Monday, October 30, 2006
We come from Europe,
we come in peace
So, half of the family was away, and of the other half, one of us was fast asleep. Here I was, sitting in the dark in the kitchen, my laptop in front of me, the TV on, showing a “documentary” on Bryan Adams, the Canadian rocker.
I’ve been a Bryan Adams fan since 1985 when Terry, a Canadian exchange student who lived with us for eight months, left the tape of Reckless to me when he took off on a European vacation. And while Terry, who, by the way, was from Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan – Eddie Shore’s birthplace – was away, I also borrowed his Oilers sweater. That he didn’t know. But I never touched his Cooperalls, I swear.
I probably might have, but it was June. Even the Stanley Cup Final was over. The Oilers had won the Cup, Wayne Gretzky had shattered the playoff points record with 47 points in 18 games, and Jari Kurri tied the record for goals (19) in a playoff season. Not that I had seen any of the games anywhere. I was mowing lawns and listening to “Run to You.”
The Oilers had five European players on their roster, but Raimo Summanen didn’t see any action in the playoffs. The Flyers, who lost the Final, had three.
Twenty-one years later, I am sitting in Sweden, in the dark, waiting for the radio broadcasts to begin. Live from New York, its NHL action, it’s the Florida Panthers vs. the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. It’s 2 am.
I love radio. When I was a kid I would write pages and pages of radio play-by-play in my little book. The best hockey broadcaster in the 1970s and 1980s was a radio guy, Raimo “Höyry” Häyrinen (whose nickname means “steam” in Finnish), so even when we watched hockey on TV, we’d turn down the sound and listen to “Höyry’s” play-by-play.
Well, this isn’t 1985 any more. I may still wear an Oilers sweater if I feel like it (not Terry’s, though), and I do have all of Bryan Adams’ albums, but so much has changed. The radio is on the Web, I can choose any game, and by whichever team’s broadcast team, not to mention that soon there will be streaming video of NHL games. But what struck me the most were the names in the play-by-play’s: “Neelander,” “Yagr,” “Lundkvist”, and “Hossa.”
I just checked the leading scorers. In the Top Ten, there are seven European players, two Canadians and one American. In the Top 20, there are 11 Europeans. Granted, it’s early in the season, and only four points separate Marian Hossa from Brian Rolston, number 16 on the list.
But still. It may be tough to be an Englishman in New York, but for all the other Euro-players, Manhattan’s pretty good these days. As is the whole league.
And now, just as there are more European captains than ever before, just as the European players have become accepted, and household names even, the International Ice Hockey Federation wants to pull the brakes. The IIHF released a study this week about the career paths of the European players in North America. In the study, they draw the conclusion that many European players would be better off by waiting a little longer before leaving for the North American rinks, and that “too many Europeans who are not of NHL caliber are signed by NHL clubs.”
(That’s European. In American, that means, “Do you really have to sign everybody? We’ve got nothing left!”)
“The findings of the study support our concern that too many players who are not NHL-ready leave the European leagues and never reach their potential,” says IIHF President René Fasel on their Web site. “This is detrimental both to the NHL and to the top European leagues. It is now the duty of the global hockey community to address this issue for the benefit of all leagues as well as international hockey.”
That, too, is code. That’s the European, polite way of saying: “Show me the money.”
And while more and more hockey players are leaving Europe for North America, it’s easy to forget that Europe’s not such a bad place to live. Even Bryan Adams lives in London these days.
Posted by Risto @ 12:43 p.m.
Friday, October 20, 2006
Goalies are crazy
I learned to skate at the age of four, and have played hockey since I was about six. I remember (or at least I remember the story about me) standing in the snow, frustrated with how hard it was to skate. I remember how dad made goalie masks for me, and I remember the smell of my dad's hockey gloves (after a game).
I remember how mom and dad took me to the supermarket to buy a real pair of hockey pants, the blue Koho ones and I remember doing the good old "hit-me-as-hard-as-you-can" test with a friend of mine the next day.
So many memories. So many feelings wrapped up in hockey, but there's one thing I have never experienced. I've never been a goalie. I've never got the puck in my chest and felt good about it. Never faced a forward on a breakaway. My goalie career ended pretty much the same time the rubber band on the cardboard mask my dad made for me snapped.
Like all kids, I was fascinated by goalkeepers. I remember sitting in the stands of the Helsinki Arena, watching a game, and asking my dad where all the goalies lived (since I never saw them walking around on the streets). First he said that he didn't know. Then he realized that I didn’t understand that they were just regular men.
I wonder if he knew then that goalies aren't regular men. Goalies are special.
Not all of them, but many.
The goalie on one of my first teams was a chubby kid who always had his grandma in the stands whenever we played. More than once, the grandma brought him a hot dog to have on top of the net, in case he got hungry during the game. I really wish he had become an NHL superstar because that story would be great. Another goalie teammate of mine only wore T-shirts. All year-round. In Finland.
We all know the stereotypical goalie: the aloof guy, the loner, a man against the world, sometimes the joker, and a wild guy. They're kind of mysterious because you can't see their faces. They are "masked men." They just stare ahead, and clear that crease of theirs, and sometimes make the fake saves as if they could see something nobody else can.
