A most welcome hockey season
The NHL's regular season is often considered meaningless; not after last summer
Tragedy now gives way to the saga of Jaromir Jagr, Winnipeg and Sidney Crosby
Will this be the season the Capitals and Sharks finally make good on their talent?
So, how was your summer vacation?
Unless you were drenched by Hurricane Irene, had your house lifted into the next county by a tornado, or were visited by biblical plagues No. 3 through 9, you probably had a better summer than the National Hockey League did.
Now this depends, in part, on how you define summer -- at least in hockey terms. Me, I start with the moment the siren sounded following the Bruins' Stanley Cup Final Game 7 win over the Canucks in Vancouver. There was, as you recall, first-team, all-decade rioting downtown in that fair burgh and it caught the city fathers and mothers a step behind the play. Naturally, we were all assured that none of the miscreants in one of the most vibrant of North American cities was a true Canucks fan, so we ask: What team did the looters root for? Colorado? Calgary?
Our best guess is that at least some of them were Canucks supporters because, in this life, most human beings are capable of being more than one thing at a time. Thus, you probably can be a destructive sociopath while also admiring the gritty play of Ryan Kesler. The Vancouver riots were like the first minutes after the school doors are flung open for the final time during the academic year. Summer is on the clock.
Following destruction, there was death. There were three if you bend the summer rules to include May, which is when Derek Boogaard, the New York Rangers ruffian, died of a mixture of alcohol and painkillers. Boogaard's passing is included here because it is part of the context of the horrific summer in which Rick Rypien, the troubled Vancouver cruiserweight, and Nashville's recently-retired Wade Belak, who publicly never seemed to have a bad day, were reported suicides.
The first impulse was to connect the three dots because all three men had been enforcers, a euphemism for hockey fighters, but life rarely presents straight lines. There is so much more to know about the trio's passing that judgments should be reserved beyond this: as SI noted in 1997, fighting for a living in the NHL is the toughest job in sports.
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Still reeling, the NHL was buffeted by the Sept. 7 crash of a Yak-42 carrying Yaroslavl Lokomotiv, a hallmark KHL team. The tragedy happened half a world away, but it felt like it occurred in the NHL's backyard. Several former NHL players were on that doomed flight, and the coach was Brad McCrimmon, a former standout defenseman and one of the most popular figures within the game.
Hockey is like a village; everyone seems to know everyone else. But the generally unexpressed thoughts among NHL players were these: "They flew. We fly a ton." Yes, Russia's safety record is slightly worse than Chevy Chase's grace while playing Gerald Ford on the first year of Saturday Night Live, but no flyer is immune to potential danger. The mortality of the modern athlete hit a little too close to home that day.
"It's been really tough," says Martin St. Louis, Tampa Bay's All-Star winger. "You try to come up for air, and you get pushed back down deeper. Sometimes life gets in the way. We're just playing a sport here, and there's life out there."
"Shocking," Dallas Stars captain Brenden Morrow says of the NHL's grim summer. "No one thing is bigger than the other. (The Russian crash) was just on a bigger scale. You want to pinch yourself and think there's no way that this stuff can be true. We're thinking that once the puck is dropped, the summer is over."
Of course, the summer wasn't quite over until a banana peel was thrown on the ice in the direction of the Flyers' Wayne Simmonds, who, because irony is not only the stuff of Jane Austen novels, hurled a homophobic slur at the Rangers' Sean Avery mere days later. Shamefully, the NHL covered its eyes and ears and pretended not to see or hear -- a little lip reading could have been game, set and match on the subject; Simmonds should have been suspended -- and only then was the league ready to drop the puck.
The hockey chatterers often deride the NHL's regular season as interminable -- guilty! -- and bereft of meaning because more than half the 30 teams make the playoffs. But to dismiss the next six months as an 82-game exhibition schedule with a few "events" thrown in -- the European openers, the Winter Classic outdoor game, the Hockey Days -- is to miss not only the point but the beauty.
The niftiest goal in generations, Alex Ovechkin's in Phoenix, came during a regular season game. The best goal scored during all of last season, Jordan Eberle's, came in Edmonton's opener. Wayne Gretzky scored 894 regular-season NHL goals. Bobby Orr didn't rush the puck only in the playoffs.
Yes, the playoffs, especially the first round, are marvels, but there is gold to be mined during 1,230 regular-season games, many nuggets to sift. They can be lost in the swamp of issues that consumes any sport --- in hockey, these include concussions, some wobbly franchises and a potential lockout next season -- but the games themselves are what originally summoned you to the sport. In 2011-12, they will continue to call you back.
So what are my five compelling things to watch as the new season unfolds?
1. Jaromir Jagr. He's baaaaack after spending three seasons in the KHL with Omsk Avangard. Omsk is in southwestern Siberia, an old Soviet military industrial city that, until two decades ago, was closed to foreigners.
On the whole, he'd rather be in Philadelphia.
Actually Jagr was kicking some tires in Edmonton in 2009-10 and might actually have returned to the NHL last season, but apparently he got his Internet connection back, saw how deep the Oilers were in the rebuilding process, and instead hung around Russia. There was some suspicion in this corner that Ovechkin's seismic center-ice check in the Olympics might ultimately have been what kept Jagr on the 200-by-100 foot KHL ice for the final years of his career -- the bigger surface fosters a less physical brand of hockey -- but he decided to tough out his dotage in a demanding market, signing with the Flyers for one season at $3.3 million.
