Friday, January 31, 2014

Leafs Rivalry Dies Hard For Some, Never Existed For Others

Another Saturday night. Another Leafs vs. Sens matchup.

It doesn’t seem to have the same intensity that it used to, does it?

In fact, there’s a whole generation of new fans who probably don’t truly understand the enmity both teams and fanbases had towards each other during the height of the rivalry. At times, there was real bloodlust there, like when Tie Domi absolutely crushed Martin Havlat with a hit that ended up on repeat in Don Cherry's videos, or when Domi beat up Magnus Arvedson. Clips of Daniel Alfredsson destroying Darcy Tucker against the boards are now played alongside sentimental music during tributes to the former captain, but many forget the ugly incidents that led up to or followed that.

Like Darcy Tucker irrationally diving with fists swinging into the Senators bench, trying to fight the whole team, only to later claim that a Senators player spat on him. Or Leaf coach Pat Quinn accusing Marian Hossa of intentionally swinging his stick into Bryan Berard’s eye. Or Curtis Joseph exploding into a rage after a Sens goal and tackling plump referee Mick McGeough in the corner, later claiming to have “slipped”.

The last major controversy was probably Mark Bell crushing Alfredsson with a blind-side hit just before the 2008 playoffs. Even that seems like ancient history.

Now we mostly get Nazem Kadri and Cory Conacher yapping at each other in scrums. Luckily for Conacher, Kadri always has Lupes to “hold him back”.

Expect all this politeness to change. Very soon.

But before we get into the reasons for that, let’s take a quick look back at some of the playoff carnage:

1999-00: Leafs beat Sens in 6 games in the first round of the playoffs. Ottawa scores only twice in 3 games against Curtis Joseph at the new Air Canada Centre.

2000-01: Leafs sweep Sens in first round, despite losing all 5 games to Ottawa in the regular season. Ottawa scores 3 goals in the entire series, getting shutout by Joseph in the first two games at home. Games 1 and 3 ended in overtime on goals by Mats Sundin and defenseman Cory Cross respectively. Ottawa’s best player, Alexei Yashin, gets one assist in the series and promptly gets traded to Long Island.

2001-02: Ottawa loses again to Toronto, this time in a close 7-game, second-round series. This is made all the more painful because the Senators held a 3-2 series lead going home for Game 6. They raced out to a 2-0 lead early in the first on goals by Hossa and Alfredsson, only to watch defenseman Ricard Persson take a 5-minute boarding call and game misconduct for checking Domi from behind into the boards. Many felt Domi went down a little too easy, but the Leafs tied the game with two goals on the ensuing power-play and went on to win by a goal, tying the series. The Sens didn’t recover in Game 7, getting shutout by Joseph again in Toronto.

2003-04: After marching to the conference final the year before, the Senators and their fans were confident going into a first-round match against the now hated Leafs. It would be Jacques Martin’s last as coach in Ottawa. Somehow, the Senators get shutout 3 times in the series but still manage to push it to a seventh game in Toronto. Before the game, new Sens owner Eugene Melnyk was quoted as saying “We’re gonna kill ‘em!” Famously, Ottawa goalie Patrick Lalime implodes in the first period on two long shots by Joe Nieuwendyk and his career in Ottawa ends along with Martin’s. Domi says after the game, “A big inspiration was Eugene Melnyk's comments.


At the time I was working at Hy’s Steakhouse and one of the cooks came in the next day with a broken hand from smashing it into his coffee table after the second Nieuwendyk goal. He had to work the salad station for a month.

Tensions were extremely high during that series. I remember watching the last game with my younger brother and his girlfriend. When Toronto scored one of those goals against Lalime, his girlfriend (now his wife) let out this huge roar of frustration, ran out of the room and up the stairs where we heard a bedroom door slam so hard that we thought the hinges had snapped off the frame. She stayed up there the rest of the night with all the lights off. And she didn’t even like hockey.

That’s the kind of mass anguish we’re talking about here.

The Senators and Leafs haven’t played a series against each other since. That could change very soon for a couple of reasons.

One, the new NHL alignment calls for divisional playoff-matchups, although that’s mitigated by the “wildcard” slots which will frequently result in cross-divisional matchups. Only the 2nd and 3rd seeds in each division are guaranteed to play each other in the first round, but sooner or later the Leafs and Sens are bound to end up there together.

Secondly, we've hit an era where both teams are likely to be perennial playoff contenders. That hasn't been the case since 2004. After crushing the hearts of Senators fans that year, the Leafs went on a horrific streak after the 2005 lockout, missing the playoffs seven straight times. When they finally made it back to the dance last season, their usual partner was locked in a nasty affair with the Montreal Canadiens. This just further diverted local Ottawa fans from their old enemies across the province.

Thus, the rivalry has died off, kept on life-support by the press needing angles and older fans who still can’t quite use their hand the way they used to in 2004.

Now that Ottawa actually has a temporary hold on a wildcard spot, and with the Leafs looking like a lock for the post-season, we may actually get another series out of these two in the near future.

