Sunday, September 18, 2011

stereotypes and Alex Ovechkin

Watching "Miracle" the other day (for about the 500th time this offseason--withdrawal's a bitch) it struck me how much our ideas of Russian hockey players have changed since the Cold War era. Back then, the stereotype of Russian players and Russian teams was very strong; they were efficient, cold and ruthless, very talented, to be feared--the "Red Army". To some extent that reflected the tensions between America and Russia at the time, but it was also because Russia had a damn good hockey team. Russians were regarded as icy, expressionless, even frightening.

And then, at the end of the Cold War era, came Alex Ovechkin.

Energetic. Polarizing. Electric. Explosive. Ovechkin fit neither the stereotypes of the era in which he was born, or the stereotypes that had developed since. As he turns 26 today I've had trouble shaking thoughts of some statistical trends. Only one of the most prolific goal scorers of all time had his best season after the age of 25: Brett Hull. Only one of the sport's contemporary "superstars" has won a Stanley Cup with his original team after his first five seasons: Steve Yzerman.

The odds don't look good. Then again, Alex Ovechkin has never been one to stay beneath the trend line.  He's a 50-goal player in an era when 50 goals is supposed to be nearly impossible--he's a power forward in an era when snipers lead the standings, and he's a set-'em-on-fire player in an era when Russians are not known as being ice-cold net killers but temperamental, streaky problem children, an era in which the hockey world is led by Don Cherry and veiled xenophobia in thinking that players in a certain hemisphere just don't have the grit for the game.

Stereotype: Russian hockey players are lazy or apathetic.
Kovalchuk signs a huge contract, his production takes a nosedive. Kovalev's streaky, lackluster play and attitude problems with Montreal. Even Alex Semin, branded by a former teammate this offseason with "he just doesn't care", a terrible epithet in this sport and one that will stick for awhile--whether it was deserved or not, it was heard--and that's the issue for most of this stereotype, it's a slowly-accumulated idea of a whole hockey culture. Whether or not it's true, Alex Ovechkin's intensity is beyond question. He skates like he might destroy everything between him and the net, and sometimes actually does. He swears in Russian when he misses the net. He comes up with the clutch goals, the overtime goals--Alex Semin aside, there is no question as to whether Ovechkin cares.

Stereotype: Russian players don't like contact and are afraid to get into the corners and dig out pucks.
Alex Ovechkin is the only player to statistically qualify as a true power forward for each of the last five seasons--he's been above 100 hits every season that he's played, twice over 200, has highlight-reel hits every year while still putting up phenomenal numbers. Once again, no question.

Stereotype: European captains don't lift the Cup.
Well. One more stereotype to break--and for a player who's embraced the NHL and had the NHL embrace him back, who hardly seems to notice boundaries as he's blowing by them--well, call me crazy, but I think it will happen. I don't think the clock's running out on him--he may or may not be entering the downturn of his scoring days, but he's almost definitely entering the peak of his career. So what if he'll be an outlier? He really always has been.

Brooks Laich should play this for Ovechkin. On his guitar.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

people i really want to like: Mattias Sjogren

GMGM filled a lot of holes this offseason, and just about everyone benefited but the prospects. Sorry children, sorry all you youthful shining-eyed hopefuls, there's just not room on the bus for you this year. We will try to crush your dreams for you as gently as possible, but no promises.

If there's one person who's NOT going to have their dreams crushed gently, though, it's either Cody Eakin or Mattias Sjogren. Word out of camp this year is that there's one roster slot available, max--problem being that as always in this lovely, competitive sport, there's more than one player who wants it. Battle for the Fourth Line, Round One...FIGHT.

Don't get me wrong. I like Cody Eakin. He's young, he's quick, he's a hard worker and he doesn't give up--plus, he is ginger as all hell and that's always a plus in my mind.

Look at that hair. He could practically be one of my cousins.

All gingerness/eagerness aside though, Eakin is not my horse in the race.

This guy is. I am firmly Team Sjogren, and I will tell you why.

It starts with the basics: 6'2, 215 lbs, and when asked to describe his game, he said "I like to hit."

