Tagged: Olympics

USA Hockey’s Crisis of Identity

This is an article I wrote for the school newspaper at Fitchburg State University in October 2016 that was never published. Now that I have graduated, I am going back and publishing some of the writing I did during the semester.

Another international hockey tournament is in the books, and it’s another disappointing outcome for the United States. A fundamentally flawed Team USA posted a pathetic 0-3-0 record in the World Cup of Hockey in the first major tournament since failing to win a medal in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. In 2014, I expressed my skepticism on my blog when the Olympic roster was announced and Bobby Ryan was left off it, and in 2016 when players like Phil Kessel and Kevin Shattenkirk were left off, things did not look good for Team USA.

Team USA has had different general managers in their different tournaments this decade, but it has become clear that whether it’s Brian Burke (2010 Olympics, current President of the Calgary Flames, President of the Toronto Maple Leafs at the time), David Poile (2014 Olympics, current general manager of the Nashville Predators), or Dean Lombardi (2016 World Cup, current general manager of the two-time Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings), all successful NHL GMs, that it does not matter who is calling the shots, and that the collective brain trust of USA Hockey is trapped in 1980, with the Miracle on Ice being the only blueprint they know in which to construct an international championship team.

When the United States Men’s Hockey Team took home the Gold Medal in 1980, it was called a Miracle for a reason. It was a college All-Star team that played the game of their lives against the Soviet Union, a squad of veteran players who satisfied their military service requirements by training full time to be the best hockey team on the face of the earth, and the lines and defensive pairings on that roster had been playing together for years. The American team won a game they shouldn’t have in the semi-final round against the Soviets and rode that momentum to a win over Finland in the Gold Medal Game. It was a miracle, and it was the greatest moment for hockey in America, edging out any Stanley Cup moment because it was something fans in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles, or anywhere in this country could get behind… but a miracle is no way to build sustained success.

In the years that followed, but especially starting in 1998, when NHL players were first allowed to compete in the Olympics, USA Hockey has built their teams in the model of the 1980 team, even though the landscape of the games have fundamentally changed since then. Everyone has professionals playing, and while Canada has the greatest collection of national talent, countries like the United States, Sweden, Finland, Russia, and the Czech Republic all have enough NHL talent to field competitive teams for the Olympics or the World Cup (the NHL talent of Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Switzerland was consolidated onto a new Team Europe for the World Cup), and the conventional wisdom would be to put as many of the best, most talented players your country has to offer on the team. The powers that be in USA Hockey think otherwise. Why waste a perfectly good roster spot on a scorer like Phil Kessel or Bobby Ryan when you can add some grit and toughness (when there is almost no hitting in these international tournaments anyway) by putting Brandon Dubinsky or Blake Wheeler on the team in their place.

The closest the United States came to winning Gold in this era was the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Most of the team was young and new to the international stage. Vezina Trophy winning goalie Ryan Miller make crucial save after crucial save, and they took Canada to sudden-death overtime in the Gold Medal Game before Sidney Crosby put the puck in the net to win it. They came up short, but the way they played to earn that Silver Medal reinforced belief in the 1980 ideology. Since then, the players from that tournament have gone from young players to veterans, and in 2016 it showed that Zach Parise, Ryan Kesler, and David Backes (who signed a five year, $30 million contract with the Bruins this past summer) are not the players they were in 2010.

For Team USA, the World Cup of Hockey was a disaster, a complete institutional failure. The question is, do the decision makers in that institution, some of the best and brightest hockey minds this country has, have the ability to see why they failed? Or are they too close to it to have any perspective. Time will tell, but this tournament gave no reason for American hockey fans to feel good about the future.

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The Bruins Continue to Disappoint

I wrote a few months ago about the underwhelming to disappointing summer the Boston Bruins were having, just a few years after winning the Stanley Cup, and just one year after adding perennial 30 goal scorer Jarome Iginla to a roster that was 17 seconds away from forcing a Game 7 against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals. That was before the B’s traded Johnny Boychuk for nothing that could help them this season, and that was before the injuries and excuses began. This Bruins team is bad. It’s the worst I’ve felt as a fan about the team since the 2009-10 season, but even then, a young Tuukka Rask had given us a reason for hope. This team isn’t tough, can’t score, and has deficiencies on defense that make the goaltending look bad. How did it happen this way to a team that won the second President’s Trophy in franchise history last spring? What has to happen for things to get better?

The highlight for the Bruins in the summer of 2013 was the acquisition of Jarome Iginla in free agency, after the B’s had failed to complete a trade with the Calgary Flames during the season. Iginla instead was dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins, whom the Bruins swept on their way to their second Stanley Cup Finals appearance in three years. Unfortunately, Iggy’s stay in Boston ended with a second round playoff exit at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens (who lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the New York Rangers, who lost in the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Finals, meaning the B’s didn’t even come close to being beaten by the best team in the tournament). Once again a free agent, Iginla took his talents to Denver to join the Colorado Avalanche in the summer of 2014.

Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli.

Players come and go. That’s the nature of professional sports, but Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli did not bring in anyone to replace Iginla. Iggy was brought in to replace the production on the top line that Nathan Horton had contributed from 2010 to 2013 (Iginla was more productive than Horton in the regular season, but lacked Horty’s playoff scoring touch that defined his tenure in Boston), and without a player of that caliber drawing coverage and creating space, the production of Milan Lucic and David Krejci has also suffered this season.The Bruins offense is the worst it has been since 2009-10, the year before they traded for Horton (as well as Gregory Campbell, when the Bruins traded Dennis Wideman to Florida), when 4th liner Daniel Paille had to play significant minutes on the top line alongside Krejci and Lucic. The team has restrictions with the salary cap, but they have been doing a lot more subtraction than addition to this once great roster in recent years, and not just with the 1st line right wing position.

The Bruins lost some major pieces of their identity be choosing to move on from defenseman Andrew Ference (now living in hockey hell as captain of the lowly Edmonton Oilers) in 2013 and enforcer Shawn Thornton (now with the Florida Panthers) in 2014. The Bruins team that won the Stanley Cup in 2011 was not the fastest, not the most prolific offense, and not the most talented team in the NHL by any stretch of the imagination. They won with grit, hard work, physicality, and otherworldly performance in net after otherworldly performance in net by Tim Thomas. Guys like Ference and Thornton were quintessential Bruins in that regard. They were the glue guys in the dressing room who brought a physical edge on the ice. Ference was the guy who started the “Starter Jacket” tradition during the 2011 playoffs, awarding a vintage Bruins jacket he found in a thrift shop to the player of the game (and eventually giving it to the retiring Mark Recchi in the banner raising ceremony), and continuing similar rituals during other playoff runs. Thornton added a certain energy to the game, even if he wasn’t dropping the gloves, and adding Thorty to the lineup against the Vancouver Canucks allowed for the Bruins to play with an edge they did not have when he was in the press box.

Former Bruin Shawn Thornton.

At least when they let Ference walk in free agency, there was confidence that young defensemen Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton could step up and take on more responsibility on the blue line, but with the departure of Thornton this summer, it was a shift in philosophy as much as a change in personnel, and it has not worked thus far. The Bruins reacted their playoff loss to Montreal by thinking they needed to get faster and more skilled to be able to go toe to toe with Montreal in the future. That may not be wrong. The Habs had a player (who has since retired) very similar to Thornton in the form of Princeton grad George Parros. Parros is another old school tough guy, and has a mustache that never got the memo that the 70s ended, and was teammates with Thornton on the Stanley Cup winning 2007 Anaheim Ducks, but the biggest difference between the two players was that Thornton was playing significant minutes for the Bruins, while Parros sat in the press box during the playoffs for the Canadiens. The Bruins called up from Providence an enforcer named Bobby Robbins, a UMass Lowell grad who had never played in the NHL before this season, but had a little bit of Hanson Brother in his game and brought energy and toughness to every shift. He was sent back down shortly thereafter, and the Bruins are left with a little bit of skill, and not enough toughness on their roster. They did not necessarily need Shawn Thornton, but they do need a tough guy.

Former Bruin Tyler Seguin.

I was wrong about the Seguin Trade. I’ve admitted it, and I would be more insistent that the Bruins admitted it if it would change the fact that the trade happened and that Tyler Seguin is never coming back (at least not in his prime). I wrote in the summer of 2013 (on the day the trade happened if I remember correctly) that Seguin was a disappointment, and that Loui Eriksson was a better fit for the Bruins, and he has been nothing to write home about until very recently. Reilly Smith has exceeded my expectations, but that was only because I didn’t know who he was before the Bruins acquired him from Dallas. At any rate, the Bruins gave up on Tyler Seguin too early, and Seguin might score 50 goals for the Dallas Stars this year. It could be argued that Taylor Hall would have been a better fit for the Bruins, but he was off the board when they drafter at #2 in 2010. With talent like that, the Bruins should have been more patient, and should have allowed him to flourish in the offensive zone rather than harp on his defensive shortcomings. Seguin is still only 22, and has found a home in Dallas. Meanwhile the Bruins are struggling to score just as badly as the year before they drafted him.

