We’re both suckers for a good end-of-the-year list article. There’s just something about reflecting on the year that’s just passed before we ring in a new one. So the two of us are going to take a little time out as we gear up for 2012 and focus on some of our personal bests and worsts of the hockey world this year. Each of us will independently write two and then collaborate on #1.
5. Mike Modano retires as a Star
It seems like the kind of story Hollywood would write – the hockey player who gives 20+ years to one franchise, only to jump ship to another team for a year. When he announces that he’s retiring, his former team decides to bring him back into the fold and let him end his career where it began. But the story is real.
Mike Modano played all but one year of his NHL career for the Minnesota North Stars/Dallas Stars. When he signed with the Detroit Red Wings for the 2010-2011 season, many felt betrayed by someone whom they considered the face of the franchise (in reality, Dallas didn’t bite at the offer he’d made). When he announced on September 23rd that he was retiring, the Stars front office decided to let him come full circle, giving him a one-day $999,999 contract that he signed before his press conference. It was a wonderful gesture from a team who will be forever grateful for his presence on their roster, and it ensured that he will forever be a Star in Dallas.
Now that I think about it, maybe they should make a movie about that.
4. Florida Panthers come out of the basement
I don’t know if you’ve seen the old “Got Milk” commercials, but the storyline was this: little kid gets teased, kid says “Oh yeah, well I’m gonna drink milk, and one day you’ll be sorry you messed with me!” and then does something amazing. Now take that storyline and apply it to hockey, or more specifically, the Florida Panthers.
After being the laughingstock of the Eastern Conference and probably the entire league, general manager Dale Tallon (who was part of the front office crew in place for the Chicago Blackhawks’ 2009-10 Cup-winning season) had an “I’m drinking milk” moment and began to sign some heavy-duty talent to overhaul the team – guys like Brian Campbell, Tomas Kopecky and Kris Versteeg (former Hawks from that winning season), Ed Jovanovski, Tomas Fleischmann and goalie Jose Theodore. No one really paid any mind to such a roster.
Well, since the season started, the Panthers have risen in the Southeastern Conference and not looked back. The line of Versteeg, Fleischmann and Stephen Weiss have been on fire, and Steeger’s been having one of the best seasons of his career (17 goals and 21 assists in 37 games so far). And can I say a bit about Jose Theodore? This guy is a beast; so far this season, he has a 2.44 GAA and a .919 save percentage. He’s a year younger than me, but you’d never know it by watching him play – he makes moves and saves like a guy 10 or 12 years younger.
The moral of the Panthers’ story: never, never underestimate the little guy.
3. The rise of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
Dang, this kid is good. We know the story up until now–began playing for the Red Deer Rebels while still underage, WHL rookie of the year award, gold in the 2010 Ivan Hlinka, drafted first overall by Edmonton this year–but after getting a three-year entry-level contract with the Oilers, he’s been very, very good. He got third star of the game in his very first NHL-level game and decided to top himself by getting his first hat trick two games later against the Canucks.
(All of those goals were scored on Roberto Luongo? Even better!)
A month like that is enough to earn you Rookie of the Month status, which he got for October, and he repeated for November because of a month including a five-assist game against Chicago (sorry, Krista, it was that 9-2 one). I wonder if he might even go for a threefer and get December’s status…
Anyway, even though Edmonton is kind of struggling in the standings again after streaking like crazy at the beginning of it all, I’m sure Nugent-Hopkins is going to be a big part of the continued growth of Edmonton. It’s gonna be good to watch this guy more in the future.
2. The Boston Bruins are the 2011 Stanley Cup champions!
- A seven-game series against Montreal (if you’re going to win a Cup, you might as well go through Montreal) that featured a resurgence from a 0-2 series record, dramatic overtime games and a little team-building trip to Lake Placid
- The exorcising of all Philadelphia-related demons with a four-game sweep where only one game was really close scorewise and we saw Philadelphia’s old goaltending carousel hard at work
- The discovery of maybe a new adversary in Tampa Bay, a team that made us work very, very hard for it–let’s forget about that blown 3-0 lead in game four–culminating in that strangely beautiful penalty-free game seven
- An eternally dramatic final with yet another 0-2 resurgence, drama and taunting and biting and dirty hitting and scoring (on Boston’s part, really) and tire pumping and shutouts and losing and winning. On their ice. The prohibitive and presumptuous champions defeated by the Big Bad Bruins. Not bad at all. What a ride.
