2008-12-30

Anniversaries VIII: 50 in 39


It was a magic time. If you didn't live through it, it's hard to comprehend what a record-breaking machine Wayne Gretzky was. He didn't just break records, he destroyed them with a flair for the dramatic. Examples:

-- Gretzky scored his first 1000 points in just 424 games. The second fastest to the mark, Guy Lafleur, needed 720 games. The night Gretzky hit the 1000 mark, he piled in 5 more points as a down payment on the next 1000.

-- On April 9, 1987, Gretzky started the night tied with Jean Beliveau for the most points in the Stanley Cup playoffs, 176. By night's end Gretzky had tied another playoff record, his own mark of 7 points in a playoff game, and was 7 points clear of Beliveau. Oilers beat the Kings 13-3, setting a couple of still-extant team records en route to their first victory in what became their third Stanley Cup.

-- On February 24, 1982, Gretzky broke Phil Esposito's record for goals in a season by scoring his 77th, 78th, and 79th goals in the last seven minutes of the third period. His natural hat trick blew open a 3-3 tie into a 6-3 Oiler celebration, and capped a streak of four consecutive five-point nights for the Great One as he relentlessly overcame Esposito's awesome record with six weeks to spare.

Of all the records, the most spectacular run had to be earlier in that 1981-82 season when Gretzky challenged and ultimately demolished the most fabled record in hockey, Rocket Richard's 50 goals in 50 games. The previous season the great Mike Bossy had equalled Richard's mark which had stood unchallenged for 35 seasons.

It was clear in the fall of '81 that Gretzky had the mark in his sights. After a run of 7 goals in 7 periods in late November, including his second four-goal game of the season, Gretzky reached 31 goals early in Game 26. For the rest of that game and the next four Gretzky slumped, scoring nary a goal -- albeit with 13 (!!) assists -- to fall to just 1 goal ahead of the goal-a-game pace. In the next four games he remained there, scoring exactly one goal in each and reaching 35 goals in 34 games as the Oilers began a five game Crhistmas home stand. It looked like it would be nip and tuck for several more weeks, maybe until Games 49 and 50 in late January.

I was already a big believer in the Great One, predicting to my season ticket mates on opening night that he would score 200 points that season in what developed into an audacious, hellacious bet. Supremely confident as I was in the young man's magic, that prediction ultimately turned out to be conservative (I guessed "only" 80-120-200, whereas he really went 92-120-212 in yet another demolition job not just of records but of all reason). Even I, staunch predictor of a goal-a-game for the season, could never have guessed the dramatics that would be packed into that five-game stand.

What did happen is emblazoned in my memory as one of the most incredible sustained displays of individual domination that I've ever seen. By the time the home stand was over, the Great One had lit the lamp an incredible 15 times, adding a not-inconsequential 10 assists for 25 points. I could cite you his game-by-game numbers chapter and verse, but you can see for yourself courtesy the Hockey Summary Project, linked below:

December 19 - Oilers 9, North Stars 6:
3-4-7
December 20 - Flames 7, Oilers 5:
2-1-3
December 23 - Oilers 6, Canucks 1:
1-3-4
December 27 - Oilers 10, Kings 3:
4-1-5

By December 30, 27 years ago today, Gretz stood at 45 in 38 and it was clear the record was going to fall. As my mates and I made the 7-minute walk from our (still free!) parking spot to the Coliseum, we discussed the upcoming sked and guessed how many more games it would take. Tonight's opponent was no Campbell Conference softie but the perennial powerhouse Philadelphia Flyers. Yet suddenly I blurted out, "You know, it's not impossible, he only needs five" ...

Did I mention this was a magic time? Like George Orr in "The Lathe of Heaven", one merely needed to imagine the dream for it to come true. Every draft prospect seemingly developed into a Hall of Famer, the owner promised and delivered a Stanley Cup within 5 years, and Wayne Gretzky wrote scripts that would have been too silly for Hollywood but which boggled the mind in reality.

And so it was on December 30, 1981, a date that will forever be locked in hockey lore:
December 30 - Oilers 7, Flyers 5:
5-1-6

Gretzky scored twice in the first period, then beat Pete Peeters once more in each of the second and third taking him to 49, before notching his 50th on a dramatic empty netter with just 3 seconds remaining to clinch an incredible 7-5 Oilers victory. His 50th was set up by Grant Fuhr and Glenn Anderson and scored past a diving Bill Barber, Hockey Hall of Famers all, but at that moment, the 20-year-old Gretzky was a colossus who stood alone astride his sport like few -- Babe Ruth, Pele, Michael Jordan, Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods -- ever have.