Peter Chiarelli was enough in Boston’s defensive depth at the beginning of the season to trade Johnny Boychuk to the New York Islanders during the preseason. Boychuk, like Ference and Thornton, was a big part of the Bruins’ physical identity during both Cup runs, and had only gotten better since his first significant ice time during the 2009-10 season. After Dennis Seidenberg went down with a knee injury last season, Boychuk stepped up and established himself as the team’s second best defenseman after captain Zdeno Chara. In return, the Bruins got two second round picks, and a conditional third rounder, which felt like a bad return on a good player who is only 30. The trade looked even worse as Chara, Adam McQuaid, and Torey Krug have all missed significant time with injuries this season while Boychuk is making a great impact for the suddenly competitive Isles.

The Bruins have mismanaged the roster when it comes to the salary cap. I understand wanting to keep a good team together, but the Bruins overpaid players they should not have, and the salary cap has not gone up the way Chiarelli may have thought it would. The Bruins owe Chris Kelly $3 million this season and next season. They owe Loui Eriksson $4.25 million this season and next season. They owe Milan Lucic $6 million this season and next season, and his price is likely to go up if he becomes an unrestricted free agent as scheduled. The Bruins will also have to pay more for impending young free agents Reilly Smith, Matt Fraser, Craig Cunningham, Torey Krug, Dougie Hamilton (all restricted), Matt Bartkowski, and Carl Soderberg (unrestricted) after this season, not to mention veterans Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille, whom the Bruins seem more and more unlikely to bring back, given the circumstances. That’s a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of variables keeping the Bruins where they are. A trade or two needs to be made to make the picture clearer.

Dougie Hamilton and Zdeno Chara.

If it were up to me (which is it not), almost everyone on the roster would be on the table for trade talks. The only players I would not trade under any circumstances at this point are Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, and Dougie Hamilton: the Norris Trophy winning captain, Selke Trophy winning alternate captain, and the promising young defenseman. The Bruins sold too low on Seguin, and after the Boychuk trade, my lack of faith in their ability to get a proper return on Hamilton has only been reaffirmed. David Krejci should not be traded under any circumstances, for all intents and purposes, but I left him off the list because of the long shot possibility of packaging him up to get a Jeff Carter, or an Anze Kopitar, or a Jonathan Toews, or a Ryan Getzlaf, but that will never happen. I love Tuukka Rask, but the Bruins drafted goalie prospect Malcolm Subban (P.K.’s brother), and the years the Bruins would spend developing him into a franchise goaltender are years that Tuukka is under contract. Going forward, they will only be able to keep Rask or Subban long term, so both should be on the trade block now. Loui Eriksson and Chris Kelly are two players I would trade (for the right return, obviously) without feeling bad about it, and while I like them, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic, Dennis Seidenberg, Gregory Campbell, Daniel Paille, Reilly Smith, Carl Soderberg, and Torey Krug are all players they could move and teams would be willing to give up substantial assets to acquire if the Bruins become sellers at the trade deadline.

I would be more confident in the Bruins’ ability to build through the draft and the farm system if Chiarelli was any good at drafting. Much like Theo Epstein with the Red Sox, much of his championship roster was put together by his predecessor, with key acquisitions like Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Tim Thomas being made my former GM Mike O’Connell (now the Director of Pro Development for the LA Kings), and the trade to acquire Rask on Draft Day from Toronto happening while Chiarelli was still under contract with the Ottawa Senators (was it Chiarelli? was it O’Connell’s people? was it Harry Sinden? My guess is Harry, but that’s another column for another day). Chiarelli’s greatest drafting successes came early in his tenure when he selected Phil Kessel (#5), Milan Lucic (#50), and Brad Marchand (#71) in 2006 (in 2009, Kessel was traded to the Maple Leafs for the draft picks that became Tyler Seguin, Jared Knight, and Dougie Hamilton), but he’s gone cold since then. His best recent draft selections were Seguin (#2, 2010) and Hamilton (#9, 2011), but that was because those were picks acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs so high it would be really hard to miss, and even then, they dealt one of those players after three seasons.

Other Bruins drafts were highlighted by Subban (#24, 2012), a goalie drafted by a team that didn’t need a goalie, Jordan Caron (#25, 2009), Jared Knight (#32, 2010) and Ryan Spooner (#45, 2010), who have not been able to establish themselves at the NHL level, and Zach Hamill (#8, 2007) who was drafted ahead of Logan Couture, Brandon Sutter, Ryan McDonagh, Lars Eller, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Max Paccioretty, all of whom have become productive NHL players while Hamill washed out of the Bruins’ organization, was traded to Washington for Chris Bourque (Ray’s kid), and now plays professional hockey for the hockey club HPK in Finland. There is still hope for 18 year old Czech prospect David Pastrnak (#25, 2014), but he will not be able to help the Bruins turn their fortunes around this season.