Current Oilers coach Tom Renney once basically abandoned many of his bedrock coaching principles to coax some superlative play out of Jagr in New York after the relatively fallow Washington phase of the right winger's career. Now, how much oxygen will Jagr require in the dressing room? He still has that fabulous Kardashian rump, is able to protect the puck and play the game at a waltz tempo, and his Hall of Fame vision probably remains 20-20. He doesn't jump into seams like he once did, but he likely will be a superb and motivated offensive force, even, or especially, at 39.
2. The Washington Capitals. They returned from a first-round Game 7 loss in the fall of 2010 vowing that next time things would be different. Last month, they returned from a second-round playoff sweep and vowed that this time things will really be different. OK. Maybe one of these years the Capitals, who are blessed with some of the most gifted offensive players in the NHL -- Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Nick Backstrom, defenseman Mike Green -- will really, really try to win the Stanley Cup.
Since the lockout, there has been a different atmosphere in the Capitals' dressing room compared to most, a playfulness that is as charming as it is almost anachronistic in the newly buttoned-down NHL. Their impish quality won't recede entirely as long as Ovechkin is on the team. Nor should it, necessarily. (He turned into a stone-faced "serious" hockey player with Team Russia at the 2010 Olympics and that didn't turn out too well, did it?) But Washington's core young players must score with the flourish they did before the Caps tried to reinvent themselves as a defensive team at mid-season last year -- moving Ovechkin to the half boards on the power play should spark something -- and conspicuously increase what former Atlanta coach John Anderson, and we'll paraphrase here, called a "give-a-damn quotient."
Or at least they must fake it well enough that the rest of the team congeals around them and new goaltender Tomas Vokoun in the playoffs.
3. The San Jose Sharks. One of these years might finally be Next Year for the Sharks, who are long overdue for the franchise's first Stanley Cup. The organization keeps drafting and developing intriguing pieces (good morning, Logan Couture) and general manager Doug Wilson does a reasonable job of tinkering while mixing his famous streak of stubborn loyalty with the willingness to sometimes shrug and move on (good night, Evgeni Nabokov in 2010 and Dany Heatley this summer). Wilson has added the dangling man, Martin Havlat, who somehow is considered a brilliant offensive player even though he has not scored 30 goals in a season post-lockout, and Brent Burns, a versatile, talented and occasionally error-prone defenseman who can relieve some of the burden on Dan Boyle.
Still, after being thumped in the past two Western Conference Finals, the Sharks might have hit their high water mark, but Couture appears to be on the cusp of stardom. Maybe he can drag San Jose to the grand places that Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton haven't.
4. The Winnipeg Jets. To quote the esteemed Flounder from Animal House, "Oh boy, this is great!" Winnipeg already is the comeback story of the year after getting an NHL franchise to come back to this city of 700,000. (Atlanta has twice lost NHL teams to Canada -- the Flames and now the Thrashers. This has to be a record.)
It was Christmas in June in Winnipeg. The mayor, Sam Katz, idiotic grin on his face, led a conga line in the streets at the NHL's return, which apparently is the Canadian equivalent of an American politician kissing babies. Season tickets for the 15,000-seat rink sold out in minutes. Duly supporting the AHL's Manitoba Moose after the Original Jets' move to Phoenix and embracing the new Jets with a sturdy bear hug and cold hard cash, Winnipeg might have the best hockey fans in Canada, which, by definition, makes them the best hockey fans in the world.
Of course, this begs the question whether these fans will give the Jets, which have few hallmarks of a playoff team, a get-out-of-jail-free card for the first year. The guess is, like the parents of a jobless son who returns after years away at college and grad school, the city will be so glad to see the Jets, any Jets, that it hardly matters what they do during their inaugural season. In any case, the simmering enthusiasm for the world's most northern Southeast Division team can be nothing but good.
The Dec. 17 visit by Anaheim's Teemu Selanne, who scored 76 goals for the Jets as a rookie and remains a favorite in Winnipeg, will be the regular-season game of the year -- at least until the final weekend when there might be some eighth-place dance-of-death matches.
5. Sidney Crosby. Watching Crosby in practice last month, it appeared that he would be back playing sooner rather than later. But the brain has a mind of its own, you know?
Crosby, the Penguins captain, was planning to accompany the team on its season-opening tour of western Canada, but there is no indication, as of now, when he might play. Assuming he plays soon, there is no guarantee that, post-concussion, he will be the same dazzling player who created so much time and space for himself in the first half of last season that he looked like he was back in juniors.
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Crosby, however, actually thinks he could be even better. Last month he told SI.com, "A lot of guys have had concussions, and it's tough to get back (to your former level of effectiveness). But I want to do everything possible to give myself that chance, and I believe I can. There are things that I have gone through that I think I can help me. I think I'm going to be better for having gone through this. I was watching for eight months. I learned about teammates. I watched our coaching staff. I learned so much more about people that I didn't notice before ... I also learned how the brain works. I did a lot of stuff with my eyes, tracking stuff. And if your eyes are tracking faster or better, it means you should be reading plays better."
Perhaps his former world junior championships linemate, Boston's Patrice Bergeron, is a working model for how effective Crosby might be upon his return. Bergeron sustained a major concussion when Philadelphia's Randy Jones drove him face-first into the glass in October 2007. Bergeron said he needed a full year to recover, but statistics suggest he did not begin to approach his old self for at least two. You could argue that he really didn't return all the way until the playoffs last season (20 points in 23 games, plus superb work defensively) when he was Boston's best player other than goalie Tim Thomas.
Then again, this is Crosby, sui generis. Nothing he does should be surprising. But whatever he does, as well as the rest of the clean hockey on the ice, will be most welcome indeed.
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