Top 10 hockey stories of 2010
Sidney Crosby saved Canada's national honor with a historic Olympic goal
The Chicago Blackhawks ended a 49-year drought by winning the Stanley Cup
Ilya Kovalchuk's mega-contract brought down woe upon the New Jersey Devils
1. Sidney Crosby's golden goal. Seven minutes and 40 seconds into overtime of the Winter Olympic gold medal game, Crosby turned a one-on-four against Team USA into the most significant goal in Canadian hockey history since Paul Henderson's in Game 8 of the 1972 Summit Series. From coast to coast to coast of the anxious host nation, Canadians rushed outdoors to communally fete Crosby's golden goal. Other than V-E Day, has there been any event that has prompted similar spontaneous nationwide celebrations in the United States?
2. Blackhawks win the Cup. Maybe for Cubs fans it seemed like a mere coffee break, but Blackhawks fans, their sports co-religionists in Chicago, figured that 49 years was long enough to wait for a Stanley Cup, thank you. In a resurrection as stunning as the one that turned the once moribund Red Wings around in Detroit more than two decades ago, the Hawks, under the leadership of owner Rocky Wirtz and president John McDonough, won back the heart of Chicago by capturing their first Cup since 1961. Of course, captain Jonathan Toews, a recently toothless Duncan Keith and maverick winger Patrick Kane also had something to do with it. (Kane's Cup-winning goal looked remarkably similar to Crosby's gold medal tally some 14 weeks earlier.) Two million Chicagoans attended the victory parade and rally, producing a wall of sound second to none in the Second City.
3. Tenacious Flyers. Like Chicago's Stanley Cup, you just don't see this every year: The Philadelphia Flyers rallied from a three-games-to-none deficit in their second-round playoff series and defeated the Boston Bruins, joining the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs and 1975 New York Islanders as the only NHL teams to successfully come back from the brink. Just as remarkably, the Flyers rallied from a 3-0 deficit in Game 7 to complete the comeback in Boston. Still, there had been hints that the implausible truly was possible, even before Simon Gagné scored in overtime of Game 4 to extend the series. While the Flyers were starting to get healthy -- Gagné and Jeff Carter returning from foot injuries, goalie Michael Leighton from an ankle sprain -- the Bruins were being decimated, losing key forwards such as Marco Sturm and David Krejci. In literature, Gagné's goal would be known as foreshadowing. In hockey, it is known as the breaks.
4. Head shots. In hockey circles, Rule 48 is becoming as renowned as Catch-22. (Go ahead. Name another NHL rule by its number. Thought so.) The new rule penalizes lateral, blindside hits that target the head, the outgrowth of some concussive checks by the Flyers' Mike Richards on Florida's David Booth, and Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke on Boston's Marc Savard. The rule is in the embryonic stages of a long evolutionary process, and six years after the lockout, some players (and referees) are still figuring out obstruction calls. Meanwhile, some hockey people think Rule 48 did not go far enough in addressing the concussion contagion. At a conference at the Mayo Clinic in October, former ref Kerry Fraser said that all hits to the head should be banned.
5. Young stars take over. When hockey players want to get in touch with their inner poet, they say something about the privilege of being men fortunate enough to play a kid's game. In 2010, the NHL had a lot of kids playing a kid's game. The evolutionary wheel continued to spin -- the valiant Chris Chelios retired for good (we think) -- and the arrow landed on the under-25 crowd, which included Toews and Kane, fabulous Tampa Bay scorer Steven Stamkos, Los Angeles defenseman Drew Doughty and, of course, Crosby, who turned 23 in August. Maybe you don't truss everyone over 30 -- sorry, couldn't help myself -- but the NHL is now brimming with superb forwards who are too young to rent a car in some cities. Add in the glut of precocious defensemen like Doughty and Buffalo's Tyler Myers, and 2010 marked the dividing line between new and old.
