D-Day anniversary truly puts hockey, life in perspective
Recent days have been filled with D-Day stories, myriad media outlets detailing the horrors and heroism that played out on the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago, when Allied Forces stormed across the English Channel in the early morn of June 6, 1944, with eyes and weapons fixed on reclaiming Adolf Hitler’s Europe.
To stand there today, atop the cliffs where Nazi soldiers slaughtered thousands as they rained fire from seemingly impenetrable pillboxes, is an overwhelming experience for virtually all visitors.
In February of 1994, some 30 members of the US Olympic hockey team toured there for an afternoon prior to making their way to Norway for the Games in Lillehammer.
“Everyone has seen some sort of reenactment of that, read a book, seen a movie or whatever,” said Peter Laviolette, the Team USA captain in 1994 who was part of the trip that afternoon. “They’ve seen the devastation of the soldiers trying to take the beach . . . trying to take the beach . . . trying to take the beach . . . and that many lives lost.”
“Humbling,” added Mike Dunham, today the Bruins’ goalie development coach, who then was only 21 years old and less than a year removed from his University of Maine playing days. “The enormity of that whole place, and thinking about what happened there, and picturing the Allied troops sitting in those boats, approaching that beach, looking at those cliffs, and thinking, ‘Where do you go?’
“To be there, and witness it, for me was a ‘Whoa!’ moment in life.”
The tour bus, arranged by US coach Tim Taylor, made its way over from Rouen, where the Yanks had just wrapped up an exhibition before their flight to Oslo. Taylor, ever the teacher, wanted his young charges to enter the Games with a firsthand sense of US and world history, and try to grasp just what a tiny bit of acreage hockey held in a much bigger, complex world.
“A trip like this,” he told me before the entourage, small press contingent included, boarded the bus for the ride back to Rouen, “makes you aware of the insignificance of your life. I think anyone who went through this with us has to have a sense of what these people sacrificed.”
South Boston’s John Cunniff, born a month after the Allied invasion, was Taylor’s top assistant. Typical of “Cunny,” he was tightlipped during the tour as he paced along Omaha Beach, stood atop the menacing cliffs, and later strolled amid the thousands of white Italian marble crosses and Stars of David spread out row upon row in the Normandy American Cemetery.
“That’s 9,000 stories in there . . . ,” Cunniff said that afternoon, pondering the graves of the fallen, 9,388 burial plots in total, “ . . . their wives . . . their children . . . ”
Joe Bertagna, the club’s assistant GM and goalie coach, noted the other day that the trip was especially poignant for Cunniff, who grew up in Southie and died in 2002. Cunniff, he said, was a war history buff who read extensively about military history.
“He would go into used book stores and buy books by great generals,” recalled Bertagna, “and he equated them to his role as a leader of men as a coach. So for him, I think Normandy was a particularly emotional and important visit.”
It was a windy, chilly day in Colleville-sur-Mer when the tour bus carrying Taylor’s charges pulled into town along the English Channel. The 50th anniversary of the Normandy invasion wouldn’t be for another four months, by which time the Yanks’ disappointing run in Lillehammer, where they were eliminated by the Finns in the quarterfinals, already was but a footnote to the Games.
The sun popped in and out from the wind-swept clouds as team members, all dressed in their official red, white, and blue sweats, ambled around the cemetery. Taylor allotted 30 minutes for the stop, but the players and staff quickly broke into small groups, or walked alone across the perfectly manicured lawn. Thirty minutes turned into an hour on a day when Taylor cared not to have his stopwatch or whistle in hand.
As the players filed on the bus to leave, silent and somber, the wind caused the two American flags, hoisted at the cemetery, to crack like bullwhips. A solemn, haunting farewell.
“The juxtaposition of our young hockey players representing the United States,” noted Bertagna, now long the commissioner of Hockey East, “with those other Americans who represented the United States, and many of whom died on that beach . . . to be honest, I am not sure we could process it all.”
Dunham and Laviolette, bench boss the last five seasons of the NHL Nashville Predators, both hold the cemetery as the most vivid memory of the day.
