Biggest hockey stories of 2011
Sidney Crosby became the face of the NHL's ongoing epidemic of concussions
Tim Thomas's historic season brought the Bruins their first Stanley Cup since 1972
A season filled with violence and mayhem ended with a riot and then tragic deaths
1. Sidney Crosby and the concussion epidemic. There are many years when you could argue that Crosby has been the focal point of hockey. This is another of those years, unfortunately for less than sanguine reasons. The Penguins' captain bracketed 2011 from Day 1 until the December reoccurrence of his concussion symptoms that have made this something other than a Merry Christmas season.
Start with the, cough, Winter Classic. This is the NHL's annual ode to the game, but, other than TV ratings and commercial bonanza, it had neither reason nor rhyme on New Year's Day 2011. The scheduled afternoon game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh was switched to night because of a rainstorm. The downpour eased to a steady drizzle after dark, but the NHL still allowed its marquee talent to play in conditions you wouldn't send your daughter's peewee team out in. Late during the second period, in a drive-by -- and purportedly accidental -- collision, Washington's David Steckel bumped into Crosby, dazing him. Crosby played in the third period even though HBO's 24/7 cameras would vividly show a few days later that he certainly didn't look like himself after the hit. Crosby, who complained only of neck pain, was back Jan. 5 in Tampa Bay when a solid although hardly thumping check into the end boards by defenseman Victor Hedman resulted in, or perhaps compounded, a concussion.
Crosby did not come back until Nov. 10, when he re-entered with a four-point flourish against the Islanders, including a pair of goals scored on the backhand. There was a wave of magical thinking in the aftermath that he would be good as new. It lasted seven-plus games. In a Dec. 5 match against Boston, Crosby took an elbow in the face from David Krejci and also collided with linemate Chris Kunitz. He subsequently was held out of two games for precautionary reasons but is now on injured reserve, the marquee victim of the NHL's ongoing concussion epidemic. The league tried to address the problem in June by enhancing its Rule 48 on headshots, which now includes all targeted hits to the head instead of just the ones from the lateral or blind side. But as the year neared its conclusion, Crosby was among the more than 20 players, including stars such as Claude Giroux and Chris Pronger of the Flyers, Mike Richards of the Kings, and Jeff Skinner of the Hurricanes, who had been sidelined by head injuries.
2. The deaths of three enforcers. Apparently tragic things come in threes. Within a span of three-and-a-half months, three players, all of whom had earned their NHL paychecks principally with their fists, died. Connect the dots if you like, but make sure your pencil has an eraser. At best, their link is professionally circumstantial. Derek Boogaard died accidentally in mid-May from a toxic mix of painkillers and alcohol, and an autopsy showed early signs of C.T.E., a degenerative brain disease. Rick Rypien died in mid-August, an apparent suicide. He had suffered from depression. Two weeks later, Wade Belak, who had recently retired, died in his condo in Toronto, a death that police treated as a suicide. Belak's mother later said he had suffered from depression. The deaths illuminated a dark corner of the NHL landscape, the hard life of the fighter. There were renewed calls for a ban on fighting, at least from those not being charged with having to do it. Most players consider it an occupational hazard, except for the 30 or so who view it as an occupation.
3. The Sheriff of Shanahan. Colin Campbell, who carried so much water for NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman that he should have been nicknamed Gunga Din, stepped aside when his thankless job of vice-president of violence was handed to Brendan Shanahan. (The official title is NHL Senior Vice President of Player Safety, if you care.) The swearing in of a new sheriff for 2011-12 carried with it the promise of more draconian and, at the very least, clearly articulated rulings involving supplemental discipline. Campbell, who did a first-rate job of insulating Bettman whenever the league would have one of its spasmodic bursts of on-ice irrationality, seemed played out after 13 years in the role. The most curious decision by his office was not to suspend Bruins captain Zdeno Chara for shoving the Canadiens' Max Pacioretty into an unpadded stanchion adjacent to the team benches in Montreal, an act the left Pacioretty concussed and with a fractured neck vertebra, and local police opening a criminal investigation. (Chara was not charged.) In a subsequent interview, Mike Murphy, Campbell's top lieutenant who was obliged to issue the ruling because Campbell's son, Gregory, plays for Boston, later told the Fan 590 in Toronto that the play demanded either no suspension or a long one.
Shanahan's brief time on the job has been generally, if not universally, well received, at least after some of his preseason ardor -- a collective $700,000 in lost salaries through suspensions -- cooled. His most controversial decision involved a non-suspension. Shanahan gave the Bruins' Milan Lucic a pass after the winger had wallpapered Sabres goalie Ryan Miller at the face-off circle, which touched off a foofaraw, especially with Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff.
4. Bruins win the Stanley Cup. Boston is an Original 6 team while their goaltender, Tim Thomas, is simply an original. Together they charted a nervy and unorthodox path to the Cup. The Bruins navigated three Game 7s -- Montreal in the first round, Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference Final, and Vancouver in the Stanley Cup Final -- to become the first champion to go the distance in so many series in one spring. Thomas, the closest thing the NHL has to a road hockey goalie, was exceptional. With his dogged and improvisational style -- his saves are like snowflakes because no two look exactly alike -- Thomas outplayed the Canucks' Roberto Luongo as Boston captured its first Cup since 1972, the zenith of the Big Bad Bruins. Thomas won the Vezina and Conn Smythe Trophies in addition to the Stanley Cup, displaying the kind of season-long goaltending mastery that the NHL had not seen since Philadelphia's Bernie Parent in the mid-1970s.
