NHL Grab Bag: Wrapping Up 2014
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: This hockey thread
Technically this is from last week, but it made me laugh and the season is over, so too bad: Here’s an entire thread full of Reddit hockey fans trying to summarize their favorite team’s season in one GIF.
My personal favorite:
The second star: the Chicago Tribune
You’ve got to hand it to them, this headline is technically accurate.
The first star: Cuba Gooding Jr.
The actor appeared during Tuesday’s NHL Awards broadcast, helping Mark Messier and Adam Graves hand out various awards. And let’s just say he really seemed to be enjoying himself.
Not everyone was a fan of his enthusiasm (the full video is here), and more than a few speculated as to whether he may have had a few too many before taking the stage. Screw those people. Cuba Gooding Jr. was the best thing about Tuesday’s show. Next year, I want him to present every award.
OK, so moving on to the next section, we can …
[Gets odd feeling.]
Wait a second. Did we … did we just make it through an entire Three Stars of Comedy section without mentioning Darryl Sutter? This is unprecedented! We did it! We finally did it everyone!
[Sprays champagne on laptop monitor.]
[Balloons fall from the sky.]
[Turns sign reading “Grab Bags without a single mention of Darryl Sutter” to “1” for the first time ever.]
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 that fans are complaining about and try to figure out if it’s justified.
The issue: A player is a pending free agent, and his contract demands have leaked.
The outrage: His demands are completely ridiculous!
Is it justified? Yes. It’s also predictable. All the numbers being thrown around these days are nuts, and it’s like this every year.
And while a lot of these crazy numbers may be wishful thinking from agents trying to drum up a market, it would be wrong to assume that means they’re unrealistic. Someone will pay. They almost always do. Your favorite team is going to regret every deal it signs from now through the end of next week, so you’d might as well prepare yourself now.
In fact, the only fans who should be happy next week are the ones whose teams take the first few days off. So, here’s my suggestion, hockey fans of America: If your team hasn’t signed any big deals by, let’s say, Friday, you should take the day off work, invite your family and friends over, drink beer, and light fireworks. You could even turn it into some kind of tradition.
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 has been a busy week around the league, starting with the Hall of Fame class being announced on Monday and continuing through this weekend’s draft. So let’s combine those two topics into one obscure player: former NHL defenseman Ted Crowley. Who? Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of him, since his NHL career lasted only two seasons. But he’s an interesting case study is how much of a crapshoot the draft can be, especially in the middle rounds.
Crowley was chosen by Toronto with the 69th overall pick in the 1988 draft. The Leafs have gotten a lot of well-deserved grief for their lousy draft record over the years, but it’s not really fair to lump Crowley in there. History tells us that getting a guy in the fourth round who cracks the NHL, even briefly, is actually pretty good.
Unfortunately for Crowley, he pales in comparison to the two guys taken directly before him: Mark Recchi at no. 67 and Tony Amonte at no. 68. Those two combined for more than 2,800 career games and 2,400 points, and Recchi was a somewhat surprising omission from Monday’s Hall of Fame class in his first year of eligibility. He’s probably a lock to get in some day, and Amonte wasn’t all that far off from the discussion himself.
As for Crowley, he never did suit up with the Maple Leafs. Six years after drafting him, they dealt him to the Whalers, where he made his NHL debut and played 21 games. He wouldn’t get back to the big leagues for five more years, when he played a total of 13 games for the Avalanche and Islanders in 1998-99. That was it for his NHL run. His career totals: 34 games, two goals, six points.
While his NHL impact was minimal, Crowley actually had a long pro career, playing in the AHL, IHL, and eventually in Europe. He wasn’t a bust; he was just one of the long list of midround draft picks who turned out to be not quite good enough to stick in the NHL. Maple Leafs fans can torture themselves over what might have been if the team had picked Recchi or Amonte, but the fact is they never got that chance. Those guys were already gone, so the Leafs did the logical thing and took the best defenseman left on their list. That player was Ted Crowley.
