12 thoughts on all things NHL
NHL Thought No. 1: After a recent Flyers practice, I had a quick chat with coach Peter Laviolette, who was still in his stocking feet after yanking off his skates. Laviolette grew up a Bruins fan in Massachusetts, and proof of his 11 seasons paying his dues in the minor leagues is etched all over his face. Game 7s in the NHL are, without question, some of the most intense, exciting events in all of sports. So I know Flyers fans are going nuts right now waiting for the game to start. Maybe this will calm your nerves a bit: The last time I talked to Laviolette was in 2006, when his Hurricanes went on to win the Cup.
NHLT2: Is it me, or are there a lot of awesome names in the NHL that would double as great dog names? I don't mean that these guys are dogs; as a dog lover, I mean this as the highest form of tribute. But on the Pens alone, you've got Letang, Kunitz, Gonchar and Dupuis. Any others you guys can think of? Halak, maybe? Datsyuk?
NHLT3: After the way they shut down Alex Ovechkin, my theory on the Habs' success was that they had so many talented left-handed defenders who just naturally match up and neutralize right-handed scorers. Of course, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are lefties.
NHLT4: The coolest thing I learned while writing this piece on hockey sticks for ESPN The Magazine was that the same carbon nanotube technology used to build lighter, stronger hockey sticks is also found in antennas built by NASA for the space shuttle.
NHLT5: The NHL should capitalize, big time, from the sport's amazing run at the Olympics and all this great action in the quest for Lord Stanley's Cup.
But it won't.
Well, the NFL is our national pastime because 1) it perfectly caters to what we love as a society (speed, skill, scoring and violence -- but mostly violence), and 2) it broadcasts it in a way that fits our viewing habits and rotting cerebral cortex. (We never really have to watch too closely because every slightly important or entertaining moment is going to be replayed, from every conceivable angle and at every possible speed, at least 14 times before the next snap.)
Well, I've got news for you: There is more speed, skill and goose-bump-inducing uber-violence in one shift of hockey than an entire half of football. But, as I've always said -- sometimes even loudly and dangerously, like, while debating Marty McSorley at my brother's bachelor party -- the only thing holding back the NHL is that it doesn't translate well to TV.
(One notable exception: Play-by-play man Mike "Doc" Emrick is the best in the biz, regardless of sport. And I'm not just saying that because he, like me, has a degree from the college hockey mecca of Miami University. Seriously, is he that good, or are the other NHL announcers -- most of whom sound as though they've been forced to cover the sport against their will -- that bad?)
As far as the sport's poor TV production, though, enough with the 1970s tennis-match style, camera-in-the-rafters already. Why isn't there a camera on top of the boards that moves all the way around the rink? Why isn't there an eye-in-the-sky camera like in football? Why don't the refs have cameras in their helmets? Why is there a reporter sitting in that prime spot in between the benches telling us that a team's energy is suddenly sky high after a goal (yeah, duh, thanks)? Putting a reporter there instead of a camera makes about as much sense as all these people worried about Facebook invading their privacy while they simultaneously post 18 status updates about their ingrown toenail.
What's more, something has to be done to show replays of the big hits and all the action that the lightning-fast pace of play never lets us see more than once -- if we're lucky and paying close attention. Why can't they use a split screen to show replays? Or, could they shorten the break between periods by, say, five minutes, but insert several 20-second TV timeouts in each period that would allow for replays?
I just don't get it. A few years back, the NHL had the leadership and guts to actually change and improve the way the game itself was played, so why not apply that same vision and creativity to the broadcasts?
NHLT6: Moments before they dropped the puck for Game 7 of the Caps-Habs series, I realized this was what I loved about the NHL: Here I am in our nation's capital, where the biggest star in town is from Russia, listening to the Canadian national anthem, sitting near team officials from Montreal speaking French about who will skate as "attaquants" while players from Milwaukee and Koprivnice, Czech Republic, warm up shoulder to shoulder using sticks manufactured in Mexico.
