Tuesday, 22 November 2011

48 hours is a long time in hockey

I’ve been hearing it every single year, for as long as I can remember. At some point during a football season a manager, usually at one of the top clubs, will moan about ‘fixture congestion’.

Earlier this month Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish was quoted as saying: “It is disgraceful in this day and age that players are being asked to play a key Premier League game and then a quarter-final in London just 48 hours later. It’s surely the duty of the football authorities to think of other solutions which consider the welfare of the players and this clearly hasn’t happened.”

Now I’m not picking on Dalglish for any reason other than he’s the latest to complain, truth be told there’s probably not a manager in the Premier League that hasn’t moaned about scheduling at some point. Usually the reason for this is having to play two games in 48 hours or maybe three games in a week. Okay, that's a lot of football but these are professional athletes paid millions of pounds to play the game.

So if footballers are unable to play two games in three days, how the hell are teams able to function in the NHL. Let’s just have a look at Dalglish’s recent moan and, as an example, compare it to the recent schedule of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Dalglish is upset because his team are being forced to play a game in Liverpool against Manchester City on a Sunday and a cup quarter final against Chelsea in London the following Tuesday night, approximately 49 and a half hours later. Before playing the second game they will also need to travel around 210 miles to the capital.

Now let’s look at the Leafs. On Sunday night they hosted the Washington Capitals in a 7pm start in Toronto. Their next game was the following day starting at 5pm, meaning less than 20 hours after finishing one game they were playing again – startling. Even more so when you consider not only did they have this short turn around, but they had to travel 800 miles to Carolina during the few hours between the games! And it’s even more astounding when you realise that the game in Carolina was the Leafs’ fourth in just six days.

Whereas in football it’s relatively unusual to see two games in three days, in the NHL the above scenario is the norm. NHL teams play 82 regular season games every year and if you go all the way to the cup final you can expect to play well over the 100 games mark. That compares to just 38 Premier League games, which is topped up to around 55 or 60 depending on cup success. Yes, there is an argument that football games are 90 minutes long where as in the NHL players generally spend between 15 and 20 minutes on the ice each game. However, the physical and mental stress of playing so regularly and having to travel so far must make the demands of the hockey much greater than those of English football.

If you ask me, football managers should not be allowed to complain about fixture pile-ups!

Sid the kid

I couldn’t write this today without mentioning the return of Sidney Crosby last night. There are two things to talk about really. Firstly, the incredibly over the top media circus and hyperbole that surrounded his return, and secondly the unbelievably good performance that just backed it all up!

The pre-game anticipation ramped up to seriously heady heights on Monday night – it was the sort of anticipation that I’ve only seen once or twice in sport. Fans flocked to the game, TV networks changed schedules to screen it and hockey fans couldn’t stop talking and tweeting about it.

His performance was outstanding. Whatever you say, there is no way that any sportsman can be out injured for 10 months and come back at 100 per cent match fitness. To play 16 minutes and leave the ice with a haul of four points was terrifyingly good – if he can do that now what is he going to be like in seven, eight or nine games time. The disappointing Islanders were obviously nice opposition for his comeback but there must have been some worries and concerns on his mind, not that it showed.

Being relatively new to this sport it was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to see Crosby play and it was an absolute pleasure. Even having missed the first 20 games of the season, if he keeps up that kind of form I wouldn’t bet against him threatening the top of the goal scoring charts come the end of the season. If they stay healthy, the Penguins will be a very, very tough side to beat this year.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

It's been a long time coming

The last couple of weeks have been crazy busy and I haven’t had much time to get on here. I have, however, been keeping up with events in the NHL as best I can and just wanted to share my two pence worth on a few ‘issues’ that have sparked debate in the last couple of weeks.

Flyers @ Lightning

There was much discussion following the Flyers unusual tactics in this game - particularly as it was being screened on TV across America. While there have been calls to change the rules to stop this kind of play I have to say I don’t have a problem with it. I suppose it depends which way you look at it – is the sport an entertainment business or a results business?

If it’s entertainment then obviously these kind of tactics do not lend themselves to high scoring, fast paced games. I’d never seen anything like this before in my fledgling NHL watching career so it was a surprise to me, but if I’m honest not one that I think should be outlawed.

There appears to be a lot of pressure on North American sports to provide entertainment – far more so than there is over here. I can’t tell you how many awful, awful 0-0 or 1-0 football matches I’ve been to. But for me, sometimes that’s sport. In the Premier League the smaller teams will frequently set up defensively against the bigger clubs, hoping to earn a draw and a point rather than going on the attack and losing five or six nil. For me the Flyers were just using tactics that they felt would best helpt them to win the game – which surely has to be the ultimate objective. If the coach paraded exciting, end to end hockey each game but lost 9-8 every time fans would soon be calling for his head. In my opinion if the coach feels that is the best way to go about winning the match then so be it.

To an extent you could compare it to the way Stoke City play in the Premier League over here. For anyone that hasn’t seen them they employ a midfielder (Rory Delap) who has an unusually long throw and whenever the opportunity arises they pack the area in front of the keeper and let Delap chuck it in there and see what happens. It’s hardly beautiful to watch, but more often than not the ball ends up in the back of the net and they get results. In my opinion, while sport does obviously entertain, it is ultimately a results businesses and coaches and players should do whatever they can – within the laws of the game – to win.

