THE FAR SIDE OF THE POND: Picking the Awards and my State of Hockey Speech

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By Chad Huebner

“Let’s see how far we’ve come
Let’s see how far we’ve come”

-Matchbox Twenty


You’d think Matchbox Twenty’s latest hit would be the best song to quote from, considering we’ve come a long, long way from last October. But the song is mostly about crying and dying and more crying. Granted, these are things I feel like doing when the hockey season comes to an end every year, but I didn’t think it’d be appropriate to quote such lyrics here.

Yep, hockey season is all over. The NHL, the minors, the juniors-heck, even the World Championship ended a month ago. It’s interesting to note (well, at least I think it is) that nearly all of the North American champions all hail from about the same area. You have the Detroit Red Wings in the NHL, the Chicago Wolves in the AHL (more on them a little later), the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL and the Fort Wayne Komets of the IHL. Yes, they’re all Rust Belt teams, and you can basically put them all in a pretty tight circle in the Midwest. I just find it interesting that while hockey in North America has taken a decidedly Sun Belt approach to its franchises, that for once, most of the champions hail from the supposedly failing northern areas.

Even though the Penguins didn’t move to Hamilton, Ontario, (and now that turned out to be a good idea, didn’t it?), I still think there’s room for the NHL to expand north instead of south. First off, it’s high time we give franchises back to Winnipeg and Quebec. Add Hamilton to the mix, and the NHL has more of a Canadian feel. . . what a concept. There’s been talk about expanding to Seattle, which is an intriguing option: junior hockey has flourished there; Seattle would make a closer, more natural, rival with the Vancouver Canucks than Calgary and Edmonton; and the city has even won the Stanley Cup, though long before the NHL ever came to be.

Look, clearly not all the Sun Belt areas can readily support or care about having a NHL franchise. I’d find it (New Jersey) devilishly ironic if, say, the Florida Panthers or Atlanta Thrashers couldn’t fit the bill anymore, and wound up pulling stakes and moving to Winnipeg or Seattle.

Moving right along. . . congrats to the Chicago Wolves for bringing yet another championship to our area, something the ‘Hawks need to get working on ASAFP. I watched Game 6, the series clincher, in which they beat the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in front of some very happy humans at Allstate Arena. (On a side note, I also feel sorry for the Pens, who accomplished the double dip of losing championships at the NHL and AHL level.) I also couldn’t help but notice that nearly everyone on the Wolves, from the players to the coaches and even the trainers, were sporting moustaches, instead of the usual playoff beards. Apparently, in the second round of the AHL Calder Cup Playoffs, the Wolves were down 3-2 to the Rockford IceHogs, when the players decided to shave off the beards, leaving only ‘staches. The Wolves came back to win that series, and well, the rest is history. Watching Game 6, I couldn’t help but marvel at the different types of moustaches that were sported: you had the Sam Elliot, the Bill Cowher, the Nick Nolte from the 70s, the Super Troopers, and even head coach John Anderson was sporting the ‘stache the dad had on “O.C. Choppers.” Commentator Billy Gardner went for the full-on beard, which made him look like a salty sea captain.

So are playoff moustaches the new “in” thing? And will such facial wear branch out into other forms? How about the playoff goatee? Or the playoff muttonchops? The possibilities are endless and creepy.

This is my 42nd column of the year, and those who know a thing or two know the significance of the number 42 (if you’re not, just use Wikipedia). I’ve never ended a year with such a number of columns, and would like to thank the Red Wings and Penguins for ending the Stanley Cup Series at Game 6 (yeah, like they were doing it for me. . . how big is my ego?).

Anyway, tradition calls for me to wrap up the hockey season talking about certain issues that have come up during the year. I do this by watching the NHL Awards Show, sometimes commenting on what’s happening during the show, but also using the Awards show to weave in my own topics on the sport I love. In addition, I will try to pick who wins each award. Trust me, it’ll all make sense in a little while and it’ll be magical.

Well, let’s start with the fact that Versus is sharing the feed of the show with CBC. I’m first greeted with part of some British-based soap opera called “Coronation Street.” Then they jump to the NHL Draft Lottery, which happened the day after the end of the Stanley Cup Series. Then, all of a sudden, we’re brought to the actual Awards show.

Just another reason not to like Versus for its handling of the NHL. From audio quality (sucked like rotten eggs in the playoffs) to showing a majority of East Coast games on Mondays and Tuesdays (hello? what about the rest of the country? ever heard of doubleheaders? ever heard of showing games later on in the week?) to flubbing the opening of the Awards Show, it all adds up to me wishing harder than ever that ABC/ESPN takes over broadcasting duties in a bloody coup.

