We sure limped to the finish in 2021, didn’t we?
There were twice as many NHL games postponed (65) than played (31) in the final two weeks of the year. Every team had at least one player on the COVID list, most teams had a bunch, and a few had a roster’s worth.
The Omicron variant’s arrival all but punted hockey into the new year, where surely, conditions will improve. At some point. Maybe.
Most everyone was trying their hardest to come up with solutions in trying times. Even Luc Tardif, if we’re being charitable.
The recently elected IIHF president looked out of touch, at best, when he canceled the under-18 Women’s World Championship, among other junior tournaments, while moving forward with the men’s under-20 World Junior Championship. He explained that the men already had entered a “protected environment” in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alberta.
Not so. Those on the ground in those places reported a punctured bubble.
“It is a joke,” Slovakia goalie Simon Latkoczy wrote on his Instagram account. “The organization from the first day was terrible. I felt like I am participating at some basic youth hockey tournament.” In Red Deer, he said, his team’s hotel allowed outsiders, the restaurant was “packed every night,” and there was a wedding in the lobby. Not surprisingly, COVID ripped through the tournament and sent everyone home.
Finland coach Antti Pennanen was “angry because this was not a COVID problem, but the problem was that this was a poorly run tournament. This says a lot about the state of the IIHF.”
The IIHF initially said rescheduling the women’s U18s, set for this month in Sweden, was not possible because of prior commitments in that country. All it took for Tardif to publicly rework his phrasing was an outcry from women’s hockey, including prominent players such as Hilary Knight and Kendall Coyne Schofield, and former stars such as Hayley Wickenheiser.
Why did it have to come to that?
“They deserve to play just as much as we do,” said Senators forward Drake Batherson, whose sister, Mae, plays at Syracuse. “I’d like to see that tournament happen. I watch a ton of girls’ hockey. I watch the Olympics, the girls’ team, and I watch my sister all the time. They’re such great players, and they deserve to showcase their skills just as much as we do.”
Last May, the pandemic postponed the women’s U18s in Nova Scotia, but the tournament was eventually held in Calgary in August. Same thing with the men’s U18s, which were postponed in Michigan in March and staged in Texas the next month.
Why was it so difficult for Tardif to get ahead of everything and proclaim his commitment to the women’s game? Why did it take an outcry?
The Ontario Women’s Hockey Association, led by Fran Rider, offered to host the tournament. The CEO of the USHL’s Youngstown (Ohio) Phantoms, Murry Gunty, offered to hold the tournament there from Jan. 10-15, covering all ice, building, and insurance expenses. USA Hockey head Pat Kelleher called on the IIHF to find a way to hold “a critical event for the future of women’s hockey.”
And Tardif put it right back on him.
“I challenge USA Hockey,” Tardif said. “I’m not satisfied with a letter. I want action … If they are coming with a real [proposal], I’m sure I can convince the council.”
Tardif also pointed out that IIHF holds world championships every year, not every few years like other sports, such as soccer.
The perception: Take what you can get.
“Jump on us, but that’s our job,” Tardif said. “We have to cancel. You have to imagine, starting a tournament in January [would be] suicide.
“I don’t want to do promise I cannot stand. That’s why I said cancellation, and after that, we’re working on that … Judge us at the end of the story.”
Women in hockey already start far behind the line, while the men are sprinting away. No longer should they be asked to run faster to catch up.
CLOSE TO HOME
A few notes on the Bruins
▪ They need more attack from the back end. Charlie McAvoy always sees green lights, but Matt Grzelcyk and Mike Reilly have been too hesitant. Reilly doesn’t seem as comfortable as he did in last season’s freewheeling stint. Brandon Carlo, who has a pair of goals, is sending low-percentage pucks on goal, and Derek Forbort (four goals) has stepped up at times. More of Grzelcyk and Reilly zipping pucks up the ice, and less caution.
▪ How to jump-start David Pastrnak and Taylor Hall? Entering the weekend, Pastrnak (three) and Hall (one) had as many five-on-five goals as Forbort. Maybe Erik Haula is the centerman they need. Haula did have a 29-goal, 55-point season in Vegas as an offensive-minded, second-line center, but that was five years, four teams, and two knee injuries ago.
▪ Would be nice to see what a full forward lineup could do. Between COVID, injuries to Curtis Lazar, Nick Foligno, Craig Smith, and Trent Frederic, Brad Marchand’s suspension, and healthy scratches to Haula and Jake DeBrusk, Saturday’s matinee against the Sabres was the first time the offseason arrivals and incumbents suited up together.
