Sunday, 30 October 2011

One month down, eight to go

Three weeks ago when I decided to make an effort to start watching NHL and write this blog, I didn't really know what to expect. In all honesty I thought I'd write a couple of posts, get bored of it and go back to watching football - but it hasn't been the case. I've thoroughly enjoyed watching a new sport, am understanding it a lot quicker than I expected and will definitely be following for the rest of this season and in all likelihood beyond.

I already find myself examining the stats online on the train to work in the morning, or trying to watch video highlights on Chiltern Railways poor excuse for wi-fi. I've even changed my homepage on Google Chrome from BBC Sport to and I reckon I understand at least 60 per cent of what the commentators are saying during games now. To sum up, I'm getting into it!

The Canucks' start to the regular season has been a little hit and miss, they've been up and down more than the Grand Old Duke of York! Games they (can I say 'we' yet?!) should have walked through have been lost, yet there have been flashes of genius, particularly in the 7-4 romp over the Caps this weekend. I guess it's only to be expected that the team wouldn't be the fastest out of the blocks this year after the traumatic end to last season but there are certainly signs that things are going in the right direction.

While much of the early debate this season has been around Roberto Luongo, the hard cold facts show that the offense not firing has been the root of the problems. As they say in football 'attack is the best form of defence'. Saturday night's seven goals should go some way to instilling confidence in the forward lines and will hopefully be the start of a free-scoring run with the team off on another road trip this week.

One thing that impressed me in the win over the Capitals was the depth of the squad. Each line looked threatening and I was particularly impressed with Chris Higgins who looked dangerous playing on the third line. I'm still not sure that Cody Hodgson is suited to playing out wide alongside Ryan Kesler and David Booth but given time hopefully he'll come around. As long as the forwards continue to fire then the heat will come off Luongo a little and hopefully allow him to get some confidence back and find his best form. It can't be easy for the guy constantly being one bad move away from a chorus of boos from his own fans. Right now he needs support and, for the good of the team, that's what the Canucks faithful should give him.

I'm obviously learning a lot following this sport and I'm particularly enjoying the speed and sounds of hockey. I'm trying to stay linked in with the rest of the league as much as possible and was glued to the highlights of the Jets Flyers game which was either superb or terrible, depending which way you look at it. I like the fact that there are more goals in hockey than there are in football. The unpredictable nature of the game means it's pretty rare to see a 0-0 or 1-0 score-line which makes the action more exciting. Claude Giroux's goal against the Canucks proved that at any moment you're just one lucky bounce away from putting the puck away.

One other thing that I like is the disciplinary board videos which explain why decisions are made and why suspensions are enforced. It's a great idea which can help fans and players understand the decision making process and something a number of British sports should sit up and take notice of. There appears to be a lot more respect for officials in this game too, in football I'm used to the ref being surrounded by whinging players after almost every blow of the whistle. From what I've seen of the NHL they just get on with it, even if the decision is dubious. It's good to see and sets a much better example to young supporters than our spoilt brats do in this country.

It's fair to say I've enjoyed every minute of my first taste of hockey, bring on November and a surge up the conference!

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

This one's going to overtime

'And the game ended in a draw', the sort of comment that you'd expect to read in a soccer match report, but in the majority of North American sports it's unheard of.

For some reason many British sports fans and pundits alike can't get to grips with the idea of overtime and penalties deciding a regular season match which ends with the scores level. In fact, many a time I've heard people put sports down for using extra time and penalty shots to decide a game. If I'm honest it's something I've been guilty of in the past - but I couldn't really explain why. It's the sort of comment your dad or grandad makes and you agree without even thinking about it. Perhaps it's something in the British psyche that automatically makes us look down on anything emanating from North America. Or maybe it's just because we're a traditional bunch over here and too protective of the history of our sports and don't want them to become too 'Americanised' - though if you ask me we could learn a lot from the major sports leagues across the Atlantic, particularly in regards to finances and salary caps (something I'll write about another day).

Over here if a soccer game ends in a draw it's one point each and everyone goes home - most of the time frustrated and unhappy. So essentially a draw leads to the same feeling as a defeat, unless it's the kind of game where you've been battered for the whole match and nick an equaliser at the death. But even then if your team has managed to score a last minute leveller it could give them the momentum to go on and win in extra time. I honestly can't see a reason why extra time and penalties couldn't be introduced to league football in this country. It would certainly make the climax of drawn games more exciting judging by my first experience of a tied game in the NHL.