Today I had the privilege of watching that entire game for the first time since I attended the actual game. It's disc #1 in the new DVD set of the Oilers' 10 greatest games that showed up under the tree the other day. To see Gretzky's performance in the context of the entire game is much more compelling than just a highlight-reel goal, goal, goal, goal, empty net goal. It is essential viewing for those who didn't live through it but who want to get a sense of what made Gretzky so sensationally special at such a tender age.

In this game, not unlike many others of that magic time, he generated chance after chance after great scoring chance in a transcendent display of hockey genius. I didn't document but I would bet he had at least a dozen shots on net and easily could have had 12 or 15 points if every ten-bell scoring chance went in. Peeters robbed him point blank on at least three occasions, and as usual Gretzky unselfishly dished the puck to the man in the best scoring position, even when he was temprarily "stuck" on 49 goals with time running out. He was an incredibly unselfish player in that respect, talking the talk -- "My dad always told me an assist is as good as a goal" -- and walking the walk. But he was just selfish enough to shoot himself if he was the guy in the best position ... which obviously happened fairly frequently.

Gretzky scored an NHL record 10 hat tricks in that 92-goal season, a record that has been equalled only once, by Gretzky himself in his 87-goal season two years later. He had at least one assist in all ten of those games, in fact he scored at least five points in all ten. No "soft" hat tricks like, say, 3-0-3 for the Great One; he scored goals and points in bunches.

The Great One also set a modern record during that Philly game of four, 4-goal games in one season; again a record he equalled two years later but nobody else has approached since the days of Joe Malone. Gretzky established yet a third separate mark by being the only player in the history of the game to notch consecutive games of 4+ goals, a feat even he accomplished just this once ... while under the heat of attacking, and demolishing, the greatest single record in the sport.

2008-12-27

The 82nd Spengler Cup


As a lifelong fan of international hockey, I have followed the Spengler Cup since Canada first got involved in 1984, and have watched it faithfully every year it's been televised. In my household this tourney has become a holiday staple right up there with the World Junior. A simple five-team round robin where the top two teams advance directly to a one-game final, it's a compact event that always fits in the short week between Boxing Day and New Year's Eve. The constants are the host team Davos and the itinerant collection of pan-European imports known as Team Canada, with three club teams from across Europe invited each year to fill the slate. The tourney therefore maintains a healthy mix of variety and tradition.

Whereas in the World Jr. you might get a chance to see an Oiler or two of the future, in the Spengler there always seems to be quite a few Oilers of the past. This year Team Canada features Domenic Pittis and Brad Isbister, as well as recent farmhand T.J.Kemp; Davos has Janne "Spaz" Niinimaa, Michel "The Swiss Miss" Riesen, and Tony Salmelainen; German club team ERC Ingolstadt have a couple of import defencemen from very different Oiler eras, namely Allan Rourke and Brian Muir. Cups of coffee in most cases; this tournament is just loaded with guys who were on the cusp of The Show before carving out very respectable careers over in Europe. (Full tournament rosters can be found here.)

Canada is always well-represented by enough of the same players year to year to really have established a team identity. Unlike the NHLers who all too frequently -- for reasons that continue to escape me -- snub their noses at the World Championships, Canadian imports based in Europe never refuse the invitation to play in the Spengler Cup, where it seems a great time is had by all. Former NHLers like Pittis, Hnat Domenichelli, Shawn Heins, Stacy Roest, Jeff Toms, Jean-Guy Trudel, and this year's captain Serge Aubin, seem to be there every year. With the pipeline suffused with "newcomers" who have more recently made their way to Europe like Isbister, Randy Robitaille, Rico Fata, Byron Ritchie, Joel Kwiatkowski and Ric Jackman, Canada once again has a strong team at their 25th Spengler Cup in 2008. The boys wear the Red Maple Leaf with obvious pride and have represented the country brilliantly over the past quarter century, winning 11 titles. Last year the heavy underdog Canadians rode the red-hot goaltending of former Oiler Curtis Joseph to a pair of victories over eventual KHL champions Salavat Yulaev Ufa, including a 2-1 thriller in the tournament finale.