Normally, it would be natural to blame the coach for a roster with a history of success to not be as motivated as they used to be, but it’s hard to blame Claude Julien for this. I’ve been critical of Julien before, and I think his system has its flaws, but you can’t put this season all on him. Claude didn’t trade Johnny Boychuk. Claude didn’t let Shawn Thornton take his talents to South Beach. Claude didn’t let Jarome Iginla leave and try to replace his production with minor league talent. Claude may have been frustrated with Seguin’s inconsistency on offense and liability on defense, but he wasn’t the one who thought Loui Eriksson, Reilly Smith, Matt Fraser, and Joe Morrow were a satisfactory return for a 21 year old sniper, either. Claude Julien may be on the hot seat in my mind someday, but it will not be this day. The B’s have bigger problems than the coach.

Right now, the Bruins are a mess, and Chiarelli, Julien, and Team President Cam Neely have their work cut out for them. Trades need to be made, and draft picks are not a good enough return. Players who can put the puck in the net should get a higher priority than they have been getting. If they can put more skill around the solid foundation of Chara, Bergeron, Hamilton, and Krejci, good things will happen, and Julien’s system is such that with good defensemen, either Rask or Subban can thrive. They might be able to turn it around this year, but I’m not holding my breath.

Every great team has to move on from the past. Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork are the only players that remain from the last Patriots team to win the Super Bowl. The Celtics just traded away the last remaining player from their championship contending days from 2008 to 2012, and are looking ahead to the future. David Ortiz is the last player remaining from the 2004 Red Sox, and they have been moving on from players from the 2007 and 2013 World Series squads left and right. Peter Chiarelli can fix this. He was captain of the hockey team at some school called Harvard, and is highly though of enough from his peers to be named to the front office of Team Canada in the 2014 Winter Olympics, and now he has to use his Ivy League intelligence and hockey IQ to fix the Bruins team he built into a champion once already. The questions that remain are “when?” and “how?”

The Opposite of Lightning in a Bottle

In 2004, the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup, beating Jarome Iginla’s Calgary Flames in a thrilling seven game series. The following year, the National Hockey League became the first major professional sports league to cancel an entire season. After that the Bolts were never able to find that magic. Cup winning coach John Tortorella lost his job and has been seen behind the benches of the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks since then. In 2011, the Lightning went toe to toe in a tight seven game Eastern Conference Finals with the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins (Side note, that Game 7 in Boston was the tightest most evenly played hockey game I have ever seen. There were no penalties and Tim Thomas and Dwayne Roloson made for an epic battle of two aging heavyweights in net. If Nathan Horton doesn’t beat Roloson after getting set up by David Krejci and Andrew Ference, they might still be playing.), but took two steps backward in 2012 and 2013. This year, it looked like a great chance for the Bolts to make some noise, but it never materialized.

It started last summer, when the Bolts tried to work their way around the new collective bargaining agreement by buying out longtime captain Vincent Lecavalier, and orchestrating a trade to bring him back for less money. They wanted to keep Vinny, but not for his current salary cap hit. The NHL would have none of it, and Lecavalier ended up signing with the Philadelphia Flyers. Early in the season, Steven Stamkos, Tampa’s explosive young goal scorer, broke his leg in a game in Boston. It looked like Tampa’s strong start would be for nothing.

The Lightning did not relent after the injury to Stamkos. They got strong performances from goaltender Ben Bishop and newly appointed captain Martin St. Louis. The Bolts looked like the third best team in the East after the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins, and GM Steve Yzerman looked like a serious candidate for Executive of the Year, then the Olympic roster selection happened.

Yzerman, the longtime captain for the Detroit Red Wings, also served as the GM for Team Canada in the Vancouver and Sochi Olympic Games. Stevie Y had the task of drawing from the incredibly deep well of Canadian hockey talent and putting together the best team possible. Initially, Yzerman had Stamkos on the roster as a reserve, and Marty St. Louis left off the roster entirely. Yzerman was trying to balance what was best for Canada with what was best for the Lightning, and he needed his 38 year old captain for the playoffs. St. Louis took it personally. He wanted out of Tampa after that. As it turned out, Stamkos wasn’t ready to play when the Olympics rolled around, so Yzerman ended up adding St. Louis to Canada’s Olympic roster anyway. Canada ended up winning the Gold Medal for the second straight Olympic tournament, and they were so dominant that they would have done it with or without Marty.

The NHL trade deadline was not long after the Olympics ended, and despite taking home a Gold Medal, St. Louis still wanted out, so Yzerman dealt him to the New York Rangers in exchange for Rangers captain and impending free agent Ryan Callahan. Stamkos was just coming back as St. Louis was leaving so the Bolts never got that combination going at the same time despite playing really well for most of the season. Even though he got a good player in Callahan, who is ten years younger than St. Louis, there is no guarantee that he’ll stay in Tampa this summer. Callahan was a captain in New York and he could be a captain again if he signs with his native Buffalo. Stamkos was named the Lightning captain upon his return, and it looked like they still had a chance to do something this spring, until Ben Bishop got hurt.

