These are exciting times around here for hockey fans, because there is nothing in sports quite like the Stanley Cup playoffs. That’s easier to sell now to the nonbelievers, of course, because the Bruins won the Cup last June and they could do it again this time around.
It’s difficult to repeat as the champ nowadays, but it has always been, even if franchises such as the Canadiens, Islanders, and Oilers at times made it seem simple.
And never mind how hard it is to win two, three, or four in a row. One need only to look to the opposite coast, to Vancouver, where the Canucks are trying again to win the Cup for the first time since opening the franchise doors in 1970. Three trips to the finals, including last June against the Bruins, have rendered them the perpetual bridesmaids of the provinces.
Making it even worse for the Canucks these days is how they’ve become Canada’s version of the Yankees - the team everyone loves to hate. How curious, given that they’ve never won anything.
It was somewhat understandable with the Yankees, what with their Big Apple location and, mostly, their rich history of winning. It’s easy, maybe even healthy, to hate the winner. When titles begin to be viewed as an entitlement program, then eventually the hate is going to happen. We’ve seen the Celtics and Patriots have to endure some of that trophy envy.
But hate the Canucks? Come on. How about they get their fingerprints on the Cup at least once before we hate on a team that just happens to play in what may be the most beautiful city in North America?
Actually, maybe that’s part of it. If these guys were parked in, say, Winnipeg or Saskatoon or Thetford Mines, would everyone be so quick to call them fake artists, whiners, crybabies, and losers? They’d more likely be labeled hostages.
All of the hate-the-Canucks stuff began to simmer again last week, in the days leading up to their Round 1 matchup with the Kings. Far to the east, a couple of Toronto papers kicked it off with a couple of headlines.
Toronto Star: “Vancouver Canucks Could be NHL’s Most Despised Team.’’
Toronto Sun: “Everyone Loves to Hate the Canucks.’’
Then on Wednesday night, only minutes into Game 1, good pal Damien (Gaelic for “detonate’’) Cox, superb columnist for the Star, fired off a tweet labeling the Canucks “divers and fakers,’’ and adding that the “rest of country hates ’em.’’
All of which, mind you, was reminiscent of retired Bruin Mark Recchi hitting the airwaves at 98.5 The Sports Hub in November, saying, “In [my] 22 years, they are the most arrogant team I played against and the most hated I’ve ever played against. I couldn’t believe their antics, their falling and diving.’’
Yeesh. And that from a guy who spent upward of 10 seasons skating around in a Flyers sweater. Granted, the Flyers haven’t been the Broad Street Bullies for decades, but some longtime NHL fans see still that logo and think first of Bobby Clarke’s vicious hacks and the beastly deeds of Dave “The Hammer’’ Schultz.
By Thursday, after the Canucks dropped the series opener, ex-Boston College goalie Cory Schneider felt compelled to stick up for his team, noting to the media that to know the Nucks is to love the Nucks.
“If you talk to us and spend any time with us,’’ said Schneider, a Bay State boy, “you understand we are good guys.’’
Then the 26-year-old backstop needlessly opened the hate gates by adding, “Nobody cares about Edmonton. So nobody hates them. It’s that simple.’’
Now, think about how Bruins fans last June were so bent out of shape when Vancouver forward Alex Burrows chomped into one of Patrice Bergeron’s glove-covered index fingers. The dirty, unpenalized play became one of the focal points of a very chippy Cup Final, one that had Vancouver defenseman Aaron Rome tossed from the series for his smackdown of Nathan Horton in Game 3. Sprinkle in some predatory checking by then-Canucks winger Raffi Torres, and yes indeed it was an unlikable, unsavory lot.
Schneider’s ill-advised comment directed at a team that won the Cup five times (1984-90), displayed not only stupefying insensitivity, but also profound naivete. That cowpoke town to the northeast of Vancouver, with the prolific Wayne Gretzky as its franchise player, once had the game’s model franchise. No one ever played like the Oilers. No one ever will again.
