torsdag 12. mai 2011

In defense of the World Championships

Norway was elimninated in the quarterfinals of the World Championships today by Finland by a score of 4-1. It was the second time ever that we reached the quarters and we did it without our three best forwards Patrick Thoresen (sitting out to spend time with his family), Mats Zuccarello Aasen (injured) and Tore Vikingstad (decided that he's too old for the national team). One thing I've seen during the whole tournament is attacks on the tournament. It's been called the "NIT", "a loser's tournament" and a joke. I disagree strongly. This is why:

Let me start by agreeing that yes, the tournament happens at an unfortunate time. Most North American fans are watching the playoffs, many of the best players in the world are wrapped up in those same playoffs and many players are tired after long, gruelling seasons. So it's not a best-on-best tournament. That much is for sure. That said, it features much better American and Canadian players than it used to do 15 years ago. But I see why it is easy for North Americans to write it off and make no mistake, us Europeans KNOW that it's not a best-on-best tournament. Maybe playing it in September would be better, but for now it is what it is and believe me, it serves a great purpose in its current form.

For one thing, it's something to do for NHL players and others after their seasons end. But this is not a big reason. A bigger reason is that it is a great window for players to show their skills. In 2008 a good tournament lead to Jonas Holøs and Mats Frøshaug from Norway getting drafted into the NHL. Mats Zuccarello and Matthis Olimb's play there and in the Olympics definitely lead to them being signed to the NHL as free agents last summer. This happens every year. Players from Europe who never got drafted get a chance to show their skills for NHL scouts. And NHL clubs also get a good chance to look at draft picks who are still playing in Europe. So it's a big window for NHL recruitment. But more than that, it's a big window to show oneself for European scouts. For a player it might be the ticket to getting out of the Norwegian league and into the Swedish one. Or to be picked up by a different team. The World Championships are vital for European players as a chance to show off their skill and get to the next level, wether that is a different European league, the KHL or NHL. While this is important for the NHL, it is VITAL for European hockey.

Secondly and most importantly, the World Championships grow the game of hockey. While media and modern technology have bridged the gap of the Atlantic a lot so that many kids in Europe now grow up following the NHL and dreaming of playing there, the World Champs are a big deal in Europe. It's on TV in every country that plays and in countries like Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic etc it is followed religiously. In those, already established, hockey nations, the World Champs is something they NEED to win and something that keeps the interest in hockey up. Without it, I think both the interest in hockey and the recruitment to youth hockey would be weakened. But it is even more important for the non-traditional hockey nations. Believe me, the surprising success of Norway, Denmark, France and Germany has been noticed in those countries. In Norway hockey is small most of the year. We get some pieces here and there about the local league. Simple recaps of big games in the web papers and in some of papers and some small notices about the NHL. There is not much coverage on TV. Every World Championship game is on TV. And the papers follow up with huge headlines. The success this year (added to the attention for the Olympics last year) has made hockey reach an all time high in Norway. Games, recaps and even previews have been the top headlines in online papers the last two weeks. People are talking about it, people are watching, people are leaving work early to catch the games. I have honestly never seen hockey this popular in Norway and it warms my heart. Will it have a huge ripple effect? Maybe not, but it will makes some more people follow hockey, either in Norway or internationally, it will make TV and papers give hockey more attention and it sure as hell will get a lot more attention for the build up to next year's tournament. And I'd imagine that a lot of young kids see this on TV and think "I wanna play too".

In a perfect world, Norway would capitalize on this by getting a nice TV deal for the country's hockey league (the one now is weak), get other national team games on TV, get NHL on more accessible channels and build more ice rinks. All those are needed to fully capitalize. And most likely, none of those will happen too easily or too fast. But this helps us get the attention needed to get close to those things and even without them, I think I can safely say that hockey is bigger than it has ever been in Norway right now. And that is a thing of beauty. And I'd imagine it's the same for the other smaller nations having success.

So while it's easy for North Americans to laugh about this tournament, it serves a big purpose for European hockey and for the growth of hockey. Over here it's no laughing matter, it's a big deal and a thing of beauty. So instead of talking shit about the tournament, try to turn in to a few games. Maybe you'll see the next NHL star in the making! Maybe not. But at least you'll see some good hockey, some players you've never seen before and experience hockey on a world level. It's no Olympics and it's very flawed, but this tournament is still a very good thing.

torsdag 5. mai 2011

Now what?