Perhaps the pace of hockey makes it more accommodating to a period of overtime, there was definitely an electric edge to that extra five minutes against Minnesota, which culminated in the game winning goal. The aim of sport after all is to find a winner, so why settle for drawn games if it takes away excitement. If we had more games ending in penalty shoot outs in English football our national side might actually be able to win one and get past the quarter finals of a major competition too!

Everyone's a winner (well, sort of).

Sunday, 23 October 2011

More early starts please

Now that was hockey! While I've enjoyed following the games up to now it was much better to have the opportunity to watch the game live and get involved with the Twitter discussion etc. (although I'm sure actually being in the arena would be a tad better). It's a shame that there's only one more 1pm start scheduled in for the rest of the season, I'm going to have to make more of an effort to pull all nighters at weekends from now on.

The game itself got off to a pretty sleepy start, probably predictably seeing as these early face offs are rare. There didn't seem to be much of an atmosphere during the first period which raises the age-old question - should the fans generate the noise to drive on their team, or should the team get the crowd going with action on the ice? It's all a bit chicken and egg and a question we see a lot over here in football. I'm very much of the opinion that at the beginning of the game the fans should get the atmosphere going - but if the play being served up for the first five or ten minutes is a bit dull it's understandable that it will drop off. I'm sure the early start didn't help with this and once again some poor discipline resulted in a number of Wild powerplays in the period and ultimately a 1-0 lead for the visitors going into the second.

This became a 2-1 lead going into the third and not for the first time this season the Canucks needed to turn over a deficit in the final period. Once again they managed it. Hansen tied the game up with the best play of the match, tipping in a shot from the point. That took us to overtime where the win was sealed in style. Sami Salo celebrated his 700th NHL game with a top shelf scorcher from the point. It's a good job that nobody got in the way of it because that puck would have caused some serious damage!

One player in particular stood out for me during the game - Maxim Lapierre. I've not seen a whole lot of him up to now but he was all over the ice last night and had a couple of breakaways, narrowly missing the chance to score. I thought Kesler looked lively too, always involved with the Canucks more positive play and although the Sedins were quiet Daniel still popped up with a goal and is right up there on the individual leader boards.

Waking up this morning I hear that a trade went through last night between Vancouver and Florida with Sturm and Samuelsson departing and David Booth coming in. As I've mentioned before Sturm has looked pretty slow and Samuelsson is no spring chicken so this would look like a decent trade. I know nothing of Booth, but consensus appears to be that it's a good deal for the Canucks and he will slot into the second line, probably alongside Kesler and Higgins. Hopefully this won't mean Cody Hodgson being left out. While he's been a little anonymous in the last couple of games he started the season well and I hope we get to see a bit more of him as time goes on. I'm not exactly sure what the rules are around trades during the season and if there is a 'deadline day' like we see in soccer, or if teams can trade all year round - I'll be trying to find that out later today!

On a lighter note I have to comment on the tunes featured in NHL games. The organ music, which I expected to be a lot more irritating, is actually growing on me and definitely adds to the atmosphere. I also love the Sportsnet intro music - could it be more dramatic?! Then again, last night's game coming to an end on an overtime screamer with under 30 seconds left on the clock was more than worthy of it. Bosh!

Friday, 21 October 2011

The season starts now

It's been an interesting week so far for the Canucks, you won't find too many sports leagues around where a team is beaten 4-0 at home on a Tuesday night only to bounce back with a 5-1 win two days later in front of their own fans. That's one of the reasons I was drawn to the NHL actually, while there are obviously the bigger franchises who are expected to reach the play-offs the sheer number of games means that anyone can beat anyone. It certainly beats watching Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea and all their billions roll teams over week after week.

I was late catching up with Tuesday's match (laptop problems - which may or may not now be resolved!) which is why this entry is a little later than usual. It was my first time watching the Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist certainly stood out, putting in the best goalie performance I've seen so far and helping to complete a classic 'smash and grab' for his team. The criticism aimed at Roberto Luongo after that match was excessive, I'm not going to focus on him this early in the season. Firstly because everyone else is writing plenty about his performances and secondly because I haven't seen enough of the guy to have an objective opinion.