When it does happen, it’s going to be wild. Remember, in the heyday of the Battle Of Ontario, there was no such thing as Twitter. Fans used to diss each other on forums or by writing letters to the Hockey News, putting it in an envelope, licking a stamp and walking down the block to the red box. Two months later when the new issue hit the stands… BURN.

Until that next series, we’ll have to make do with some minor hacks and whacks, unless the two truculent coaches, Randy Carlyle and Paul MacLean decide to get into it in the hallways. I think it could look something like this. Or we can hope.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Erik Cole: Spezza Needs You. If Not, Can You Ask Ray?

Suddenly Black Aces has turned into a rumours blog that’s putting Eklund to shame, but at this time of year, even I get sucked in.

So here’s an unsolicited one of my own.

GM Bryan Murray should look closely at bringing Erik Cole in from Dallas to play with Jason Spezza.

The reasons? In the Matt Moulson article below I talked at length about Spezza needing a winger. Everybody’s talking about that. Even Brian 5or6’s Granny is talking about that. So as a fan, you go through the usual suspects like Moulson, Thomas Vanek and Ales Hemsky, but chances are, if something does get done, it will be a name that catches everyone by surprise. Like Oleg “Freakin” Saprykin.

Let me throw Erik Cole into the mill. Remember him? The guy who used to victimize Ottawa with speed and goal-scoring in his prime years?

I’ve always liked Cole over the years, but lately he’s been out of sight, out of mind. Playing over in Dallas, I don’t get to see him much anymore and his stats aren’t exactly forcing us early-to-bed Easterner’s to take much notice.

Then his named popped up in Elliotte Friedman’s 30 Thoughts article today – not in connection to Ottawa – but as a player who may be unhappy in Texas. As Friedman noted, Cole’s agent strongly denied that rumour and there was no more elaboration on the subject.

Chances are it really is case closed. Cole has a no-trade clause according to Cap Geek, and with one year left on his deal at $4.5 million (but just $4 million in actual salary), he’s not exactly a deadline rental.

Yet Dallas is a long-shot to make the playoffs in the brutal Western Conference. GM Jim Nill is in his first year at the helm and has barely started to rebuild the team that suffered some tough years under Joe Nieuwendyk. A guy like Erik Cole is not in the long-term plans and a Stanley Cup is not in the short-term plans. Cole has been around a long time and I’m sure he can see what’s happening.

From a purely hockey standpoint, it would tough to see him objecting to a trade. Family and lifestyle issues may stand in the way, but if you dangled the prospect of playing with Jason Spezza in front of Cole, wouldn’t he be at least a little interested in paying more taxes?

Many of you will scoff and say Cole is injury-prone, old (he’s 35) and not even close to the same player he was when he won a Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006. He can’t be worth a $4.5 million cap hit. But how much would he be worth if he was riding shotgun with Spezza? How do you calculate that?

Cole scored 35 goals just two seasons ago with Montreal. He has 14 this season on a fairly bad Dallas team and he’s reached the 20 goal plateau 5 times since 2006.

He’s also left-handed shot, which is what Dany Heatley was (as is Moulson, another reason I thought he could work with Spezza - I'm obsessed with this apparently), and Cole is big (6’2, 212 lbs.) and fast. Coach Paul MacLean could have Spezza flanked by both Cole and Colin Greening, which would be a hulking but skilled line.

Of course, in this imaginary world, the Senators would be on the hook for Cole’s contract next year, but it would essentially replace Milan Michalek’s cap number, who will be leaving this summer as a UFA.

Both players have been injury prone (Cole once broke his back) but have played almost a full slate of games so far this season. If anything, swapping Cole’s deal for Michalek’s next year would work. It feels like the exact same argument I made for Moulson, although at least the Senators know Cole’s cap hit for next season. Moulson’s would have to be negotiated, and could top $5 million. I also get the feeling someone could get Cole for less than what Moulson would fetch. I don’t know that for sure, but it seems logical with what we've been hearing so far.

Cole may not be a perfect fit with Spezza, as he plays the game more like Michalek than he does Heatley, but unless the Senators want to ante up for his Stars teammate Ray Whitney or any other high profile winger, Cole might be a guy who has so far escaped much trade market scrutiny and could interest Murray.

Nill will be looking for younger players and the Senators have a lot of those. Probably too many at this point, particularly on defense and at centre where the Stars aren’t exactly stocked.

Could it work? I’m no Kreskin but it seems to me that letting Spezza waste away without a true scoring winger for the rest of the season is far riskier than what a winger like Cole could possibly bring.

Will it happen? Something will, but a blog about it won’t make anything happen sooner than it should. If it’s Cole, I’ll be stunned, but if it’s no one, I’ll be even more surprised.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Closer Look At The "Moulson To Sens" Rumours

Jason Spezza needs a winger. This is not breaking news.

If you’ve been watching the Ottawa Senators for the past 3 months, you know it as well as anybody. Coach Paul MacLean has put Spezza on an island, and that’s no place for your team captain and arguably most skilled player to be.