The Wings pissed away an excellent chance to get back into this series tonight. They had the lead, but decided to back down in the third and lay back. That cost them and the Sharks took them to overtime and won it. You can blame several things here. You can blame the refs for the chintzy calls of course, but you've gotta look at the Wings and see that they'd have won if only ONE of these following factors had been better:
- The team only killed two out of four penalties. That is 50 % and completely unacceptable.
- The team had the chance to win the game in overtime, but blew tons of chances by taking weak shots, some of them on a power play.
- The team, even when they were pretty good in the two first periods, was nowhere near as consistently dominant as they can and should be.
- The Wings laid back in the third and let the Sharks take the game to them. That's like asking them to equalize.

I'm gonna take a look at the big picture now with some thoughts/rants. Will come back to much of this after the season, but right now I need to say these things:
- I believe in my team. I believe in my players. Yes, I think Ericsson, Salei and Hudler should go, but aside from them, I think the players on this team have potential to win the cup and be the best team in the league if this team plays to their abilites. I think a trade of someone like Flip to make the team get shaken up might be a good idea, but on paper, this team SHOULD be one of the, if not the best team in the NHL. Thus, I also think that they are better than the Sharks on paper and should beat the Sharks. I think this team is better than the Sharks from top to bottom, from goalie to forwards. If you disagree, then sue me. Does that mean that I think they've been better? No. The Sharks have been the better team for the first two games and were equally good as the Wings today. Which is why I am pissed. The Wings SHOULD play better than them, but they don't.

- Proof of this? The Wings have been nowhere close to their potential for either of the three games, but still lost every game by one goal, two of them in overtime. Is this an excuse? Am I making excuses? No. I am stating the fact that the Wings should win this, but they aren't and deservedly so, because they're not playing to their potential. I'm blaming the Wings players and coaches, not bad luck.

- The players need to be better. They do. Zetterberg was better today and with his injury and all, I'm satisfied with him. Mule can maybe also be excused because of the visor and his injury. But both of those have been too lazy and not as good as they should at times this season. Filppula has had yet another disappointing season where he's had the same issues and failed to break through. Bertuzzi suddenly fell asleep in the second round after a great first round. Hudler is still useless, so is Salei and E, so I'll skip them for now. Homer is suddenly not burying the chances he always buries. Stuart, Kronwall and Rafa have been okay, but have made too many mistakes. Abdelkader is a shadow of himself and has been detrimental to his team in this round. Where did Cleary suddenly go this round? I could go on and on, and Eaves, Draper, Helm, Datsyuk, Lidstrom and Howard are the only ones who hasn't at some point this year been disappointing. Why? Are they complacent? Don't they have the right focus? I think they care, but something is wrong? Do we need to blow up the group? No. They are too good and too right for the Wings for that, but I think a trade of someone secondary, like Filppula, to shake them up, would be good.

- A lot of the blame must fall on the coaches. Laying back in the third? Unacceptable. The system not working as well as it should and being figured out by other teams? Their job to adapt. PK and defense being bad for three years, since McCrimmon came in? McCrimmon's fault. Team not playing to their abilities, lacking focuse, seeming complacent and disinterested at times? That's gotta be Babcock. Babcock's job is to provide a system that works and make the players motivated and in the right state of mind to play their best. He has failed at this since December this year. He struggled with it even when the team was healthy at the start of the season last year too, though fatigue has to take some of the blame for the playoffs last year. I'm tentatively on the fire Babcock bandwagon. It feels like he has lost the room. The problem is, who do we hire instead that would fit? Not that many good puck possession coaches out there. So while I want him and this coaches gone and another team of coaches to take over the same core, I would be okay with him getting another year's chance, but then McCrimmon and maybe MacLean needs to go. BTW, not saying Babbles is a bad coach, it just seems like he's worn out his time with this team and isn't effective on them anymore.

- I am also tired of the coaches being so lenient on players not performing. I understand that they are pissed at Mo talking about retirement, but with Abs not performing, Mule struggling and Hudler sucking, he HAS to be a better option. And why sit Drapes for two games when the first of those went to hell? And why not play Kindl when golden boy E and Salei are struggling?

- I don't want a rebuild. I want a tweak. Wether it happens among the players or coaches, it has to happen if the Wings lose this series. But blowing up and excellent core like this would be dumb.

- And just to be clear: I say this because I love the team, I love the players, I love the Wings and I kinda even love Babcock. And I believe in the players' abilities to be the best. I expect them to live up to that and I get disappointed and angry when they fall short.

Looking forward:
- Chances of pulling this off are small. Let's face that, but the Wings have gotten better for each game and if they continue getting better, they will win games, but they are running out of time to be better. Still, there is hope. If they can find the switch, they can do this. Not saying it's a good chance, but it's there and we have to have hope. Gotta take one game at a time. Let's focus on winning one game. If we do, we can focus on winning the next, but right now all we should care about is to win on Friday to avoid getting swept.