(Assistant) Coach’s Corner, Part 1 – My coaching debut

Coaching hockey is something I have always been interested in, and I have been thinking about getting involved with my local hockey association for several years. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I think coaching in minor hockey is a very important and undervalued role in the development of youngsters. A good coach can teach a lot of life skills to be used on and off the ice, such as hard work, determination, loyalty, and the value of teamwork. A good coach also helps players develop their hockey skills in a fun, healthy environment.

After a few of years of thinking passively about coaching, I finally decided to be proactive and go through with it. I did all the necessary pre-requisite courses, which were “Health and Safety” and “Respect in sports”, and I signed up for a weekend coaching clinic to become a certified coach. The clinic involved both on and off ice lessons, and it was a great experience. After about six hours of coaching, I left the arena a certified coach.

The next step was to actually find a team to help coach. I don’t have any kids, and I don’t know anybody currently in minor hockey. I did what any normal person with a lot of time on their hands would do: I went through all the teams in my region to see which ones had the least amount of coaches. I was interested in coaching the older age groups, as I had already been an assistant coach for a pre-novice team two years ago. Although it is a lot of fun to teach individual skills to eager youngsters, I wanted to focus on team skills and systems, while not completely forgetting about individual skill.

I found a team that was right in my comfort zone. A Midget B team with only three coaches seemed to be a perfect fit! I went to one of their practices, and spoke with the head coach afterwards. He said they’d be happy to have me, and introduced me to the assistants, the manager and a couple of parents. Coincidentally, one of the other assistant coaches was at the same certification clinic I attended the previous weekend!

Full disclosure, the team did not need another coach. If I had never shown up, the team would not have been suffering. I feel extremely lucky to be given the chance to try coaching, and even luckier to have picked a team with such great people on the team. The one attribute I really bring to the table is that I have experience as a goalie. With very limited practice time, it’s difficult to focus on all the players consistently. It’s even more difficult for head coaches to give goalies the training they so desperately need, especially since the position is so unique and personal. It takes a lot of hours to properly develop a goalie’s personal technique, something head coaches simply don’t have the time for.

In the first practice I participated in, I was in charge of coaching the goalies. I was excited, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t spend a good 2 or 3 hours beforehand coming up with drills and tips to work on. Only one of the two goalies showed up, so it ended up being an intense and hard workout for the poor lone goalie. I had a blast coaching, but it was also a little strange at first. The young goalie had skill, but knew she had weaknesses. We worked together for a good half hour, focusing on the butterfly slide, quickly recovering after the initial save, being square to the puck. She was open to all my tips and tricks, and when I spoke, she listened. I’m used to being the one listening, not talking.

So far, I have been behind the bench for three games. We’ve lost one 7-6, and won the other two both with a score of 7-2. My role is kind of a rover coach: the head coach covers everything, one assistant coach focuses on the defencemen while the other focuses on the forwards. That leaves me, the fourth coach, to speak with the goalie between periods and give advice wherever I see fit. I don’t mind it, because I am still very new to the coaching scene, and I am still getting comfortable with the role. What I enjoy is when I do have something to say, the players actually listen. I’ve never held this kind of respect and authority before, so I’ll try my best to make sure it doesn’t go to my head!

The team is a very close group of kids, many of whom have been playing together for at least a few years. There are some very talented players, and most of them work hard each shift. There are a couple of players with short tempers, with one player in particular seeming to come off of the ice angry after every shift! The head coach makes a point of trying to calm the young man down. All to often anger leads to retaliation, and retaliation leads to penalties. When things aren’t going their way, the players all suddenly become seasoned dockworkers, based on their colourful vocabulary! Besides that, they are a great group of youngsters, who support each other while not putting blame on each other’s shoulders. In my opinion, they are the type of players you want to coach. Talented individuals who play hard, but listen to advice and don’t get down on each other.

The team has some weaknesses, as all teams do. What the coaching staff has been trying to focus on is the ol’ dump and change to avoid players changing on the backcheck, a big no-no in the hockey world. We’ve also been emphasizing getting a player in front of the net, taking shots and pouncing on rebounds. Many of the goals we’ve scored have been rebounds from shots. The old cliché of getting more pucks on net is valid; when you shoot on goal, good things will happen!

Another issue we’ve been focusing is the forwards supporting the defencemen in their own zone. A few times, a defenceman would get the puck and have no one to pass to. The other team pounces on the opportunity, and ends up with a semi-decent scoring chance. We want the forwards to stay back and breakout as a team, not as an individual. As for the goalies, we’ve been focusing on being square to the puck, being aggressive in the crease and recovering quickly after the initial save.

We’re currently fifth in the league, but the season is still young! I’m looking forward to contributing more and more to the development of the team’s skills, while learning from the coaches. I’m already having a blast, and I’m sure that won’t change.