6. Ilya Kovalchuk. As I've stated before in this space, the Russian sniper is the gift that just keeps on taking. The square peg in the New Jersey Devils' round hole originally signed a 17-year, $102 million deal, the logical extension of the long-term, front-loaded contracts previously given to the likes of Chicago's Marian Hossa and Vancouver's Roberto Luongo. But like cops who let you get away with driving 63 in a 55-mph zone, the NHL thought the Devils were trying to go 66 in a 55, figuratively pulling a fast one on the salary cap. To the shock of many, an arbitrator bought the league's position, forcing New Jersey to renegotiate a $15-year, $100 million deal that apparently did not flout the cap but still drew a silly mustache on it. The NHL punished the Devils, fining them $3 million and taking away a 2011 third-round draft choice and a first-rounder in the next four years. Kovalchuk? He apparently was late for a team meeting and scratched for a game, and after his first 31 games he had a mere eight goals for a team languishing near the bottom of the NHL.
7. Ryan Miller and Team USA. Like the original Rocky, the ending did not quite constitute a fairy tale, but an Olympic silver medal capped an extraordinary tournament for the United States. No team, including gold-medal-winning Canada, extracted more out of its talent during the fortnight. The Americans beat Canada in the round robin, and then destroyed Finland 6-1 in the semifinals. Miller became a breakout star in goal and Zach Parise sparkled as Team USA's speed, enthusiasm and discipline made it the most watchable squad in the tournament. Parise's goal with 24 seconds left in regulation nudged the gold medal game into overtime, setting the stage for the most significant American win since the 1996 World Cup. Hey, life got in the way, but Team USA, playing under the shadow of the untimely death of Brendan Burke, the son of general manager Brian Burke, made a country proud.
8. The Coyotes saga. Phoenix was the consensus pick to finish 30th at the start of the 2009-10 season, primarily because the NHL didn't have 31 teams. The NHL-owned Coyotes were as close as you could come to the French Foreign Legion at Gary Cooper's Fort Zinderneuf, a ragtag assembly of disparate talent that looked like it would have trouble competing against Emilio Estevez's Mighty Ducks. With a bankruptcy court hogging the headlines and Winnipeg tidying the spare bedroom in anticipation of a special tenant, new coach Dave Tippett turned the Coyotes into a playoff contender that barged into the postseason before losing a seven-game series to Detroit. (The sale of the team is in its final stages to a businessman named Matt Hulsizer, who apparently doesn't cringe at the thought of losing $20 million annually. Our hero.) In a tight Pacific Division, the Coyotes remain a factor in 2010-11.
9. Women in the Hall. For the first time, a woman entered the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto without having to purchase a ticket. Two women, in fact. In June, the committee of 18 selectors voted Cammi Granato and Angela James as honored members. James was the dominant player and first superstar of the women's game throughout the 1980s and early '90s, her aggressive style evoking Mark Messier. Granato was the slickest forward of the succeeding generation, leading Team USA in 1998 to the gold medal in the first women's Olympic tournament. Curiously, James was left off the Canadian Olympic team that year, and a similar fate would befall Granato in 2006 when she was a surprise cut from the American team. Let's see ... Canada lost to the U.S. in the '98 Nagano final and Sweden shocked the U.S. in the Turin semifinals eight years later. You think the absence of James and Granato respectively had an impact on those games? Certainly, we do.
10. The NHLPA finds a leader. Donald Fehr was approved as the NHL Players Association's go-to guy, which means the old sports labor leader will surely be the driving force in the negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement in 2012. He is often portrayed as a staunch hardliner, a return to the resolute Bob Goodenow, who led the charge in the 2004-05 lockout until he looked over his shoulder and found that the players weren't following. In fact, Fehr's record suggests that he is less of an ideologue than a pragmatist. During his time heading the baseball players' union, MLB did have three labor stoppages, although only the 1994 strike, which resulted in the cancellation of the World Series, was of a significant length. The NFL and NBA will settle their CBAs first, which could shift the sporting landscape by the time the NHL and the NHLPA are deep in negotiations.