There's never a dull moment in the beautiful and always-packed arena in Davos, but it's always electric for the Canada-Davos match in particular. Given that the three European invitees are different ever year, Canada-Davos is the best rivalry by far, and today's game before 6700 singing, chanting, cheering fans was a beauty. HC Davos is always an offence-first outfit that plays a highly-entertaining style, but today the early minutes featured lots of bad blood (both real and imagined) which brought the intensity level way up. A ding-dong affair ensued with Canada battling back from 3-0, 4-2, and 5-4 deficits, with Domenichelli scoring a "60th minute" equalizer -- courtesy an horrific Niinimaa gaffe -- to force OT and ultimately a shootout. Davos, who had earlier scored on a penalty shot, notched the only goal in "penalties" to finally decide the matter, 6-5 for the home side. Still, with their dogged comeback Canada earned a valuable standings point and at 1-0-1 remain firmly in control of their destiny.

Sunday is Canada's rest day -- every team gets one, but where it falls in the five days of the round robin is the luck of the draw -- before facing Ingolstadt on Monday and the fabled Dynamo Moskva on Tuesday in a match which will likely determine at least one of the finalists. Dynamo features no former Oilers on its roster, but a bushel of former NHLers like Karel Rachunek, Alexei Zhitnik, Peter Cajanek, Vitaly Yachmenev, Vitaly Karamnov, Mattias Weinhandl, and Canadian Eric Landry. Both remaining Canada games will be featured on the gamut of Sportsnet channels at various times around mid-day, while Wednesday morning's final will be televised live in the wee hours and, I hope, rebroadcast at a more humane hour.

Spengler Cup hockey is not NHL calibre, but it's a very decent level of men's professional hockey, with most of the games far more competitive than the round robin portion of the World Juniors. Moreover, it's a European festival of hockey that acknowledges the game's roots with the permanent inclusion of Team Canada. A great hockey tradition now in its 82nd iteration, the Spengler Cup seems like a terrific party every year; I'd sure love to check it out in person one of these years.

2008-12-21

It's the best game you can name


Where's Waldo?


Friday night the call came about 20 minutes before the opening face-off. "Bruce, something's come up, would you like a pair of tickets to the game?" My son and I had been planning to go to a sports bar to chow down on chicken wings and watch the PPV broadcast, so the mid-course correction was relatively painless.

It's rare enough that I get the pleasure of attending a live game with my son. Kevin was just 5 and beginning Tom Thumb hockey in the fall of 1993 when I gave up my Oiler season tickets after 16 mostly wonderful seasons. I watched him play hundreds of games in the next dozen years, coached him in hundreds of practices. Kevin much prefers playing the game to watching it, but we usually make it out to at least one Oilers game a year, usually around his mid-December birthday. (He turned 21 this week) So the timing was perfect.

Except we were late. By the time we had driven, parked, walked, collected our tickets and found our seats -- Row 27, top of the circle of the Oilers attacking zone -- we'd missed about 8 minutes. Score was 0-0, and by the time I thought to check out the shot clock it stood at 10-1 Oilers. That shot clock would continue to mount in bursts for both teams in a penalty-filled, action-packed affair.

The opposition were the Anaheim Ducks, once Mighty, now just another team give or take Chris Pronger (pictured above battling Dustin Penner in good times and bad). A handful of fans booed half-heartedly whenever he handled the puck, but the venom that had run through the entire building the last time I'd seen him live (in "The Return of Chuckie" game) had now largely run its course.

If this game was any indication, so has Pronger himself. While leading both teams with over 33 minutes of ice time, he was mediocre at best, anchoring a defence that allowed 53 shots on goal, himself with the worst 5v5 shots differential on either team (-7), a goal differential of -1, and a game high 5 giveaways, while none of his 4 attempted shots on goal even reached the net. As one who has watched Pronger closely his entire career -- I picked him in my keeper league pool as an 18-year-old rookie in 1993 and have had him on my team ever since -- it was one of the least influential games I've ever seen him play. On this night at least, Ladi "Fifth Asset" Smid was better.