This year’s Awards Show has a new twist: having youngsters in NHL jerseys sitting in grandstands on the stage and along the sides of the stage. Dunno who these kids are, or why they’re within assassin’s range of taking down the likes of Alexander Ovechkin (hey, we’re so wigged out about terrorists blowing up airports, and yet do nothing to protect our valuable hockey treasures. . . what kind of world is this?). Thanks a lot, Versus!

First up for the awards is the Lester B. Pearson award, given to the most valuable player as voted by the players.

Nominees: Ovechkin, Jarome Iginla and Evgeni Malkin

My Pick: Alexander the Great. Clearly, he was a one-man wrecking crew that took a team on his mighty shoulders to the playoffs for the first time in years. Out of the three, he has the most flair and is the most physical. Malkin deserves to be here, and I guess the players figured Iggy should get some notice after all these years.

And the Award Goes To: Alex the Great of course! He’s not Alexander the Slightly Great or even Alexander the Above-Average.


As Ovechkin gives his speech, he says “Sorry, I’m a little nervous”, and gets applauded for it. Now, if I said that in my humdrum, every day life, do you think I’d get any sort of recognition for it?

We come back from commercial, and now it’s time for the William Jennings Trophy, given to the team that allowed the fewest goals in the season, the Detroit Red Wings. Dominik Hasek in on stage, as Chris Osgood in is Kollyfornia (Schwarzenegger’s pronunciation, not mine) at a movie premiere with the Stanley Cup. Somehow, I feel like Ozzie is giving the NHL a big “screw you!” for not winning the Conn Smythe for playoff MVP. Probably not the case, but you wouldn’t be surprised if this is true, especially for a guy that gets constantly overlooked . Meanwhile, it’s also a good situation for The Dominator, who announced his retirement, and might stick to his guns this time around.

Now it’s time for the Frank J. Selke Trophy, given to the best defensive forward in the game. The presentation is made by Montreal Canadiens head coach Guy Carbonneau, who has a nose like Joe Camel. Just thought you’d want to know that.

Nominees: Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, and John Madden

My Pick: Usually, when you have two players from the same team up for the same award, they cancel each other out. Umm, definitely NOT this time. Zetterberg is my pick, as he gets to rack up another award this season. And no, it’s NOT that John Madden from Sunday Night Football.

And the Award Goes To: Oops, it’s Datsyuk. Well, we all lost track of him during the playoffs so much that I wouldn’t be surprised if his face appeared on milk cartons. But he was another story in the regular season.


And here we have another Russian struggling with English, only this time, we have a creep factor of 10 because Datsyuk looks like a cross between Dr. Spock and Anthony Perkins.

The next award is the King Clancy Memorial Trophy, given to the player who gives back to the community. The presenters are Hockey Night in Canada’s Cassie Campbell and Adam Graves. No chance to pick ahead of time for this one (Vinnie Lecavalier), but I’d like to note there were a few whistles and catcalls when the presenters got on stage. . . and I think most of those were given to Cassie.

Cassie and Adam also get to present the Bill Masterson Memorial Trophy, which is kinda like NHL’s version of the Comeback Player of the Year Award.

Nominees: Jason Blake, Chris Chelios and Fernando Pisani

My Pick: I’d like to give it to Chelli, but since I know little or nothing about the other two guys, I’ll go with. . . ummm. . . Pisani.

And the Award Goes To: Jason Blake. Damn, I’m 1-for-3 so far. Sounds good in baseball, not so when it comes to hockey. Now I find out Blake has cancer. Okay, he wins this one!


Oh, the kids on stage are minor hockey players. Thanks to Chris Simpson for telling me that. He interviews one of the kids and asks him what NHL team that he would want to play for. The kid doesn’t hesitate and says the Montreal Canadiens. . . even though he’s wearing a San Jose Sharks jersey. Shouldn’t that be a penalty?

Up next is the winner of the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, given to the player who exhibits the most gentlemanly conduct in the game. You’d think that would be an oxymoron in this day and age, but I guess there are some players who are actually nice on the ice.

Nominees: Jason Pominville, Martin St. Louis, Pavel Datsyuk

My Pick: Well, Datsyuk already has one award, so it’s down to the other two. I’ll go with St. Louis, who’s always effective in the game than in the penalty box.

And the Award Goes To: Datsyuk again? Uh-oh, here’s more from the Spock-Perkins love child.
 
Now we get into the “good” awards, the ones you actually know and care about. We have a double dip of the Art Ross Scoring Trophy and the Maurice Richard Trophy, which is given to the player with the highest number of goals in the league.


Nominees: Just seeing if you were paying attention. These are two awards that have an undisputed winner, and this year Alex the Great takes both.