1. We discover hockey
It is a day I shall never forget–January 26, 2011, the day my friend Amanda took me to a Thrashers game. 1-0 Thrashers was the final score against the Capitals and even though I didn’t know the ins and outs of every single thing happening, I did know I liked what I was seeing. It just kind of mushroomed from there for me. When I really like something, I want everything having to do with it. I want to learn everything. Lucky for me, there’s so much to learn in this sport. I still discover new things every day. For example, I’d never noticed the little red lights atop the penalty boxes that signal TV timeouts until Vicky pointed them out to me while we were at the Bruins game. (Or that many goalies will smack their sticks against the ice at the end of power plays. She pointed that out to me too!) But I love learning more. I also love telling people things about this sport. I did have a setback to overcome back in June, but then I found the Bruins and their excellent fans. Even if the Bruins hadn’t made the playoffs at all this year, I think I would’ve become a fan of them anyway. The stars just aligned so perfectly. I look forward to learning more and more about hockey and everything having to do with it.
I admit, I’ve tried to get into football in the past but didn’t feel enthusiastic about it, and basketball just doesn’t fascinate me. But when Emma began to tell me about the Thrashers and hockey in general, I fell for it like she did and wanted to know more. We started learning together, and we rooted for the Thrashers through wins and losses. And while she didn’t become a Bruins fan until later, I found the Blackhawks quickly even though the Thrashers were still my first team. I cheered for both of them, and in the postseason I watched my boys struggle and lose that heartbreaking seventh game. I can tell you that hockey has saved my sanity this summer; without it and this blog, I think I would’ve worried myself insane because my mother underwent weeks of treatments for cervical cancer. I’ll always be grateful to Emma for bringing me along for the journey she’s taken into the world of hockey. It’s become another reason why she’s my best friend.
5. Realignment: If it is Only Slightly Broke, Completely Disassemble it
That awkward moment when I literally realigned the league better than they did way back at the end of June. Working under their parameters of four divisions, two with eight and two with seven teams, I put together what I felt were the most logical divisions allowable. But the two-eight two-seven partitioning doesn’t make sense to begin with; as a flawed premise, anything built on it is shaky. Here is an easy way to solve the Failapeg Problem: Swap it with Nashville. But instead of doing one teeny-weeny switcharoonie, the Board of Governors and Gary Bettman decided they’d just tear down the whole structure and rebuild it on a flawed premise. Great idea! (Fun fact: Apparently Bettman proposed the simple switcharoonie, but you just know he tempered the presentation with “but this isn’t the best option.” See here. When you equate something to a Chicago election from the 30s, um, that’s not good.)
Now everyone gets at least one home-and-home series, which might be fun for folks who are displaced fans and who want to see their team when it comes into town. But think about the travel impact! In a time when we should be thinking more consciously about our impact on the planet, we’ve decided to make it so that, say, Boston and LA have to travel all the way across the continent to meet each other twice instead of once. The impact of the Boston-Vancouver Stanley Cup series is like that as well. Speaking of playoffs, this new plan does not yet include how the playoffs are handled past the second round. How wonderful to create a new plan and not figure out all of the details before voting on it. There is the outsize chance the NHLPA could reject this plan, but I wouldn’t bet on it. So, next season, look for the Bruins’ division to include both the Florida teams, but not two teams that are geographically closer to all the others!
Who needs logic, huh?
4. Marc Savard, I Hardly Knew Ye
I’ve heard so much about “Savvy” from longtime Bruins fans. I’ve heard tales of his stellar playmaking abilities and kindness and the sheer talent oozing from his pores. Heck, he even had a playing stint in Atlanta. (Apparently a Hockey News “dream team” special issue that must’ve been published a while ago had him as part of a Thrashers dream team.) But I just wish I could’ve really seen it for myself. At this point, Savard’s playing career could very well be over because of concussions and their lingering effects. The Bruins refuse to let him go yet–he is still listed as part of the team in all official areas and publications, just on the injured reserve–and he hasn’t said anything official either. So I refuse to give up either, but it feels unlikely to me that he’ll ever touch the ice again. (If he does, it won’t get the same amount of coverage as Sidney Crosby’s return, but it will be just as meaningful to many people.) He seems to be coping with life without hockey, as seen on his Twitter feed. (Savvy, we miss the predictions you did for every game! #bignight!) He has his kids and you can tell they really provide him so much joy; he helps coach his son’s team and you just know his daughter has him wrapped around her little finger. However, when he talks about mornings being difficult, about having memory lapses and persistent headaches, about missing the Bruins, it’s enough to make you want to cry.
