Above the Glass
The unrestricted free agency season opens on July 1, giving qualifiied players the chance to shop themselves around to the highest bidder if they haven’t been re-signed by their current team. If only it were that easy. Alas, the creators of the Collective Bargaining Agreement didn’t follow the cardinal rule of hockey: keep it simple. Take, for example, Article 10, Free Agency. Age and experience are part of how players qualify, as is the number of seasons played. Kinda like life, only we don’t have a complicated collective bargaining agreement to guarantee that we have the right to go freelance and determine our worth by something more meaningful than how many rungs of the corporate ladder we’ve climbed. But what if we did?
I think we know what Canucks and Bruins fans will be up to this weekend. But what about the rest of us, who find ourselves smack dab in the middle of the off season with no parades or Stanley Cup celebrations to partake of? There really should be some NHL collective bargaining agreement rule that dictates Stanley Cup Final Game 7s must be played on a Friday to allow a 48-hour grace period for fans to recover and properly prepare for the off season. Since they do not, we must deal with hockey withdrawal on a weekday, whilst attempting to work, negotiate rush hour traffic and watch the morning news. I was raised to believe that there were better ways to deal with my emotions than to set cars on fire or loot the large department store where my parents used to buy me Garanimals outfits for school. Instead, I offer a few non-violent and legal tips to help fans survive the next few days and weeks with our minds and bodies intact.
With the Stanley Cup final turning into a bit of a Twilight Zone episode, you may be pleased to know there are other hockey-related things creating buzz out here in the Pacific Northwest. In Portland, we are in full pre-draft hype mode, complete with local parties set to take place at local bowling alleys (only fitting since one of our star players, Nino Niederreiter, owns his own pair of bowling shoes). Four of our top prospects have survived the combine, even coming out on top of some of the test results. In reviewing the combine results, I realized that the boys’ results not only say something about their draft chances, they say a whole lot about who the players are. And so, on this most rare of occasions, I understand why numbers matter.
For the Stanley Cup final, I’m left to choose between two teams that I like, but am not necessarily fiercely loyal to. Because of a lost bet with my friend Mike, I have given a slight edge to the Bruins, mostly out of friendship. So truth be told, I really haven’t taken a true side in the final. There is something strange and lovely about being neutral, like sleeping at night, paying attention in meetings at work and not spilling wine all over myself and my couch when a perfectly good team blows a perfectly good scoring opportunity. There are other reasons too, and some of them started right here at home in Portland, Oregon.
Four of the Portland Winterhawks are dispatching to the NHL Scouting Combine this week to prove their physical fitness to their potential future employers, and it’s time for me to get it in gear, too. The off season is mere weeks away, a fear factor even scarier than getting back in shape for ugly golf pants/shorts season. You have to start slowly. If your only exercise in the past three months is jumping up to get snacks at intermission, you can’t just declare on Sunday that you are going to get up promptly at 5 am on Monday, skip the snooze alarm, run three miles and eat a nutritious bowl of homemade granola. With nary a hockey game to be found on Monday, I tested this out and it can be done, but I don’t recommend it. Especially if you are older than the average Winterhawk. This is why I offer some helpful suggestions and tips for fellow fans on easing your way into this most dreaded time of year.
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.
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