There’s no denying Spezza is having a tough year. Not a terrible year, but he’s not the same guy we’ve seen in the past. The reasons for that are numerous, and a lot of the blame rests with his own play, but he hasn’t exactly been put in the best position to maximize his particular talents. That’s on both MacLean and GM Bryan Murray, although Murray gets an "A" for effort by bringing in Bobby Ryan to play with Spezza, only to have MacLean keep them apart out of what seems like stubbornness at times.

Spezza is a glaring -17, second worst on the team, but that’s not necessarily an indication of a big drop-off in his defensive play. Spezza has always been a risk-taker and a bit iffy on the defensive side, but the difference this year is that his line is not scoring 5-on-5 like it has in the past. If anything, Spezza has improved his commitment to backchecking and playing down low in his own end (as a team captain has to do), but he’s been struck with the double plague of skating in front of bad goaltending early in the season and having a rotisserie of wingers on either side, none of whom are a natural fit.

And you can see it out there almost every night. When Spezza makes something happen, it’s usually because he’s forced the issue on his own, making a brilliant solo play while his wingers just try to go to the net and pull some defenseman along with them. Last night in Washington was a good example. You could tell Spezza was “on”, but he couldn’t really get any offense going 5-on-5. It took a power-play and an awkward looking game of tag with defenseman Patrick Wiercioch (who refused to shoot) for Spezza to just say, “screw this” and power one from the sideboards through Caps goalie Braden Holtby for the insurance goal in the third period.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Spezza is still a 90-point player in this league, but he’s not going to get there playing with 30-point wingers. He needs to play with a sniper to utilize his biggest strength – which is playmaking – but unless MacLean decides to loan either Ryan or Clarke MacArthur to Spezza’s line, this team seems to be wasting the franchise centre’s second-last contract year.

Cue the Matt Moulson rumours.

It makes sense at first glance. Moulson’s a natural goal scorer, a left-handed shooter like Dany Heatley was with a very manageable pro-rated $3.9 million salary (3.1 cap hit) the rest of this season until he becomes a UFA. Basically, it’s a rental player scenario that’s easy on the payroll and doesn’t carry a burden past this season, unless both sides want it to.

The other reason this makes sense is that Bryan Murray will be dealing with his nephew and ex-employee Tim Murray in Buffalo if this deal were to go down, and that’s surely what’s given this rumour some legs. TSN mentioned it, as did the Ottawa Sun, so this isn’t just one of those HF Boards doozies that occasionally seeps into the mainstream, causing seasoned reporters to panic thinking they missed a major lead. It all sounds fairly reasonable, even inevitable.

But so did Mike Sillinger, Peter Bondra, Martin Lapointe, and Mike Comrie. These things don’t always work out like they should.

If you’re wondering about Moulson’s credentials as a goal-scorer, Tim Wharnsby had a piece back in late-December  pointing out that Moulson has scored the 12th most goals in the NHL since the 2009-10 season, putting him just behind the likes of Patrick Kane, John Tavares, Sidney Crosby, Jeff Carter and Bobby Ryan.

Some say that Moulson put up inflated numbers playing shotgun with Tavares, but why is that a criticism? Behind almost every goal-scoring winger is a number one centre. It just shows that Moulson can work with good players and be effective. If he’s coming to Ottawa, he’s coming to play with Spezza. The concerns seem overstated.

But this isn’t a slam-dunk, even though it looked like I was trying to lead you there.

Firstly, Tim Murray is a cagey bastard and knows the Senators prospect pool better than anyone in the league. He’s got a few chips he can play at the deadline, Moulson being one of them along with Ryan Miller and Steve Ott. Murray has to make an impact with his first moves as GM in Buffalo. If he’s going to make a deal with Ottawa, he’s going to go after his previous pet prospects in the Senators system and it’s going to be an attempted raid we haven’t seen the likes of since Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen.

Of course, we don’t know exactly what Buffalo would want out of Ottawa, but you can probably take a pretty good guess. We know Tim Murray loves Mark Stone, because we’ve heard him gush about Stone on local radio for a few years. Moulson would be an upgrade on Stone this year and probably next, but in the long run, that could be a move that backfires badly on Ottawa.

Moulson also isn’t exactly a “physical” player. Both Bryan and Tim Murray like big, strong teams and in that respect, Moulson may not be a fit for either GM. For the chance at a goal-scorer, sometimes you overlook their size or aggressiveness, as in the case of Kyle Turris (who’s proven to be tougher and feistier than his look suggests), but how many of those players can you take on board before it changes the style of your team?

Moulson isn’t small at six feet, but he doesn’t strike me as a Bryan Murray type player. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m not sure Bryan would give up a potential power-forward for a rental like Moulson.

Another way you can look at it is Moulson being a salary replacement for Milan Michalek next season.

Ottawa doesn’t want to add a ton of salary but they can’t go backwards either. The cap and floor are going to go up next season (allegedly) and it doesn’t look to me like Michalek will be re-signed, at least not at his current $6 million salary (4.3 cap hit). I like Michalek as a player, but he’s not scoring anymore. It’s hard to justify that money for his reduced role on the third line this season.