I will keep you all posted as the season progresses. We have a game and a practice coming up, so we’re going to be busy!

Game day for the Concordia Stingers – a behind-the-scenes look

Concordia Stingers, men's hockey team

Concordia Stingers, men’s hockey team

 

A few weeks ago, I was offered a very unique and exciting opportunity.

As a student at Concordia University, I write for the university’s paper, The Concordian. I went to interview the men’s hockey team and their coach, Kevin Figsby, for an upcoming article I was working on. Coach Figsby was extremely accommodating, and he ended up inviting me to join the team on their away game in Trois-Rivières the following day. It was an offer I was not expecting, and I could not turn it down.

I got to the Verdun auditorium at 1:30, where the Concordia Stingers have been calling home while the university’s arena is under renovation. The team had ordered food from a local catering service, and we all enjoyed a nice meal of penne with meat sauce and garlic bread, a perfect pre-game meal. There were no tables, so we all just ate standing up. As coach Figsby walked by, he laughed and said “welcome to a road trip!”

Just to give you an example of the atmosphere and sense of humour these guys have, not five minutes had gone by after getting on the bus before the on-board entertainment had begun with “Mighty Ducks: D2”, the perfect hockey road trip movie. At one point during the movie, one of the players in the back of the bus said “EMILIOOOOO” when Coach Bombay (played by Emilio Estevez) was on screen. A bunch of players got a good laugh from the Night at the Roxbury reference, with someone even replying with “The Mighty Duckman, I swear to God!” At this point, I realized that this was going to be a fun road trip.

We arrived at the Trois-Rivières arena at about 4:45. The players all helped unload the bus, working as a team to get everything set up. The equipment manager, Stewart Wilson, has a great setup for away games, including a portable skate sharpener, a box full of extra tools, pieces of equipment etc., and even a machine to dry gloves and skates. As soon as everything is set up, the players start their pregame preparations. Some tape and re-tape sticks, some sit on the bench listening to music, and some head to see the athletic therapist, Robin Hunter. The coaches begin talking strategies right away, even though the game was not for another two hours.

It was a little surreal at the arena. The team is playing at a very high level, and preparation is important. While a few players sat on the bench (some likely visualizing, others staying focused while listening to music), the local figure skating association was finishing their lessons for the day. It makes you realize that these players are not professionals, but students. They do not have the Bell Centre free for them to prepare in peace, as you see in a show like CH24. Although the preparations are very similar, the venue and atmosphere is very different.

Just before the pre-game skate, I noticed Coach Figsby speaking with a man who was wearing a Los Angeles Kings jacket. Coach Figsby introduced me to him. His name is Denis Fugere, and he is a scout for the Kings. He was at the game to check the talent at the University level. This is his 21st season with the Kings organization, and he scouts Quebec and the Maritimes for major junior and university players.

I asked him about what it is like being a scout, and he gave me some invaluable insight. “I went and asked Kevin [Figsby] for players to look out for, so he have me three names. As for UQTR (Université de Quebec à Trois-Rivières), I am looking at one player in particular.” He mentioned that being a scout involves making judgement calls about the future. “With a player, you’re not looking for what he is going to be next year, but in 3 to 5 years. That’s not easy.” He told me that you have to look at so many different factors (family, schooling, friends, alcohol, drugs, skill, future goals, and so on) that it can be very difficult to make predictions about players. It was very interesting to speak with a scout, because it is a part of hockey so many know so little about (myself included).

Finally, the game was under way. The first thing that struck me was how good these players really are. I believe that a lot of people fail to realize  many of these players have come from the Canadian Hockey League, the pool of talent the NHL dips its hand into more than any other league. A lot of these young men have played with or against future NHL stars, which says a lot about the calibre of play. If my research is correct, 4 of the current Stingers are former Memorial Cup winners, the Holy Grail of the CHL. It’s fast, hard-hitting hockey. I believe that Concordia’s assistant coach Peter Bender put it best when he referred to university hockey as hockey’s best-kept secret. This was entertaining hockey, and you could tell that both teams wanted to win.

Between periods, the players have 15 minutes to re-energize and refocus. Some hit the athletic therapist’s bench again, getting the bruised muscles and tight ligaments all loosened up. Meanwhile in the other room, the coaches go over game strategies. Much of what they say is gibberish to me, with something about F2 covering here when F3 does this. It really made me realize how little I knew about the structure of the game, especially from a coaching perspective.

Coach Figsby made a small speech between each period, successfully getting the team refocused and ready to hit the ice. Although the players joke around a lot, when it’s time to hit they ice they’re all business.