With all the turnover and injury to the Bolts’ top forwards, Bishop was the brick wall in net that kept them afloat all season long. Bishop’s injury at the end of the regular season turned a favorable match up against the Montreal Canadiens into a four game early playoff exit. Everything that could have gone wrong for the Lightning went wrong.

When the Bolts celebrated the 10th anniversary of their Stanley Cup win last month, they chose to do it on the night where John Tortorella was in town as coach of the Canucks. Noticeably missing from the celebration were Lecavalier and St. Louis, who were key contributors to the 2004 team, but are now playing against each other in the entertaining first round playoff series between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers. There was a time where Tampa looked like a hockey hotbed despite being located in Florida, but now Lightning fans are stuck wondering what might have been.

Back to the Real Hockey Games

Now that the Olympics have come and gone, NHL hockey is back. Here are some thoughts about the NHL as we approach the trade deadline and the playoffs.

The United States came away without a medal because a team coached by Dan Bylsma couldn’t get past Claude Julien’s defensive system or Tuukka Rask’s goaltending. Bylsma’s Pittsburgh Penguins looked like the best team in spring of 2013 in the NHL until they faced Julien, Rask, and the rest of the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals. Bylsma’s Pens scored only two goals against Tuukka in their four game sweep at the hands of the Bruins. Bylsma’s Team USA roster, which had led the tournament in scoring up to that point, did not score a single goal against Team Canada in the semifinals and were shutout once again in the Bronze Medal Game against Team Finland. Bylsma’s reputation as good hockey coach is based on winning the Stanley Cup in 2009 when he inherited a team that had been in the Stanley Cup Finals the year before and from a strong performance on 24/7 in 2010, but the sweep last spring and the collapse in the Olympics could and should cause his stock to plummet.

The fact that Rask proved to be just as effective without Julien means that he’s a great goalie and not just a pretty good goalie with the benefit of playing in Julien’s defense-first system. Tuukka was the biggest factor in Finland earning a medal in Sochi, and the biggest factor in the Bruins reaching the Stanley Cup Finals last year. Rask arrived on the scene in the NHL too late to be selected by Finland (who is historically stacked with goalie talent as a country) for the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, but when then-USA backup goalie Tim Thomas struggled, Rask was the kid who carried the B’s into the playoffs, and Rask was the one who outlasted 2010 Olympic MVP Ryan Miller in a thrilling six game series against the Buffalo Sabres. Tuukka is entering the prime of his career and he has shown time and again that he can hold his own and then some with the best goaltenders in the world. Rask’s Bruin teammates Patrice Bergeron of Canada and Loui Eriksson of Sweden may have had great tournaments and earned more valuable medals, but Rask’s Bronze Medal performance was one for the ages.

Besides Rask, the best player for Team Finland was 43 year old Teemu Selanne, who played in his record tying sixth Winter Olympics and was named the MVP of the Olympic hockey tournament. This is just another accolade for Teemu, who is in the midst of his victory lap of a final NHL season. The Finnish Flash served as captain for Team Finland for the first time in 2014 and has 24 goals in Olympic play including four from the Sochi Games. He is poised to help the Anaheim Ducks make another playoff run this spring, after helping them win the franchise’s only Stanley Cup championship in 2007. The Ducks are among the NHL’s best teams, and Selanne might have enough left in the tank to make southern California go Cup Crazy once more. Wouldn’t that be amazing? Teemu has had a great career, but it’s not over just yet.

Alfie’s time. Another aging veteran player who shined in the Olympics is Swedish forward Daniel Alfredsson of the Detroit Red Wings. Alfie is 41 years old, and just added a Silver Medal to his collection to go with the Gold one he earned in Turin in 2006. Alfredsson was a face of the Ottawa Sentaors for much of his career, and was the NHL’s longest tenured captain prior to signing with the Red Wings in the summer of 2013. Like Jarome Iginla, who I wrote about a few weeks ago, Alfie has done almost everything you could possibly want to do in a hockey career except win the Stanley Cup. He’s over 40, but he can still play at a high level. The Wings are in a tough division and a tough conference, but it’s the same division and conference Alfie has played in his entire career. The Bruins, Habs, and Leafs don’t scare him, and he commands a lot of respect from the players and coaches of those teams. It’s just another storyline to look out for this spring.