Yet the Senators can’t just have rookies fill that spot. Rookies don’t make enough money. To hit the floor, you have to have certain guys making over $3 million, even if they don’t seem completely worth it. That’s just the reality. That’s why Colin Greening got such a sweet deal and that’s why Jared Cowen did as well.

Moulson will definitely be getting a raise on his $3.9 million salary. Someone will give him $4-4.5 in the NHL. Why not the Senators? Maybe they can float above the cap floor and get a real scoring winger with a trade-and-sign deal for Moulson.

Maybe they go in another direction entirely.

You have to remember the Free Agent pool seems to get slimmer every summer. Spezza still has one more year on his contract. The Senators don’t want him trying out new wingers every week for the duration of that. Someone has to be brought in. Do they want to bring Heatley back this summer? That’s outright laughable considering the bad blood between him and Eugene Melnyk. Do you ante up for Thomas Vanek or Mike Cammalleri? Ales Hemsky?

Suddenly Matt Moulson looks a little more reasonable if they can get it done.

Then again, it all depends on Tim Murray being reasonable.

We know he won’t be cheery and charitable. So don’t go ordering that Moulson nameplate to paste over your #26 Ryan Shannon jersey.

All 3 of you.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Dale Hunter, Bobby Ryan, Dee Snider and Coca-Cola – How One Game Sent Me Back To The 80’s

The game last night between the Senators and the Canadiens had some kind of magic to it, a strange forgotten appeal that somehow found its way here from the 80’s when the game was wide open and a little more dangerous. The rink in Kanata was charged, the two teams getting away from their coaching systems enough that it resembled something long gone, something unpredictable and addicting.

We saw a winger, Bobby Ryan, skate over the blue line and beat Carey Price clean. That doesn’t really happen anymore except for the very few elite players with an overpowering shot. Even for them, it’s rare. We saw tragic bounces (Jared Cowen), wild rushing defensemen (Erik Karlsson), actual athletic goaltending that was at times astonishing (Price), 9 goals, lead-changes and even a wild overtime celebration from P.K. Subban who until that time was playing in the shadow of a determined Karlsson all night long. I think his histrionics had as much to do with beating Karlsson as it did with beating the Senators.

It was a hell of a game … so good in fact that it dawned on me how few of these we actually get outside of the playoffs. The consequences of the outcome didn’t seem to matter once you got caught up in it all. You just wanted to see what happened next, and you got a little nervous thinking about it. I never found myself wandering over to Twitter out of boredom. I didn’t want to see how sarcastic or angry everyone was over somebody's ice-time. I was just watching a hockey game, unable to break away.

And it reminded me of Lonny and my Old Man.

My Dad’s best friend was a guy named Lonny. We called him “Uncle Lonny” but there was no relation there. It just seemed natural to call him that and I think he liked it. They drank beers together on Saturday nights – Molson Ex in stub bottles only - and showed me my first hockey games just a couple of years after I was born ‘76. I don’t remember those early nights, of course, but eventually it kind of comes together in the early 80’s when Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier caught my attention.

Lonny had red hair and always wore a bright orange Calgary Flames jersey that was a little too tight. My old man wore a red Chicago Blackhawks sweater, and later on a white Washington Capitals. They used to order them from the ads in the back of The Hockey News and it was a big deal to them.

They’d get stinko drunk but never get a drop of anything on those sweaters. When the game was over the jerseys would go back on a hanger in the closet. Sometimes my old man would take out the Blackhawks jersey and just stare at it for a while and put it back, wordlessly. These were the most valuable things in our house, or at least it seemed that way to me. Transmissions would fall out of our cars and lamps would wobble over and smash on the floor, all replaceable. But those sweaters were handled with perfect care, sober or not.

When I was real young my Dad told me he’d once played for the Blackhawks and knew Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. He was lying but it was a pretty good lie. When I was in Grade 3 my Mom told me he was full of it but my Dad never admitted to anything. He’d just smile when I asked him if it was really true.

Where do you think I got the sweater? They don’t just give them to anybody. You have to be a player. You shoulda seen me out there. I cut down Marcel Dionne one night with a stick right to the back of his leg. Wap! Down he went. They didn’t mess with me after that.”

So I’d ask, “Did Uncle Lonny play for the Flames too Dad?”

Are you kidding? He’s a shrimp”.

It was a jumble of confusing lies but I was in awe. Seeing Lonny and my Dad in those bright sweaters every Saturday night held some kind of power for me. It became a ritual – the one bottle of pop allowed during the week (in a glass bottle, kept ice cold) - the bowl of potato chips or caramel popcorn. You died all week at school thinking about Saturday night.

They’d watch the game and explain to me what was going on, things like “Now, Dale Hunter, he’s the scariest guy in hockey. Look at his eyes when he’s playing.” And I’d watch Dale Hunter’s eyes, cold and flat, his mouth a straight line across his square face. And Hunter would inevitably grab a Montreal Canadien and bury him at centre ice, causing an all-out brawl between the Nordiques and the Habs.

