As hockey fans and pundits lament the latest collapse in NHL labor talks, the struggle of Chris Kushneriuk provides us all with a much-needed reality check:
Kushneriuk, a 25-year-old pro from Gloucester — he turns 26 on Christmas Eve — is in the fight of his life. In June, after finishing out the 2011-12 ECHL season with Bakersfield, Kushneriuk learned, to his horror, that the gnawing pain in his side was from testicular cancer, and not a routine case.
Hockey players live in constant pain, but the discomfort Kushneriuk had dismissed as just more bumps and bruises, was a disease now settling in to his liver and lymph nodes. In the span of six months, cancer took Kushneriuk on a journey that would test his will, reaffirm his devout religious beliefs, and today lead him to the Indiana University Cancer Center and the care of Dr. Lawrence Einhorn, best known for treating American cyclist Lance Armstrong’s testicular cancer.
For months, I've tried to present the loyal readers of Kukla's Korner with articles and commentary focusing on the athletes, teams, and leagues that are actually playing hockey this season. I think it's a worthwhile endeavor because, in my opinion, pining over the absence of multi-millionaires, many of whom are enjoying lavish vacations during this work stoppage, is insulting to the thousands of kids playing college and major junior hockey all over the continent, not to mention the veteran minor-leaguers who are still riding the bus every weekend, hoping they'll one day get a chance to play at the highest level.
Once a model franchise in the Ontario Hockey League, the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds have fallen on hard times recently. The club has missed the playoffs in three of the past four seasons, and will once again struggle to qualify for the post-season this year. On top of that, the organization suffered great embarrassment over the summer after three Greyhound players were accused of sexual assault.
Now, as if the Greyhounds needed any more controversy, Sheldon Keefe has been named the team's new head coach. Jeff Mackie offers some perspective:
Yes, that Sheldon Keefe. The same Sheldon Keefe who was among a handful of young men once controlled by the notorious David Frost. Keefe at one time lived with Frost, his former agent, along with Mike Danton - who was convicted in 2004 of hiring a hit man to kill Frost. Keefe's named has long been associated with a dark period in the OHL, a time during which Frost built a wall between his young charges and their teammates, and the organizations in which they played. It was a source of embarrassment for the entire league as parents questioned the merits of sending their sons to play in a league that was powerless to stop Frost.
Reaction continues to pour in following the WHL's decision to levy a series of penalties on the Portland Winterhawks for repeated player benefit violations. First, Gregg Drinnan:
If this really was about a cell phone and a few flights, then perhaps the Winterhawks are also being punished for perceived smugness and arrogance, for climbing too quickly from the blink of oblivion – they won 17, 11 and 19 games from 2006-07 through 2008-09 – into back-to-back WHL championship finals the last two seasons....
Surely, though, this is about more than that. Surely, the WHL’s board of governors wouldn’t hand out the incredibly tough sanctions that it did over a cell phone and a few flights.
Surely the WHL wouldn’t risk embarrassment by going after an organization or individual over something that is seemingly so petty, would it?
Indeed, the severity of the WHL's punishment has led many pundits and fans to believe the Winterhawks likely provided financial compensation to players for reporting to the team. League commissioner Ron Robison has publicly stated that no such payments were offered, and Portland fans have taken solace in knowing the club's violations weren't as egregious as some had suspected.
Normally, when a hockey team fires its head coach, a replacement is named immediately. That didn't happen when the Acadie-Bathurst Titan of the QMJHL relieved Eric Dubois of his duties on Sunday:
As it turns out, according to TVA Sports' Mikaël Lalancette, six assistant coaches from around the league have refused the opening. At least two coaches from outside the Q have also turned down the gig: Paulin Bordeleau, a midget-AAA coach for Esther-Blondin, reportedly turned down the gig despite being with the Titan when they were in Laval.
A second, Claude Bouchard, who is taking a season off from hockey after three years coaching a Jonquière-area team, was reportedly offered the position on Thursday, and didn't turn down the gig until after the Titan had cut ties with Dubois. So, perhaps there was a plan of succession, and that was "hope one of our candidates says yes" before cutting ties with Dubois.
Most assistant coaches in junior hockey would jump at the opportunity for a promotion, even if its with another team. Sure, some guys have family obligations and other considerations, but when that many assistants flatly reject an opportunity to serve as headmaster of a major junior squad, there's clearly something else at play.
Springfield Falcons president and general manager Bruce Landon has some thoughts on the injury epidemic:
The question is always asked: Why are there so many injuries? Everyone has their own opinion, right or wrong, and I have mine. Injuries from big hits or blocking shots are common. However, I honestly feel that some players work out too much. I know this comment will raise some eyebrows. However, over the years as I have watched players get sidelined due to hip flexors, stomach muscle strains, groin pulls, etc., I started thinking that maybe they were spending too much time in the gym. I am by no means a doctor, but the human body can only take so much. All teams now have a strength and conditioning coach that is supposed to monitor a player's off-ice activity. Dan Gregory does a great job for the Falcons. However, when I watch a player ride the bike and do other exercises before a two-hour practice and then hit the weight room for another hour after practice, it makes me wonder if over-conditioning can be more harmful than people think.
I happened to chat with Landon in the concourse prior to a Falcons game this past weekend. He told me about how then-Blackhawk forward Al Secord suffered pulled abductor muscles in his thigh during a team practice in 1984. Notorious for his strenuous workout sessions, Secord was one of the few players at the time who would hit the gym before practice. Landon is convinced that Secord's tendency to push his body to the limit on a daily basis contributed to his injury.