The Stingers lost in overtime, with a final score of 4-3. Although it is sometimes difficult to find positives in a losing effort, the team did play very well. Stingers forward Olivier Hinse finished the night with two goals and assist, giving him 9 points in four games. At the time, he was the overall points leader for the entire Canadian Interuniversity Sports (CIS) men’s hockey league.

In the end, this experience showed me a lot. One thing that stuck out to me was that sports teams are a family, and everyone is treated in a way that makes them feel valued and important. Whenever there is a problem, everyone jumps up to help. Throughout the day, head coach Kevin, assistant coach Peter and equipment manager Stewart kept making sure I was good and taken care of. I mentioned many times, “I’m fine, don’t worry about me.” I always received the same answer. “We’re a family; we take care of each other.”

Another thing I learnt is that being a Student-Athlete is incredible demanding. On the way to and from the game, many of the players were reading textbooks, going over class notes, quizzing each other for upcoming midterms, and so on. A lot of the practices are during school hours, and many of the games require two days of travel. A couple of weeks before, the team was gone from Wednesday to Sunday on a three-game road trip. Coach Figsby informed me that he had spent the week writing to teachers to get rescheduled dates for midterms. The team got home at 4:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, and many students had exams at 2:00 that afternoon, eight hours later. I have trouble staying focused and prepared for midterms as a regular student. I cannot imagine having to keep a high GPA while focusing a lot of my energy and time to hockey practices, road trips, and missed classes. I have gained a lot of respect and admiration for these students, because what they do is not in any way easy.

I feel very lucky to have had a chance to see a regular game-day through the eyes of the players. The Stingers are a great group of young men, and they are very gifted at what they do. Although many of them will probably not call hockey their profession in the future, they are still getting the most out of hockey while they can. They are very skilled individuals, and I wish them luck with the rest of the season.

If you are a university student, go support your school’s sports teams. Support your fellow students as they represent your school, something that they do for no financial or academic gains. Whatever sport you enjoy to watch, go show some school spirit and cheer on your school. As for this university student, I will leave you with this. “Go Stingers Go!”

I’ve added a small gallery of pictures from the road trip. I apologize for the quality for some of the photos, it wasn’t my camera and I was fidgeting with all of the settings throughout the entire game.

Is showboating breaking the unwritten code? – a link

Here is a link to another article I wrote for my University’s newspaper, The Concordian. Feel free to comment with your take on the question: does showboating break the unwritten code of hockey?

http://theconcordian.com/2013/10/is-showboating-breaking-the-unwritten-code/

 

The 10 Commandments of being a hockey parent

These commandments shall be followed by all hockey parents, regardless of thy child’s age or skill level.

  1. Thou shalt encourage all players, even thy child’s opponents
  2. Thou shalt not use the ref’s name in vain
  3. Thou shalt get to games and practices on time
  4. Thou shalt inform thy coach when game and practices will be missed
  5. Thou shalt not demand more ice time for thy child
  6. Thou shalt not coach from thy bleachers
  7. Thou shalt not live thy dreams through thy child
  8. Thou shalt teach respect and good sportsmanship to thy child
  9. Thou shalt be unconditionally supportive
  10. Thou shalt remember that hockey is just a game

These commandments are basic rules that any hockey parent should follow, regardless of whether your child is in a competitive league or a casual one. Print these commandments out, and make them visible in your home. Have a copy pinned right above where your child keeps their hockey gear, so you see it before you leave for every practice and every game. Coaches, print these out and hand them out to parents. Great minor hockey teams and associations are created when parents and coaches are on the same page. It is important to remember that hockey is a game, and that minor hockey is there for the kids. A winning record does not necessarily equal success; seeing kids smiling and enjoying the game of hockey is the greatest victory a team can hope for.

Does fighting belong in hockey? – a link

Here’s a link to an article I wrote for my University’s paper, The Concordian. Feel free to comment!

http://theconcordian.com/2013/10/does-fighting-belong-in-hockey/

Phil Kessel’s suspension sends the wrong message

A lot has been made of the recent Leafs-Sabres line brawl. It had it all, from John Scott jumping Phil Kessel, to a goalie fight between Ryan Miller and Jonathan Bernier, to David Clarkson’s automatic 10-game suspension for leaving the bench to fight. When all the dust had settled, Kessel was suspended for the last three pre-season games for his battle axe attack on John Scott’s legs.

When 6’8″ tough guy Scott jumped 6’0″ sniper Kessel, the much smaller Maple Leaf made a relatively sane decision not to drop the gloves and try to fight. Instead, he made the controversial decision to use his stick as an axe, swinging wildly at Scott’s leg pads. He took several good swings, even after Scott had started fighting another Leaf coming to Kessel’s aid. On top of all this, when tempers began to cool back down, Kessel took the time to pick up his gloves and stick to then purposely antagonize Scott by spearing him.