In each of the last two years, I’ve talked about scoring in the NHL, how it’s either gotten better or worse. Well, sad to say 2007 was another down year. Since the new rule changes and “The New NHL” in 2005, goal and point scoring have gone down each of the last two years. In 2005, there were five players who scored at least 50 goals, and seven who scored at least 100 points. In 2006, there were still seven players with 100 point seasons, but only two that scored at least 50 goals. This year, while there were three players with at least 50 goals, only two players, Ovechkin and Malkin had at least 100 points. No player, not even Alex the Great scored at least 50 goals and/or 100 points each of the last three seasons.

Well, you might be thinking that scoring is being distributed more evenly among teammates, but stats show this isn’t the case. In 2005, 16 teams averaged at least three goals a game, 15 teams averaged over 30 shots a game, and two clubs, the Red Wings and the Ottawa Senators, scored over 300 goals during the regular season. This was a major leap compared to 2003, where only two teams averaged three goals a game, three teams had at least 30 shots a game, and no club was even close to 300 goals. In 2006, no club scored 300 goals, and only 10 clubs averaged three goals and 30 shots a game. This year, only five teams averaged three goals a game and only nine teams shot the puck at least 30 times per game. The Senators, the highest scoring team with only 258 goals, had four goals less than when they lead the league in goal scoring in 2003.

Now, you could say that the teams are adjusting better to the new rules and that the defenses are getting better. Maybe so. But I think teams just aren’t shooting the puck as much as they did two years ago. You hear everyone-broadcasters, former players, that drunken guy in section 302-say “take the shot”, but apparently the players aren’t listening. Well, one team is, and that team won the Cup this year by taking a huge amount of shots on goal. Maybe not all of them went into the net, but it seems so simple: the more shots you take, the more chances you give yourself to score. Duh.

Now I hear the NHL is thinking of shrinking the goalie equipment again. Will this increase scoring? Probably, but it doesn’t really solve the problem in the right way, in that it’s hampering the goalies more than it fixes the game itself. I do miss a little of the high-scoring 80s, but this decade has one thing the 80s truly lacked, and that was solid, physical defense.

Next it’s the Jack Adams Trophy for best coach in the NHL. Of course, you have to have Scotty Bowman present this award, but we also have Olympic winner Cammie Granato, from the Chicago-based, hockey-playing Granato family. Cammie still looks like she could elbow anyone into the boards.

Nominees: Mike Babcock, Guy Carbonneau, and Bruce Boudreau

My Pick: A toughie, this one. Carbonneau brought glory back to Les Habs and Boudreau was an early-season replacement who rejuvenated the Caps to their first playoff experience in five years. But I’ll go with Babcock, even though people will say “well, the Red Wings were a great team before he came along”. Yeah, and they’re still great, mostly due to him.

And the Award Goes To: Boudreau, one of the many feel-good stories of the NHL. Well, we’ll just have to see what he does over a full season. Getting Cristobal Huet at the trade deadline gives him a solid starter in net, but the Caps have to be more than just Alex’s Team.


Well, I officially suck at this award picking, but I’m pretty sure I’ll get this next one right, the Calder Trophy, the award for rookie of the year.

Nominees: Patrick Kane, Johnathan Toews and Nicklas Backstrom

My Pick: Another award with two players from the same team, but once again, I’ll with one of them, Johnny Toews. He put on some moves I haven’t seen from the ‘Hawks since Denny Savard’s Spin-o-rama. He and Kane are the ‘Hawks future, which suddenly looks so bright these days.

And the Award Goes To: Kane. Ah well, at least a ‘Hawks player won something this year. That’s proof enough things are turning around in the Windy City. Too bad it had to take the death of Dollar Bill to do it, but wow, it’s been a blur of change for the once stodgy ‘Hawks. All 82 games on TV the next three years, bringing back Hull, Mikita and Tony-O back into the fold, trying to get an outdoor game here. . . seriously, are these the ‘Hawks or somebody else? I haven’t said this in a long, loooong time, but I’m looking forward to next year.


Oh, and I wanted to mention 2007 was another year of the young stars, blah, blah, blah, yadda-yadda-yadda.

We have a new award this year, I repeat, we have a new award: The NHL Lifetime Achievement Award. The Commish presents this one to. . . Gordie Howe.

I mean, who the heck else would win this award the first time? Maybe The Great One. But before him, there was Mr. Hockey. He is the Living Legend of Hockey, and should always be honored for what he brought to the table. One thing the NHL needs to do more is to recognize the link between today’s players and those of the past. For those fans, either new to the sport or young enough not to remember the old greats, the NHL needs to reinforce these ties, just like MLB, the NFL and the NBA do on a regular basis. There’s a lot of great history in hockey, let it not be forgotten. Passing the torch. . . hmm, I think the Canadiens have a quote to this effect in their locker room, it seems kinda important.