Like Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff or Atlanta's Kari Lehtonen with their injured hips and their cooler-as-a-frozen-cucumber personas.
Some goalies are borderline crazy. Like all the goalies who never speak to anyone on a game day. Come on, that's just got to be more of a distraction than anything else.
Like Glenn Hall, who threw up before each game because of nervousness, then drank a glass of milk to coat his stomach. Like Gerry Cheevers who had all the stitches he would have got without the mask, painted on his mask. Like Patrick Roy, who spoke to the goal posts, and never stepped on the lines on the ice. Finnish goalie Jarmo Myllys was famous for circling in the corners during stoppages.
These are not just regular men.
This morning, my four-year-old son said he wanted to be a hockey goalie when he grows up.
Here's a very special boy.
Posted by Risto @ 2:09 p.m.
Friday, October 13, 2006
I’ve always liked Mats Sundin. Not that I know him personally, but you know, he’s always been one of my Top 3 favorite players and there’s only one reason for that: the way he celebrates his goals.
Few things in life make me smile as readily as seeing Mats Sundin on a breakaway, making a deke to the right, switching the puck to his backhand, lifting the puck over the goalie’s pad and then continuing his path to the corner, arms raised, and that huge smile on his face. He looks so happy, so gracious, and he’s so tall that there are always these teammates that jump onto him, and seem to hang around Mats’ neck like baby monkeys from their mothers’ necks.
Life’s easy with Mats.
Although, I am the first to admit that last season, around January, I lost faith. I kept telling everybody that Team Sweden couldn’t rely on Sundin anymore, and that he was their Achilles’ heel in the Olympics because there is no coach in the world that would bench Big Mats.
I kept saying the same thing all through the tournament because the smile was gone. I couldn’t see it, not even in the post-game interviews.
Until, naturally, after the final. Mats smiling through his new teeth and a gold medal.
For full disclosure, you should probably know that Mats Sundin’s spirit has touched my family because, when my brother-in-law started playing hockey in Sollentuna, Sweden fifteen years ago, he got Mats Sundin’s old pants. Not much rubbed off, which I guess is just proof of the fact that the secret of Sundin’s hockey success lies in his head, not in his butt. (My brother-in-law became a great tennis player).
But I liked Mats long before I met my wife.
Captain Mats has always been a winner, all the way from leading his Stockholm district team to victory in the Swedish TV-Pucken, a competition for district teams for 15-year-olds, to being the first European number one pick, to winning World Championships and the Olympics.
I remember Mats Sundin going around the pylon called Fetisov in the World Championships in Turku, Finland, and scoring the gold medal-winning goal. If I close my eyes I see him make Marko Kiprusoff and Kari Takko look like, well, Fetisov, in the 1996 World Cup game against Finland in Stockholm.
And then he flashed that big smile in the corner, making me feel all fuzzy and warm, even through the disappointment of Finland losing.
Now Sundin is approaching the 500-goal mark in the NHL. That’s a lot of goals, 500. If Sundin scored a goal in every shift of a regular game, it would take him twenty games to score 500 goals. Imagine that.
I do. And I feel good.
I hope his 500th is a backhander.
Posted by Risto @ 12:49 p.m.
Monday, October 9, 2006
This could be the year
A hockey fan's off-season isn't long, compared to some other sports, and that's especially true for us on this side of the Atlantic. Even if the European leagues get wrapped up in April, and the World Championship ends in mid-May, there's still that thing called the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
So, in mid-June we stay awake all night together with the sun that never sets, and watch the playoffs.
Finnish teams play their first exhibition games in late July-early August, and the league kicks off in mid-September. By now, in early October, almost a fifth of the games have already been played.
The downside of the short summer is that sometimes the hockey side of the brain -- the front -- doesn't get enough time to recharge itself. There's a hockey overload, simply put.
The upside is of course that all those loser fans -- meaning fans of all the teams that didn't win -- can quickly put the season behind and look forward to a new season and new beginnings with new coaches and players.
And there are a lot of those, disappointed fans.
If the government of Canada could find a way to take all the frustration of the hockey fans (especially the Maple Leafs' fans) and turn it into energy, it would. (Knowing Canadians, they would probably use the energy to build and power another 500 indoor rinks.)
So, here we go again, it is Fall, the beginning of a new season. Your team looks really, really good. The young guys are a year older, but by a weird sort of a hockey miracle, the older players aren't, creating a perfect mix in the team. Your goalie is so hot that the people sitting behind the net get a nice tan during every game, your defense is a solid as Brad Pitt's abs, the forwards are fast and furious, and the snipers are hungry for goals.
In comparison, your team's biggest rival still has that star center, sure, but he's getting old and tired. All right, so he won the Art Ross Trophy last year, but that contract extension he signed for six million just makes him lazy.
The success of your team is inevitable.
If only they get a good start, that's the key. If only the coach finds the right line combinations early on in the season, if the hot goalie doesn't get injured, and if that young Euro prospect is even half as good as the media's been saying, things are looking good.
I mean, really, really, really, really, good.
Better than ever.
This could be the year.
Posted by Risto @ 3:04 p.m.