One of the games I remember most from that time was the one they now call the “Good Friday Massacre”. It was absolutely insane. April 20th, 1984, second round of the playoffs on CBC and all hell broke loose. A bench clearing brawl ended the 2nd period. Then when they came out for the 3rd, before the refs were even on the ice, another one broke out and they couldn’t stop it. There was blood everywhere, like you’d see on those old Saturday afternoon wrestling shows I’d watch with Abdullah The Butcher and Greg “The Hammer” Valentine. It was sort of scary but you couldn’t look away either.

Lonny would say, “Watch Gretzky. Watch where he passes the puck. Looks like nobody’s there, right? But he knows exactly where Kurri is going every time. “ And Gretzky would cross the blueline, pull up, spin and saucer a puck to open ice just in time for Kurri to arrive and whip it past Mike Vernon. I’d just stare, trying to understand it all.

Lonny would lose his mind every time Calgary lost to Edmonton. But he had this laugh exactly like Barney Rubble from The Flinstones, a kind of “hyu, hyu, hyu” laugh that I can still hear after I’d ask him “When can I play in the NHL?”

We watched it all together in those years, in front of a brand new RCA with the channel dials at our house in Dunrobin, just down the road from the Younghusbands corner store (one of the greatest store names I can even think of) where you could buy The Hockey News in the big broadsheet size. That was truly The Bible Of Hockey before it turned into a grandstand that just whines about everything they hate about the game. Not that they’re alone in that regard, but that magazine helped me love the game growing up and now I can’t even read it anymore without getting depressed. Times have changed.

I sat there and watched Wayne Gretzky lift the Stanley Cup for the first time after beating the Islanders in ’84. I remember that Mark Messier goal against Billy Smith early in the series that changed the tide. I probably got my love of Messier from Lonny always saying “That goddamned Messier!” every time he ran over Joel Otto of the Flames.

There was a hockey tournament that my team played, I can’t remember which town now, but it was a bit of a long drive, so Lonny decided to come along with me and my Dad. They wore the Flames and Blackhawks jersey and acted like two kids on their own for the first time, taking me to the arena canteen and filling me with chuckwagons and ice cream while they drank about 30 coffees out of Styrofoam cups and cheered me on from the stands.

Before our last game of the weekend, this older guy came in our dressing room wearing a Detroit Red Wings team jacket. I can’t remember his name, but he was some kind of NHL scout for the Red Wings and our coach said he wanted to say a few things to us.

This old guy got in the middle of the room with that amazing red leather jacket that had the Wings logo over his heart and proceeded to talk about how he knew Steve Yzerman when Steve was just a young kid from Nepean playing minor hockey. He said all this stuff about working hard and chasing your dreams, but all we could think about was this guy knew Steve Yzerman. This guy, standing in front of us, was once in the same room as Yzerman, NHL star. We were now in the same room as this guy. For some reason, that fact blew all our minds. We went out and trounced the other team and won the tournament. Just a hint of the NHL, just a thread of an association was enough to send us into complete reverie.

Strangely enough, it was Lonny who pointed me in a direction away from hockey on the way home from that trip.

With Lonny riding shotgun, my Dad driving and me in the middle, we stopped in Arnprior to eat and my Dad let me buy a heavy metal magazine like he always did. I was starting to get into music and really liked Kiss and Quiet Riot and all that early 80’s metal that was big at the time. I think the mag was a Hit Parader, but it definitely had Dee Snider from Twisted Sister in all his neon pink and billowing hair glory. Lonny happened to look over and see the cover of this as I started flipping through it in the truck on the way home.

Now Lonny was as nice a man as you can find, and to this day I still keep in touch when I can, even though my Dad died in 2003. But back then was the time of the PMRC – The Parents Musical Resource Centre led by Tipper Gore (Al Gore’s wife), and they were the ones calling for bans on a lot of metal music and ended up ushering in the Explicit Lyrics stickers you still see on CD’s today. Paranoia was rampant that metal was causing kids to commit suicide. Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest ended up in trials over it but acquitted because the charges were so ridiculous.

Lonny didn’t like the look of it. He asked my Dad why I was allowed to read that kind of filth. My old man just shrugged. He knew it wasn’t doing me any harm. But Lonny told him to pull over and took the magazine from my hands. He got out of the truck, turned his back on me, threw it on the gravel, unzipped his pants and pissed on it.

Right on Dee Snider’s face.

I can still hear the piss hitting the glossy paper in full stream as me and father sat there silently. Then he got back in the truck and we rolled on home, nobody saying a word about it. But in my head, I was suddenly a complete and utterly devoted convert to heavy metal.

Something that could cause that kind of reaction from a nice guy like Lonny surely deserved my full attention, and from then on, hockey sort of went away until many years later when I rediscovered my love of the game just as Ottawa came back to the NHL in 1992.

Now when I listen to call-in shows or go on Twitter, and I see and hear all that snide anger and smarminess, I can kind of hear my Uncle Lonny pissing on that magazine. I know that’s ridiculous, but it demonstrated an important point to me in my life.