Sabres trade Ryan Miller and Steve Ott to the St. Louis Blues. We’ve already had the first major trade of the season. Ryan Miller, the star goalie and face of the franchise in Buffalo was traded to St. Louis. It’s a sad time for Sabres fans, but they’re trying to rebuild, and Miller is a free agent at the end of the season, and it’s not fair to him to waste the prime of his career on a roster where he doesn’t have a chance to win. In return, Buffalo is getting a pretty good goalie in Jaroslav Halak, but this trade really makes the Blues one of the top teams this spring. St. Louis has been building towards something big for a few years now, and this trade just might be what it takes to put them over the top. Miller will join fellow United States Olympians David Backes and shootout hero T. J. Oshie in an attempt to being Lord Stanley’s Cup to the Show Me State for the first time. Miller, who sad on the bench in Sochi behind Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings, will certainly have a chip on his shoulder when the Kings come to town in what has become one of the best rivalries in the Western Conference. It should be a lot of fun to watch.

Canada wins Gold, but they really want a certain silver Cup. 1993, the year that the Montreal Canadiens defeated Wayne Gretzky’s Los Angeles Kings, was the last time a Canadian team won the last game of the season and got to hoist the Stanley Cup. The following year, Mark Messier and the New York Rangers defeated the Vancouver Canucks in seven games and a streak of American teams dominating the NHL began. If the regular season ended today, the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs would be the only two Canadian teams in the tournament. The Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets are close, but currently a couple points out of the final playoff spot in the very tight Western Conference, and the Ottawa Senators could get back into it with a little winning streak, but the once mighty Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames have struggled mightily this season. It’s been a rough stretch for Canadian hockey fans. The Flames probably should have beaten the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004, and the Canucks were heavily favored before losing in seven games to the Bruins in 2011. The Oilers were lucky to be in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, but they have failed to reach the playoffs since then. Hockey fans are passionate and territorial by nature, and Canada takes hockey more seriously than any other country on the planet. It must be sickening seeing cities like Anaheim, Los Angeles, Tampa, Dallas, Raleigh, and Denver winning the Cup when fans in those cities didn’t pay attention to hockey a generation ago. It might not happen this year (and quite frankly, I hope it doesn’t since the Habs and Leafs would have to get past my beloved Bruins to so), but someday the Stanley Cup will return to Canada, and it won’t be just to hand it off to the American team that won it on the road.

Shame on you, Mr. Jacobs. I’ve written on here before about my love for hockey and my love for the Boston Bruins, but sometimes it’s just so hard to love them. It’s not because of the players on the ice. Those guys are great. I love the black and gold uniforms with the classic Eight Spoked B logo. I love the physical play that is synonymous with the Boston Bruins. I love Bruins fans. They get it. The amount of love I have for the Bruins’ players and fans is equal to the amount of hate I have for the Bruins’ owner. Jeremy Jacobs is an old, cheap, scumbag that could make Mr. Burns look charitable. He underspent on the team for years and locked the NHL players out three times to squeeze more money out of them. He lives in Buffalo and clearly only cares about making money. He’s lucky to have bought a hockey team in a market that loves it’s hockey or he’s never be able to get away with what he does. In a league where many teams struggle to sell tickets, Bruins tickets are hard to come by these days. What he’s doing now is making it so the regular hockey fan can’t afford more than one or two Bruins games a year, if that. Season ticket holders were notified of a huge increase in ticket prices for 2014-15, and they are rightfully outraged. Since 2008, prices will have more than doubled. Jacobs almost got the 2012-13 season cancelled like he did in 2004-05, and we would have been too fed up to come back if the team weren’t so good. This is the thanks we get for supporting a team when we probably shouldn’t. I want hockey to be successful and I want the NHL to do well, but guys like Jeremy Jacobs are the reason normal people can’t stand rich people, and are in the way of the NHL growing into a more mainstream sport. Shame on you.

T. J. Sochi

It wasn’t quite the Miracle on Ice. Elimination would have to have been on the line for it to come close to the most iconic Olympic event in American history, but it was, however, an unforgettable event that is the perfect example of why the Winter Olympics are great. On the morning of February 15 (well, it was morning in the United States, anyway), the United States defeated host nation Russia in a showdown for the ages.

The names in this game were enough to make it epic. Patrick Kane. Ryan Kesler. Joe Pavelski. Ryan Callahan. Phil Kessel. Jonathan Quick. Pavel Datsyuk. Ilya Kovalchuk. Alex Ovechkin. Evgeni Malkin. Sergei Bobrovsky. Who needs an All-Star Game when you can have the best players in the world playing for their respective countries. In the Olympics, they use a larger sheet of ice than the NHL does, which led to a more wide-open game for players to show off their speed and crisp passing skills.