“I have a horrible memory, but I do remember walking out and seeing all the white headstones, the crosses,” said Laviolette. “The vision of that . . . and how perfectly in alignment they were . . . the precision of it all. That stays with you.”
Three-quarters of a century later, the uniformity of the headstones, and their exacting placement, lend a feel that the fallen remain resolute, soldiers still on guard. V-E Day, the official surrender of Nazi Germany, came less than a year (May 8, 1945) after the Allies gained a foothold across the beaches of Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword.
“The vision of the symbolic feeling of what happened,” said Laviolette, who grew up in Franklin, “will always stay with me. When you first walk on the grounds there, you have to say, ‘Wow!’ It’s incredible. Then when you begin to think more, your feelings turn sad. Because . . . how many people lost their lives?”
“We were just young kids, traveling the world,” added Dunham, whose wife, Ch. 4 news anchor Kate Merrill, was unaware until recently that he and his teammates had been to Normandy. “There was a lot of joking on the bus, usual stuff, as we rode there. But I remember how quiet it got as we approached and that awe of the whole atmosphere. It really just hits you in the gut.”
D-Day is long ago, blood of the wounded and fallen washed into the Channel, the names of many of the Yanks lost that day carved into those white crosses and Stars of David in perpetuity. The US flag still greets upward of two million visitors a year. To go is not to forget.
Sweeney spends money wisely
NHL free agency is about three weeks away (July 1) and history shows Bruins GM Don Sweeney has stepped up his spending/value game the last two years after early UFA overpays on Matt Beleskey (2015) and David Backes (2016).
Sweeney’s only pricey purchases since 2016 have been Jaroslav Halak last year (two years, $5.5 million) and John Moore (five years, $13.75 million), for a backup goaltender and a depth defenseman, respectively, Not much to quibble with either.
Halak provided solid relief that allowed Tuukka Rask the rest he needed to shine in the postseason. Maybe they expected a broader, somewhat stouter game from Moore, particularly given his five-year term, but he has legit wheels and can log dependable minutes when spotted in the right situations (a Bruce Cassidy strength).
Otherwise, and more impressively, Sweeney last July also added low-budget hires Joakim Nordstrom (two years/$2 million) and Chris Wagner (two years/$2.5 million). Both delivered strong bottom-six support on the cheap, precisely what contending teams require in a cap system. Top-six forwards and top-four defensemen typically chew up a lot of cap space once out of their entry-level deals, so it’s vital to secure competent help in those other eight payroll slots, and both Nordstrom and Wagner punched well above their weights (and résumés) in those roles.
What will Sweeney do this July 1? Likely value shop as he has done the last two summers, although his 2017 class, while cheap, was a bust. Paul Postma (D), Kenny Agostino (F), and Jordan Szwarz (F) all came aboard with one-year deals (total pay: $2.05 million) and added zero to the varsity.
The biggest factors affecting this July 1 are the expiring entry-level deals of top-four blue liners Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo, both under club control as restricted free agents. Both are due hefty raises, though Carlo should come significantly cheaper, given his limited offensive output to this point. He has been a valuable second-pairing fit with Torey Krug and probably will land somewhere in the $3.5 million-$4.5 million range on a three- or four-year deal.
McAvoy, the franchise defenseman in waiting, likely is looking at much heavier metal. He is the most dynamic young player the Bruins have back there, and though he doesn’t have the leverage of being able to hunt elsewhere for an offer sheet until July 1, 2020, he has the minutes and the role (No. 1 pairing with Zdeno Chara) to ask for at least Krug money ($5.25 million).
Sweeney also has other RFAs to settle, including Danton Heinen, as well as unrestricted free agent Noel Acciari. His prime UFA, deadline pickup Marcus Johansson, initially factored as purely a rental when brought in at the trade deadline for a pair of draft picks (Round 2, 2019; Round 4, 2020), but the ex-Capitals first-rounder has been extremely impressive.
The issue, as always, is money. Johansson arrived with a $4.75 million cap hit and a reputation of lacking grit. The label aside, he has produced (4-7—11 in 20 playoff games prior to Game 6 of the Cup Final). But after satisfying McAvoy and Carlo at, say, a total $10 million cap hit, Sweeney will have roughly $4 million left in his budget to make the rest of it work.