If that many people have a problem with it – including the fights, the hits, the traditions – then it gives me a kind of satisfaction to say I still love all of it, even when it gets ugly from time to time. The more people complain about different aspects of the game, the more I embrace those same aspects. It may be a little out of spite, but it’s also a weight off your shoulders to just accept the game for what it is, not what it could be.

I’ve always wanted to go back to that headspace where you like something without any reservations. Where you believe the myth and buy in completely. I know that’s impossible once you’re older, but staying away from Twitter during games and just watching closely has moved me back enough that I can at least remember what it was like. The feeling will pass in a day or two, but I at least wanted to try and capture it while it lasted. Next week I’ll be ripping the team for something completely unimportant, just like everyone else.

Somehow this all went through my head during the game last night. Maybe it won’t make much sense to you, but I have to thank Lonny all these years later for teaching me how to love the game, and also for pissing on Dee Snider’s face on the side of the road outside Arnprior.

Believe it or not, it all connects for me.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Sens Internal Cap Remains, Just The Spin Changed… For A Few Hours

With General Manager Bryan Murray riding the high of a newly announced four-year contract (two as GM, two as an “advisor”) and the team on a sudden upswing in the standings, you can’t blame Senators owner Eugene Melnyk and Murray effectively ringing the dinner bell here in town, relaying the message to fans that the Senators are “open for business”.

After months of nothing but bad news, it was time for a few smiles.

Already enduring the perception (fairly or unfairly) of being the local Scrooge, Melnyk seemed to dance around the subject of increasing the team’s player budget. On the conference call to announce the Murray deal, both parties hinted that room could be made to bring in a player or two who can help them this year, leading most observers to think that the hard ceiling of the Senators internal budget may be softening. Some speculated that Murray may have even demanded more budget room if he was going to stay on, but that’s just conjecture at this point.

Regardless, the effect was a good one for the Senators on the public relations front. It gave the impression of a stable management team working for an owner still committed to winning, even if it meant doling out a few extra bones with those alligator arms that couldn’t quite reach the wallet during the Daniel Alfredsson negotiations this past summer.

They even talked about the Stanley Cup coming to town in the next two years. It was quite the show.

However, if you listened to Melnyk’s interview on TSN 1200 Monday afternoon with Ian Mendes and Lee Versage, a few hours after the initial feel-good announcement, a bit of the veneer had already washed away.

Melnyk bristled at one of Mendes’ questions about a possible raising of the internal budget and avoided a direct answer, instead going into his now familiar routine of “any idiot can go spend money” but he wasn’t going to be one of those fools.

Specifically he said “There are so many idiots out there that spend to the cap every year. Take a look where they are. It all comes down to cost per point. That’s the only stat I care about. Cost per point.

That’s a bit of a tonal shift from the Melnyk we heard in the Murray conference-call and doesn’t exactly give the average fan goosebumps of anticipation. Instead, it sounds like the philosophy has only hardened, not softened.

It seems that any deal is likely to be a money-in, money-out proposition or possibly a minor add-on cost that could be absorbed by cutting elsewhere. With the Canadian dollar trending down and a Stanley Cup out of reach this season (they aren’t even in a playoff spot right now), don’t expect a spending frenzy any time soon.

To put even more of a downer on the point, Melnyk actually mentioned the dreaded “relocation” scenario and brought up Rod Bryden’s bankruptcy.

It’s not a philanthropic thing... you have to go into a season and say, ‘You know what? We need to support this team.' Otherwise, you know what happens? Exactly. Everybody keeps forgetting what happened 11 years ago. The team goes bankrupt and it moves. Period. Full stop. And it was going to move until I came in. So unfortunately I take heat for it. I don’t mind taking the bullet…

It was a bit of deserved grandstanding on Melnyk’s part, reminding the city that he jumped in to save the franchise (which he undoubtedly did), but he also went on to make a very reasonable statement that maintaining the team’s financial viability was the top concern. Hard to argue with that. Nobody wants to see the franchise endangered because Melnyk decided that it was Stanley Cup or bust this season or next.

Yet, as always with Melnyk, it’s the sometimes crude, often awkward way he says these things (usually on Toronto radio) that makes the fans wince. Bryan Murray always finds a way to make bad news seem … not so bad. Melnyk has a way of making everyone panic, even when he thinks he’s delivering good news.

Fans don’t like to hear financial ultimatums. As smart as they are, fans also don’t want to accept financial reality when it comes to their passion. They can live with it, but they don’t like to be reminded every time their owner gets in front of a microphone that they can’t compete with “the big boys”. A little illusion goes a long way for fans, even when they know it’s a farce. They don’t want to be lied to, but they also don’t want to know the bald truth.

And all this was just supposed to be a short intro to what I initially wanted to write about - who the potential trade bait on this Senators team would be - but of course the lure of writing about Melnyk was too much once the coffee kicked in.

I find him a fascinating character, one who steps in it every chance he gets, but who also has the qualities of a true fan in him somewhere. I can’t think of another NHL owner, other than Ted Leonsis in Washington, who can wear a team sweater in public and not look totally uncomfortable. Jeremy Jacobs and Ed Snider seem like smiling vipers, while other owners are just corporate figureheads, made mysterious by their public absence.

