Thursday, March 30, 2017

NHL First-Round Playoff Alignment: Another way the NHL is NHLing.

It’s that magical time of year. The days are getting longer and warmer. Soon the flowers will be blooming and the sale of allergy pills will sky rocket. This could only mean that it's time for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. When “normal” people are washing their car on a Saturday afternoon, you are ordering pizza and getting a few 40s ready for a 3pm start.

The playoffs are the best time of the season for any sport. Messing with them, unless a giant fan uproar demands it, should only be done with the utmost care. So what does the NHL do? Rather than fix the actual issues of the game, they introduce a mind-numbing playoff format. Most leagues that have a 16-team playoff, have their first round set up in a logical order in two divisions. When you finish first in your division, you get worst seed in the opening round. If you are the second team, you get the second-worst seed. The NHL, nope. You finish second. You get the third team. Your reward for a great season finishing in 2nd or 3rd? An early exit for one of the best teams in the playoffs. It’s unavoidable that a great team gets bounced early. A matchup that should be 2nd or possibly the conference finals is staged for the 1st round. This is a perfect example of a term I say on a hockey forum, The NHL is going to NHL.

I will be revisiting this after the first round, so see how badly the NHL, well, NHL’d.

#TBT: One of the most epic hockey fights of all time, Colorado vs. Detroit, 1997

Friday, March 24, 2017

Does Fighting Have a Future in the NHL?

There is no doubt that the style of play for the NHL and much of the hockey world in general has undergone a gradual but definite change in the last several years. The era of the enforcer has faded to the point where such a player is virtually non-existent in the NHL and international competition level of the sport. Very few teams have a goon on their roster anymore, that one guy whose skill on the ice is limited to being able to lace his skates, skate passably, and knock as many guys on the other team to the ice as possible in the shortest amount of time. No longer do we see players whose sole purpose is to intimidate and create opportunities for his teammates through shear force of violence. Instead, we have seen a shift toward focus on speed, agility, and ability to get the puck into the net. Overall, I feel that this has been a very good change for hockey in general and the NHL specifically. That being said however, hockey is a contact sport. Players are going to run into each other either accidentally, or by intent. They are going to continue to slam each other into the boards and goad one another either verbally or by physical contact into losing their temper. This is as much a part of the sport of hockey as tackling a running back or sacking a quarterback is in football. As such, fighting is an integral part of the sport of hockey, and I do not think it is desirable, if it is even possible, to eliminate it completely from the sport.

Fight in ice hockey 2009
LeBlanc vs. Ponich, 2009
By ArtBrom [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Their are valid pros and cons to both sides of the argument about the place of fighting in the NHL. My stance on this issue is that fighting is a natural part of the game and should remain so. That being said, I still wish to give a fair argument so I will start by discussing the other side of the issue. On the negative side, fighting can and does lead to injury. I have frequently seen key players take an injury in an unbalanced fight that caused them to miss critical games thereby hurting their team more in the long run than the fight was worth. Many of these cases were when the fight was fundamentally uneven. Either there was an all out brawl where the inevitable 2 or 3 players on 1 lead to injury, or a much larger or more experienced player takes on a smaller or inexperienced player. The inevitable outcome is that the player who was fighting multiple opponents, the little guy, or the rookie taking on the veteran ends up taking an injury that keeps them out of the rest of the game or even multiple games. The other factor that has cropped up frequently in my research into the attempt to have fighting eliminated from the sport has been the long term damage many players have experienced from seasons of brawling on the ice. There is no doubt that multiple concussions can do tremendous damage to the sensitive tissues of the brain. Often the damage done is not seen for months or even years after the injury occurred.
O'Brien, Chipchura drop gloves, 2009
By Matt Boulton [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr
There are several reasons that these types of life altering injuries have happened. The first is inadequate protective gear. Helmets and pads have evolved over the years in an attempt to make them lighter, easier to move in and see through, and more effective protection. So depending on how far back you are looking in the history of the sport the quality of the available protective gear is a contributing factor. Also our knowledge of the symptoms and dangers of head injuries has grown tremendously over the last few decades, and will likely continue to do so. Better treatments and improved concussion protocols have been implemented over the last several years to protect athletes from critical injury and prevent them from returning to play before they have adequately healed. These changes have made the fights that do happen less potentially catastrophic to the team and the individual players. Yes fights can and do still get out of hand on occasion, and yes players do and will still get injured from these fights.  Does that mean that fighting is bad and should be totally eliminated. No in my opinion it does not.