Pronger was sitting in the penalty box when the goose eggs were broken late in the first. Alas, rather than make him pay for his transgression, the Oil committed a couple of their own in allowing a brutal shorthanded goal against. Sam Gagner made a terrible blind back pass which led directly to the Brothers Niedermayer breaking loose on a 2-on-1. Robert Nilsson, hustling back to defend, broke stride just long enough to watch the initial shot, then arrived a split second too late at the edge of the crease to take Rob Niedermayer's stick on the juicy rebound. Later Nilsson would pay the price and spend the third period on the bench, while Gagner would, as usual, escape the wrath of his coach.

Bad went to worse early in the second as the Oilers started to run around and take penalties. Ducks barely missed on two tap-in opportunities on the first powerplay chance, peppered Roloson with shots in the second, before the weasel Corey Perry made the Oil pay for the third penalty with a nice deflection off a Bobby Ryan spinnarama. 2-0.

Minutes later the game began to turn the Oilers way when Smid absolutely clocked the hated Perry with a great open ice hit. While Perry went down and stayed down, Ryan Getzlaf came to challenge Smid for the clean hit. Ladi did not refuse the invitation, removing his shielded helmet and giving Getzlaf the "let's go" motion. A linesman intervened before the fight could materialize, but the Oilers were energized by Smid's big hit and subsequent refusal to back down. The following minutes featured a parade to the penalty box on both sides. The Oilers wound up taking 8 penalties in the period with only Smid's being coincidental. Disaster nearly occurred in the last minute when Ethan Moreau took his second silly slashing penalty of the period to put Oilers 2 men down, then couldn't resist beaking off to the ref and drawing an unsportsmanlike call. Three stupid penalties in one period -- call it the Ethan Moreau Hat Trick. Somehow Oilers survived the 5-on-3 and got to the buzzer still only down 2-0.

During the intermission we went down to the "club" section beneath the stands, where it seems one can get "clubbed" even worse for concession prices. We quickly thought better of parting with any cash, but Kevin wanted to watch the players walk out of the dressing room so we hung around. A surprising number of people had the same idea, including a few puck bunnies fully decked out in their Gagner and Hemsky jerseys (with many signatures on the numbers). The doors behind the hige silver Oilers logo opened, revealing five replica Stanley Cups at the end of the hall. Soon enough, the players clumped out, large as life and seeming larger in their skates and shoulder pads. Penner, Stortini, Smid, Souray ... these are large men. People called out words of encouragement but the local warriors kept their gazes fixed straight ahead on the task at hand.

By the time the ropes were lowered and we emerged into the bottom of the lower bowl the puck was being dropped, so we ducked down and sat on the steps immediately behind the Ducks bench. For two and a half exhilarating minutes the play whirled in front of us at a dizzying speed. At such a low angle it was difficult to follow the rapid movement of the puck through the constant shift of bodies, and I empathized anew with the plight of the goaltenders. Indeed, from our angle it was difficult to catch a glimpse of Roli in a high speed game of "Where's Waldo?" as he attempted to track the puck through the swirling maze. The powerplay continued at the far end, the puck zipping from stick to stick, suddenly a shot and the clang of a post behind Roloson, but no harm done. The zone was cleared, the play zipped in front of us for a second, and as Anaheim worked it back up the ice the simple line change was elevated into an art form as first one, then the other defenceman safely but warily made his way to the Ducks bench. Again the Ducks worked it deep and crashed the net, but as Roli went down the ref's arm went up and finally the whistle blew. Bobby Ryan -- who looks like a force to be reckoned with btw -- had been caught for the game's third goaltender interference penalty.

Rather than return to our seats Kevin and I found an empty pair of aisle seats about 15 rows above the Ducks blueline and enjoyed the rest of the game from there. We certainly chose the right end to sit in; the Oilers began to surge, and the tiring Ducks beat a steady path to the penalty box. The two-goal deficit seemed insurmountable with Jonas Hiller playing brilliantly in the Ducks goal, but finally there was a breakthrough from a most unexpected source.

The fourth line had been nailed to the bench with all the penalties, but just past the 6-minute mark Zack Stortini and Jason Strudwick took the ice for the first time in a full period. Within seconds Stortini ran Pronger with a clean bodycheck, forcing the play into Anaheim's zone. As Stortini charged towards the goal mouth a puck was shot into the melee, bouncing off Zack's skate and right onto the stick of Kyle Brodziak who buried it into the top corner. The crowd erupted in a frenzy, the shutout broken. A 23-second shift by the scrubs, and wouldn't you know but the Oilers were back in the game.

