James Mirtle - My writing

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Coaches warm to idea of open ice: 'What's best for ... hockey'

Thursday, January 27, 2005
Page: S3, Section: Sports
Byline: James
Mirtle, with files from Ed Willes, The Province
Source: National Post, with files from The Province

TORONTO - While one meeting was held under the veil of secrecy yesterday, another took place at the NHL's Toronto offices, and it had little to do with collective bargaining and cost certainty. Six of the league longest-tenured coaches met with NHL officials with the goal of improving the quality of hockey played on the ice--whenever it should resume.

To do so, the bench bosses in attendance took collective aim at a familiar foe: Obstruction.

"Everyone wants the same thing," said Vancouver head coach Mark Crawford. "I mean no one is against opening up the game and everyone wants to see that stars perform. The question is, how do you get there?"

The answer, said meeting chair and NHL director of hockey operations Colin Campbell, is to communicate the rules directly to players, officials and coaches. According to Campbell, the session was a step towards that goal.

"When you're talking to managers and coaches about the game while games are being played, they're just interested in how things best help their teams win," said Campbell.

"Now we're apart from the competitive, day-to-day battles, [and] we can discuss what's best for the game of hockey and what's going to open it up and make it more exciting. We also understand that when we come back ... we have to give something back to the fans. We talked about that a lot."

Yesterday's meeting is the latest in a series of attempts by the NHL to increase the game's flow. Previous initiatives to call more hooking, holding and interference penalties have met with limited success.

Reducing obstruction was also one of 10 recommendations made by a panel of hockey insiders at a recent summit organized by Detroit's Brendan Shanahan.

The NHL's clutch-and-grab mentality is often attributed to how defensive coaching has become. It was perhaps not a coincidence, then, that several of the coaches in attendance are notable for employing a defensive style of play.

Aside from Crawford, whose free-skating Canucks buck the trapping trend, the other coaches at the meeting were Florida's Jacques Martin, Philadelphia's Ken Hitchcock, Detroit's Dave Lewis, Colorado's Joel Quenneville and Buffalo's Lindy Ruff.

Despite the fact that an obstruction crackdown could hinder their individual teams, the coaches said they were united in making hockey a more entertaining product.

"One of the areas we talked about was rewarding the speed and skill of the players," said Lewis. "We wanted to enhance the vision of everyone on what obstruction is, when it's allowed and when it's not."

"Coaches look to improve their team and not necessarily the product," added Crawford. "With the break here, and with the pressure off, we can look at ways of speeding up the game and making it more open."

With the NHL having not played a game in months and labour negotiations dragging into late January, it may be a while before the ideas generated yesterday are implemented. And while he steadfastly refused to discuss CBA matters, Campbell said the lockout had been beneficial to the process.

"At the end, everyone wants to get back to the on-ice problems. If there is some silver lining with the lockout, it's that we have time now to do that."

Monday, February 14, 2005

'They always leave smiling': Canada's pluckiest hockey team has scored 22 goals, given up 369 and never won a game. But they keep trying

Monday, January 31, 2005
Page: A3 ,
Section: News
Byline: James
Source: National Post

THORNHILL - Chalk in hand, Toronto Aces coach Bill Burton was mapping out a play on the dressing-room wall for his team of eight- and nine-year-old boys.

"OK, so who picks the puck up here?" Mr. Burton asked as he pointed to an X marked behind an imaginary net.

"The winger ... no, the centre," replied a chorus of voices.

"The winger," said the coach. "He brings the puck to the other side. And if the other guy gets it, it doesn't matter how big he is, hit him. Don't skate away from the puck."

It sounded like typical advice from a minor-hockey coach, but for the Aces, nothing this season has been typical. They are a new team in the Greater Toronto Hockey League's (GTHL) Minor Atom A division and, as with most expansion franchises, the first year has been a trying one.

The team has played 30 games and lost them all.

"When we joined the team, I knew it was going to be an uphill battle," said Troy Ellenor, whose son, Brendan, skates for the Aces. "But the way I looked at it -- and what I told him -- is that it would be a learning experience."

That it has been. The Aces struggled to put together a lineup to start the season, scrambling to find house-league players to fill their roster. Even now, the team has only 13 players -- two fewer than league requirements -- and only a handful have played outside of house-league hockey before.

The Aces dropped their second game of the season 21-0, and the losses have continued to pile up. They have scored 22 goals and surrendered 369, or more than 12 a game.

The results have not come from a lack of effort, and the parents say their children's play has improved immensely.

"We don't dwell on the losing at all," Mary Slavik-Peters said. "And they have been getting better, playing better as a team."

"When Brendan started, he was a little bit wobbly [on his skates]," Mr. Ellenor said. "Now he's doing really well out there. He would never want to go back to house league again."

Yesterday, the Aces played the Markham Islanders, a team they lost to by one goal two weeks earlier, and a team with many players who stand a head taller than most of the Aces.

The Aces took to the ice at the Thornhill Community Arena to the sound of cheers from their parents, and while the Islanders scored immediately after the opening faceoff, the cheering seldom waned.

The puck, though, rarely left the Aces' end. Aces goalie Quintin Davis, with the top of his helmet not quite reaching the crossbar, kept his team in the game by pouncing on pucks like a smaller Dominik Hasek.