The NHL’s decision to suspend Kessel for pre-season games goes against a couple of things that the NHL is trying to fix. First of all, Kessel does not miss any “meaningful” games. He does not lose any pay, nor does his team lose having him in important regular season games. A pre-season suspension has very little impact on the player or the team, both of whom should be disciplined for a player’s infractions. It doesn’t financially or otherwise penalize the player, nor does it send a strong message to either parties. Instead, the NHL should suspend the player for regular season games, however not as many as if it were pre-season games. In Kessel’s case, a 1 to 2 game suspension would have been adequate. By him missing regular season games, he is leaving his team mates without his services, something that would make the offending player feel like he is letting his team down due to his actions and suspension. What lesson is Kessel learning by missing meaningless games, some of which he would not have been in the line up in the first place? If the NHL wants to punish a player, PUNISH them. Don’t give out pre-season suspensions that mean nothing to the team or the player.

Second of all, the NHL is working very hard to promote attendance to pre-season games. Suspending superstars for pre-season games can only hurt attendance statistics, especially since roughly half the players in those games are not going to start the season in the NHL. Everybody saw the picture of the Florida Panthers’ pre-season game, where there more players than fans. If the NHL is trying to get people to go to pre-season games, having the “main attractions” suspended and out of the line up only hinders these attempts. It is very clear that there are several teams that are struggling to fill their arenas, and having superstars out of the line up won’t get any more butts in those seats. Pre-season games are even more difficult to sell to on-the-fence fans, given that they mean nothing in the standings. These games hold no real value except for getting players into game shape, so “robbing” a player of pre_season games through suspension is not worth the sacrifice of losing the fans that would come out to watch them play.

There is no doubt that Kessel’s second slash was excessive and warranted discipline. Regardless of the circumstances, using a stick like an axe is unacceptable. By being suspended for pre-season games, the NHL is basically giving both Kessel and the Maple Leafs a slap on the wrist. They may as well not have suspended him at all, since it would of had a similar impact. The NHL should focus on making better disciplinary decisions, starting with getting rid of pre-season suspensions. They are irrelevant and they can only hurt attendance records, something that several teams need to improve drastically.

NHL Summer Summary

Today is a wonderful day. Training camps are officially OPEN! That means hockey is only a few weeks away, and it couldn’t come any sooner.

With this being a day to celebrate, I thought it would be the perfect time to write up a summary of all the NHL stories from the summer. I don’t want to simply regurgitate what you’ve heard over and over again all summer, so I’m going to do my best to put my own little twist on all the stories. Attempts at humour will be made, but there is not guarantee of success. Enjoy!

Kovalchuk “retires”, but finds a new job in KHL

Well, this was unexpected.

Kovalchuk surprised everyone when he announced that he was retiring from the NHL. What was far less surprising was when it was announced a few days later that he had signed with a team in the KHL. Many Russian players during the lockout made it clear that leaving the NHL for the KHL is never out of the question When the possibility of NHL players participating in the Sochi Olympics was in question the tension between the NHL and their Russian players only grew. Kovalchuk is not the first to leave the NHL to return home, and he definitely won’t be the last.

To be honest, I don’t necessarily blame the guy. I’m thinking about it in this context: I get offered a great job in…China, for argument’s sake. Although I am making good money at a job I enjoy, I am away from home for almost the entire, year, except for vacations. I’ve been working at this job for over a decade, when a similar job becomes available in my home country. I miss home. I want to be with my family in my home country. Although China has been very accommodating, it will never be the country I call home. Even though I have a contract with the business in China, I decide to breach the contract and head home.

The only true issue I have with his decision is the timing of it. With his announcement coming once free agent frenzy had come and gone, the Devils were then left out to dry. They have lost their superstar, with very little chance of replacing hime. If Kovalchuk had announced his intentions earlier, the Devils could have at least made a splash to try and replace him. Now Kovalchuk is gone, and the free agent well has run almost dry. Maybe there were reasons for the timing, I really don’t know. But I don’t blame Kovalchuk for wanting to go home, where his heart is. I don’t agree with how he went about returning home, but I don’t blame him for doing so.

Canucks finally trade a goalie, but mix up names and accidentally trade Schneider

I think Mike Gillis is trying to make a bid to become the most unorthodox General Manager of all time.

Gillis had a rare opportunity that all general managers would love to have: two stellar goaltenders. It’s the type of conundrum teams would love to have, because no matter who you trade, you have a solid number one to take over for good. And somehow, Gillis managed to make the situation a complete nightmare for everyone involved.

After openly stating that the Canucks were “listening to offers” for Roberto Luongo and his massive contract, Gillis was unable to move the expensive netminder. Draft day comes around, and out of almost nowhere Gillis trades Schneider to the Devils for their first-round draft pick. Not only that, Gillis had the audacity to say that his intention was always to develop Schneider into a trade-able asset.