After more stuff with the kids on stage, it’s on to the James Norris Trophy. . .

(Lidstrom!)

. . . Awarded to the most outstanding defensemen. . .

(LIDSTROM!)

. . . in the NHL. . .

(LIDSTROM!!!!!!!!)

Oookayyyy, I think you know where I stand on this one. Still here are all the nominees. . . 
 
Nominees: NICKLAS LIDSTROM!!!!!!!!!!!!!, Dion Phaneuf and Zdeno Chara

My Pick: Duh? Anyway, when Lidstrom finally retires-which might be another decade at this rate-this award will be wide open again. Otherwise, I get the feeling this won’t be the last time we’ll hear Phaneuf’s name mentioned.

And the Award Goes To: Say it loud and say it proud. . .
LIDSTROM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Seriously, he has to be considered the best defenseman to grace the ice since a certain Number Four.

Time for the Vezina Trophy for best goaltending. Presenters are Billy Smith and some guy named Allan Doyle (I’m sure he’s a star in Canada, whatever that means). Smith, who was the first goalie to score a goal in NHL history, once said he attributed his success in the pipes to playing video games, as he said they improved his hand-eye coordination. See, I knew playing countless hours of video games could’ve led me to something better. . . being an NHL goalie. Unfortunately, I never lived up to that dream, but I play a pretty mean Halo 3.

Nominees: Evgeni Nabokov, Henrik Lundqvist, Martin Brodeur

My Pick: Well, as much as I’d like to see Marty win, I’ll go with Henrik. In terms of what these goalies meant to their clubs this year, I think Henrik did the most for the Rangers. Again, when Brodeur finally steps down, expect this kid to be a perennial contender for this award.

And the Award Goes To: Shows that I shoulda gone with my gut and picked Marty on this one. I mean, I read the guy’s autobiography this year, for frak’s sake, I shoulda known better.


We come upon the final award of the evening, and the most valuable: The Hart Trophy for the MVP of the league. It was a race between two guys, and while one had the better numbers by a slight margin, the other one carried his team when the star player was out of action for over a month. I don’t think I have to mention who’s who by now. let’s go to presenter Bob Gainey, who I always thought was F. Murray Abraham’s twin brother.

Nominees: Alex the Great, Malkin and Iginla

My Pick: Another real toughie of a pick. Alex or Evgeni? It’s a close vote, but I’ll go with Malkin, who got the opportunity to really show what he’s about this year when Sid the Kid went down. He proved he could be the star of the Pens or any other team with his play, and though he couldn’t do the same in the Stanley Cup Finals, I feel he’ll learn from his mistakes, and he and Sid will be like Messier and The Great One during the Oilers’ run in the 80s and destroy everyone.

And the Award Goes To: Iggy.


Hah, just seeing if you were still paying attention! It’s Alex the Great. Not a bad choice, but I still think what Malkin did in his moment was an incredible thing. But admittedly, Alex has more upside over the long run. Visions of Conference Finals between the Pens and the Caps are a beautiful thing.


So the NHL Awards Show is over. The season is over. And now my column must come to a close for a few months. But before I go into cold storage (this hot weather is for the birds), I’d like to give my version of a “thank you” speech:

First, my English a leetle better than Datsyuk.
(hahahahahahahahahahaha!)


Thank you to the Coventry Blaze and the Guildford Flames for giving me a third year at trying to expose the British populace to life in the NHL and hockey in North America (trust me, this is better than exposing other things).

Thank you to the other British teams, who have given me another chance at being funny and informative. Even though I haven’t heard from most of them since the beginning of the season, I’m sure they’re still diligently printing my article on the web for everyone to see.

Thank you to Mike Peck and the Rockford IceHogs, who have finally made this column an Inter-Continental hit. I’m pleased that they’re aligned with my beloved ‘Hawks, and have fully deserved their promotion to the AHL. And I swear, I’ll actually come out to a game next year. I got sidetracked this year, man, what a bummer.
 
And thank you to my readers. You may be a shy bunch (please, e-mail me sometime, let me know you’re alive and well), but I hope I’ve entertained and informed you in some weird way. There was added pressure on me this season to be my very best since I was also writing for a North American crowd, but just like any good hockey player, pressure brings out the best. And if it didn’t do that for me, well, I had fun doing this, like I always do.


Remember; e-mail me at chadhuebner1972@yahoo.com for anything on your mind, hopefully hockey related. Best responses and/or questions will be answered publicly.

 



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