Russia has a lot riding on this Olympic tournament. It’s more than the pressure of hosting the Olympics. Team USA consists entirely of NHL players, while the Russian team has mostly NHL talent with a handful of KHL players. This is about the Kontinental Hockey League trying to surpass the National Hockey League as the most prestigious hockey league on the planet. Ilya Kovalchuk could be playing in New Jersey, and Alexander Radulov could be playing in Nashville, but they chose to play in their native Russia. The KHL hopes this is the start of a new trend where the best European players will come back to Europe, and the young ones will never go to North America in the first place.

Regulation was not enough time to decide this game, and neither was overtime. The Unites States and Russia worked to a 2-2 draw that would have to be broken by a shootout. T.J. Oshie of the St. Louis Blues went first for Team USA, and scored. Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins went first for Russia, and missed. James van Riemsdyk of the Toronto Maple Leafs went second for Team USA, and missed. Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings went second, and missed. Joe Pavelski of the San Jose Sharks went third for the United States, and missed. Ilya Kovalchuk, who left behind the twelve remaining years of his NHL contract with the New Jersey Devils to return to the KHL last summer, went third for Russia, and scored. And so the shootout after the overtime went into extra innings.

An interesting difference between the NHL and Olympic shootout rules is that in the Olympics, after the third round of shootouts, a team can tap a player who has already shot to go again, whereas in the NHL, everyone has to go before anyone can go twice. Team USA coach Dan Bylsma decided to ride T. J. Oshie for all of the extra shootouts the way a baseball manager might ride a hot hitter in October. Oshie went 4 for 6 in the shoothout, while the Russian team went back and forth between Datsyuk and Kovalchuk. In the 8th round, Kovalchuk was stopped by American goaltender and UMass alum Jonathan Quick, and Oshie had a chance to put the Russians away. He got it past Sergei Bobrovsky one final time and bars all across America began to celebrate. It wasn’t even noon yet. It doesn’t get much better than that.

A win over a powerhouse like Russia improves the standing for the United States, but it does not mean they have the Gold Medal in the bag. Let’s not forget that Team USA beat Canada early on, but lost to the Neighbors to the North in sudden death overtime in the Gold Medal Game. T. J. Oshie has gone from being a name hockey fans know to a name the most casual of American sports fans will remember for a long time. That’s the beauty of the Olympics.

Iginla Perfect for Boston

There is one Bruin who is one of the best players from his country, but not making the trip to Sochi for the Winter Olympics. Jarome Arthur-Leigh Adekunle Tig Junior Elvis Iginla didn’t get much consideration for Team Canada this time around, but he’s already earned two Gold Medals, one in Salt Lake City in 2002 and the other in Vancouver in 2010, and there’s only one prize in his career he still needs to achieve: his name inscribed on Lord Stanley’s Cup. I am certain that Iggy will get inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto when his playing career, he is a player so good that retiring without winning the Stanley Cup will seem like an unsatisfying career.

Jarome Iginla is the greatest player in the history of the Calgary Flames. In 2002, the same season he helped Canada win it’s first Olympic Gold Medal in 50 years, he won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s top scorer, becoming the first player in 20 years not named Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, or Jaromir Jagr to win the award. In 2004, he captained the Flames to the Stanley Cup Finals, losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games. It seemed at the time like Iginla had a great chance of getting back there again in the near future, but the 2004-05 NHL lockout cost him an entire season in the prime of his career with the best roster around him in Calgary. The Flames slowly declined in the years following the lockout, and found themselves at the bottom of the NHL food chain by the time the 2012 lockout rolled around (The NHL averages one lockout per U.S. presidency over the last two decades. It’s really bad.). When the condensed 2013 season began, hockey fans all around North America knew that Iggy would be the most prized treasure at the trade deadline if Calgary were to get off to a slow start.

When trade talks heated up, Iginla, who had a no-trade clause in his contract, narrowed down his list of teams to which he would accept trades to the four most recent Stanley Cup champions: the Los Angeles Kings, Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, and Pittsburgh Penguins. He was right to think those would be the teams that gave him the best chance to win the Cup in 2013, seeing as they would eventually be the four remaining teams in the tournament. The Bruins and Penguins pushed the hardest to acquire Iginla. The Bruins offered two defensemen from their AHL affiliate in Providence, while the Penguins offered two college players, one from Yale and another from St. Cloud State (both schools would end up reaching college hockey’s Frozen Four for the first time later that month). The Bruins were under the impression that they had a deal in place, and former Bruins defenseman Aaron Ward even reported news of the trade on TSN and on Twitter. The next morning, Bruins fans woke up expecting that the news of Iggy’s trade to Boston would still be a reality, but that was not the case. The Flames went back to their franchise superstar, believing the two trade offers to be equal in value, and let him make the decision. The Penguins were one a hot streak at the time and seemed like they were far and away the NHL’s best team.