Imagine how awkward things between Gillis and Luongo will be from now on. “Hey Roberto, ol’ buddy ol’ pal. Remember that whole ‘we’re trying to trade you’ thing? Well…you just got PUNK’D! C’mon man, you know you’ll always be my number one guy, right? It’s not that I couldn’t get anyone to take your massive contract or anything. I was just playing mind games with the other GMs. C’mon buddy…”

Luongo has barely spoken to the media since the trade, and to be honest I can understand why. A few members of the hockey media think he’s being a big drama queen. If my team just spent the better part of a year trying to trade and then suddenly turn around and call me their number one man, I’d feel pretty skeptical about the whole thing.

It’s going to be very interesting to see how this whole thing turns out in Vancouver. No matter how long it goes on, there will always be the “what if we kept Schneider” theories. Being from Montreal, I am constantly hearing the comparisons Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak. Some people still think the Canadiens traded the wrong guy, and others think they could have gotten more for Halak. Vancouver fans, expect a few years of those same conversations.

Iginla signs with Boston, redefines the meaning of the word ‘irony’

And so the plot thickens.

This is the only proper to ending to what has been a half-year saga with Iginla. The story could have easily ended when Iginla’s Penguins were swept by the Bruins, the very team he turned his back on, and many fans would have been satisfied with the weird ways of the Hockey Gods. When free agency came around, Iginla decided to shock everyone by signing with the Bruins. That could have been a season finale’s cliff hanger on a TV show.

To be serious for a second, I do think that Iginla will fit in very nicely with the Bruins. These guys are professionals, and I would be shocked if any of the Bruins players felt any animosity towards Iginla. He made a decision, and that’s that. No hard feelings. I’m excited to see Iglina in the Black and Gold. If my math is correct, the Bruins became 12.6% more likeable after Iginla signed with the team. Let’s be honest, no one can hate this guy. He is just too nice.

Horton wants out of spotlight, decides on Columbus, since Delaware doesn’t have a team

I’ll admit, I’ve never been to Delaware. This is more of a tribute to Wayne’s World and their first experiences with the green screen. “Or imagine being magically swept away to….Delaware. … Hi. …. I’m in Delaware…”

I like what Columbus has done in the last few off seasons. They’ve been able to slowly but surely add pieces to their puzzle, and they are becoming a force to be reckoned with. They now have a Vezina-winning goaltender, a few solid defensemen, and some great players in return from the Rick Nash trade. They now add Horton, a proven, gritty goal scorer. Although I don’t think the team will be winning any cups in the next few years, I wouldn’t be surprised if they make the playoffs. Let’s not forget, they’re now in the Eastern Conference. That means they have to battle with teams like Buffalo, Florida and Carolina. They’re odds are definitely turning in their favour, however they still can’t manage to escape the wrath of the Red Wings. Trust me, they are going to be a force to reckon with this year.

Montreal signs epic moustache, man behind it can also fight

George Parros has some of the best facial hair in the business. I honestly believe his mustache may be more popular than his hockey skills! There are theories that Parros is the great-grandson of the “overly manly-man” meme (internet people will understand). If the Canadiens’ goal was to add toughness to their lineup, they succeeded in picking up the ‘Stache. Adding Danny Briere is a step backwards in terms of getting bigger, however Briere is no wuss. He is gritty, he battles in the corners, and he scores the ugly goals. Although the Canadiens are still going to be one of the smaller teams in the league, I don’t think they’re going to be pushed around and bullied like they have been in years past. I believe that last year’s playoff humiliation by the Senators was a big wake up call to the “Habitants”. We’ll see how tough they are on opening night against the Maple Leafs, a team that is quickly becoming a very physical opponent.

ESPN shows 7 seconds of Stanley Cup Parade after covering what Lebron James had for breakfast

He had eggs. They were sunny side up, and they were delicious,

Chicago thanks Bolland for Stanley Cup winning goal with an all expenses paid vacation to Toronto… for a whole season

Although it wasn’t exactly the firesale the Blackhawks were forced to go through after their Stanley Cup win in 2010, this was as close second.

In 2010, the Blackhawks were forced to let go many of the key components in the Stanley Cup victory due to salary cap restraints, and they were not exactly the same team at the beginning of the next season. Only days after scoring the Stanley Cup winning goal, Bolland was traded to the Maple Leafs. I’m sure Bolland is happy to be joining his hometown team, which is in the middle of becoming a semi-decent contender. However, I find this a strange way to show your thanks to a player who had played an important energy role for the team, during both the regular and post season.