Yep. You read that right. While it's well known that the Caps are big on the Swedishness, it tends to be more of the soft-hands playmaking kind of Swedishness, a la Johansson and Backstrom. This guy doesn't have quite the same scoring touch--7 goals, 17 assists last year, which is not bad at all, but his main skills seem to lie elsewhere. Namely, hits. Sjogren is tough--he's been playing in the Swedish Elite League for the last few years, with the experienced players--once challenged a 28-year-old to a fight. And won. He plays the body a lot, to the point where some of his hits are borderline dirty at times, but I haven't seen anything that would get him suspended, and let's face it--we really need someone like that. Teams need to be more scared of us, physically, and if you can find a guy who can play hockey and can hipcheck opponents into next week, you hang onto them. He hasn't even been afraid to outmuscle Eakin in development camps--this is a guy who knows who his competition is.

A disclaimer: most of this optimism is sight-unseen, beyond some Youtubing and scouting reports, I don't know what this guy's game looks like firsthand. That said, the same can be said about Eakin, and I just like the sound of this guy better. I want to believe that he'll be ready--we're lucky with our roster this year, we don't need him to fill huge holes or take on responsibility that he can't handle. If he's the kind of player I'm judging him to be, he'll be a fantastic small-role player on the kind of team we're looking to build. Our scouts are good at picking out diamonds in the rough--GMGM approves of him, and if you want any more validation, multiple teams were apparently pursuing him, possibly as many as ten--it's not just us that saw something there. That's good enough for me. Team Sjogren.


"If you want lingonberries for jam, you go to the forest. If you want Volvos, you go to the factory. If you want goals, you go to the net."

Asked if he has something to prove: "No, you don't do that. You work your ass off every day to make the team and see what happens."

Possible flies in the ointment of my dreams:

  • Always tricky to adjust between European rink size and North American rink size. MoJo managed to get the hang of it pretty quick, but there would definitely be an adjustment period. 
  • His contract versus Eakin's teeny tiny entry-level contract. On a cap-pushing team like the Capitals right now, it could make a difference. 
  • Worst case scenario, maybe he's not nearly as good as I'm making him out to be. Maybe he's a junior leagues player, emergency call-up kind of guy. 

Best case scenario:
A solid third or fourth liner who hits like a truck, puts up some assists, and provides us some of that grit we've been looking for. Flyers vs. Caps rookie exhibition game is tonight. Show me something.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Hulu games 1/22: Caps/Pens '07-'08

Having just barely noticed that there are full NHL games on Hulu, I am now intent on watching ALL of them. Not as impressive as it sounds, there aren't that many of them--and they're seemingly sort of random, but a few go back three or four years, so I want to watch them from this kind of retrospective in order to go "whoa, weird!" a lot, because that is a thing that I enjoy saying.

The game: HERE

  • Cristobal Huet in goal. Really drives home that we haven't had a strong franchise goaltender since Kolzig. 
  • Kolzig was actually still playing! Not in this game but him and Huet were apparently trading off goaltending duties back and forth. Hope there's a game on here where we get to see him. 
  • Matt Cooke as Cap. ....Weird. Oddly though the impression I came away with was that he used to be much better at his job than he is now, at least in terms of coming close to the line without crossing it. He drew two penalties in this game, and got away with a massive cross-check, started about three scrums. Only took one penalty and it was more incidental, and nobody got hurt. The announcers praised him for having control over his game. 
  • Hal Gill as a Penguin. Glad he's off that team now so I can like him. WELL IF YOU'RE GOING TO ASK QUESTIONS LIKE THAT PLEASE COME MORE PREPARED. You tell 'em, Harold. 
  • Marion Hossa still playing for the Pens, though the announcers were already talking about how it wasn't likely they'd be able to hang onto him. 
  • Alex Semin, godDAMN. Sometimes it's good to step back and remember what a brilliant pure offensive talent he's capable of being--watching that second goal where he deked Fleury out of his socks was beautiful. 
  • Malkin also seemed more electric to me in this game than I remember him being recently. He's a real talent who seems like he's started to become more and more inconsistent. 
  • Cristobal Huet was not all that great of a goalie. Some of those rebounds he gave up were terrifying. One or two great saves at the end though. 
  • Sure miss Fedorov. Seems like no one's been able to have that kind of line chemistry with Semin since. 
  • Brooks Laich, how did you manage to lose your helmet TWICE within five minutes. And why did you keep playing, you loon? 
  • Ten shots from Ovechkin in this game. That guy <3 
  • Awful positional mistake by Green allowing the second goal. 
  • "Sounds of the Game" showing Crosby bitching about the faceoffs to the ref. Surprise surprise. 
  • Really is fun to play the Pens when they're firing on all cylinders and we're firing on all cylinders. Great game. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

KHL Lokomotiv

I usually process what I'm feeling by writing about it. Unfortunately for that sketchy method of dealing, there's not really a crusade here to social-justify about--there is no real reason that this team died, it was basically a freak accident, there's nothing for me to try to trace back and feel righteous and indignant about, there's no charity I can donate to in order to feel like I helped, I don't think one exists for Prevention of Plane Crashes.