▪ Carlo, the Bruins’ player rep, made it sound like the decision to skip the Olympics went above his level. “It definitely is disappointing. Guys have spoken their opinion very strongly on how we felt, still wanting to go,” he said. “I feel like we were a collective in wanting to make that happen with the Olympics.”
Vanbiesbrouck the wrong choice
Beats me why John Vanbiesbrouck keeps getting hockey executive jobs.
After running Team USA at the last four World Junior Championships, he’s now the replacement general manager for the Olympics, after the NHL pulled out and Bill Guerin was called back to the Wild.
Absurd. No matter how highly Team USA executive director Pat Kelleher thinks of Vanbiesbrouck’s hockey acumen, he should have looked elsewhere.
The Trevor Daley incident should be disqualifying. Daley, now a hockey operations adviser with the Penguins, was 19 when Vanbiesbrouck called him an N-word behind his back when speaking about him to his teammates on the 2003 Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Daley, the team captain, quit, then rejoined when Vanbiesbrouck resigned as coach and GM and sold his 25 percent ownership stake in the club. The OHL fined the team $50,000.
All these years later, Vanbiesbrouck hasn’t reached out to Daley to settle the score. Yet Vanbiesbrouck is ready to move on. When USA Hockey named him assistant executive director of hockey operations in 2018, he said in an interview with Scott Burnside of The Athletic, he had “paid a high price” for the incident, and “there needs to be an ending.”
At the time of the incident, Vanbiesbrouck, who grew up in Detroit, explained that racial slurs were “an old wound with me. I grew up with it. I’m as sorry as anybody that it’s stuck with me.”
Never has Vanbiesbrouck since expanded on how the incident changed him or what he learned from it. He told William Douglas from The Color of Hockey that his faith is carrying him through his troubles.
“Some people have an opinion, but I have [leaned] on that faith to know that I am forgiven, and I forgive others,” he said. “So that’s important to me, and that’s probably the No. 1, strongest way that I can tell you about it.”
When Burnside remarked in 2018 that Daley, then a veteran NHL defenseman, wasn’t difficult to find, Vanbiesbrouck retorted, “But neither am I. I’m not that hard to find.”
Just like new leadership.
Team USA will name its non-NHL replacement squad in the next week or two. Entering the weekend, it was unclear if Vanbiesbrouck and new coach David Quinn could count on college players. NCAA standouts such as Matty Beniers and Brendan Brisson would boost the skill level, and maybe Drew Commesso could channel his inner Jim Craig in goal.
Safe bets for selection among forwards include Kenny Agostino and Brian O’Neill, two ex-Yalies who are ninth and 11th, respectively, in KHL scoring. From the German DEL, the brass will be considering veterans Matt White, Jeremy Bracco, Wayne Simpson, and Chris Bourque. The Swedish Hockey League could send them Ryan Lasch (5 feet 7 inches, 157 pounds), No. 1 in scoring with 36 points in 28 games for Frölunda, and ex-Bruins farmhand Carter Camper.
The top American AHLer not under NHL contract is Michael Mersch, the Rochester captain. He has 16 goals and 29 points in 24 games. There are a couple others in his contractual situation — Milwaukee forward Cole Schneider and defenseman Matt Donovan — whose numbers in the AHL warrant a look.
The Americans look a bit weak in goal, with no obvious choices starring in the Euro leagues, and only a handful of AHLers not under NHL control. One potential option is ex-Notre Dame stopper Cale Morris, now with AHL Rockford, who has had moderate success at that level the last two years (.922 save percentage in nine games).
One of the better goalies in the Allsvenskan is named Tex Williamsson, but he’s from Sweden, not San Antonio.
The USA brass hasn’t yet asked him, but expect Steven Kampfer, the top American defenseman in the KHL, to be on the squad.
“I’d jump at it,” said Kampfer, the former Bruin now playing for Ak Bars Kazan (10-18–28 in 43 games). “I’d love to watch the best players in the world. At the same time, the guys who are going will put their blood, sweat, and tears into it for their country, because they realize it really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Embracing the elements
The coldest NHL outdoor game on record happened Saturday night, the Blues and Wild playing in temperatures that shattered the mark set in 2003 (0 degrees at Canadiens-Oilers game in Edmonton).
