Above the Glass
At the beginning of the Eastern Conference finals, I entered into a bet with my friend Mike about who would win. I was in for a Game 7 nailbiter in which Tampa would prevail four games to three over Boston. I was right about the games, but alas, not the team. And so it’s time for me to buy Mike dinner in Portland. It also seems an appropriate time to pause for a little trip down memory lane, back to 2009, when I knew I loved hockey but suddenly realized I didn’t really know a whole heck of a lot about it. It’s been two years since that day in the playoffs when Evgeni Malkin scored that no-look backhander into Carolina’s net that made me ask “what’s a hat trick?” Have no fear. I do know what a hat trick is, and I even figured out that icing isn’t what happens when players “snow the goalie.” It’s been a long strange trip, but it was worth it. Because now I know that everything I need to know about life can be found in a hockey rink.
That’s what top draft prospect Sven Bartschi told me when I asked him what he thought of the WHL playoffs so far in this, his rookie season. I think he meant rollercoaster. Or maybe peaks and valleys. Whether you are wondering how Tampa got all this way and isn’t done yet, how San Jose got so close, or whether you are taking a break to watch the Memorial Cup, he’s right. The playoffs are up and down. Until Monday night the Cup had been a bit of a snore. Enter Tomas Jurco, who generated a few Victoria Day fireworks of his own and brought the tournament back to life when his game-tying goal pushed the Owen Sound vs. Saint John Sea Dogs game to OT. Tuesday, the Kootenay Ice proceeded to rebound from near elimination and beat the Sea Dogs (during which Jurco apparently scored when a shot by teammate Zach Phillips ricocheted off his helmet and fluttered into the goal). On the other hand, why are teams like the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins already booking tee times while Tampa continues its resurgence? I have a few thoughts. And we know what happens when I do that.
First, allow me to extend my thanks to readers who reminded that while this year’s Portland Winterhawks are done, the best is yet to come for their future. Now that I have been talked off that ledge, I will return to my regularly scheduled programming of learning the many quirks and mysteries of hockey. In this edition, I’ll seek to at last understand what it means when play-by-play announcers say a player fanned on a shot or pass, airmailed a pass, and chipped it in deep. I will learn the difference between the far side boards and the near side boards. And more importantly, who the heck came up with these choice verbal tidbits?
It is time for those of us whose team is not in a playoff final of one sort or another to reflect on the season and think ahead about how to fill the off season with something other than hockey. Ya’ know, like home improvement projects and vacations and what not. In doing so, we must also own up to some harsh truths about our obsession with hockey. Now mind, I myself see nothing wrong with using hockey metaphors in the middle of business meetings, planning my evening meals around the pre-game snack choices at the Rose Garden or spending an inappropriate amount of work time checking my RSS and Twitter feeds to keep up with my favorite sport. My friends, family and employer, however, have other ideas about that. So, for the benefit of my fellow fans, I have devised a simple system to identify whether you need a hockey intervention and how to seek help if you do.
Friday night, the Kootenay Ice ended the Memorial Cup hopes and the season of the Portland Winterhawks when they captured the WHL championship title in a 4 -1 win in Game 5. I never get choked over sports or even hockey. I mean please, it’s only a game right? Wrong. The 2010 - 2011 Winterhawks were built for a Memorial Cup, and it is likely the last we’ll see of that kind of team for a while. We started the season by watching eight players get picked in the 2010 draft and we ended it by watching the Kootenay Ice hoist the Ed Chynoweth Cup in our rink. It’s not so much that the season is over or even that we lost. The Winterhawks will still hang two banners in the Memorial Coliseum this fall, the first time we have done so since 2001. It’s that a team like this won’t come around again for a while. Our shooting stars, including the fourth and fifth overall draft picks Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter, will very likely be shining in NHL rinks next year. Friday was the last time I’ll almost get hit in the head by Nino’s gear bag as he walked by me. It’s probably the last time I’ll shake hands with Ryan and hear him say thank you. It’s definitely the last time Boston Bruins’ prospect Craig Cunningham gave me a great soundbite for my blog. And it’s the last time we watched this team. The Cinderella team who just missed wearing the glass slipper. This season was a lot like life: it wasn’t nearly long enough.