And yet in one fell swoop, more players have died in a matter of minutes than had died from slower, slowly crippling, deeply-rooted reasons all summer. That does not make Belak, Rypien, and Boogard's deaths less significant--it's just a shock. It's too many people, and too little there could have been done to predict or prevent it.

It would just be terrible, to wake up and find out that your whole team has died. What if you bought tickets for the upcoming season? What if you've got something one of those men signed? I'm trying to think if anything like this has ever happened--a single team, everyone, all at once. I'm sure there's not protocol for the occasion--do they redraft? Do they do an expansion draft? Does the team disappear?

It's a massive, massive void, created suddenly, without warning, and that hurts. It's just a lot of people.

My thoughts are with their friends and family, and with their fans, and with the whole KHL organization as they try to cope today. Maybe I jinxed it by saying it last time, but I really, really hope we can make it through the summer without any more tragedy striking. I am at the point where I am about ready to sequester every single player in a bomb shelter for the next three weeks. Don't think I won't do it.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

why "puck bunny" bothers me (and it should bother you too)


Puck bunny is the equivalent to hanging a sign on the door of your clubhouse that says “no girls allowed”.

It’s irritating when guys do it—it’s a dismissal, quite frankly, a flagrant writing off of an opinion based on it’s source. It’s implying that girls somehow can’t appreciate the sport on the same deep level that men do. This is a man’s game, and there’s no place for you posers, you hangers on, you women who seek shallow enjoyment out of it. It’s an instant shut down, it can turn someone off the sport instantly.

I’d argue it’s worse when we ladies toss it at each other.

It’s akin to girls calling other girls “sluts” or “whores”—not that I’m going to argue that puck bunny is on the same level as either of those words (or whatever your preferred epithet is—cunt, bitch, troll, wench, etc), but the meaning behind it is the same. The only purpose you can have in calling someone a puck bunny is to let them know that their opinion is necessarily worth less than yours. Why is their opinion worth less? Because they might find someone attractive. It’s the same shaming we see everywhere else, in every form of media—the minute a girl becomes sexual, she becomes worth less.

Before we get any further, I want to define “puck bunny” as I see it. A puck bunny is a girl who doesn’t watch the sport for the sport, but rather for the athletes involved. It’s almost like gold digger; they’re attracted to men because they play a sport, not because of the men themselves. Alternately, it’s a woman who knows a lot about hockey for the express purpose of attracting a boyfriend—she doesn’t enjoy the game itself, but she knows a lot of stats and that’s going to get her a date from the cute guy in the corner office if she talks about it loudly enough at the water cooler.

I see people throwing it at fans who are clearly new to the sport and even newer to the sport's fandom—they make a mistake about a stat or overestimate a player or have a kind of silly opinion, and they’re not uneducated or new, they’re a puck bunny, something to be reviled and horrified about. How dare they come in here, these sacred halls of Blogging and talk shit like they know anything? They’re only Carolina/Pittsburgh/Capitals/Canucks/Montreal fans because of Skinner/Crosby/Green/Bieska/Price!

Why are we considered so incapable of depth of feeling once we allow aesthetics to enter the equation and why aren’t men held up to the same standards? I’m not saying that All Men Are Shallow and that All Women Aren’t—there are definitely men who can appreciate a good looking sportswoman and also the skill behind what she does, just like there are women who really do only cheer for hockey players because they’re Jonathan Toews or Carey Price. That doesn’t matter—what matters is people taking that, applying it liberally to all female hockey fans.