Minutes later the Ducks young star Ryan Getzlaf went off for interference, and seconds later their old star Scott Niedermayer joined him in the box for crosschecking Sam Gagner on an impressive burst to the goal. Surely even the Oilers couldn't blow a 2-man advantage for 1:51? Oh, of course they could, and they did, with lots of help from Hiller who made two tremendous stops off of patented Horcoff one-timers. The man's lateral motion is just sick. As Gagner lost a draw which frittered away the last seconds of the powerplay, the night's best hope seemed lost, only to be renewed when Mr. Kristi Yamaguchi (Bret Hedican) took yet another penalty for carelessly dumping the puck over the glass. I've seen enough hockey to realize this would be the one to burn the Ducks, and sure enough, within a few seconds the impromptu PP line of Pouliot, Gagner and Cole (9 goals among them on the season) had combined for the equalizer, as Cole batted a rebound out of mid-air and into the net to break a season-long drought at Rexall.

The Oilers continued to pour it on and the Ducks to hang on. Yet another penalty in the late minutes saw the Oilers peppering Hiller with shot after shot, 6 in all including three wicked slappers by Souray and two by Visnovsky. Hiller stared them down.

The buzzer assured the Oilers of their first point in a frustrating week, and on to overtime we went. In 4v4 play MacT sent out ever-changing twosomes up front: 89-26 ; 13-78 ; 10-83; 13-89 ; 13-26 ; 83-26 ; 10-13 ; 89-83 all got time together. Cole, strong all night and flying since his goal, had the best chance, wiring a slap shot past Hiller but off the inside of the post. The crowd raised their voice as one at the opportunity, letting out a mighty "Oh-h-h-h!!!" of despond as the puck clanked off the iron.

Again the buzzer sounded without resolution, so on to the shootout we went. The weasel Perry scored on a nifty deke on the first attempt, and that was all she wrote. Roloson made fine plays to thwart Getzlaf and Ryan to keep hope alive, but all three Oilers shooters made weak attempts and never threatened to score. Both Pouliot and Hemsky made slow-motion moves to the backhand and couldn't lift the puck into the tiny hole that may have been available up top. As the last shooter, "shootout specialist" Sam Gagner, approached the puck the crowd all rose from their seats. Alas, Sam wasn't up to the occasion, bobbling the puck right off the hop, altering both his flight path and his stickhandling confidence, and he fired weakly into Hiller's blocker to end with a whimper what had been a slambang affair.

Oilers have now won just 2 of their last 10 at home, an unacceptable streak at any point of any season. Once again their special teams had been their undoing: they won the even-strength game 1-0, held Anaheim to one PP goal in 8 attempts, but ruined it by scoring just 1 of 10 powerplays of their own while allowing the killer shortie against. The other "special team", the shootout squad, didn't deliver either.

Still, it was tough to complain. Even with the Bettman-era anticlimax the game was great, the price was right, and the time with my son was well spent. A highlight moment came in the second period when Kevin suddenly fixated on George Parros and his infamous moustache, which he labelled "right out of the '80s". ("Ouch!" I remembered) Right on cue Parros jumped over the blue line ahead of the play forcing an offside whistle. A couple rows below us a leatherlung hollered: "Hey Parros! Your moustache went offside!" You had to be there, but the timing was perfect, and Kevin laughed until the tears rolled. The good times rolled right along with them.

2008-12-11

Tracking Ladi II


At the beginning of the season I identified Ladislav Smid as a player of interest. A third of the way into the campaign, his development has been derailed somewhat by a concussion and complicated by Craig MacTavish's seeming preference for a marginal veteran (Jason Strudwick) over the emerging youngster. Still, there's a big enough data set to see how Ladi stacks up in the team's hierarchy.