Alfredsson leaves Ottawa, signs with Swedish Elite League Detroit Red Wings

It is going to be extremely odd to see Alfredsson in anything but a Senators jersey. Many people think that Alfredsson should have stayed an retired as a Senator, however I don’t think he owes the team anything. He has fulfilled his contractual obligations, and the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement for a new contract. He signed a good deal with the Red Wings, who are quickly becoming the practice squad for the Swedish Olympic Team. Alfie has always been one of the classiest guys in the league, and I don’t think anyone deserves to look down on him for signing with a different team. He gave the Senators 110% while he was there, and that’s all you can ask for from a player, nothing more.

Florida does absolutely nothing, prepares for next year’s first overall draft pick

Last year, Columbus were at the bottom of every hockey joke and every expert’s season predictions. The Florida Panthers are the new Blue Jackets. They did nothing in this year’s off season, besides attend the draft. They’re “big signing” in the off season? Scott Gomez. I’m fairly confident that Florida’s management has accepted that they have to rebuild. I’m just not sure that they know they still have to play all 82 games this season to qualify for the draft.

Vigneault and Tortorella star in special episode of “Trading Places”, but plot twist is they never switch back

I found this story to be particularly amusing. I’ve never seen a literal coach switch, and they might as well have simply written it up as a trade instead of separate hirings and firings. I do think that both coaches are going to excel in their new cities. They’re both proven coaches who know how to string together wins. Torts coached his team to a Stanley Cup Championship, and Vigneault was one win away from winning his own. I think Tortorella is going to give the Canucks the kick in the behind they need, and make sure they become a defense-first, fight for the win kind of team. Although incredibly talented, their superstars were easily pushed off their game in the past. Tortorella is going to make sure this team doesn’t get bossed around, which is what they need.

As for Vigneault, I think he’s just happy to be coaching a team that has a clear number one goalie!

Hockey takes the lead in fighting homophobia

In April of this year, it was announced that the NHL, the NHLPA and You Can Play, an organization focused on eliminating homophobia in sports, have partnered up, and are going to work together to make hockey more accepting of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

You Can Play, an organization co-founded by Patrick Burke (son of former Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke), is dedicated to fighting homophobia in sports. The NHL is the first of the major sports leagues in North America to join with any anti-homophobia organization, which is a prime example of the great steps the league is making to be the most inclusive professional sports league. Many NHLers have openly voiced their support of the organization, with several groups of them taking part in promotional commercials for You Can Play. Two current NHL players, Tommy Wingels and Andy Miele, are even on the advisory board, demonstrating the commitment of the league to fight homophobia. The organization goes by the slogan “If you can play, you can play”, a mentality that the NHL is very proud to both support and follow. Commissioner Gary Bettman pointed out that the NHL’s slogan is “Hockey is for Everyone”, and feels that the partnership with You Can Play reinforces that position. You Can Play will be holding seminars at the NHL’s rookie symposium, while at the same time making their resources available to all NHL teams and players.

This news was also followed by the more recent story of basketball player Jason Collins publicly coming out, becoming the first openly gay athlete to be currently playing in any of the major sports leagues in North America. The amount of support that Collins has received from teammates, players, coaches and general managers from around the league has been tremendous, and the public has reacted in a generally positive manner. It is a very firm statement of how far the world of sports has come with regards to eradicating homophobia.

However, it is still not far enough.

What Jason Collins did by being the first openly gay athlete in a major sport took great courage. He himself stated that he did not intend to become the first openly gay athlete, it was simply the time to do it. He has done what no one else has done, and he is incredibly brave to do so. The irony is that it shouldn’t be considered heroic to be who you are. The LGBT community has made incredible steps in the last few decades to being seen as equals in society, which is exactly what they deserve.

An area that has been slower to react, however, is the world of sports. Homophobic slurs and stereotypes still reign supreme in many locker rooms and arenas, both in professional and amateur sports. For too long have many sports (hockey, football, etc.) been tagged as heterosexual sports, while others are labelled as ‘gay sports’. I cannot tell you how many times have I heard people make rude comments like “leave figure skating to the gays”, along with many other vulgar slurs being casually thrown around. Whether you are gay, straight, or anywhere in between has absolutely no impact on your skill in sports. It should also have no effect on how you are treated in the locker room.

Everyone deserves to be comfortable in their own skin, and being an athlete is no exception. At this moment in time many athletes, both professional and amateur, do not feel comfortable being openly gay. That is not their problem, but ours. They have the right to be who they are, free of judgement. They have the right to be proud of who they are, instead of being labelled, stigmatized and shamed into hiding.

What You Can Play and the NHL is doing is a great step forward to getting rid of homophobia in hockey (and other sports). Acceptance starts at a young age. If athletes are taught from a young age that sexual orientation has nothing to do with skill, drive and passion in sports, maybe we will begin to see a more accepting culture. Society in general has become increasingly accepting of the LGBT, and although there is still much work do be done, we are moving in the right direction. The world of sports is lagging behind, but organizations like You Can Play combined with the open mindedness of leagues like the NHL will help bring sports closer to the acceptance the LGBT community deserves.