Sure, Johansson perhaps stays if the Bruins buy out Backes (with two years left at a $6 million cap hit). But his deal is structured as such that he has but $8 million left to be paid, 50 percent of which is a signing bonus that cannot be bought out, per the CBA. If they were to cut him free as of Saturday at the earliest (the start of the buyout period), their total savings would come to but $1.33 million.
Worth it? Perhaps if they could use those dollars to find another Wagner or Nordstrom, but it won’t be the difference needed to extend Johansson’s time on Causeway Street.
Officially, this is now a problem
No easy, quick fix to the officiating woes that have plagued and sullied the 2019 playoffs, including Kelly Sutherland’s gaffe in Game 5 of the Cup Final Thursday night in which the respected veteran referee missed the blatant trip/slew foot by Tyler Bozak on Noel Acciari.
The NHL wants us to believe that it’s working on the problem that it won’t officially label a problem.
“I know these playoffs have featured some controversial moments,” said commissioner Gary Bettman, reading from a prepared statement prior to Game 1 of the Cup Final on May 31. “To be clear, we have the best officials in the world and we all know that they have an extraordinarily difficult job.”
The four on-ice officials do have a tough job. It’s a fast, transition game that demands a lot out of the whistleblowers. But too many of the big boo-boos this spring, including Sutherland’s that gift-wrapped a 2-0 lead for the Blues, weren’t really all that tough.
The alleged cross-check delivered on Joe Pavelski that flipped the San Jose-Vegas series came off a faceoff. The hand pass that set up Erik Karlsson’s game-winner vs. St. Louis was blatant and visible without forensic review by videotape. Maybe these guys are the best, but they’ve proven to be not good enough, even when it comes to making basic calls. It may be painful for Bettman et al to say that — frankly, it’s painful to write it — but the facts are as basic and bold as the black and white stripes on the zebra’s shirts.
Your faithful puck chronicler doesn’t like the idea of constant use, or overuse, of video replay to act as the be-all, end-all corrective agent in these situations. Although it looks as if the Lords of the Boards will have to expand usage of video as part of the fix. I’d prefer to see some increased video involvement, hand in hand with an extra eye (of the human sort), above ice level.
It typically has been obvious this spring, when these gaffes have occurred, that something has happened that just ain’t right. In those instances, it would be wise for an officiating supervisor, perhaps stationed in the press box, to flag the play down for his scrutiny in tandem with a video review and consultation with the referees or linesmen.
One caveat: The press box might be too far from the surface. For example, the press box on Causeway Street is on the ninth floor, a full six stories above ice level. It may sound awkward, but perhaps the seeing eye could be stationed just above the glass, situated much like a tennis umpire. The supervisor then would be close enough to have a feel for the game and, in theory, have a better vantage point from his spot above the ice.
“Clearly what we already do may not be enough,” said Bettman.
Amen to that.
“What I can say, with absolute certainty, is that everyone involved is going to take a hard look at this issue in the upcoming months,” added Bettman. “No one should doubt that we want to get it right. The fundamental question is the ‘it’ — when to intervene and what are the instances that require doing so? And of course, how to do it without destroying the fabric and essential elements of our game.”
Meanwhile, while pondering the fix, these horrendous calls are tearing apart the fabric and ruining the most essential element — fan trust.
The Bruins last week did not make contract offers to 2017 draft picks Cedric Pare (Round 6) or Daniel Bukac (Round 7), both of whom are now 20 and can hunt for free agent deals elsewhere in the Original 31. However, the Bruins have both of their top picks in that draft, Urho Vaakanainen and Jack Studnicka, under contract, and both could challenge for varsity spots in September training camp (rookies to report in about 90 days) . . . It was a stretch to begin with, but veteran magician Pavel Datsyuk this past week put to rest rumors that he would return to the Red Wings next season after his three-year run with KHL St. Petersburg. He signed on with his hometown Avtomobolist Yekaterinburg, not far from the Kazakhstan border. Two weeks ago, ex-Ducks first-round center Peter Holland also signed on with the Drivers, now only to be challenged for ice time by one of the game’s legendary pivots.