Thursday's outing against the Predators was far more satisfying to watch, particularly the play that led to Dale Weiss' first NHL goal into the top shelf (another new term to learn). The Sedin twins are starting to warm up and it was good to see Ryan Kesler return with a classy goal. I actually intended to avoid the result of this game and watch it all the way through without knowing, however when I got in from work today I flicked on Sky Sports News (our version of ESPN Sports Center I suppose) and the score was on the screen. I'd never even noticed that they reported NHL scores before, typical! Anyway, offensively it was a much stronger performance and if the team keep playing like that nobody will be talking about Luongo. Well, maybe.

As I mentioned on Twitter earlier on in the week I've shelled out on the NHL's GameCenter Live package . The Premier Sports scheduling does look okay, showing ten matches a week, but I figured if I'm aiming to follow one team it will be a hell of a lot easier to be able to pick and choose what I watch. Tomorrow, thanks to an early start, I'll actually get to watch my first live game, the time difference and the fact I have to go to work normally put paid to that but tomorrow's game will start at 9pm and I can't wait. I'm looking forward to being able to see the action as it happens rather than waking up in the morning and reaching for my phone to get the score. Knowing my luck, it will be a scrappy 1-0 defeat.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

A silent disease

In an attempt to throw myself into this new hobby I've watched, read, and listened to anything and everything hockey related in the last couple of weeks. While there are obviously many, many differences between the sports I have regularly followed in the past and the NHL one similarity that I was hoping not to find has already emerged. Players suffering from depression.

Depression in sport remains incredibly mis-understood. Many people look at sportsman as people who earn hundreds of thousands, often millions of pounds a year, do very little work and have nothing to worry about. I'll admit ten/fifteen years ago I wouldn't have understood how someone 'living the dream' could be so tortured, but in reality sportsmen are people - like you and I - and are by no means immune to mental illness.

On this side of the Atlantic there has been increased awareness of depression in sport in recent years due to one particular high profile case. Marcus Trescothick was one of the best cricketers of his generation. An automatic pick for the national side Trescothick opened the batting and was one of the most technically gifted players in the world. Between 2001 and 2006 he was never dropped by the national side. However while on a tour of India in February 2006 he abruptly flew home citing 'personal reasons' which were later put down to a 'virus'. He returned to playing for England that summer but at the end of 2006 flew home from England's tour of Australia and the true reason was revealed. Trescothick suffered from depression, an illness that intensified when he was away from home to the point that he couldn't sleep or eat. It eventually brought an end to his international career and he returned to county cricket in England. In 2008 he was due to travel with his county side to a pre-season tournament in UAE, he got as far as the airport before breaking down in a shop in the terminal and having to return home.

His 2008 book 'Coming Back To Me' details his harrowing experiences and how he contained them, terrified of what the media and cricketing world would think. It's a fascinating read and one that I would heartily recommend whether you are interested in cricket or not. Trescothick continues to be a leading star in English county cricket today and through his book he has raised awareness of depression in sport.

However, from many sports there continues to be silence, particularly soccer. It's impossible to believe that of the 92 clubs in England somebody isn't suffering from some form of mental illness. The pressure put on players by coaches, fans and in particularly the media is incredible and in the 'macho' environment of the locker room it can't be easy to reach out to someone. I just hope that if there is someone out there they feel they can speak up and, seek help and be offered the support they need. In Germany goalkeeper Robert Enke was beaten by a battle with depression, stepping in front of a train after failing to come to terms with the death of his daughter. He left behind his wife and adopted-daughter. Enke was one of Germany's top keepers and would have gone to the World Cup last year. He suffered for six years and sought the help of a psychiatrist, but still couldn't find the cure he was looking for.

Which brings me to Rick Rypien - I'm obviously new to Rypien's story and like Enke it would appear he sought help and his depression was well documented throughout hockey. There is the obvious argument that his depression was caused by the nature of his play, his regular involvement in fights on the ice acting as a trigger for the illness. However I return to my earlier point - sportsman are people and not immune to depression, there is no way to know if fighting was the root of the problem.