I look forward to the day where a gay athlete is no longer a news story.

NHL Playoffs: Stanley Cup Final Predictions

I’d like to begin with congratulating both the Boston Bruins and the Chicago Blackhawks for making it to this year’s Stanley Cup Final. They both got there with very dominant series wins, proving that they are the two best teams in the league. I was right with both my predictions, however I did not think the Bruins would sweep the Penguins. I had them winning in 7 games. I was right on with my “Chicago in 5” pick. That brings me to 10 out of 14, which I am very happy with. Now let’s have a look at this final. I am extremely excited for this final to begin, and I think it is going to be a very hard-fought battle between these two rugged, skilled teams.

Chicago Blackhawks vs Boston Bruins

This is it. It’s the final countdown. We have the two best teams in the league now fighting to be crowned champion. This is going to be a tough battle for either team. Let’s look at both teams from top to bottom.

Goaltending – These guys are good

Both of these goaltenders have almost identical statistics, from both the regular season and the playoffs. Corey Crawford finished the regular season with a GAA of 1.94, and Tuukka Rask finished with 2.00. As for save percentage, Rask finished with a  .929, with Crawford had a percentage of .926. The stats are almost identical for the playoffs as well.  Crawford leads all goalies with a GAA of 1.74, and Rask is second with a GAA of 1.75. Rask leads all goalies with a save percentage of .943, and Crawford is second with .935. They both lead the league with 12 years, and Rask has only 1 shutout more than Crawford. These two goalies are clearly playing their best hockey of their careers so far, and they have proved themselves as elite goaltenders. To be honest, I don’t feel that it would be fair to give either goalie an edge in this series. They’re both so similar, and they  both have good teams in front of them.

Edge: Even

Defense – It wins championships

When it comes to the defensive corps, both teams have a superstar on their blueline: Duncan Keith for the Blackhawks, and Zdeno Chara for the Boston Bruins. Keith has been a powerhouse on the Blackhawks’ back end, and he has helped his team make it as far as they have. Chara had a slow but steady regular season, yet he has taken his game to another, almost superhuman level. He silenced one of the best players in the world, Evgeni Malkin, holding him to zero point in their four game sweep of the Penguins. Although the Blackhawks have a solid Defensive core, it is difficult to compare it with the Bruins. Boston’s blue line has incredible depth, with Seidenberg, Boychuk and Ference and McQuaid being their best defenders. That is an impressive top-5 defensemen on any teams, and yet they still have rookie sensations Krug, Bartkowski and Halmilton, ready to go. Not only have their defensemen successfully shut down some of the best players in the world, they have also contributed offensively. I realize that the Blackhawks’ defense has been crucial for their success in these playoffs, but I still believe that the Bruins have a stronger group all around.

Edge: Bruins

Forwards – Firing on all cylinders?

When it comes to offense, both teams have some awesome firepower. At first glance, the Blackhawks seem to have the upper hand. They have incredible talent in Toews, Hossa, Kane, Sharp, and secondary scoring from players like Handzus, Shaw and Frolik. The biggest surprise from the Blackhawks’ lineup is Bryan Bickell, who has earned himself a huge pay raise over the summer, with many teams looking to pick him up when free agency opens up. Even with some of their biggest stars, most notably Kane, not playing up to their full potential, the team still finds a way to win, which is exactly what a championship team needs. There is always someone there to pick up the slack, and winning is more important than personal stats. This is also true for the Bruins. Although the Bruins’ first line of Krejci, Horton and Lucic have been firing on all cylinders, the whole team has contributed to their success. Even though the Krejci line has been the hottest line in the playoffs, players like Marchand and Bergeron have also been clutch. Their overtime heroics against all three teams they’ve faced so far has been key to their success, none more important that the overtime win against the Leafs. And nothing has been more of an indication of what the Bruins are willing to sacrifice then Gregory Campbell’s 80-second shift, after breaking his leg blocking a Malkin slap shot. Campbell showed the type of sacrifice and courages it takes to win it all. His team won’t forget what he did for the team, and I’m fairly certain that seeing that type of courage from a teammate makes them want to win a championship for them. Two years ago, they rallied around losing Nathan Horton. This year, they’ll rally around Gregory Campbell.

Edge: Bruins

Prediction: Bruins in 7. This is going to be a tough series for both teams. It’s going to be an incredibly close one, and unfortunately, one team has to lose. When two teams are this close talent-wise, drive and passion can change a series. The Bruins will fight their way to the cup, and they’ll bang and bruise the Blackhawks on their way. I have a lot of respect for both of these teams, and I hate to pick between two such great teams. But the Bruins are playing their best hockey of the season, and they are going to be incredibly tough to handle.