The Portland Winterhawks are knee deep in the WHL Championship, where the Kootenay Ice lead the series 2 - 1. The Winterhawks are on the road, but that didn’t stop me from donning my festive Winterhawks apparel. In this case, it’s my 2010 Portland Winterhawks Training Camp t-shirt. I admit to a bit of sentimentality about this shirt: training camp was the first time I officially blogged about the team on oregonlive.com. But it also got me to thinking about how the Winterhawks got to this point. The back of the t-shirt says “the road starts here!” Indeed it did. But it’s where it has ended that makes a much better analogy for life. That being said, what can a pile of hockey t-shirts teach you about life? More than you might think.
Portland Winterhawks fans and readers know that I have already declared four to be the team’s magic number. But it appears to be working pretty well in the NHL playoffs too. Pick your team, pick your player, pick your game: Tampa’s sweep of Washington, Boston doing the same to the Flyers or San Jose and Vancouver within sight of clinching their series with a fourth game. Don’t know why, but there’s just something about it that seems to be good luck for some teams.
While the rest of the hockey world prepares for the Pronger vs. Chara showdown and pontificates how it is that Tampa Bay now leads the series with Washington 2 - 0, here in Portland we will be taking a momentary break for a Game 6 WHL Western Conference final. The Portland Winterhawks lead the series with the Spokane Chiefs 3 - 2, so a win tonight means that Portland would advance to the WHL Championship series. It took more than one player to get this far, of course. But Game 5 on Saturday was huge, and it was led by Sven Bartschi, a top draft prospect who came to us all the way from Langenthal, Switzerland. He was part of all three goals and late in the third period, he lept face first to block a slapshot that helped Portland hang on for a 3-2 win. Tonight’s game is the first time in 10 years fans can think about what it would be like for our team to go all the way to the WHL Championship. Now I finally get why sports fans get so freaked out about games like this. Because it’s about more than the game.
This week was the first time I realized what a test of mind, body and spirit the playoffs really are. First, I had to get over the Pens blowing a 3-1 series lead and being eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning. No sooner did I recover from that than the Portland Winterhawks got routed by the Spokane Chiefs 8 - 3 in Game 4 of the WHL’s Western Conference finals. Had the Hawks won last night, they would have been in a good position to win tonight and take the conference title. But in true playoff style, the Chiefs rallied back and blew our boys out of the rink. The playoffs are like a whole new season and one series between two teams is like a mini-season within itself. One that only lasts 7 games or less and where you don’t get second chances. What’s a fan to do when our teams are one or two games from elimination? I have a few ideas.
It’s win or go home time for several NHL teams in the playoffs, and the Portland Winterhawks are playing in the WHL’s Western Conference finals for the first time since 2001. To emerge victorious, the Winterhawks must run the gauntlet that is the Spokane Chiefs, who were one point behind the Winterhawks in the final regular season standings. But Spokane won the regular season series against Portland by 11 points to 8. Last year, Portland eliminated the Chiefs from the playoffs in a Game 7 OT winner. This past February, Portland scored five goals against Spokane in 1:59. Experts, journalists, fans and bloggers are all predicting a nail biting, blood pressure raising, popcorn flinging, beer spilling, multiple penalty taking, game winning goal in the final minutes of OT thriller. As the chance for the Winterhawks to advance to the Memorial Cup draws closer, this would be a good time to see how the playoff formats for the other junior leagues work. May the best teams make it to the finals. Just don’t try to understand how they got there.
About Above the Glass
Welcome to Above the Glass, a definitive anti-expert’s guide to hockey. I started blogging in 2009 as part of an effort to learn all 87 rules in the NHL Rulebook in 107 days before the 2010 Olympics, 30 years after I discovered the sport. You can peruse the archival results here. Growing up in Arizona, I didn’t even know hockey existed until February 22, 1980, when the USA played Russia in the Olympics. And just like that, the game of the century changed my life. I still don’t quite understand the icing rule or which faceoff circle goes with what offense, but I do know that every aspect of hockey has something to teach us about life. That’s what you’ll find here, along with my unadulterated passion for the game.
I live in Portland, Oregon, home of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. I invite anyone who wants to know more about hockey in the Rose City to visit here, where I blog exclusively about the Winterhawks. I’ll post an occasional musing about the Hawks, the WHL and junior hockey here as well.
Follow me on Twitter: @AbovetheGlass