move, eh. If that happened in my college dorm the guy would have to immediately pretend it was an accident, at which point he’d be let off with a warning if and only if everyone was feeling especially drunk gracious. The NHL ’95 backhand move was cheap. All you kids out there, never do that.

• And there’s Mark Recchi setting up Lindros for our first one-timer, which miraculously doesn’t go in. Interesting. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one of those saved before. (I mean by the computer. Settle down, manual goalie mutants.)

• Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch executes one of the AI’s favorite plays: the unobstructed breakaway that ends with the player just slamming butt-first into the goalie and losing the puck. You don’t see that one much anymore. Well, other than from Tom Sestito.

• At around the 2:35 mark we get another staple of the NHL series: the goalie giveaway, followed by the panicked scramble back to the crease while the other guy tries to remember how to shoot. Those were pretty much my specialty. I don’t think I ever successfully completed a pass with the goaltender. Did I ever consider just holding the puck for a faceoff? No I did not.

• And here come the Flyers on a 3-on-0. Pretty standard. Our player decides not to pass or shoot, and instead skates around the net before coming out front and … scoring on another backhander.

• Dude.

• Two backhand goals? TWO? That clearly was not an accident. Seriously, do you not know how to do one-timers? I’m having rage flashbacks right now. It’s 20 years later and I’m irrationally angry at this guy.

• [Breathing deeply.]

• OK, back to the game. The Flyers are up 2-0 but are still being booed because they lost the faceoff. Lindros collects the puck and does that move where you hit the wrong button and shoot the puck into the corner, then lie and claim you were executing a dump-and-chase.

• Leetch eventually collects the puck, but Rod Brind’Amour steals it away and …

[Editor’s note: At this point, Sean stood up, flipped over his desk, and stormed out of the office. We have not heard from him since. If anyone sees him, please do not approach him or make eye contact. There’s a good chance he might try to make your head bleed.]

Filed Under: NHL, sean mcindoe, Hockey, NHL Grab Bag

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Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at Down Goes Brown. When he's not writing, he makes hockey jokes on Twitter at @downgoesbrown.

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