Melnyk is like a throwback to the old pre-Bettman days, when everyone knew who the owner of a team was. Some of them got thrown in jail, but most of them had very public personalities. Melnyk isn’t exactly Conn Smythe or Jack Kent Cooke, but he’s still a presence. There’s something wonderfully unpolished about him, but that always looks better on an owner with a lot of money to spend, not on a guy trying to keep costs modest.

You can’t raise expectations and talk about the Stanley Cup without putting real money behind it. That’s the reality, not the illusion.

I’m not sure what Melnyk’s legacy will be in this town when it’s all over, but it will be a hell of a story regardless.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Sens Will Survive The Latest Defection … This Time Tim Murray

As of this writing, the departure of Assistant General Manager Tim Murray from Ottawa to become the new Buffalo Sabres GM hasn’t been officially confirmed, but when Bob McKenzie says it’s going to happen, you can probably go ahead and turn out the lights.

The first thing I saw stirring in fans was anxiety at the pending announcement, and that’s understandable. Tim Murray has recently been acclaimed as the “genius behind the curtain”, the ideal successor to his Uncle Bryan, and the man who invented hockey scouting.

Yet here’s why Tim Murray’s departure will initially hurt, but ultimately prove to be a survivable change for the Senators organization.

Firstly, it was never a sure thing that Tim was the heir apparent to Bryan Murray in Ottawa. That decision would have ultimately come down to Eugene Melnyk, although I’m sure Bryan would have highly recommended his nephew. Tim’s hockey acumen would make him appear to be the candidate, but that’s not always the only qualification to be a manager in this league.

It is for a scout, maybe a director of hockey operations, but not for a job that requires you to step in front of a microphone and calmly explain why your group of players just tanked for a month straight but fans should still rush out to buy tickets for a Sunday afternoon game against the Florida Panthers.

Tim Murray, although noticeably improved in recent years, is not exactly a crowd pleaser. Luckily, the Buffalo Sabres don’t need their GM to be one right now. They’re just understandably desperate for a hockey guy to come in there and fix their system, not be the public face of their franchise. The svelte Pat Lafontaine is doing a good enough job of that right now. Instead, the Sabres are going back to the meat and potatoes. They resurrected Ted Nolan and now look like they’re trading in the suave dinner-and-a-handshake style of Darcy Regier for the melt-your-face-off stare of Tim Murray.

Tim is gruff to the point of satire. When he announces picks at the NHL Entry Draft, it’s like he’s in the midst of an audit from Revenue Canada. A public smile is rare. He smoked well into his time with the Ottawa Senators, although that may be a habit he’s already quit. This guy can’t spell “polished”. This is not to disparage Tim Murray as a person. I quite like his no-nonsense style and I’m sure he’s a little gentler away from the hockey rink, but his public persona doesn’t seem to be a put-on.

Of course, being the grandfatherly, friendly face of the franchise was a job that fell to his Uncle Bryan, so Tim had no need to plaster on a fake grin and reassure fluttering hearts across the city. He just had to get hockey decisions right. And with the help of a great hockey operations department around him, especially with Pierre Dorion as Director of Player Personnel, Tim Murray helped build this Senators team to the point where they can trade a first-round pick and say with a straight face that they don’t mind because it’s a poor draft year in 2014. That’s a luxury most teams don’t have.

In short, he’s a great fit in Buffalo, because of their different needs, but not necessarily a smooth successor in Ottawa where some finesse is needed on the public relations front.

Pierre Dorion, almost ten years younger than Tim, also comes from a scouting background, had a huge hand in the building of this team, and has a public style much more similar to Bryan Murray. For one, he’s actually smiling in his media guide photo. Tim’s photo comes across like a mugshot from the Apalachin Conference in 1957. Secondly, Dorion regularly makes appearances on local sports radio and comes across as both smart and a guy you’d like to have a beer with.

You might be sitting there thinking I’m making too big of a deal over appearances, and you’re probably right. But there’s no disputing Dorion’s track record in this organization, and the fact that he’s media friendly (and young) is an extra layer to a guy now likely destined to be second in-command in Ottawa.

The Vancouver Canucks have a GM, Mike Gillis, who’s very similar to Tim Murray in style, and probably less personable if that’s possible. It’s worked out well so far, but the two-headed negativity they now have with John Tortorella joining him may prove to be a little sickening after a while.

Compare Gillis to Bryan Murray for a moment. When Gillis talks, you feel strangely depressed, like he’s being forced to impart the minimum of information just to keep from being fined. When Bryan talks you always know exactly where his head his, where the team is going, what the positives and negatives are. You walk away feeling that this is still just a game, and not everything is life and death. There’s perspective there. Bryan doesn’t BS anybody, but he also knows when to say the right thing to keep this already nervous city away from the bridges and cliffs. There’s an art to it all, something that has nothing to do with knowing the 100 best under-18 players in US College hockey.

The eventual switchover to Tim from Bryan in Ottawa may not have been as clear a path as some imagined. Say what you want about the intelligence of local hockey fans, but they also need their news sugar coated from time to time, and I’m not sure Tim is capable of such a thing. At least he’s shown no signs of being that kind of communicator.