As we did in part one of this series, let's start again with stats compiled by Gabe Desjardins of Behind the Net:

GA ON/60
--------
0.43 Ladislav Smid (12 GP)
1.36 Lubomir Visnovsky (25 GP)
2.23 Steve Staios (24 GP)
2.31 Jason Strudwick (22 GP)
2.33 Denis Grebeshkov (22 GP)
2.39 Sheldon Souray (24 GP)
3.24 Tom Gilbert (25 GP)

+-/60
-----
+0.96 Visnovsky
+0.48 Souray
+0.42 Smid
+-0.0 Grebeshkov
-0.15 Gilbert
-0.56 Staios
-1.16 Strudwick

QualComp
--------
+0.06 Smid
+0.04 Gilbert
+0.03 Souray
+0.03 Grebeshkov
+0.02 Visnovsky
+0.01 Strudwick
+-0.0 Staios

QualTeam
--------
+0.32 Souray
+0.25 Visnovsky
+0.14 Grebeshkov
+0.10 Gilbert
-0.12 Smid
-0.21 Staios
-0.26 Strudwick

---

It would appear the last category is affected by defence partner, given that for the most part the top two on the list have played together, as have the next two, with the bottom three mostly combining as the third pairing and largely playing with one of the other two. Be that as it may, from the QualComp metric Smid has played the toughest foes on the club, Staios and Strudwick the weakest.

Since the top four are pretty well defined on this club anyway I'll simply look at 5-24-43 from here on.

ES TOI (from HockeyAnalysis.com)
------
Staios 341:44

-- w. Strudwick 213:56 (63%)
-- w. Smid 65:02 (19%)

Strudwick 275:30
-- w. Staios 213:56 (78%)
-- w. Smid 26:31 (10%)

Smid 141:01
-- w. Staios 65:02 (46%)
-- w. Strudwick 26:31 (19%)
---

As the de facto 7th guy Smid filled in for both Staios and Strudwick when both missed time for various reasons, so he wound up on the third pairing naturally. He also got a little time with Visnovsky when Souray was out, and a little more with Gilbert when Grebs was out, as MacT clearly didn't want to mess with the mighty pairing of Staios and Strudwick. And when all 7 have been healthy, Smid has been the choice of healthy scratch for reasons that continue to escape me entirely. Hockeyanalysis.com provides the evidence:


GF/GA per 20
------------
Staios w . Smid: +0.000 / -0.000 = EVEN
Staios w/o Smid: +0.723 / -1.012 = -0.289
Smid w/o Staios: +0.526 / -0.263 = +0.263

Strudwick w . Smid: +0.000 / -0.000 = EVEN
Strudwick w/o Smid: +0.402 / -0.964 = -0.562
Smid w/o Strudwick: +0.349 / -0.175 = +0.174

Staios w. Strudwick: +0.374 / -1.028 = -0.654
Staios w/o Struds: +0.939 / -0.469 = +0.470
Struds w/o Staios: +0.325 / -0.325 = EVEN

---

That's per period, meaning that for every 60 minutes they play together, Staios and Strudwick have been outscored by 2 goals. Either on his own has been OK, and either with Smid has pitched zeroes. Staios is +6/-3 = +3 without Strudwick, +4/-11 = -7 with him. My eyes have not been deceiving me: this partnership has struggled.

But GF/GA are small number statistics (esp. for Smid!), so let's avail ourselves of the ES shots data from Timeonice.com, and prorate them to the above ES ice time. I prefer per/60:

SF/SA per 60
------------
Smid overall: +29.8 / -31.9 = -2.1
Staios overall: +22.4 / -33.5 = -11.1
Strudwick overall: +18.9 / -36.2 = -17.3

Staios w . Smid: +29.3 / -31.4 = -2.1
Staios w/o Smid: +20.1 / -33.0 = -12.9
Smid w/o Staios: +30.0 / -32.4 = -2.4

Strudwick w . Smid: +29.4 / -43.0 = -13.6
Strudwick w/o Smid: +17.8 / -35.4 = -17.6
Smid w/o Strudwick: +29.9 / -29.3 = +0.6

Staios w . Strudwick: +18.2 / -34.2 = -16.0
Staios w/o Strudwick: +29.6 / -32.4 = -2.6
Strudwick w/o Staios: +21.4/ -42.9 = -21.5

---

I have nothing at all against Jason Strudwick, but I just don't see any way to interpret the above except to conclude he stinks at evens. As a pair, he and Staios have been brutal, outshot 34-18 per 60 minutes and outscored 3-1. Without Staios, Strudwick's performance has been even worse, whereas Staios at least gets up near the waterline. Smid, meanwhile, tools along at about +30/-30 with everybody, except Strudwick where his shots against rate just plummets into the ghastly mid-40s.