5. The KHL crash. The hockey community is a latticework of connections and friendships that respect no border or language. So when an airplane crash wipes out the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl KHL team, men in Saskatoon weep 4,639 miles away. The Yak 42 jet plunged into the Volga River on Sept. 7 shortly after takeoff -- the crash later was ascribed to pilot error -- taking the lives of Russians, yes, but also a Canadian, a Swede, a Slovak, a Latvian, a German, Czechs and Belarusians. The coach of ill-fated Lokomotiv was the popular Brad McCrimmon, a Canadian Prairie boy nicknamed the Beast, who had been the partner of more standout defensemen -- among them Mark Howe, Nick Lidstrom, Chris Pronger, and Al MacInnis - than anyone in memory. He had left his job as an assistant with the Red Wings for almost triple the salary but mostly for the opportunity of running his own team at the professional level for the first time.
6. Game 7s. The Bruins survived three, including an overtime win against Montreal and the 1-0 classic against Tampa Bay in which Nathan Horton scored with fewer than eight minutes remaining. There was not a single penalty in the Lightning match, which, in terms of utter perfection, might qualify as the best 60 minutes of the season. But the grandest night of theater belonged to Vancouver and Chicago in the denouement of their bitter first-round series. With the Chicago on the brink of reducing the rival Canucks to ashes after rallying to tie the series from a 3-0 hole, Alexandre Burrows scored his second goal of the match at 5:22 of overtime to slay Vancouver's bête noire, 2-1. This Game 7 was the best 65:22 of NHL hockey.
7. Atlanta relocates to Winnipeg, forcing the NHL realignment for 2012-13. The Jets, Take II, still play in the Southeast Division this season. (If you have ever stood at the corner of Portage and Main in December, you will appreciate the humor in that sentence.) So with Winnipeg being southeast of basically nothing other than Edmonton (a distance of 825 miles or so), the NHL was obliged to retool for next season. Operating under the go-big-or-go-home theory, Bettman and buddies didn't just flip Winnipeg and Detroit or Columbus, they created four divisions, relabeled conferences, with two in the west with eight teams and two in the east with seven. (If ward-of-the-state Phoenix winds up sliding to, say, Quebec City, it is an easy logistical fix.) The best part of the plan, of course, is it recreates the old divisional playoff rivalries. Like the circa-1980s Battles of Alberta, the (Chuck) Norris Division wars, and the ritual bloodletting in the creepy Adams Family, the NHL will be forcing teams to play their way out of internecine disputes and into the Stanley Cup semi-finals. There are two traditional ways to build animus and rivalries: geographic proximity (Islanders-Rangers, for example) or playoff series (Chicago-Vancouver, and Detroit-Colorado in the 1990s). This realignment offers the best of both.
8. The Vancouver riots. The scorecard: one photogenic kiss, more than 100 arrests, more than 140 people injured and estimates of $4 million worth of damage. Unfortunately, the mayhem in the downtown core of one of North America's loveliest cities was more noteworthy than Boston's prosaic 4-0 win inside Rogers Arena moments earlier. This was not Vancouver's first rodeo. After the Canucks' lost Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup Final in New York, rioters tore a strip off downtown. After all the picture postcards beamed globally from the Olympics 16 months earlier, the gritty television footage in June erased some sylvan memories and marred the Canucks' gallant march to the final. The citizen's cleanup the following day was noble, but the police horses had already left the barn.
9. Corey Perry's hat trick. When it appeared that the Rocket Richard Trophy was about to fizzle on the launch pad, Anaheim's Corey Perry restored some luster on April 6 by reaching the 50-goal plateau in style. With four days left in the regular season and the Ducks fighting to secure a playoff berth, Perry dominated the Sharks, becoming the first, and ultimately only, NHL player to hit 50 in 2010-11. (Note to NHL: if a player doesn't score at least 50, you should not award the Richard Trophy that season. Thank you.) That three-goal performance, capping an exceptional second half, probably nailed down Perry's Hart Trophy, nudging him past Vancouver's Daniel Sedin in the minds of the voting hockey writers. (Gee, there is such a West Coast bias.)
10. Russia wins the World Junior Hockey championship. You can look at it as the greatest comeback or biggest collapse in tournament history. In either case, it was a rootin'-Putin third period when Russia, trailing 3-0 after two, scored five even-strength goals in a little more than 13 minutes to send funereal Canadians streaming back over Buffalo's Peace Bridge with nothing to declare except their sorrow. Team Canada actually began to crumble late in the second period -- its confidence and cohesiveness beginning to dissipate -- but the freshet of third-period goals that poured past overwhelmed goalie Mark Visentin was astonishing. The Russian teens who celebrated into the early hours at the team hotel must have slipped across the border after the game to procure alcohol -- the Ontario drinking age is 19 -- because otherwise there were as many broken laws as there were broken Canadian hearts.
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