Tonight's Canucks game against the Rangers is dedicated to Rypien. His family, helped by the Canucks, are setting up a foundation to raise awareness of mental illness among young people, encouraging them to open up and talk about their problems. If Rypien's legacy helps just one person come to terms with their depression, it will have been worth it.

RIP Ryp.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Hats off

I've seen hat-tricks scored before in soccer and in field hockey but never before have I seen a hat-trick goal which is followed by spectators throwing their hats onto the playing surface.

Well, until now.

Last night Ryan Nugent-Hopkins put three past Robert Luongo and the fans reacted by chucking their own hats onto the ice. While I thought it was a tad bizarre at first it was also kind of fantastic - it's finding out about these quaint traditions that makes watching a different sport even more endearing. I don't think it's something that would happen in soccer - firstly because us English are far too tight to throw our own hats away (is there some poor guy who has to collect the hats and return them to their owners?) and secondly because if one of the hats struck a player they'd go down like they'd been shot in the face. We've all seen THAT Rivaldo video on YouTube - if not go check it out. You'll probably find it by googling 'Rivaldo' and 'Cheat'.

So that's one thing I've enjoyed about NHL this week, even if it did somewhat interfere with play. Last night Vancouver completed their four-game road trip with a win at the Oilers and are now 2-1-2 for the season (check me out using the stats). Exactly the same start as last season I'm told and a run which has seen them face the Red Wings, Penguins and Flyers - all expected to make the post-season. Having watched a few games now I've started to form a few opinions on certain players. Two of my favourites thus far are Keith Ballard and Cody Hodgson. Ballard, because he seems like a battler, scored a classy goal in the season opener and made Darcy Horichuk eat his words to the press by sticking him on the floor after five seconds. Hodgson meanwhile is an exciting prospect who I understand has had a slow start to his career with the Canucks, suffering from injury and spending time out at an affiliate. He certainly doesn't look out of place on the ice now and will hopefully play a big part as the season progresses.

Another player it is impossible to notice is Robert Luongo, mainly because whenever the Canucks are playing he's trending on Twitter. There are two obvious camps, the 'LUONGO MUST DIE' cyber warriors, and the 'hey, lay off Lou' supporters. It's obviously early in the season and even I can tell he's had a couple of moments - there's been a few times when he's on his belly and does resemble a beached whale. However it is way too early in the season to not be backing a goalie who, so I believe, performed excellently during last year's regular season even if he did lose form in the seven-game Stanley Cup series against the Bruins. I was pleased he was involved in his first win in Edmonton, hopefully that will instill some confidence and lead to some of the haters backing down. Or at least waiting until a month into the season before calling for his head!

The European Blackout of the NHL has finally lifted, although the network which has the rights in the UK is Premier Sports - which I've never heard of, doesn't come under my regular 'Sports' package and costs £8 a month extra. Early reviews of their coverage are pretty poor so I'm thinking I'm going to stick with catching up with games after they happen - seeing as I'm sleeping while most of the games are going on anyway. You have to think the NHL kind of missed the point by staging a couple of games in Europe at the start of the season but failed to televise them to anyone in Europe. Whether the blame lies with AMI/Medge who bought the rights or the NHL itself for choosing them to sell to is one of opinion, but I would much prefer to get my fix via ESPN, Sky Sports or one of our free to air terrestrial channels who have a fair bit more experience of sports broadcasting. It would appear that the ridiculousness of TV rights is one thing soccer and hockey have in common!

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Road trip

One of the most confusing things for a new NHL fan to get their head around has got to be the structure of the league and trying to understand how the divisions and conferences work. It's doubly hard when you're used to watching a sports league where each team plays each other just twice a season, home and away. It doesn't get any simpler than that.

Anyway I think I have now worked out that the Canucks sit in the North West Division and are part of the Western Conference and that they play a phenomenal 82 regular season games. 82! And that doesn't even include the post-season. To me that's an incredible amount of action and it makes the footballer's moans about playing too many games in this country seem pretty ludicrous.

With playing so many games comes another unknown to this new, naive fan - road trips. In most British sports teams play no more than two away games in a row at any one time and for the majority of the season they play home, away, home, away and so on. I guess that with a country the size of the US it makes sense to go to an area of the country and get a whole host of fixtures done. One unanswered question I do have is around away fans, as far as I can see fans don't travel to away games, or perhaps don't during this early stage of the season. This may be something that I'll work out with time (or after asking a load of embarrassing questions on a message board). Either way the crowd at the Canuck's latest game seemed pretty thin - but I'll put that down to the Blue Jackets fans putting on a poor show.