3. The loss of Lokomotiv
A whole hockey team wiped out in a second. That’s what happened when a plane carrying the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team crashed shortly after takeoff on its way to Belarus in September. Many of the players had been in the NHL before, and their old teammates were devastated by the news. It’s a terrible kick to the gut for the Detroit Red Wings, because Brad McCrimmon had been an assistant coach with them till he resigned in May to become Lokomotiv’s head coach.
The worst part is that the lone survivor, Alexander Galimov, fought bravely to hang on but eventually succumbed to his massive injuries five days later. With his death, the entire team was gone. The organization has opted to use younger players and play in a lower-tier league for part of the season, after which they’ll return to the KHL for the 2012-13 season and be automatically qualified for the KHL playoffs. We wish the best for the organization.
2. The deaths of Boogaard, Rypien and Belak
Even before the Lokomotiv crash, the hockey world was reeling from the deaths of players Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak. Boogaard died May 13th, Rypien died August 15th, and Belak was found dead at the end of August. It was a huge shock to the hockey world, but it began a discussion about the role of enforcers in the game and how fighting could ultimately be their downfall. Not only can it be a detriment to their health physically, but it can take a toll on them mentally and psychologically due to the reputation that enforcers have; all three men were known to have battled depression, and Boogaard was struggling with substance abuse. Many have called for fighting to be taken out of hockey altogether, while others have suggested more mental health and substance abuse treatment programs offered to players. Whatever the reason for their deaths, these three men should stand as a reminder that the guys who give their heart and soul to the game are, at their core, human and vulnerable.
1. The Atlanta Screwjob
It’s been more than six months now since I woke up late on that bad day in May and saw some suspicious texts so I texted Krista and then she called–actually called; we usually just converse over things requiring a keyboard–me to tell me the bad news. It’s still weird to see the vestigial remains of the Thrashers. You know, an errant logo in a pre-2011 collage of logos here, a segment in 24/7 Penguins-Capitals there. I don’t know if it’ll ever stop being weird, really. It’s hard to tell, being that this is the first relocation of the social media era and such. Things are different now than when, say, the Whalers became the Hurricanes. Thrashers fans all learned to cope in different ways. For example, Amanda became a Habs fan; I became a Bruins fan (and yet we still get along very well!). But I maintain a certain level of bitterness towards league Powers That Be since I fervently believe they did not do everything in their power to help the team stay, even though publicly they said they were. I have no reason to point-blank believe anything they do anymore. Let’s face it, Bettman wanted to know there’s a city out there where he won’t be roundly booed if he visits. Well, he got his wish–at the cost of a fanbase that has now dispersed and is teaching other fans to dislike the Jets and the Atlanta Screwjob too. It’s not hard to do once someone’s new team plays the Jets in their home barn, though, and the fanbase gets to see just how heinous their fanbase is with all the incessant booing and goalie-chirping-at-the-wrong-time and arrogance and such. All of it is further inflated, tires pumped far past the point of safe driving, by hockey media, which seems to treat the team with the same hype as the Crosby return, multiplied by an entire club. Maybe as time passes, the tires will deflate. Interest will subside. The Jets will become as well-known and exciting as the other team to relocate from Atlanta. I hope so, anyway. Like I said, those tires are pumped up way too high. But I sure do like trying to stick thumbtacks in them whenever I can.
That day in May was awful on this end: I’d logged on to my Twitterfeed and was stunned at what I saw. By this time, the Blackhawks were my main team, but my heart was still with the Thrashers, which is why I cried when I called Emma. Even though we’re now entrenched fans of other teams (Original Six teams, I must add), it still hurts to see Jets fans so happy about a team that wasn’t theirs before May 31, 2011. When people say we should “get over it” and move on, I tell them that we really can’t because there’s something we were never given – true and proper closure. By comparison, Jets 1.0 fans knew when their team lost in the 1996 playoffs that it was the last time they’d see that team play. And while I’ve mostly forgiven my captain for what he said this summer, I will never forgive or forget what Andrew Ladd said about the Atlanta fanbase. If you talk to guys like Rich Peverley and Anthony Stewart, they’ll praise the fans and have nothing but nice things to say about their time in Atlanta. It’s a pretty damning thing to see the guys who taught you to love hockey turn so quickly into people you don’t recognize – even Evander Kane has become a rather dirty player in the few months of this season, and he was never like that. It hurts to know that the only way I can follow one of my favorite goalies is through fantasy hockey and the World Championships. I look forward to April, when Jets fans will be hit with reality because their “beloved” team won’t make it to the playoffs. It’ll soothe that part of my heart that’s never completely healed.