NHLT7: I get why everyone in Hockeytown is worried about whether Nicklas Lidstrom is coming back to the Red Wings next year. But for my money, I'm just as worried that they won't re-sign golden grinder Tomas Holmstrom. There are a few athletes I'd pay to watch play -- Carolina wideout Steve Smith, Allen Iverson (in his prime), Zach Thomas (ditto), and now I'd add Holmer to that list. Sure, he's 37, but did you know he's got 42 career playoff goals, which is only four fewer than Henrik Zetterberg? (It took him almost 70 more games, but still.) I've never seen someone so willing and skilled at doing the thankless dirty work in front of the net. He's like the London Fletcher of the NHL. In Game 7 against the Coyotes I counted at least three goals that were a direct result of the way Holmstrom seems to relish the hustle and grind of the sport. On one play I saw him rattle the goaltender with his backside, get crowbarred across the kidneys, slash a defender on his way to the ice, bounce back up, jump behind the net to keep the puck alive, take three extra whacks at a loose puck in front of the net, and then end up doing God knows what on the bottom of a scrum after the whistle. "All sorts of stuff happens under that pile," Ducks enforcer George "The 'Stache" Parros told me. "You can get away with quite a lot under there, actually." And just because that kind of stuff doesn't show up on the stat sheet doesn't mean I -- I mean, the Red Wings -- wouldn't miss Holmer big time.
NHLT8: Maybe it's the helmet. With 12 goals, the Habs' Mike Cammalleri is now tied with hockey legend Maurice "Rocket" Richard for the fourth-highest postseason goal total in club history. Cammalleri is one of the players featured in the campaign for Easton's new remarkable S19 Z-Shock helmet. I'm not a big equipment nerd, but this thing is so revolutionary it defies logic. The helmet weighs all of 325 grams, less than a 12-ounce cup of coffee (or Jack Daniels, if you're in a sorority at my alma mater, Miami University). It's about 50 percent lighter than most helmets, yet it's eight times as strong. The Z-Shock is so light, in fact, when Easton sent me one, I felt as though I had to secure it to my desk or it would lift off and float away. Alas, the helmet was too small for my giant melon, so I gave it to the kid next door who skates on my line in our rec league team. Between periods, he gave me his five-star review: "I've had headaches heavier than this helmet," he said. How magical is this new lid? Out of gratitude, this kid actually started passing the puck to me.
NHLT9: Did I read this right? In the history of the NHL, MLB and NBA, 286 teams have gone down 3-0, and only three of those have come back to win the series. For some reason, though, I think the Flyers will make it four. And that reason is probably the five minutes I spent talking to Chris Pronger, who told me: "The playoffs are a war. I look at it like a war, and it starts with the battles in front of the net. You gotta win those first. My job there is pretty simple, really. I just try to hit everyone in sight, knock down everyone, and clear the front of the net."
NHLT10: After working with Brooks Laich on this video about stick prep -- check out the cameo by Ovechkin, who walked in singing "Superstar" by Lupe Fiasco -- I wasn't shocked at all to hear that he stopped on the highway to help a stranded Caps fan after the heartbreaking loss in Game 7 (although had it been teammate, defenseman and GEICO pitchman Mike Green, who had a total brain freeze on two of the Habs' goals, I wonder whether Brooks would have kept on driving). Still, Laich personifies what so many of us find refreshing about the NHL: elite athletes who manage to remain down-to-earth.
NHLT11: Here's a pretty good example of that down-to-earthiness: After I got done talking to Flyers badass Scott Hartnell about the eye-gouging, finger-biting and worse (the players call it "sacking") that goes on in the middle of hockey scrums, he turned to a local female TV reporter and asked her for hair-straightening tips.
NHLT12: One more? OK. I recently chatted on the phone with legendary Chicago Blackhawk Stan Mikita, who was calling from his home in Florida. While telling me the amazing story about how he basically invented the curved blade (and the slap shot) by accident, Mikita apologized for all the barking in the background. It turns out one of the game's toughest players now rescues puppies for the local shelter.
I wonder whether he's gonna name one of them Annti Niemi.
All right, everybody, enjoy Game 7.
This list written while listening to: Cage the Elephant.
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and the author of the memoir "Noah's Rainbow" and "Breaker Boys: The NFL's Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship." And his work will be featured in "The Best American Sports Writing 2009" anthology. The Flem File appears every Wednesday during the NFL season with updates on Mondays and Fridays.
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