NHL Playoffs: Round 3 Predictions (once again, late. This time I have a reason!)

Once again, I am late with my predictions. Once again, I swear that they were written before round 3 began. The reason this time was that I was having internet connection issues over the last few days at my house. As for round two, I went 3/4, with the San Jose/Los Angeles series being the only one I got wrong. That makes me 8/12 so far, which I’m pretty happy with!

Here we go with round 3. This is going to be a difficult round to predict, because for the first time in a while there are no real underdogs. These are the four best teams in the league, and they’re also the last 4 Stanley Cup winning teams. A fellow blogger, Kevin (check out his blog HERE), discovered that there are 56 players from the four remaining teams who already have their name on the cup. These are teams that have already proven that they can win it all, and I’m sure they’re all hungry to do it again. This is going to be a fun to watch.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Pittsburgh Penguins vs Boston Bruins

This is going to be an amazing series. The big story everyone it talking about is the Jarome Iginla “snub” of Boston. The whole Iginla saga is really for the fans and the media, and I am quite confident that it is not being discussed in either locker room. These guys are professionals. Iginla made a decision, and Boston has moved on. No hard feelings. No bad blood. So now that we’ve covered that non-issue, let’s discuss the important details of this series.

There’s no doubt, in my mind anyway, that Pittsburgh and Boston are the two best teams from the East this season. They are the two teams that deserve to be in the final, and that makes for a tough, entertaining series. Pittsburgh has some of the most talented players in the world on their team, and they did everything they could to make it even better before the trade deadline. I’ve heard a lot of experts saying that Pittsburgh will be Boston’s greatest challenge so far in these playoffs, but I feel that people are missing something; Boston will also be Pittsburgh’s biggest challenge so far. With all due respect to the Islanders and the Senators, they aren’t exactly powerhouses in the East. Both teams defied odds by making it to the playoffs, and they played their hearts out against the Penguins. But now, Boston is going to give Pittsburgh their biggest challenge yet. Unlike the Islanders and Senators, the Bruins are solid from front to back. They are tough, they can score, they can hit, and they can defend. The Bruins also have the big, tough players that can hit the Penguins stars enough to get them off their game, much like the Flyers in last year’s playoffs. When the Penguins are off their game, they take penalties and go for the big hit, instead of focusing on scoring. That plays right into the Bruins’ advantage. However, if the Penguins can resist the urge to retaliate and take stupid penalties, then they have good odds for beating the Bruins.

The penguins’ biggest weakness is when they are in their own zone. Although they have all the talent in the world offensively, they are surprisingly bad in their own zone, especially with man-to-man coverage. If the Bruins can keep the Penguins crammed in their own zone, the chances will show up. What the Bruins need to watch out for is taking penalties, because the penguins have the best power play in the league. The Bruins also have the best penalty kill, but there is no point in tempting fate. This series might come down to Pittsburgh’s’ power play against Boston’s penalty kill. We’ll see how that works out.

Prediction: Boston in 7. A tough choice, but I think Boston is going to get Pittsburgh off their game right from the start, and the Penguins will have a tough time scoring against the Bruins’ solid defensive core.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Chicago Blackhawks vs Los Angeles Kings

Alright, last round I doubted the Kings. I felt bad doing it, because they are a good team. Unfortunately, I have to do it again. The Kings are a great team, and they have the best goalie in the league playing some of his best hockey. They have great talent up front, and a superstar in Doughty, who is just inches away from being the great offensive defenseman from last year’s Stanley Cup-winning run. But Chicago is simply too strong. They have an incredible tandem of offensive players, some of which haven’t even hit their stride yet. If Toews and Kane really get going, much like how they were in the regular season, then the Kings will really be in trouble. They’ve been winning courtesy of their other lines, and some excellent goaltending by Crawford. In reality, the Blackhawks have been able to win, even if they’re not playing to their full potential. It’s only a matter of time until that time bomb ticks for the final time, and they get going with everything they’ve got.

The Kings have had a lot of trouble scoring consistently, and they’ve been able to get by thanks to one man: Jonathan Quick. He has been phenomenal, and I challenge anyone to tell me otherwise. But you can only rely on one man for so long until it comes back to bite you. Against a team like Chicago, you need more than just an excellent goaltender to get by. You also need to be able to score, which is extremely hard to do against a stingy Chicago team. Unfortunately for the Kings, I believe that this will be the end of their cup run for this year. Chicago is just to hot to handle, and Los Angeles is going to figure that out extremely fast.

Prediction: Chicago in 5. Chicago is going to make to the Cup final this year. A team that lost only 7 games in the regular season, that’s exactly where we all though they would end up.