The Hockey Pyjamas: A children’s story
My girlfriend’s mother doesn’t read this blog. This is probably a good thing. But it means she doesn’t know me very well (again, probably a good thing) except for a couple of facts: First, I like hockey, and second, I don’t seem to own pyjamas.* So, she got me Toronto Maple Leafs pyjamas for Christmas.
It kind of reminds me of my Star Trek Christmas. Oh, it’s a thoughtful gift. I do need pyjamas, after all. I just feel about five years old when I imagine putting on my Toronto Maple Leafs jammies and getting into bed with a big bowl of popcorn to watch Hockey Night in Canada at seven o’clock on Saturday night, all full of excitement, only to be struggling to keep my eyes open by the third period. Aw, the poor little guy! Bless him! my girlfriend would think as I slumbered. “Did we won?” I’d sleepily mumble as she gently shook me awake at ten o’clock and put me to bed.
Then again, I’m hardly the only person in the hockey universe acting childish lately.
I guess the very name of the World Juniors Hockey Championship tells you that the participants aren’t quite adults yet, but the Swedish team put on a particularly shameful display in their losing effort in the gold-medal game on Monday night. Biting incidents in hockey are rare as hen’s teeth, but here’s chicken Swede Joakim Andersson biting Canadian defenceman Thomas Hickey. (Oddly, there have been two biting incidents in hockey in as many days. Athough it was former teammate Ray Emery who wore a mask emblazoned with Mike Tyson’s image, Ottawa Senators agitator Jarkko Ruutu channeled the ex-champ last night by chomping Buffalo Sabres enforcer Andrew Peters.)
But even worse was the apparent inner ear infection that caused Swedish goalie Jacob Markström to lose his balance and flop on the ice as though felled by a sniper’s bullet seemingly every time an opposing forward even got near him. The response to Markström’s obvious attempts to draw a penalty was a lusty chorus of boos from a Canadian crowd for a member of the Florida Panthers organization that would not be matched until — well, the following night, actually, when former Leafs defenceman/whipping boy Bryan McCabe made his anticipated return to the Air Canada Centre.
The diving tactics worked, too, resulting in a series of powerplays for the Swedish side. Oddly, this didn’t stop Swedish fans in hockey forums from bitterly complaining about the crooked refs fixing the match in favor of the dirty Canadians who kept running their poor goalie. “This is why the rest of the world hates Canada,” one fan claimed, preposterously.
Bizarre excuses were made as Canada ran up the score. One Swedish fan swore that their goalie wasn’t diving, but just had really poor balance, though saying that it was his ability in question rather than his ethics is at best a half-hearted defence of a supposedly world-class athlete. Another argued that Canada has more junior teams than Sweden has junior players, so imagine how much better Sweden would be if only it had as many players. But by the same logic, one can speculate that Guatemala would also be a world power in hockey if only it had the players, coaches, rinks, and cold climate that Canada does, so maybe we’d better start shining up their gold medal now.
No amount of strenuous argument from the Swedish fans could make up for the lackluster effort from the players, though. Canada put the game out of reach with a pair of empty-net goals in the last two minute, though I don’t think Markström was pulled for the extra attacker so much as he simply flopped around until he finally fell entirely out of the rink. When he skated out for his moment in the spotlight after the game, I’m surprised he wasn’t bowled over by being bombarded by so many photons.
I’ll be looking forward to the next Canada-Sweden game, but until then, I’ll settle for the emerging rivalry between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins, and here’s why. Since Pens captain Sidney Crosby was drafted, he’s been positioned as the new face of a league struggling to market itself. Yet, he was thwarted in his attempt to win the Calder trophy as the rookie of the year by the Caps’ Alexander Ovechkin. This set up a natural rivalry: clean-cut all Canadian boy versus the evil Russian. Yet, Ovechkin’s won hearts for his charisma and passionate, stereotypically “Canadian” playing style, while Crosby’s been tagged as a whiner, being dubbed “Cindy Crysby” by detractors.
But Ovechkin’s real antipathy seems to be directed toward Evgeni Malkin, his fellow countryman and Crosby’s teammate, whom he repeatedly targeted with headhunting attacks with apparent intent to injure when the teams last met in October. No one seems to know why these two apparently hate each other’s guts, making this the most mysterious and intriguing feud in hockey (although I give second place to Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch and the family of the late Larry Aurie; Ilitch unretired the Thirties-era star’s previously honoured #6 sweater in 2001, refuses to re-retire it, and won’t explain why). The rivalry started as a friendly one after Ovechkin and Malkin were selected first and second overall in the 2004 entry draft. Then, in August 2007, Ovechkin allegedly punched out Gennady Ushakov, Malkin’s Russian agent, in a Moscow nightclub. And in a game last January, the two almost brawled after Malkin evaded an attempted huge hit from Ovechkin, who crashed headlong into the boards, injuring mostly his pride.
Meanwhile, Crosby’s got a new rival: Ovechkin’s teammate Alexander Semin, who gave Crosby a scathing appraisal in an October interview with Russian reporter Dmitry Chesnokov:
What’s so special about [Crosby]? I don’t see anything special there. Yes, he does skate well, has a good head, good pass. But there’s nothing else. Even if you compare him to Patrick Kane from Chicago … [Kane] is a much more interesting player. The way he moves, his deking abilities, his thinking on the ice and his anticipation of the play is so superb.
I think that if you take any player, even if he is “dead wood,” and start promoting him, you’ll get a star. Especially if he scores 100 points. No one is going to care about anyone else. No one is going to care whether he possesses great skill. Let’s say you put someone in front of the net and let him deflect pucks in, and he scored 50 goals; everyone will say “Wow!” and then hand him a $10 million per year contract. That’s what they like here.
I wouldn’t mess with Crosby right now, though. Frustration stemming from Pittsburgh’s underwhelming performance this year appears to be driving him insane, and Sid “The Kid” appears to be living up to his nickname with a show of immature behaviour on the ice. If he were just some scrub instead of the league’s golden boy, he would have faced suspension for what he did on December 18, when he not only was the third man in on his teammate Kris Letang’s tussle with the Atlanta Thrashers’ Boris Valabik but also punched Valabik from behind with a couple of the most blatant ballshots since Chyna was Triple H’s bodyguard.
Then, in last Saturday night’s game against the Panthers, Crosby went berzerk, jumping a clearly unprepared Brett McLean immediately after a faceoff, while he was still bent over. Crosby claims he asked nicely for the fight first; McLean says he didn’t hear that.
On the other hand, Semin is clearly no slouch when it comes to fisticuffs, either, so Crosby had better watch out. While Crosby was mugging McLean on Saturday, Semin had a fight of his own with the New York Rangers’ Marc Staal, whaling away on him with his skinny fists as though Staal had stolen his most cherished childhood toy. You can practically hear Semin bawling, “Give it back! Give it back! Give it back! I’m telling mom!” I’m surprised it didn’t end with an disconsolate Semin sobbing into a linesman’s shoulder as the official stroked his head soothingly, like when the Leafs’ Matt Stajan fought Ruslan Salei of the Panthers last February.
The Capitals and Penguins next meet on January 14, one week from tonight, and no doubt about it, with these storylines intersecting, there’s a storm a-brewing. I’ll be there in front of the TV, bowl of popcorn in hand, jammies on.
* This is not first-hand knowledge, of course.
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