I understand it even less when girls call themselves puck bunnies, in sort of the same way I don’t understand when people call themselves sluts or whores. Freedom to express your sexuality—yes, go for it. But calling yourself a whore in order to reclaim the word is kind of going about it the wrong way. You’re not an anything for liking sex however you like it—with one guy, with many guys, with girls, with toys, with whips and chains, whatever—you’re just a person. You might be trying to reclaim the word or something, but, dude, some words should be left to rot.

Girls are pitted against other girls. You can’t be girly and enjoy hockey. You have to be a tom boy—nail polish and hockey sticks don’t belong together. So if you’re traditionally feminine, you don’t get to like hockey for the sport itself; you like it because you see attractive athletes. Or you like it in a dumbed down kind of way, or you like it because your boyfriend makes you watch it. But maybe if you pose sexy in the bikini with your teams logo on it, and if you wear the pink jersey to every game, you can get a finger hold in the Good Old Boys club. Or alternately, you have to be a beer swilling, loud, rude, belching, lots-of-swear-words-you-just-learned-sometimes-in-french-too—you have to be an over the top caricature of a regular sports fan, because you have to prove yourself. Otherwise, you might be too delicate, too girly to enjoy a man’s sport with the men.

There’s no real in between—you’re either a Female Sports Fan, or you have to Be A Man. Personally, I like to make sure my nails match my team colours so when I’m flipping them off for taking a goddamn fucking stupid penalty, everyone knows which team I’m cheering for.
My current favourite player on my roster is Carey Price. Do I appreciate the fact that he’s good looking? Hell yes. I’m not going to complain about good looking people—sorry, have you seen my team? We’re the prettiest. But you know what I appreciate more? Dem stats. I appreciate the way he carries my team because apparently we’re fucking incapable of not killing our defensemen on the ice. He’s had to shoulder a goddamn burden. That’s not easy anywhere—for a goalie in Montreal, he might as well be Atlas.

One of my best friends is a Pittsburgh Penguins fan—diehard, quotes stats off the top of her head, knows all the names of all the players. And yet the first thing people ask her, when she says she’s a Penguins fan is “because of Crosby right? Lol” and they think they’re fucking hilarious every time, like this is some kind of legitimate chirp.

Why is that? If it was a guy, that wouldn’t be assumed. They might ask if he bandwagoned them after their Stanley Cup win, but they’re not going to ask if he appreciates the way the light hits Fleury’s mask sometimes or what the fuck ever. It’s insulting.

And you know what, even if she did notice the Penguins because of Crosby—so what? What’s the big fucking deal? That doesn’t make her any less of a fan now. At one point, each and every one of us has had to pick a team, and you’ve all done it for reasons that are just as stupid. Maybe you picked the closest one; maybe your Dad cheered for Montreal his whole life; maybe you went on a really bad date one time and the Sharks were playing the Predators and your stupid terrible date was cheering for the Sharks so you picked the Predators to spite him and you find out that they’ve got this guy called Shea Weber and he can shoot the puck through the net and woah goddamn you didn’t know that was possible, that’s kind of awesome, and it’s kind of stuck ever since. Maybe, one day, you noticed that there’s this Jeff Skinner kid that’s kind of cute and keeps popping up all over your dash, so you do a little investigating, and you find out he’s on a team called the Carolina Hurricanes, and hell, they’re all the way across the country from you, but you do a little reading and you decide you like the organization.
Not a single one of these reasons is any less valid than the others.

A fan is a fan is a fan. All of us were new once. Making the online conversation hostile is going to pretty much guarantee that a lot of new fans are going to be turned off by us before they even have a chance.

If you’re a girl who likes a sport, why do you have to be a puck bunny? Why can’t you be called what you are—a fan?

Friday, September 2, 2011

traitorous impulses: Shea Weber

Hockey fact: there are many excellent players on other teams around the league who are Not Capitals. That's unfortunate for them, but their status as non-Capitals does not mean that they are not excellent players and that I don't still occasionally like them. That doesn't mean they are lesser people.

...Well. Yes it kind of does. Because being a hockey player on the Washington Capitals is the best kind of person you can be, and noticing and liking players on other teams still does not mean that I feel sad when my team destroys them and makes them cry. It's important that they not think that they can be More Favorite than the players on my team. That is just foolish.

Still, there are players around the league that I wouldn't mind seeing in red, white, and blue, that's for sure. This is one of them:

You know who it is.

...No? Nothing? Here. How about this:

That's right. It's Shea motherfucking Weber.