The reality is we'll never know for sure whether his penchant for working out like a madman really contributed to the many muscle injuries Al Secord suffered early in his career. Still, Landon's idea is very intriguing, and it puts a different spin on the workout craze that has overcome the modern-day athlete.
Another lesson for hockey fans who like to leave the rink before the final buzzer. Courtesy of Neate Sager:
It's a coach job to always foresee disaster lurking. When Sudbury Wolves coach Trent Cull vociferously argued a too-many-call against his team with 5:31 left, people might have wondered why he was so upset since his team was leading the Niagara IceDogs 5-1.
It turned out to be prophetic. Hamilton (1G-2A, +1) and Strome (4A) set up a goal off the ensuing faceoff, igniting the damnedest comeback in a month of Mondays. Niagara scored four goals in the final 5:30 of regulation, including twice in the final 30 seconds, before Strome and Hamilton each converted in the shootout for the 6-5 win.
It's amazing how one goal can change the momentum of a hockey game. What's even more remarkable is Niagara had to kill off a two-minute penalty during that final five-minute span.
I can't help but wonder how many of the 3,145 fans at the Jack Gatecliff Arena stuck around to witness their hometown team pull off such a stunning comeback. You can bet some of them were already on the highway by the time the IceDogs began their charge. Meanwhile, the loyal fans who stayed at the rink to ride out what looked like a sure loss were instead treated to a memorable finish.
Last night's game in St. Catharines is a beautiful reminder of how great the sport of hockey really is - even without the NHL.
Don Brennan thinks it's time to hire replacement players:
Open the doors to people who will truly appreciate the job, guys who won’t mind fixing the problems your mismanagement will inevitably create.
They’ll work for less, so you can charge a lot less for tickets.
The truth about fans is most cheer for the logo. I’m sorry, but many of them wouldn’t know good hockey from a notch or two below. That’s not a terrible thing. They go to games to support the local team and have some fun. That won’t change.
It looks like Brennan has run out of interesting things to write about during the lockout, because he's clearly trying to stir the pot here. To suggest fans can't tell the difference between NHL-caliber play and minor league competition is ludicrous, to say the least. Those of us who follow other levels of hockey know there's a huge gap between the average NHLer and your standard AHLer. It's not even close.
There's no doubt that a hard-hitting, end-to-end minor league game is more enjoyable than a slow, defensive NHL contest. That's because the entertainment value in a hockey game has nothing to do with the the quality of players on the ice. If two minor-league teams that like to skate hard and trade chances square off on any given night, the end result will be top-notch entertainment for everyone in the stands.
As fans of major junior hockey already know, CHL teams are allowed to dress up to two European players and three 20-year-olds (over-agers) in any given game. Reporter Sam Cosentino ponders a new concept:
In speaking with Regina Pats head coach Pat Conacher, he brought up an interesting idea: how about each CHL team gets the option of having five players on their roster that can be filled with a combination of Europeans and 20-year-olds. Think about it, for those teams that can't traditionally attract/recruit top-end European players; they would get the option to keep an extra two over-age players. It also makes sense in that such a rule would give more Canadian kids an extra year of CHL play.
It's an interesting proposal, but it would never fly. Allowing junior teams the option of dressing up to five overagers would by no means level the playing field for the many clubs that perennially struggle to attract highly-skilled European players. In fact, the gap between the haves and have-nots would likely widen considerably, as CHL teams with a reputation of recruiting top-notch Europeans would be able to ice up to five such players per game, instead of the current two.
Reporter Jim Bender recently spoke with some youth hockey players about the lockout:
"It's ridiculous because it's about a bunch of people with lots of money wanting more," said Brayden Solberg, 14, of the Bantam 2 Selkirk Steelers. "I blame the NHL and the players. They should stop being babies.
"I'm very angry, I want to watch some hockey."
I think we can all agree that Paul has covered the lockout from stem to stern. A slew of columnists, owners, players, and others have weighed in on the issue, and our fearless leader has done yeoman's work in keeping us all up-to-date on the latest musings from the hockey world. This work stoppage has been analyzed to death, as a daily reader of Kukla's Korner can attest.
I've never been a big fan of players using the media to fire potshots at each other, but this is a pretty good exchange between London Knights forward Matt Rupert and Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds standout Nick Cousins. The two traded barbs after a heated weekend match between the two OHL rivals. First Rupert:
“He’s a loser,” the London Knights forward said. “Put that in there - seriously. He’s a diver out there. He’s the worst in the league. Everyone doesn’t like him out there. Nobody likes him in the league, I don’t think.”
“That’s the way I play,” the 19-year-old Belleville native and third round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers said. “That’s why I got drafted. That’s why I’m having success in my career.
“He (Matt Rupert) didn’t get drafted. I got drafted, so say that.”
Not a bad way to promote the next game between London and Sault Ste. Marie.
Incidentally, the two players already have a history. Rupert and Cousins were both suspended for their roles in a bench-clearing altercation following a game between the Knights and Greyhounds last year.
About Tasca's Take
Tasca's Take is written by Joe Tasca. Born and raised in Westerly, Rhode Island, Joe works as a broadcaster for seven radio stations in southern New England. Whether that's a testament to his on-air ability or because he has a desparate need for money is debatable.
Joe spends his summers playing golf, enjoying the beauty of Misquamicut Beach, and wining and dining girls who are easily awed by the mere presence of a radio personality. During the winter months, he can usually be found taking in a hockey game somewhere in North America. In the spring, he spends much of his time in botanical gardens tiptoeing through the tulips, while autumn is a time to frolic with his golden retrievers through piles of his neighbors’ leaves.