By the way, the next defenseman off the board was chosen one pick later by the Kings, at no. 70 overall. It was a kid by the name of Rob Blake, who did get his Hall of Fame call on Monday.
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.
This week’s most depressing CapGeek page is the site’s UFA tracker. This is the page that lists every player who’s set to become an unrestricted free agent on Tuesday. And it’s … not much of a list.
Paul Stastny is pretty good. Jarome Iginla’s still kicking around. Thomas Vanek will at least be interesting. Matt Niskanen had a good season. But for yet another year, there’s nobody who comes close to superstar status hitting the open market.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Back when the 2005 lockout ended, one of the concessions that the players won from the owners was much earlier free agency. That led to all sorts of speculation about how July 1 would be flooded with still-in-their-prime stars, leading to hugely expensive (but entertaining) bidding wars.
It never really happened. The Ducks signed Scott Niedermayer in 2005 and Boston got Zdeno Chara in 2006. But since then it’s basically been Ilya Kovalchuk and a bunch of 30-plus guys. Every young star who gets close to free agency ends up signing an extension first. That’s probably the smart move, for both the player and his team, and it’s good for fans in the sense that they don’t have to watch their favorite players leave town.
But on July 1, for one day of the year, it’s hard not to think about what could have been.
What Has Don Cherry Ron MacLean 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?
Don Cherry hasn’t done anything this week. He’s on vacation. So instead, I want to use this space to talk about Ron MacLean, who also didn’t do anything this week.
But I was thinking about him on Tuesday night while I watched George Stroumboulopoulos host the NHL Awards. After a few years of lukewarm hosting work by Jay Mohr and a poorly received experiment with a host-free format, the league handed this year’s duties over to Strombo. It was a smart way to introduce him to hockey fans before he assumes the role of Hockey Night in Canada anchor next season.
And he did fine. The “technical underachievement awards” bit died, but the locker-room coach speech thing was funny and most of his onstage stuff worked. Thumbs-up from this corner.
But I couldn’t help but think back to the days when MacLean was the regular host of the NHL Awards. And specifically, to the comedy skit that he’d always open the show with. While he doesn’t get to show it much these days, MacLean is a pretty funny guy, and his awards show cold opens became an annual tradition. They were almost always cheesy and cheaply produced and there was just something very … Canadian about them. But I unfailingly loved each and every one of them. Maybe I was the only one.
For example, here’s MacLean opening the 1996 awards with a look back at the just-completed season:
Here he is with a fellow Canadian legend in 1994:
And here’s the 1997 open, which to this day stands as one of the best hockey comedy bits I’ve ever seen:
The NHL Awards have evolved into a slick, Vegas-themed production, and maybe there’s no room left for MacLean’s hyperactive cornball jokes. But I miss him. For me, he’ll always be the Bob Hope of hockey awards hosting.
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.
The Hockey Hall of Fame announced its class of 2014 this year, which featured four new inductees in the player’s category. That list was composed of Rob Blake, Peter Forsberg, and two players who’ve already had some time in the YouTube section spotlight: Dominik “I’m Kind of Nuts” Hasek and Mike “Stretcher Drop” Modano.
But this week, we’re going to focus on the two other inductees: one from the builder category and one from the referee and linesmen group. That would be Pat Burns and Bill McCreary, two Hall of Famers who crossed paths one night in Chicago more than 21 years ago. Unfortunately, as we’ll see, they weren’t getting along.
• So here’s the setup: It’s January 17, 1993, and the Blackhawks are hosting Burns and the Maple Leafs in a classic Norris Division matchup. This is Burns’s first season in Toronto, and it’s a big game because for the first time in years, both teams are pretty good. The Hawks are up by a goal and on a power play, as Leafs star Doug Gilmour lugs the puck out of the Toronto zone. Chicago’s Christian Ruuttu gets his stick in on Gilmour, who drops to the ice. McCreary doesn’t make the call, and Burns is irate.
• Well, to clarify: “Irate” was Burns’s default state. But the noncall makes him even more irate than usual, and he starts frantically doing his patented “dismissive wave” move in McCreary’s direction.