The Oilers were so exceptional, in fact, that I don’t think anyone hated them for their success. In fact, when owner Peter Pocklington sold Gretzky to Los Angeles after a fourth championship in ’88, the Oilers became somewhat of an object of sympathy in sports - a franchise that couldn’t afford to keep its star player.
True or not, that was the perception, based on Pocklington’s spin. And though they’ve hit a very rough patch - now with six seasons of playoff DNQs - the Oilers still have a loyal, passionate fan base that would be the envy of 8-10 US-based NHL teams.
On Friday, presumably after being taken to the Canucks’ front-office woodshed, a contrite Schneider offered a public apology to the Oilers and their fans. Later in the day, the hated Canucks took on the Kings in Game 2. Game on, along with the hate.
Who’s No. 1? Oilers - again
The Oilers found some love last Tuesday, winning the draft lottery for the right to pick first yet again.
With the victory - moving up one spot after finishing 29th among 30 teams - the Oilers became the league’s Nouveau Nordiques, now in position to select first for a third year in a row.
In 2010, the Oilers picked Taylor Hall, leaving the Bruins to select Tyler Seguin. And last year they nabbed slick pivot Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
The Nordiques, doing business in Denver since vacating Quebec City in 1995, also chose first for three straight years, 1989-91. Mats Sundin was the ’89 leader of the pack, followed by Owen Nolan in ’90 and then Eric Lindros in ’91. Even with those sensational picks, however, the Nords departed for the Rockies, winning the Stanley Cup in their inaugural season as the Avalanche.
Lindros, who never pulled on the Nords sweater - not even as a draft-day courtesy - ultimately was flipped to the Flyers in a humongous trade that included Peter Forsberg going to Quebec/Colorado.
It was the combination of Forsberg and goalie Patrick Roy (traded by Montreal in a tempestuous fit by management) that finally put the franchise in the winner’s circle.
Oilers general manager Steve Tambellini said he is open to dealing the No. 1 pick. Ideally, he would swap for a young franchise defenseman, because the back line is where the Oilers most need the help.
The presumptive No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft is Russian right winger Nail Yakupov, whose second year with Sarnia (OHL) was truncated by injury after 42 games (31-38-69).
The Blue Jackets, who were in the No. 1 position until the Oilers won the lottery, slipped to No. 2.
A busy few weeks are ahead for Columbus GM Scott Howson, who is committed to dealing franchise winger Rick Nash. The Oilers, like a lot of clubs, could use a winger with Nash’s size and skill, but with a contract that allows him to dictate where he lands, the 27-year-old Nash isn’t likely to end up in northern Alberta.
The most likely spots remain Toronto, Philadelphia, New York (Rangers), and possibly Detroit.
Dipping into the talent pool
Central Scouting’s end-of-season rankings, which had Nail Yakupov No. 1, considered only one New England high school player worth a first-round look, and that is Cristoval Nieves of the Kent School in Kent, Conn. Nieves, a 6-foot-3-inch center, is ranked 27th among North American skaters. The other New England schools with high-rated kids: St. John’s Prep - Sam Kurker, RW, No. 36; Exeter - Brian Hart, RW, No. 54; Nobles - Chris Calnan, RW, No. 69, and Adam Gilmour, RW, No. 101; St Sebastian’s - Dan O’Regan, C, No. 76; and Lawrence Academy - Devin Tringale, C, No. 79. If Yakupov goes No. 1, he’ll be the fifth OHL player in six years to be taken first, following Patrick Kane (Chicago, ’07), Steve Stamkos (Tampa, ’08), John Tavares (Islanders, ’09), and Taylor Hall (Edmonton, ’10). Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, No. 1 last year with the Oilers, played with Red Deer in the Western League. The last US-trained player to go first overall was defenseman Erik Johnson (St. Louis, ’06).
