Above the Glass
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.
Until now, I have only been an innocent bystander to the occasional exchange of unpleasantries between fans at hockey games. I would agree that hockey has come a long way in its quest to promote the sport as fun, family entertainment (in Portland, they actually have a jumbotron message that reminds fans to refrain from swearing). But let’s face it: an occasional scrap is one of the things that keeps the game interesting. Except when it’s me who wants to drop the mitts and go at it with a fan who got in my face while I was taking notes at a Winterhawks game. It’s old school, but it works for me and most fans know I blog and they pay me no mind. Alas, not all fans received the memo, like the dude who got right behind me and started reading over my shoulder like those people who try to read the paper over your shoulder on the morning subway ride. When I took the high road and restrained from dropping the mitters and simply put the notebook down, I got this choice, grade A, number one, cheese whiz on a cracker zinger: “It’s girl writing, you probably can’t understand it anyway.” After carefully considering the possible responses and realizing that none of them were legal, it occurred to me that we need a better system for cracking down on eggheads like this. Therefore, I propose that instead of ushers and the occasional security guy roaming the stands, any organization whose name ends in HL hire a few unemployed referees to apply the rules of hockey to unruly fans.
Every year about this time, I watch with awe and a healthy dose of jealousy while experts and fans make their predictions for the playoffs, drafts, trades and winner of the Stanley Cup final. Now that I’m officially a hockey blogger, I figured I’d better get with it and make my own predictions. I tried, I really did. But I fear the results would make dogs howl at the moon. Instead, I will offer an alternative to laying down odds based on numbers, the types of prospects a team needs or who may or may not be activated from injured reserve. It’s a simple system I like to call “picking favorites.” Oh, and if someone can explain to me how the New Jersey Devils “won” the draft lottery, but the Edmonton Oilers are still picking first, that would be good too.
It’s a busy news week for hockey bloggers, what with the draft lottery and playoffs and all. For those of us who live in the same zip code as the NHL’s future in Portland, Oregon, one of the bigger news items was the release of the final draft rankings from NHL Central Scouting. After a season of being analyzed, scrutinized, evaluated and assessed, the cream of the junior hockey crop finally know where they stand. Among those lucky enough to secure a place on the list are five Portland Winterhawks: Sven Bartschi, Ty Rattie, Joe Morrow, Tyler Wotherspoon and Pearce Eviston. To make the cut, players are evaluated on a scale of “not applicable” to “excellent” for criteria that include skating, puck skills, competitiveness, physical play, hockey sense, defensive play and psychological factors. They are then classified as a power forward, skilled/offensive defenseman, skilled forward, reliable stay at home defenseman, and role player/checker. For goalies, it’s net coverage, quickness, rebound control, competitiveness, skills and psychological factors. It all adds up to one number that helps determine whether junior players will go on to live their dream of playing in the NHL. For four of the Portland Winterhawks, that number is in the top 40. Watching their future take shape made me nostalgic for my youth and the dreams I had at age 18. I don’t recall that any of them involved having every aspect of my person dissected for the purpose of being ranked on a list with elite athletes. But what if they did? What if life had a ranking system that determined whether we got that dream job, dream house, perfect spouse, whatever?
Hockey can be a sport of uncommon grace and staggering beauty when played at its purest, highest level: think Evgeni Malkin’s no-look backhanded hat trick into the Carolina net during the 2009 playoffs. Or Jordan Eberle’s first NHL goal. Sometimes the things that make it ugly can be beautiful in their own sort of way: like Sidney Crosby dropping the mitts with Matt Niskanen. And sometimes it’s just plain ugly: like it was Thursday night in Portland, where one thing led to another and the Winterhawks fell to the Kelowna Rockets 5-1. Nobody said it was fair and nobody said it was pretty. But it got me to thinking: what if hockey rules applied to life? What if you could punch that annoying boss at work and all you got was a five minute penalty? What consequence would you suffer for getting out of the car and high sticking the turd who slips into that prime parking spot at the last minute, knowing full well you were sitting there waiting for it? If you don’t know by now, sometimes I have thoughts. And they’re way more entertaining than reality.
Now, I know playoffs are upon us and there’s still plenty of hockey to be played, but it’s never too early to prepare for the inevitable. I know this because Friday night found me on the loose in Portland with nary a hockey game to attend and I used my precious non-hockey time to plan a scintillating evening that involved a bottle of wine, pizza, chocolate peanut butter organic ice cream and the latest issue of InStyle magazine. If your answer to the Whole Foods clerk who asks “you got any fun plans tonight?” is “no, just chillin” and you front it like it’s a good thing, your sad, slow decline to the off season has already begun. Therefore, to help my fellow fans avoid the same fate, I offer an early installment of the anti-expert’s guide to surviving this most dreaded time of year.
I was attempting to cover the first home games of the WHL playoffs this weekend when I realized it was time that I learn some basics about the types of shots the Portland Winterhawks were laying down during a 7-2 victory over the Everett Silvertips in game two. I’m still trying to figure out how you know a player just made a wrist shot when his wrist is either inside his glove or under his jersey and hence you can’t see it, why you can’t top shelf a shot when you go five-hole and how players can tell when Shea Weber is about to wind up on a slapshot so they can get the heck out of the way. But I have figured out something else much more interesting: a player’s signature move can tell you a whole lot about what kind of person he is.
Clearly, the inventors of the Western Hockey League playoff format were on a class of drugs that we haven’t even heard of in the United States. And that’s just one league. The team that takes the Ed Chenowyth Cup (given to the playoff champion of the WHL) still has to negotiate a labyrinth of standings, seedings and rules that make no sense en route to the Memorial Cup. But that’s ok, because it also means that the Portland Winterhawks finished on top of their division and conference for the regular season. So I can’t really complain, but I can try to understand it. Emphasis on try.
The WHL playoffs get underway this weekend, and the NHL playoff hype machine is whirring. Now would be a good time for bears of very little playoff brain like myself to figure out how this whole deal works. Mainly: 1) What drugs were the inventors of this highly scientific system doing when they created it? 2) How much of said medication do I need to take to understand it? 3) How the heck did Tampa Bay fall out of contention for a division title? Wait, don’t answer that. I think I figured it out. Sort of.
On Saturday night, the Portland Winterhawks became the WHL’s U.S Division Champions and they finished first in the Western Conference, giving them the number one seed for the playoffs. This weekend was the key to clinching those honors. A big win against Everett kept the team in the number one spot, and it was either some magic math on Saturday or a nailbiter on Sunday that would decide things for the team. The Winterhawks did their part by beating the Seattle Thunderbirds 5-4. But for the magic math to work, the Tri-City Americans had to beat the team that was one point behind us: the Spokane Chiefs. It may be the only time Portland fans rooted for the Ams, who beat the Chiefs 6 - 4. And just like that, the Portland Winterhawks return from the road trip to Seattle as the conquering heroes. Tonight they will play the Spokane Chiefs in a sold out game to close out the regular season. But it wasn’t that long ago that the story had a very different ending. In 2009, the Winterhawks ended the season dead last in the Western Conference and the U.S. Division, with 19 wins and 48 losses. So you see, here in the Pacific Northwest this weekend was about far more than the banner that will be hung in the Memorial Coliseum for the first time since 2002.
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