Now to discuss the positive aspects of fighting in hockey. One of the advantages of a well timed fight is that it can and often does serve to energize a team who has been falling a little flat during a given period of play. I have many times seen a team who is trailing by  or more points rally and come back to win a game after having a fight occur. Fighting can and has intensified the level of play on both sides making for a more competitive and exciting game both to play and watch. I don't think that a majority of hockey fans or players see having an all out line brawl during a game as being a highlight  or a desirable part of the hockey experience. However, seeing players who are passionate about the game and feel strongly enough about their line-mates to defend or protect them makes for a very fun and exciting hockey experience. An inevitable part of that passion is the occasional fight that breaks out between two players who feel strongly about their team and their sport. Hockey is a contact sport, even if fighting were to some how be eliminated players would still get injured.  Last season the Sharks Logan Couture broke his leg at practice and was out for more than 2 months. At the beginning of this season the Penguins Sidney Crosby suffered a concussion during practice and was out for a significant portion of the early season. A trip, a fall from being a bit off balanced while going for the puck, a defenseman throwing himself across the ice to stop a shot, all of these things can and have led to injury. Also, possibly the most important factor, the players all know that these events are likely to happen to them at some point during any given season and accept that risk as being just a part of the sport. As long as the fighting remains on relatively equal grounds between two players who are equally capable of fighting and defending themselves I believe that fighting adds more to the game than it costs. The majority of fighting that we see in the NHL these days does fall within those parameters.
2011-10-20 Leafs at Bruins (18)
Orr vs. Thornton, 2011
By Dan4th Nicolas [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr
The dangers and repercussions of fighting is a concern that the NHL has been taking seriously and making rules to avoid the most serious injuries for more than 25 years. In 1992 the Instigator rule was implemented to penalize actions taken to instigate fighting. Now leaving the bench to start or join an ongoing fight carries the automatic penalty of a 10 game suspension. At the beginning of the 2010-11 season NHL rule 48 was implemented. This rule was made to protect players from blindside hits to the head.  The rule was later refined to include a broader range of head shots for added protection for player safety. Over the years many proposals have been brought before the league's competition committee which deal with the hazards of fighting. The competition committee is composed of players, owners, and general managers which deals with many league issues including rule changes.  Every time these issues have been brought before the committee they have considered them carefully and approved changes that make the sport safer, but have always stopped short of rules to eliminate fighting completely. When discussing the reasons for these choices they have usually made comments along the lines that eliminating fighting completely would fundamentally change the nature of the game, that hockey is a contact sport and fighting is a part of that. The goal is to make players safe while still allowing them to play the sport that they love. It is a fine line to walk but one in which players, owners and general managers have consistently agreed is in the best interest of the game. In 2011 an NHLPA poll found that 98% of players were opposed to eliminating fighting from the game.  In 2014 NHL News ran a fan poll about the continued presence of fighting in NHL hockey and 78% were in favor of fighting remaining a part of the game. In June of 2016 Commissioner Garry Bettman spoke out on the issue of fighting in the NHL during an interview he did with Sports Illustrated, stating that fisticuffs are an intrinsic part of the game and that fighting still has a role in the NHL.

While there will likely always be some controversy surrounding fighting in the NHL it seems clear to me that the majority of players, fans, owners, and general managers all feel that fighting has a place in the sport of hockey and in the NHL. I believe that player safety is a concern for all as well, and that rules will continue to change and evolve to provide the safest environment possible. However, I also believe that it would be near impossible to eliminate fighting entirely from the sport, nor do I think it would be desirable to do so. I for one look forward to continuing to watch hockey played as the full contact sport that it is with all the drive and passion that entails along with the occasional dropping of the gloves.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Buffalo Beauts win Isobel Cup this year

Who? Won what?

The Buffalo Beauts - one of four National Women's Hockey League (NWHL) teams that actually exist. Until a few weeks ago, I didn't know anything about the NWHL, but now, I am interested in finding out a lot more about it, thanks in part to the big hullabaloo over the impending USWNT boycott of the World Championship. Btw, they are scheduled to meet with USA Hockey today to continue negotiations.

In the meantime, and regardless of the outcome of the negotiations or the World Championship, I am now deadly curious about the NWHL, and any other women's hockey leagues that I can get my eyes on.

About the NWHL (quoted from the official website):
The NWHL is the first professional women’s hockey league in North America to pay its players. The inaugural season began October 11, 2015 with the Founding Four: Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale and New York Riveters. The Boston Pride became the first team in NWHL history to raise the Isobel Cup on March 12, 2016. 
Team Kessel, Team Steadman salute the crowd at NWHL All-Star weekend, 2017.
By j_rho, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) via Flickr
So, they closed out their 2016-2017 season yesterday in Lowell, MA with their cup final between the Buffalo Beauts and Boston Pride. The end result was Beauts win 3-2. They are done for this season, but I'm looking forward to next season and possible road trips to Buffalo to attend some games.