Finally, a hodge podge of other "new statistics". Again from Timeonice.com, the stat Vic Ferrari calls ZoneShift, where a positive number means play is tending from the defensive to offensive zone with Player X on the ice, followed by Scoring Opportunities for and against as tracked by Dennis over at MC79hockey, and Errors as tabulated by David Staples at Cult of Hockey.


ZoneShift
---------
Smid ******** -5 (-2.1/60)
Staios ***** -29 (-5.1/60)
Strudwick ** -28 (-6.1/60)

Staios w. Strudwick -27 (-7.6/60)
---

Scoring opportunities
---------------------
Smid ******* +28/-34 = -6 (-2.55/60*)
Staios ***** +64/-87 = -23 (-5.35/60*)
Strudwick ** +49/-77 = -28 (-6.49/60*)

(per 60 rates adjusted for missing STL game)
---

Errors:
-------
Smid ******* 1 (0.43/60)
Strudwick ** 6 (1.31/60)
Staios ***** 8 (1.40/60)
---

One final point about Smid: there was a big discussion a while back about how his on-ice Sv% of .981 was unsustainable. Since then that number has actually risen to a presumably-even-more-unsustainable .987 (!), while his Sh% ON is also by far a team low at just 2.9%. He may be a low-event player, but surely he can't be THAT low-event. Only three goals scored by both teams in over seven periods of even strength time is the type of stat that cannot continue long term. That said, he's clearly far lower (negative) event than Strudwick, and MacT's seeming preference for the veteran is puzzling in the here and now as well as for the future.

2008-12-06

Pensky


Over at the always-interesting and usually-civil Game Day Thread at Lowetide, yours truly has been happily eating crow about Ales Hemsky. In my defence I pointed out he really did turn the corner in early November -- about ten seconds after I published some critical remarks about Hemsky's early-season play -- but Ales has been rolling for the most part the last five weeks. As we all hoped he would.

But while I'll take the hit for being “wrong” about Hemsky over there, I think I will claim being “right” about something else in the safety of my own blog. All year long I’ve been saying the best LW for the Horcoff-Hemsky duo is one Dustin Penner, who happened to first join the line on Nov. 1 in Carolina, just as Ales was getting it together. (Coincidence? Or not?) Hemsky played real well in Carolina before finally breaking the goose egg with two spectacular goals in Philly on the 2nd and then going on a bit of a run. His linemates have changed from time to time, with Penner finding time in the dog house in between, but for the most part the 27-10-83 have played the lion's share of time as a unit.

As we first saw last Dec.-Jan., “Horpensky” have been a very effective combination, compiling some eye-popping shots data. Assuming (dangerously) that I have entered the Timeonice.com code correctly and understand the results, this tells a tale:

27-83 together:
+9/-3 = +6 goals
+72/-41 = +31 shots
+139/-79 = +60 Corsi

27 apart:
+7/-4 = +3 goals
+71/-86 = -15 shots
+152/-157 = -5 Corsi

83 apart:
+7/-10 = -3 goals
+111/-125 = -14 shots
+206/-212 = -6 Corsi

Then there's this from Hockeyanalysis.com (all numbers are GF/GA per 20):

27/83 together
+1.500/-0.643 = +0.857

27 apart
+0.817/-0.350 = +0.467

83 apart
+0.594/-0.934 = -0.340


... which is just a bit of an eye opener, isn't it?

It's important to realize that Hockeyanalysis uses strictly GF/GA, which by definition is a small sample size this early in the season. Penner has achieved better results on the scoreboard, both for and against, than either of his highly-rated linemates, but it's early. Using the larger data sets of shots and Corsi available courtesy Timeonice, both players had virtually identical numbers when apart, and both are hugely improved since they are together.

Indeed, the Horpensky unit has been dominant in recent games. Here are shots and Corsi data as well as traditional +/- for forwards over the last five games:

Player ** = Shots / Corsi / Goals
-------------------------------
Penner ****** = +16 / +41 / +2
Horcoff ***** = +14 / +30 / +3
Hemsky ****** = +11 / +35 / +3
Gagner ****** = +4 / +7 / EV
Schremp = *** = +3 / -1 / +2
Nilsson ***** = +2 / +5 / EV
Cogliano **** = +1 / +3 / +1
Pouliot ***** = 0 / -8 / EV
Brodziak **** = -1 / -4 / EV
Cole ******** = -2 / -1 / EV
Stortini **** = -4 / -11 / -1
Moreau ****** = -5 / -7 / EV
Reddox ****** = -9 / -17 / -2

Note this five-game stretch began after the series against Corsi kings Detroit. It’ll be interesting to see how we stack up against the powerhouse Sharks tonight.