• A scrum breaks out, because this was the Norris Division and scrums were pretty much mandatory after every whistle. As the camera pulls back, we get a good view of a steaming Burns, as well as the Blackhawks coach, a rookie youngster by the name of … oh. Oh for the …
• [Sadly resets “Grab Bags without a single mention of Darryl Sutter” sign back to zero.]
• And here comes the classic Pat Burns meltdown. He gets tangled up with a towel that’s hanging from the clothesline behind the bench, probably accidentally at first, but then decides to just go to town on it.
• Wait, why does the Chicago Stadium visitor’s bench have a clothesline on it? I know it was an old building, but were there a lot of teams that needed to dry out their linens back in the 1930s? Did they also have a butter churn back there, next to the worn path to the old outhouse?
• “Burns has just thrown a towel … he’s throwing a tantrum.” Well played, young Jim Hughson. Well played.
• McCreary rings up the Leafs for a bench minor, causing Burns to immediately go into arms-crossed mode, as if he’s trying to physically restrain himself. For the rest of the clip, we get to enjoy his visible display of cognitive dissonance, as he goes back and forth between trying desperately to behave and wanting to just jump onto the ice and strangle McCreary with his bare hands.
• Classic face palm by John Cullen there at 0:47.
• By the way, in addition to Burns and McCreary, three of the players on the ice for this play are now in the Hall of Fame: Gilmour, Chris Chelios, and Michel Goulet. A fourth, Glenn Anderson, is on the Leafs’ bench. This is a very Hall of Famey clip.
• Kudos to the woman in the first row who attempts to diffuse the situation by waving a teddy bear in Burns’s face. Good try, lady. Shocked that didn’t work.
• Burns is holding it together pretty well, actually. He seems to have got himself under control. He’s really leading by example here, making sure that his players know that it’s always important to be sportsmanlike. For example, I’m pretty sure he just offered to sell McCreary a vacuum.
• The officials are conferring, and Gilmour is really irate. Enjoy this moment, Leafs fans — it’s the only chance you’ll get to see a genuine Maple Leafs no. 1 center and someone named “Bozak” in the same shot.
• Hughson works in a mention of the Roger Neilson towel-waving, which we covered in a YouTube moment of its own a few months ago. Maybe the whole point of the Chicago Stadium clothesline was just to goad visiting coaches into meltdowns.
• We finally get a replay, which reveals that … yeah, this was kind of a dive. Sorry, Dougie. And it’s also worth noting that this was the 1990s, when hooking was called only once every four months. That’s not to say Burns doesn’t have a case for a call here, but it’s pretty borderline. I mean, really, Pat, it’s one missed stick foul against Doug Gilmour. There’s no need to go on and on about it forever.
• Burns is still furious, and starts pointing all over the ice. At this point, Leafs veteran Mike Foligno stands up and risks his life by trying to reach back and grab his coach. Burns presumably considers breaking Foligno’s nose, before realizing that everyone else in the league already beat him to it.
• And with that our clip comes to an end, as we get one last shot of … Wait, what was Burns holding in his hand? Is that a pen? A Virginia Slim cigarette? A tightly rolled-up scroll that contains a spell for Magic Missile? Come back, Pat, we suddenly have a lot of unanswered questions.
The Hawks went on to win this game 5-3. They’d finish first in the Norris that year, but watched the Leafs emerge as division champs thanks to a surprising playoff run. The two teams didn’t meet in the playoffs that year, but they would a year later, and that’s when Burns got his revenge.
In 1994, the Leafs played the Blackhawks in the first round, and the turning point of that series came in Game 2, when the Leafs won 1-0 in overtime on a very controversial goal by Todd Gill. The Hawks insisted that the goal should have been waved off due to blatant goalie interference, and they were right, but the referee didn’t make the call. The Leafs went on to take the series in six games, a win that spelled the end of Chicago Stadium. The arena, and its infuriating visitors’ bench clothesline, would be demolished months later.
That referee who made the series-turning noncall in favor of Pat Burns and the Maple Leafs? Who else? Hall of Famer Bill McCreary.