Milan Lucic on Ryan Miller

Another contentious incident from the last couple of weeks was the Milan Lucic hit on Ryan Miller and the fact that Lucic escaped suspension from ‘Sheriff Shanahan’. This is difficult for me to comment on having a pretty small frame of reference on these kind of things, but for what it’s worth I don’t think the hit was worthy of a suspension. Miller had made the decision to come out of his net and must have known he was on a collision course with Lucic and the end result was inevitable. Goal tenders certainly need protection, but when they come out of their area in this kind of situation they need to be prepared to go head to head with the attacker. In football goalkeepers are far too protected these days - if any forward goes up for a challenege with a keeper 99 times out of 100 the goalie will win a free-kick.

What was mind boggling was the lack of retribution that was dished out on Miller’s behalf on the ice directly afterwards. I should imagine the next game between the Bruins and the Sabres will be a little bit spicy!

Consistently inconsistent

Frustrating. Pretty much sums up what watching the Canucks is like right now. I’ve managed to have seen at least highlights of every game so far this season and it’s impossible to predict which Canucks side is going to turn up. The defense has struggled throughout the season – perhaps down to the changing partnerships and lack of consistency of the line up.

Going forward the team has really only fired in four or five games. I’ve been particularly disappointed with what I’ve seen from Ryan Kesler so far this season. I know he’s coming back from injury so he must be given time, but to date he hasn’t been influential during games and the second line has struggled to pick up the slack when the Sedin line isn't firing.

Some people are already saying we will be lucky to scrape into the play-offs, but it’s still early in the season and I’m confident that at some point we will get on a run and push on up the conference table. I can but hope!

Friday, 4 November 2011

Why can't we be friends?

Having never actually been to an NHL game this is going to be slightly difficult to write, but since I started watching hockey I've been wanting to compare the fans and the atmosphere of hockey games with the English football matches that I'm more used to. There are some very clear differences which I should think make the two experiences quite different.

For starters, in the Canucks games I've watched so far and from what I've been told on Twitter (thanks @a3minuterecord), there is no segregation between fans of opposing teams in the NHL. This makes for an entirely different atmosphere in the arenas - whether or not it's better though is hard to say.

As I've mentioned before I'm a Portsmouth (Pompey) fan and while I've not watched nearly as much football this season as I normally would, I still closely follow Portsmouth. Over the years I've seen Pompey play at some of the biggest stadiums in the country and some of the lesser known venues that I'd imagine most people reading this won't have heard of. Anyway, the one thing that is the same no matter where you watch a game in this country is that you will be in the stands among your fellow fans, segregated (often by lines of stewards or police) from the opposing team's fans.

It's almost unimaginable to have the two sets of fans mixed together. In fact I've recently bought tickets to see Portsmouth host south coast rivals Southampton (warmly known as scummers to Pompey fans) in December. There will be around 16,000 Pompey fans at the game and 3,000 scummers. ALL of the Southampton fans must travel on official club coaches and will be given a police escort into the ground. Anyone found making their own way on public transport or in their own cars won't be allowed in. There is a long history of violence and hooliganism between the two sides and normally dozens of arrests are made when they face each other.

That's why I find it so unusual to see NHL fans from opposing sides sat next to each other at games, particularly with the intense and violent nature of hockey. I know the fans have the same passion for their teams, I've read this blog post from @TheStanchion and I know that feeling, wanting your team to win so badly that you can't even watch their fate unfold. With emotion from fans running that high I honestly think it's impressive that every game doesn't end in a riot (I am aware that one game did earlier this year, but we don't need talk about that).

With football you have to ask the question whether the hostile treatment visiting fans receive from stewards and police actually entices violence - there's even a group who protest the treatment of away fans by police and stewards. Sadly there's a history of hooliganism in our national game and it's an unwanted tag that will, in all probability, never be shaken. For what it's worth, I've been going to games since 1992 and have never been involved in an altercation which suggests there is only violence there if you go looking for it.

But maybe segregation does provide one upside. While fans being separated can emphasise a nasty side of the game, what it also does is help to create an electric atmosphere. Visiting supporters, normally the more die-hard fans, will usually sing and taunt their opponents for the full 90 minutes, while the home side will unite against them dishing out the chants they are famous for. In Portsmouth's case the 'Pompey Chimes' is the most famous (if you've ever heard a clock chime they'll be familiar). While we're talking about fans and noise I feel I need to shoe-horn in one of my favourite YouTube videos which demonstrates the atmosphere at Fratton Park at its best. For me, it's never been better than this.

At the Canucks games I've watched so far there have been moments of noise from the crowd but not the continuing wall of sound that you tend to get a football games (not that I'm saying it's a good thing that we have to put up with this guy ringing a bell and blowing on a bugle for 90 minutes). Songs seem to be few and far between too. I've picked up on the 'Go Canucks Go' chants that surface once in a while, but haven't heard anything other than that. I also haven't heard any songs or chants that put down Vancouver's rivals. At dull Pompey games fans generally revert anti-scummer songs which I wouldn't want to repeat here - the sort of songs you wouldn't sing in front of your mother, let's put it that way.

Of course the hockey I've watched so far has mainly been early regular season stuff, so I wouldn't expect the atmosphere from the fans to be too intense. And I'm hardly an expert on these matters with my massive four weeks experience of watching hockey. If there are any songs or derogatory chants out there that I've missed I'd love to know about them!

Earlier this week I did sit down and watch Game 7 of the series against the Blackhawks from last season and the increase in noise and excitement was obvious. When Burrows unleashed this rocket, the place erupted. I'm certainly looking forward to the post-season where it looks like the atmosphere ramps up considerably. Although the Canucks will have to get there first!