Speaking their language
The Canadiens have not narrowed the field of candidates to fill their general manager’s spot. If you can spell “puck’’ and have a French surname, consider yourself on the list. Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times reported that the Habs asked for permission to talk to Kings front office employees Ron Hextall and Luc Robitaille. GM Dean Lombardi likely will not block them from interviewing, but standard protocol is for such talks not to take place until the club with the employees being interviewed has been eliminated from the playoffs. For the record, Robitaille was raised in Quebec, and French is his first language. Hextall does not speak French. Meanwhile, word around the Bell Centre is that the new GM could be encouraged, or at least allowed, by Habs ownership to buy out the deals of both Scott Gomez and Tomas Kaberle (combined $11.6 million cap hit). Of much more immediacy will be new deals (and costly ones) for goalie Carey Price and defenseman P.K. Subban.
The Leafs’ meltdown this year left team chairman Larry Tanenbaum to issue a statement on the team website, saying, “The way this year ended was unacceptable.’’ To be precise, what he issued was an understatement. The Leafs were parked in decent position after the All-Star break, sitting sixth in the East, but plummeted to 13th with a dead-men-skating finish that included only five wins over their final 17 games. Ex-Bruin Phil Kessel, typically a reluctant speaker, chirped up a couple of times in the final days, consistently sounding bewildered, if not disillusioned, by the implosion. GM Brian Burke’s summer shopping list includes a goalie, the key bugaboo again this season, and some size and skill up front, ideally a big center to fly with Kessel.
Can Hartley spark Flames?
The Flames, not surprisingly, came to a parting of the ways with coach Brent Sutter. Read: opposing philosophies about how to reconfigure a roster that just posted its third straight postseason DNQ. Ex-Bruins coach and former Flames forward Mike Sullivan is expected to get at least a cursory chat with GM Jay Feaster. Bob Hartley, bench boss in Colorado when Ray Bourque won his Cup there, would be on the short list. Only one issue: He just finished year No. 1 of a two-year pact to coach in Switzerland (Zurich ZSC). Hartley was out of coaching for about three years and working for RDS TV out of Montreal when he decided to scratch the coaching itch again. He and Feaster go way back, to their days in Hershey (AHL), and he is godfather to Hartley’s son. It would not be a surprise for the Flames to try to work out an arrangement (buyout) with Zurich.
Exhibit A of how social media can be a loaded gun: The Kings official Twitter account posted this after the Game 1 win over the Canucks: “To everyone in Canada outside B.C., you’re welcome.’’ All of which left Mike Altieri, the club’s vice president of communications and broadcasting, to do the apologizing, though noting to the Los Angeles Times, “We encourage our digital team to be creative, interactive, and to supply a sense of humor whenever possible.’’ Humor is often difficult to convey via the written word, and can be particularly tricky when limited to 140 characters.
P.K. Subban’s brother, Malcolm, of the Belleville Bulls (OHL), is the No. 1-rated North American goalie in this year’s draft . . . Ryan Clowe picked up a pair of assists for the Sharks in their 3-2 OT win over St. Louis in Game 1. Eyewitnesses report that Clowe was on the ice for both helpers and did not, uh, dangle from the bench . . . Sharks franchise center Joe Thornton, after a season in which he tallied 18 goals and 77 points, now has a lifetime line of 1,077 games, 324 goals, 754 assists, and 1,078 points. Jumbo Joe will turn 33 this summer and now has back-back seasons of under a point per game . . . Funny line by Shawn Thornton, interviewed by boston.com last week about how he believes a gay athlete would be treated as a member of the Bruins dressing room. All in all, said the 34-year-old winger, it would not be an issue here, with a club he considers family. Asked by author Jim Lapata if he were “concerned at all about what some people might think seeing you speak about this topic,’’ the ever-glib Thornton offered, “Whatever. I think I can defend myself.’’ . . . Ex-Panthers coach Peter DeBoer was back in Sunrise with his Devils for the playoffs, and the irony of being inside the BankAtlantic Center press room Friday was not lost on him. “The last time I was in this room,’’ he said, “I was getting fired.’’