Why I like him:
  • young
  • strong as an ox or other load-bearing animal
  • terrifying
  • just coming into his peak years as a player
  • defensively responsible, very physical, and manages to contribute offensively as well
  • that one time he picked Ryan Kesler up by the scruff of his neck 
  • also: playoffs beard

Who I'd trade him for:
Mike Green.

Listen, maybe I'll go on and on later about how despite all the ire Mike Green draws from fans, Mike Green is, in fact, awesome--but I would still trade him for Shea Weber. In an instant. C'mon, that guy should have won the Norris last year, and it certainly wouldn't have been because he's a flashy Mike-Green superstar offensive-juggernaut--it's because he's a bona-fide defensive brick wall. You want to get through Shea Weber? Bring a two other players and a battering ram. While it's great to have someone like Mike Green on your team, I get so concerned about our defensive end sometimes--I would trade up Mike Green's goals and assists for Shea Weber's person-shaped defensive peace of mind.

(Note: he is about the only person in the league I would trade Mike Green for. Watch out, now I am gearing up for a "haters to the left, Mike Green is awesome" post. You've been warned.)

How likely is it that would ever happen:
Like every other blogger out there in the blogosphere, I choose to believe that Weber's one-year deal means that he could be trade bait come deadline--mostly I think because we all covet him. Is it out of the question? Probably. Seismic levels of badassery aside, he's a little out of our price range--but hey, who knows. GMGM has pulled rabbits out of the hat before.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

what if you're not the underdog

We all know how the story arc works best. A team comes from behind--they do something impossible, they get further than people expected them to, they grind and push further--surprising performances, character, tenacity. Especially in a sport with as many variables as hockey, where it's often very difficult to predict what will happen in the long run, when people's season-opening Stanley Cup predictions are very frequently wrong--what if you're not the underdog?

What if you don't root for a team that scraps for every inch? What if you don't root for the dark horse, the team that has as many downs as ups and learns to cope with them all before they hit the playoffs? What if you root for a team that's got all the talent in the world, that's got speed and dazzle, who goes into every game with a great shot to win it? What if you root for a team that's put on a hell of a show, who's got President's Trophy banners in the rafters, who teams across the league fear and respect, but who have yet to prove that there's any substance under all that jazz?

I'm not questioning the character that's on our team--there are clearly very good guys, and strong guys, and players who are capable of being very good leaders, and after this offseason I believe we've definitely picked up some more grit and focus. I'm not saying we don't have character--I'm questioning how often it's been tested. Perhaps not as much this past season, but the season before that certainly--things have not been particularly difficult for the Washington Capitals in their current incarnation, not for this particular group of guys, who collectively are so fucking talented that it's shocking they don't fall right over with the weight of it.

That is not a bad thing--we're very lucky to have the players we have, and the reason that things do go well for them is that they're very special players--to some extent, the stars have aligned. I don't worry about them during the regular season, almost ever--and then the playoffs come around, and the terror, and the friends and family quietly removing sharp objects from around me--and yet, people still expect us to place well in the Eastern Conference, to have a one or two seed, to be a Cup contender.

What if you're not the underdog. What if you're the favorite?

It's a different feeling, a different kind of pressure--you're not fighting defeat and underestimation, you're fighting what's expected of you--it's like I heard a Habs fan say once, that sometimes they worry that their team doesn't play because they want to win, they play because they're terrified of losing. I sensed a little bit of that last year, especially during the losing streak--I don't want this team to be motivated by desperation, I want them to be motivated by commitment and drive.

From what I've heard from the players this year, that's definitely the language they're speaking, that's the plan--but then again, they know what's expected of them. The Hockey News has predicted us to win the Cup this year; Ted Leonsis is saying it again, the expectation is nothing less than the Cup. But then again that was the expectation last year, and the year before. As long as we have Ovechkin playing in his prime years, we will never be the underdog--and that's not a bad thing, fighting your way up from behind is a dirty, exhausting business but so is feeling that you're on top of the world and getting cut down by unexpected defeat.

It's a different story arc, to be sure. We're not going to be the Cinderella story--but if we do manage to take it all the way this year, it will be just as much a struggle to overcome as anything I've seen so far. The Capitals simply have different things to overcome, and if getting out of our own way is the biggest issue we have this year, then I'm pretty sure I have nothing to complain about.