The trouble with women's hockey is, where do you watch it? Unless it's an international game, these games are typically not televised, or even streamed. However, the Isobel Cup final was exclusively streamed on and the ABC News App this year. I think that women's hockey could benefit tremendously from better media coverage. It needs to be more accessible, like Women's basketball. It's not hard to find NCAAW games to watch on TV, especially this time of year.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

What is fair pay for representing your country in a world championship?

The answer is: it's complicated. Yesterday, players on the women's US hockey team threatened to boycott the upcoming World Championship because of lack of support and fair pay.

When this story started breaking yesterday, the first comment I ran across, from a man, was "spoiled bitches." It's not there now, probably because the site has guidelines for such things, and removed it (and it was obviously a troll), but it still angered me. That's the kind of attitude that women in sports have to deal with all the time, and it's less than fair, just like the women's hockey pay situation.

What are they actually paid? The truth is, they receive a pittance compared to the men's hockey team or even to other countries' women's hockey teams, and they've been getting screwed over like that for a long time.

“Team USA, at Hockey Canada Cup, 2009”
by Tyler Ingram is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Currently, team members receive $1,000 per month for the six months prior to the Olympic Games from USA Hockey. So, they get $6000 for four years. However, players are required to stay in shape and compete in other events (like the World Championship) during the interim. Top players receive some additional funding from USOC, and USOC pays out bonuses to players who medal in the Olympics, but still...a lot of these players rely on their parents for support to stay in the game. Players also have to relocate a year prior to the Olympics, to train and practice with their team, so if they were getting a paycheck from NWHL, for example, they have to give it up that year. The men's team doesn't have this requirement. They have fewer practices, and they don't have to give up a year in the NHL. It's not unreasonable that female players are seeking a better deal.

Canada is a bit more generous. Their team members receive between $900 and $1500 a month, even during non-Olympic years, and they get full-time support for nine months around the Olympic Games.

However, it's not just about money. These players are also asking for equitable support programs.

"We're asking for equitable support and marketing and visibility and promotion in programming but also in some financial support. It's 2017 and those things are not unreasonable." --Hilary Knight, Forward, Team USA

USA Hockey spends about $3.5 million on the men's side for development. The women's side gets bupkis.

This boycott was predictable, considering. The players are just standing up for what they believe. Negotiations for better terms have gone nowhere in the last 14 months, and players are using the only power that they have available to them. Training camp is next week, and players are saying that they won't attend.

Considering how devastating this will be for USA Hockey, its response has been lame.

“USA Hockey’s role is not to employ athletes and we will not do so.” --Jim Smith, President of USA Hockey
Ok, I get is, but the fact is, most players on the men's side are in the NHL, and make at least the league minimum of $575,000 per season. USA Hockey doesn't need to pay those players. They already get paid, big-time.

The options for female hockey players, when they leave college, are slim. If they are good enough, they can play for the national team. Or, they can play for the CWHL, which does not pay a salary, or the NWHL, which does, but it's not a living wage. Most women opt for a regular job.

Ironically, if USA Hockey doesn't participate in the World Championship, it will pay a fine far in excess of what it actually pays the women's hockey team. The fine is $15,000, which in this case is doubled, because they didn't notify the IIHF before Sept. 1. They will have to scramble to find players who are good enough, but not influenced by the USWNT, to put together another team in time for the show. Also, USA is the host country for the event. Awkward.

I think that if USA Hockey wants to continue the women's hockey program, they should do a better job of supporting them, and invest bigger in development. Otherwise, what's the point? I hope they can work things out in time for the worlds and for the future, but right now it looks grim.

The 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championship kicks off in Plymouth, Michigan on March 31.

Tweeters to follow as this story develops:

Amanda Kessel @AmandaKessel8
Hilary Knight @Hilary_Knight
Meghan Duggan @mduggan10
Christine Brennan @cbrennansports
Sen. Brant Feldman @AGMSports

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Bloodiest Fight of the Season So Far: Jacob Trouba vs Sam Bennett

Jacob Trouba vs Sam Bennett

So Sam Bennett slashes Jacob Trouba!  Trouba had enough and right in front of the net they had a dance! This was one of the best fights of the season so far.