Kelly Casey, Quintin's mother and the Aces manager, was quick to point out the positives of the routine peppering her son faces. "He's getting 40 to 50 shots every game," she said, just as the Islanders slid another goal into the Aces' net as part of an 11-0 rout. "Last year, he only got five to 10, so he has gained in shot exposure and it has made him a better goalie.

"We don't have that emphasis [on winning]. Sometimes the kids get down on themselves, but they always leave the arena smiling. And it doesn't matter what the score is, they always play hard."

In his 10 years of coaching minor hockey, Mr. Burton has helmed more than a few struggling teams. The Aces are different, he said, because of the effort they put in on the ice.

"Morale is very good. They have all been playing hard and look much better out there [than in the beginning]," he said. "You know, we lost 14-1 [on Saturday], but they played with a lot of heart.

"I'm very proud of them, even though we lost."

The GTHL wanted to fold the Aces over the Christmas break due to their lack of players, but Mr. Burton fought to keep the team afloat.

"I didn't want them to be without a team," he said. So the team kept playing, and the parents and players rallied around. Even without the wins, it is their team. And, if nothing else, the Aces are a shining example of winning not being everything.

"He still wakes up every weekend and says, 'When am I playing hockey today?' " Holly Harrocks said of her son, Ian. "We were worried we wouldn't even have a team. That's really one thing I'm glad for -- we still have our team."

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Hard times fall on B.C. boomtown of hockey success: Kamloops Blazers: Interior city no longer the envy of junior teams across the country

Monday, January 24, 2005
Page: S8,
Section: Sports
Byline: James
Source: National Post

Three hundred kilometres northeast of Vancouver, up the well-trod Trans-Canada highway and into the Interior, you'll find Kamloops, B.C., a city where a hockey team became as much a part of the geography as the arid hills and rushing Thompson Rivers.

The Kamloops Blazers won the Memorial Cup three of four years in the 1990s (1992, '93 and '95), while producing an impressive group of future NHL players (Jarome Iginla, Mark Recchi, Scott Niedermayer, Darcy Tucker, Darryl Sydor, Shane Doan) and future NHL coaches (Ken Hitchcock, Tom Renney and Don Hay).

A blue collar city of 80,000, Kamloops was the envy of junior hockey for nearly two decades, when it was known as "Little Montreal" for its prowess. These days, the comparisons to junior hockey's elite are few. The team has suffered through a front-office scandal, poor on-ice performances and a revolving door of management and coaches. The dynasty's walls, long since worn, are crumbling.

This season the Blazers have a record of 17-23-3-2, placing them last in their division and three points out of the playoffs. It is unfamiliar territory for a franchise that has not missed the post-season in its 24-year history.

"We're right in the hunt of it," Blazers general manager Dean Clark said, one day removed from a pair of lopsided losses to the Calgary Hitmen and Red Deer Rebels. "Obviously we're trying to make the playoffs. That's the goal every year. We're definitely a young club, and it's going to be a tough climb to get there."

The team got even younger recently when Clark dealt two disgruntled veterans, captain Jarret Lukin and Cam Cunning, after both requested trades. The moves prompted suggestions the club was rebuilding--a course it has been said Kamloops fans would never accept.

"We had gotten pretty full of ourselves to the point where we thought we'd always win," said Clark. "But we've lost in the first round five years in a row now, and it's time to do something different. We did a lot of winning over the past 20 years, and teams are all getting their shots in now."

Clark and Blazers head coach Mark Ferner played together for Kamloops in the early 80's, beginning when the team was owned by the Edmonton Oilers. Members of the community purchased the club in 1984, the same year a young Hitchcock arrived and coached the team to a 52-17-2 record.

In the years following, the Blazers continually avoided junior hockey's cyclical nature, spoiling their fans with one impressive season after another. In 14 years prior to the 1996-97 season, the club had eight 50-win seasons and fell below the 40-win mark only once.

Recent years have not been as kind. Colin Day, the team's president since 1982, resigned in the fall of 2003 after a front-office embezzlement scandal. On the ice, the Blazers have eclipsed 40 wins just once in the last eight seasons. The team even retired Taking Care of Business, the longtime Blazer anthem for home goals.

And now, with the franchise on the brink of a first-ever playoff miss, the pressure is on a young team with only four players over 18.

"The pressure [to make the playoffs] just has to be to a point," said Ferner, who played 94 NHL games during a motley 16-year pro career. "Worrying about making the playoffs is one thing, but going in and competing is another. We're worried about what the score was before the game has started."

"We have high standards," said Clark. "Mark and I both played for this team, so if anyone knows [about the pressure], we know.

"I don't think anybody in [the dressing room] doesn't know we have never missed the playoffs. They know."

Blazers goaltender Devan Dubnyk, an Oilers first-round pick in the 2004 entry draft, said the team is anxious not to be remembered as the one that put former glories to rest.

"There's absolutely no way that we're going to be that team," said Dubnyk. "I'm prepared to play every single game as hard as I can to make sure of that.

"Kamloops is an unbelievable city to play junior hockey in, and it does add pressure. The fans are very supportive and involved, and people just really want us to win."

Even without the wins, Clark says the team is determined to bring pride to the rink with another Blazer staple: hard work.

"One of the things we are bringing back is the culture. We're slowly chipping away to become a team that is going to work hard, like those old Blazer teams were known for."

And while fans in Kamloops appreciate the effort, reminders of days gone by are never far. They need only to catch a glimpse of the rafters to see dozens of championship banners.