Back on the ice the Canucks have begun a four-game road trip of their own and they've started it off with their first win of the season. I've already found that stats make up a big part of this game and in the build up to this match I learned that Vancouver had beaten their opponents four times out of four last season. So when they went behind twice in the first two periods I felt as though my will for the Canucks to win was somehow bringing the side down, like there was some kind of Karmic force looking down and shouting 'hey kid, you don't know anything about this game and you don't deserve to support a winning team'.

Fortunately that wasn't the case and for the second time this season Vancouver staged a fight back, only this time they secured a 3-2 victory to get this particular road trip off on the right foot. I'm going to reserve more in depth analysis until I can a) remember more than four of the players name, b) have some idea of what makes a good play/performance and c) work out what 'the slot' is!

Monday, 10 October 2011

New beginnings

October 8th 2011 may not be remembered for any startling world events, sporting achievements or even celebrity weddings (Paul McCartney's third nuptials aside), but it did mark a very different Saturday for me.

Having ignored the previous evening's England match, I didn't seek out highlights or even reach for the papers for a match report of Wayne Rooney's latest debacle. Instead I sat myself down on the sofa and watched my first ever NHL game. But hold on a minute, I'm probably getting ahead of myself here - so here's some background on how I ended up snubbing our 'national game' for a sport I know very little about that takes place in a country that's thousands of miles away...

I've long been a football fan, or soccer to those of you reading on the other side of the Atlantic, but in recent years my love of the game has dwindled. With every passing year the Premier League becomes less about fans and community and more about money, money, money. As a Portsmouth fan I've seen how that can make and break a club and I've also seen that there's no way to success without massive overspending.

I have watched Portsmouth home and away more times than I'd like to admit over the last 10/15 years and I've steadily witnessed players becoming more and more disassociated with the clubs they represent. It's hardly surprising, how can the man on the street possibly relate to a teenager or young twenty-something earning £200,000 a week, especially when it costs £38 a time to go and watch them play. On top of that there is an extremely rich vein of corruption running through the game right to the top of the 'brains' that are supposed to be running it.

The prospect of watching another Premier League season contested between the three richest teams just did not appeal and with Portsmouth languishing back in the second tier I reached breaking point.

So I looked for something different - rugby has never interested me and cricket is out of season. That led me to look at American sports, I know little of any and any knowledge I do have is largely based on playing computer games. NFL has never really appealed and while I enjoyed a SF Giants game on a recent trip to California it just went on too long to be a realistic sport that I could watch regularly. That left basketball or ice hockey - there could be only one choice.

For some reason I've always liked the idea of following the NHL. I haven't watched an awful lot in the past other than the odd fight video on YouTube, but something drew me to it. I've got a basic understanding of the rules having played a lot of the demo of NHL '99 on a very old PC at a friend's house. I also like the speed of the game and of course the physical side which we don't see in too many sports over here.

Having chosen my sport I made the conscious decision to pick a team before the season started. Seeing as I won't be getting to any games in the flesh I figured it'd be easiest to pick one team to follow. I looked at the Washington Capitals and the Detroit Red Wings (the two teams that appeared in that NHL '99 demo), but the Capitals just weren't right and the Red Wings have way too much red in their kit for a Portsmouth fan to get behind. I eventually narrowed it down to the two cities that I've visited in North America that have franchises, the Vancouver Canucks or the LA Kings. From there it was an easy choice, I didn't particularly like LA while Vancouver remains one of the nicest cities I've been to. That and my brother lived there for a time so that gave it some extra pull.

So armed with my laptop and Wikipedia I settled down for the season opener against the Penguins and it was something of a solid start to my new found fandom. Despite being behind for much of the match the Canucks pulled out a 3-3 draw, going down in a shootout but still notching their first point of the season. I'm well aware that there are many terms and statistics I'm yet to get my head round but until now I'd never watched a match from beginning to end - it's a start!

So there you have it, I'm going to try and record my views on the season on this blog and through twitter and perhaps this disillusioned sports fan can find new love for a team who play their home games some 4,500 miles away.

Go Canucks!