Iginla chose Pittsburgh in the hopes that he could win the Cup with the man he assisted on the Gold Medal clinching overtime goal in Vancouver against the United States, Sidney Crosby. Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma had other ideas and the two never got to spend much time on the same line. The Pens kept winning until they ran into the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals. Some teams would have fallen apart after having the rug pulled out from under them like that, but the 2013 Bruins were not most teams. They were playing an inspired brand of hockey that Pittsburgh had no answer for, and had a Finnish wall in front of their net named Tuukka Rask. The Bruins swept the Pens in four games, and reached the Stanley Cup Finals for the second time in three years, ultimately losing to the mighty Chicago Blackhawks in the closest six game series in history. Another year of being so close, yet so far for Jarome Iginla.

In the summer of 2013, Iginla became a free agent, and he turned out to be nothing more than a rental for the Pittsburgh Penguins, whose priority was finding a way to fit superstars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang under the NHL’s hard salary cap. The Bruins were making moves of their own to retool the roster, and Nathan Horton elected to sign with the Columbus Blue Jackets in free agency, so it made all the sense in the world for Iginla and the B’s to put the trade deadline drama behind them and join forces.

In the short term, Iginla has been as advertised, and the Bruins are better now than they would have been with Nathan Horton. Horton was the type of player to coast through the regular season, but step it up in the playoffs. Iggy gives the same effort every night, and his made linemates Milan Lucic and David Krejci look better this regular season. Iginla goes into the Olympic Break with 17 goals and 26 assists, which puts him 2nd only behind Krejci on the team in points this season. Iggy has had a reputation as one of the best fighting skill players in the NHL, which makes him a perfect fit for what Claude Julien’s Bruins try to do. Jarome Iginla was born to be a Bruin, but it took him until he was 36 years old to get there.

While Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci, Tuukka Rask, and Loui Eriksson are all in Russia trying to earn Olympic Gold for their countries, Jarome Iginla has just one more goal in mind. This month gives him a chance to rest a little bit because there is still a long way to go. He came to Boston for one reason, and he has yet to find it.

Bode is Back

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I love the Winter Olympics. It’s something I spend four years looking forward to. It’s the kind of thing that can get people interested and excited for sports they otherwise never follow. Hockey is already my favorite sport, but the Olympics is a great time to show it off. Football and baseball may have a stronger foundation in American heritage, and basketball has the 1992 Dream, but hockey has America’s most celebrated moment in Olympic history. Every four years, people suddenly become experts in figure skating, speed skating, alpine skiing, snowboarding, luge, bobsledding, and curling…and it’s awesome!

Since the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Bode Miller has been a household name in the United States (the only other skiers I could name off the top of my head are Lindsey Vonn and Picabo Street, neither of whom are competing in Sochi). The New Hampshire native skier is now 36 years old and competing in his fourth Olympics. We’ve seen him evolve from American hero in 2002, to drunken antihero in 2006, to the golden redemption story in 2010. He’s really talented, and he really loves to ski, but it’s not always about competition for him. He’s the Rob Gronkowski of skiing. He trains hard, and competes hard, and at the end of the day, he parties hard. There’s a lot to like about that approach to life.

Miller won three Silver Medals in Salt Lake City, and a Gold and a Bronze in Vancouver, but was shut out in Turin in 2006. There were high expectations for Bode after his breakout performance in 2002. With great success comes a responsibility to be a role model and carry yourself like a gentleman. Bode Miller didn’t see it that way, though. Even in defeat, we could see that Miller was incredibly talented, but it was frustrating to watch as tabloid after tabloid came out with more stories of all the partying he was doing in Italy while he wasn’t winning anything. In 2010, at 32, Miller shut everyone up by winning two medals, including his first Gold. The other day, he recorded the fasted time in the Olympic qualifying trial, and looks poised for another medal. The guy is really good at what he does. He takes a sport that is both thrilling and dangerous, and he makes it look easy. I hope he’s there in South Korea when he’s 40, just a guy going skiing as fast as possible because it’s really fun. He’s at a stage in his career where he can still perform at a high level, but it’s uncertain how much longer he can keep that up. It’s a lot like the way people talk about Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, who are around the same age as Miller, but those guys have a chance to compete for the Super Bowl every year. There are other ski competitions, but none that get the kind of audience and prestige as the Winter Olympics. Time will tell, I suppose.

I love the Olympics, but sometimes people take it too seriously. Sure, these athletes are representing their country, and there is a lot of pride and honor in doing that, but people don’t pursue athletic achievement just for the honor. People learn to ski because it’s fun. They play hockey because their friends are playing. Bode Miller gets to show off the hard work he’s put in on the world’s biggest stage, and he’s having a good time while he’s there. He gets it.