The temperature at puck drop at Target Field in Minneapolis was minus-5.7 degrees — and dropped from there. Temperatures that cold can cause frostbite on exposed skin in 10 minutes, so short shifts were vital. Get it out, get it in, get back to the warming lamps on the benches.
They passed out handwarmers at the gate, 40,000 at the ready. The ice crew had to warm the sheet to help chattering skate blades dig in.
It was so cold, they were heating the ice. It sounded like a late-night TV setup.
“I’d give you my Ed McMahon laugh, but I don’t think it would do it justice,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said, gamely offering a “ho-ho-ho.”
When Cassidy was growing up on Coldrey Avenue in the west end of Ottawa, he lived across the street from two outdoor rinks, one at the English grammar school (then T.P. Maxwell) and one at the French (then St. Bonaventure). There was no temperature that could keep him off the sheet.
In the winter, Ottawa is the coldest North American capital city. According to WorldAtlas.com, the average low in January is 6 degrees. In conditions similar to Siberia, Moscow, and Helsinki, Cassidy and his neighborhood pals handled the snow removal, lining up shovel-to-shovel to scrape the ice. The maintenance crew at the school would flood the sheet.
What a blessing.
“When your hands started freezing, it was probably time,” Cassidy said. “I would say we hung in as long as we could, then smartened up and got off the ice so we didn’t get frostbite. There’s a lot of kids that sucked it up. You just got used to it.”
Outdoor rink enthusiasts in the Boston area haven’t had much luck this season. Cassidy hasn’t bothered to set up his 25-by-50-foot sheet in Winchester because of his kids’ school commitments, the forecast, and the fact he expected to be in China with Team Canada next month. The frozen memories will have to do.
“They were good at taking care of it, people at the school,” Cassidy said. “That helped us a lot, because we were just kids. We could shovel it together. That’s what you used to do: Grab a shovel, line up in a row, and skate down end to end like you’re one big snowplow. The watering part, they had to take care of. They did a good job. We were thankful for it.”
While 2023 draft prospect Connor Bedard had Canadian commentators comparing him to Wayne Gretzky and Connor McDavid after his four-goal game against overmatched Austria, Russian winger Matvei Michkov was perhaps the best player at the shortened World Junior Championship. Lot of pace, from his head to his hands to his feet, and physical for 5-10 and 169 pounds. Meanwhile, Finnish standout Brad Lambert brought his best to the tournament, after a dismal year in his home country. NHL teams in lottery land in 2023 will have some high-caliber options … As for older players, 2021 No. 1 overall pick Owen Power (Buffalo) handles the puck like few 6-5 defenders in the league right now. He and Moritz Seider are Victor Hedmans-in-training … Bruins hopeful Fabian Lysell, the first-rounder from last year, missed the tournament with a non-COVID illness … Stick tap to Jordan Smotherman, who scored this past week for the AHL’s Springfield Thunderbirds. The winger out of Westborough went 10 years between AHL goals. After spending 2010-11 with Providence, Smotherman played for four Swedish teams, two Danish teams, two German teams, two ECHL teams (Worcester and Manchester), and the aforementioned T-Birds … Once they trade skates for suit and tie, most ex-players are friendly to their brothers in the NHL workforce, but who saw this coming: ESPN analyst Ryan Callahan stuck up for Brad Marchand. The 2018 playoffs seem like a lifetime ago … A seven-game winning streak under Bruce Boudreau brought the Canucks to within 4 points of a playoff spot in the West. If this is the best we’re going to see from Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser (15 combined goals), they aren’t climbing much higher … One of the most enticing trade chips come mid-March: Patrik Laine, who has 11 points in 10 games on an expiring restricted free agent deal (one year, $7.5 million). Only 23, scored 44 goals as a sophomore, and has been injured and dealing with personal tragedy (the unexpected death of his father, Harri, at 54). When he’s going, few players can equal his shot … The goal of 2021 was McDavid going 1 on 4 against the Rangers. Off the ice, hockey’s most impactful moment was Kyle Beach coming forward as John Doe in the Chicago Blackhawks sexual assault case in an interview with TSN’s Rick Westhead on Oct. 27. “I know I’m not alone,” he said that day. “I know I’m not the only one, male or female. I buried this for 10 years, 11 years. And it’s destroyed me from the inside out. And I want everybody to know in the sports world and in the world that you’re not alone.” His strength endures.