Main event: March 11, 2017

Jacob Trouba in the blue Ttunks (#8 Winnipeg Jets).  Weighing in at an official weight of 202 lbs.  At a height of 6'3".  With a career of 4 regular season NHL fights.

Sam Bennett in the black trunks (#93 Calgary Flames).  Weighing in at an official weight of 186 lb.  At a height of 6' 1".  With a career of 3 career regular season NHL fights.

After careful deliberation the winner is Sam Bennett !

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Sestito Steals the Show

First we must set the stage.

This happened the last time the Penguins met the Jets. It was a game with several controversial plays. We will get back to the video in a bit.

Yesterday's game (March 9 2017), Penguins vs Jets, was almost everything you could ask for in a game. For starters, two back to back fights. Malkin and Wheeler had some unfinished business to attend to. Needless to say they took care of it right away. About 16:26 left in the first period, in fact.

Then, on the next play, Tom Sestito fights Chris Thorburn. Both get five minute majors for fighting.

Then, this happens...

This hit is dangerous. First of all, since Tobias  Enstrom  has possession of the puck, he is clearly eligible to be checked. At the end, when Sestito hits him,  he appears to turn away, and is hit similar from behind to the above video of Dustin Byfuglien hitting Justin Schultz from behind. The main difference is that Schultz's head hits the glass. So its doubtful that the league will review this play, however, IF they do, Sestito's reputation is the issue. Byfuglien's hit did not even have a penalty, let alone a hearing.

Sestito was on the ice for three shifts for a total of 1 minute 2 seconds time on ice,  5-minute fighting major, 5-minute major checking, 10-minute game misconduct. So yeah, 62 seconds = 20 penalty minutes, and ejected. 

In the middle of all this, Malkin gets a Gordie Howe hat trick. The first of his career. Nick Bonino gets a hat trick. It is the second of his career. The first was on 02/02/2013 against the LA Kings.

After the hit, Enstrom left the game and did not return.  In fact, he was at the hospital afterwards for possible facial fracture. For better or worse, Sestito taking him out was the turning point in the game. Jet's defense suffered the rest of the game, with the end result being a 7-4 route.

After the game, coach Mike Sullivan said, "He has the ability to create some anxiety."

And in closing....
"I thought maybe it was for goal-scoring that they wanted me up here." - Sestito said, yesterday morning.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Rule 46 - Fisticuffs

Many consider fighting to be an integral part of hockey. European, Olympic and college hockey disallow it by ejecting and even suspending players for it. The NHL and most minor professional leagues allow fighting but they have laid out some ground rules to keep it in check. This blog post will focus on fighting in the NHL.

Rule 56 was introduced by the NHL in 1922 in an effort to regulate fighting or “fisticuffs” as it was originally termed. In those days, five minute major penalties were given to players involved in fighting. In the modern NHL rulebook, fighting is now regulated by rule 46.

Rule 46.1 defines fighting as when at least one player punches or attempts to punch an opponent repeatedly or when two players wrestle in such a manner as to make it difficult for the Linesman to intervene and separate the combatants. This rule also states that the Referees are given wide latitude with discretion to impose penalties for fighting.

Additional penalties (minor and/or major), fines and game misconducts can be given to players for things such as being labeled an aggressor (continuing to throw punches when his opponent is defenseless or is an unwilling combatant) or an instigator (for example, throwing the first punch, obvious retribution for a previous incident, etc.) as well as other violations such as a player removing his helmet or jersey during a fight.

There are some unspoken rules amongst hockey players regarding fighting. For instance, both players must agree to a fight, either by a verbal or physical exchange. Another unspoken rule dictates that a player shouldn’t keep swinging if his opponent is hurt during the fight. And last but not least, fight fairly and be respectful.

Many have spoken out against fighting in hockey and would like to see it banned. Supporters of fighting argue that it gives players security and allows them to police other players when they find a dirty hit or play unacceptable. Those who want to ban it claim that it’s unsportsmanlike and is a waste of time. They also cite major injuries and even death as reason to ban it.

In 2009, Don Sanderson of the Whitby Dunlops (a team in Ontario’s Major League Hockey) died one month after receiving a head injury during a fight. His helmet came off during the altercation and he hit his head on the ice.

In 2007, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said during a press conference “Fighting has always had a role in the game…from a player safety standpoint, what happens in fighting is something we need to look at just as we need to look at hits to the head. But we’re not looking to have a debate on whether fighting is good or bad or should be part of the game”.

Whichever side of the debate you fall on, I think it can be agreed that fighting in the NHL is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. 

By Dan4th Nicholas (own work)
[CC BY-SA 2.0 (].