Yet I can definitely see Dorion stepping into that role and maintaining the same narrative that Murray has preached since he took over in the summer of 2007. Bryan Murray has survived in his job because he was able to communicate a hopeful message, both to the fans and his owner, during a stretch where he fired 3 coaches in what felt like two months. A lot of general managers would have been cut loose for presiding over such chaos, but Bryan made it through and has never been stronger in his role.

Dorion seems to be more like Bryan than Tim is, despite not being related. I think that’s a positive.

The Senators are going to lose a hell of a hockey mind in Tim Murray, but the organization has enough smart people behind him to survive and prosper. From Dorion, to Randy Lee to Vaclav Burda over in Europe.

And what makes you think Bryan is going anywhere soon?

What would he do with himself anyways if he wasn’t sitting in his box swearing under his breath and trying not to twitch uncontrollably every time a goal goes in against his team?

If Keith Richards can get up onstage in 2014 and play Jumping Jack Flash as good as he could in 1969, there’s no reason Murray can’t stick around to see the guys he drafted with Tim bring this team on a long playoff run.

You can’t get these kinds of guys to quit anyways. I’m sure Tim was aware of that too and maybe opened his eyes to leaving.

Good luck to Tim in Buffalo. He deserves the opportunity.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Cruel Fate May Force A Final Day Race Between Wings and Sens

If the Ottawa Senators are going to make the playoffs, they’re going to have to crawl over Daniel Alfredsson and the Detroit Red Wings to do so.

Only the hockey gods could have such a sick and deranged sense of humour.

As of Friday morning, the Senators are 3 measly points behind the Red Wings for that last, coveted Wild Card spot with no teams in between. But the only ones smiling about it are the reporters.

Surely Alfredsson isn't happy about the situation.

He thought he’d signed on with the Detroit franchise that’s made the playoffs every year since 1991 and are always a threat to play into June. Instead he’s playing on a team in obvious decline that’s already been through both a 7 and 6 game winless streak over the course of three months. They've lost 3 of their last 4 and 10 of their last 14, all the while managing to let a whole slew of Eastern Conference teams to get within reach, including New Jersey, the Rangers, Columbus and Carolina.

But it’s Ottawa who must give the Wings more sleepless nights than the others. Winners of their last 3 and suddenly getting real goaltending from Craig Anderson, the Senators undoubtedly have the most talent of the teams currently out of the two wildcard spots. Ottawa has played well-below what they’re capable of and that’s got to be a concern for Detroit with their number one goalie Jimmy Howard having lost 11 of his last 12. Anderson looks like he may be turning things around. Howard, not so much.

It gets even more complicated for the Wings as they now embark on a 5-game road trip that brings them way out West to meet powerhouses like Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose, bookended by trips to Dallas and New York – neither “gimme games” in any sense.

The good news for the Wings is that they’re actually better on the road than they are at home, sporting a 12-4-3 record away from Joe Louis arena where they’re 4 games under .500. If you’re a Sens fan looking at those numbers, you might be thinking you can’t catch a break, but the Wings have already faced the Sharks and Ducks and lost both times. They haven’t played a lot of the really good teams on the road yet with the exception of Boston at the start of the season. So there’s a real chance for Ottawa to make up some ground here if the Wings falter. And their recent record indicates there’s a better than good chance of that happening.

Despite Ottawa’s recent run of good hockey, they can’t be smiling about the situation either.

On top of being a lousy team for most of October and November, they now have to catch and overcome the one organization that could do them the most public relations damage. Let’s be serious here. Having the Wings be the one team to keep Ottawa from making the playoffs would be heartbreaking for the entire Sens organization.

It would once again remind everyone of the lousy summer that had fans openly mocking their owner for perceived cheapness in the Alfie negotiations, only now Eugene Melnyk would also be losing playoff profits at the end of the fairy tale.

It would be one thing for the Sens to miss and see Detroit finish in the top 3 like most had them pegged. It would be another to miss out because the Wings out-survived you for the final Wild Card spot.

Let’s face reality here. The Leafs have shown no signs of really falling off the map despite a few bad stretches along the way. I’m not saying they’re a lock for the playoffs but I can see them pulling away from Detroit and Ottawa more than I can see them falling back.

In fact, let’s just ignore every other possibility. What the hell.

We all know it’s coming down to Detroit and Ottawa because the one thing you can expect as a fan is constant pain and torment, and this could provide the richest slice of it since the Battle Of Ontario days between Jacques Martin and Pat Quinn. We’re talking psyche altering suffering here if Alfredsson denies the Senators the post-season in 2014. But we could also be talking about Ottawa proving Alfredsson wrong by denying him the chance to win that Stanley Cup he so genuinely wants.

It really is a bizarre showdown but one that seems inevitable. Imagine for a moment the Senators having to beat Toronto on the last day of the schedule and waiting one more day to see if Detroit will beat the St. Louis Blues.

Then imagine a city in meltdown mode.

You just know it’s coming, right? “Serenity now… insanity later.”