Speaking of which, it’s game on. Goilers!

2008-12-03

Stars at Oilers backstory


There's good news and there's good news, I'll let you decide which is which. The one is that I'm back from a rather more productive road trip than the Oilers had, and the other is that there are now officially rocks in my head.

Better still, the hockey gods have finally answered my regular entreaties and delivered me up a pair of tickets for tonight's Dallas at Edmonton game. So this pregame blurb will be rather short, but I'll have a game report in the comments or separate post much later on.

All this should have me in a good mood, and it does. Except for these odd nagging doubts. First and foremost among them is what has happened to our third defence pairing. Guys like Steve Staios and Jason Strudwick (pictured, with puck entering wrong net) are supposed to shore up the back end and give the team steady, solid service. But there is just no way of getting past numbers like these over the past 6 games:

Date - OPP: 24 / 43
-------------------
11/17 @DET: -1 / -1
11-18 @CBJ: -1 / -1
11-20 vDET: EV / -1
11-26 vLAK: -1 / -1
11-29 @STL: -1 / -1
11-30 @DAL: -1 / -1


Simply put, these guys are getting Owned, every game. Even before this: between them, they've had 15 minus games in the last 9 Oilers games.

Veteran defencemen like Staios and Strudwick aren't necessarily supposed to win you games, but they're not supposed to lose them either. Oilers have lost three of the last four by one goal, all in regulation. Those -1s look like lost standings points to me ... in fact, the difference between a regulation tie and a 1-goal loss is actually more like 1.5 points, assuming an equal distribution of Bettman points.

It's not just on the scoreboard. Over the season, at even strength the Oilers have been outshot 158-78 with Strudwick on the ice, a staggering 2:1 ratio. If you prefer the per/60 metric, make it 38-19 in shots on goal with Strudwick on the ice. Is it any surprise they've been outscored 10-5?

In the past 6 games it has only gotten much, much worse. Oil have been outscored 6-0 with Strudwick on the ice, and outshot 48-15. I haven't done the micromath but at his season's average of 12:37 ES TOI/GP that would be in about 75 minutes of action. Egads.

But wait a minute, you say, these guys kill penalties. True enough: over the last four games, Strudwick was twice on the ice for 2 PP GA, the one-goal losses against Detroit and Dallas. Over those four games, Strudwick has amassed 9:02 SH TOI during which time the opposition has scored those four goals. Again, for those who prefer per 60 metric, that's a cool -26.6 per hour over that short period of time.

Staios is barely better. he's been outshot 176-107 on the season and 43-19 over those 6 games. He's been on for 3 PPGA in 10:40 the last four games, including the ghastly game winner by Modano late in regulation in which Steady Steve seemed to be completely unaware of the concept of passing lanes and was frozen in the ice like a big ol' meteorite.

On the PP, and on offence generally, these two guys are a complete nonentity. When they're out there, the game gets played, badly, in their zone. The team shots differential on the season is -58. Staios is -69 and Strudwick -80; with these guys on the bench, the team is positive. That's insane.

But what's really insane is this. Ladislav Smid continues to rot in the press box with occasional opportunities to ferment up on the wing. Smid has been on the ice for exactly 1 ES GA all season. Yet MacT continues to show faith in his veterans (even though technically Smid is more of a MacT vet than the Oiler newcomer Strudwick is) who are routinely on the ice for an ESGA every game.

The last log on this particular fire is the fact Strudwick was advertised as a swing man, a guy who could move up and play wing when the situation required. If one of these guys needs to play up front for 4 or 5 minutes once in a while, I sure in heck would rather it was Strudwick. Better yet, I'd rather he was shipped direct to the press box for awhile. He has not been helping the hockey club for some weeks now.

Oh well, tonight I get the four-dimensional, live view. Hopefully that view will include a #5 and not a #43, but whoever, it's GOILERS!

Enjoy the game, everybody!

2008-11-26

Defence at the quarter pole


Facts, stats, and observations about the Oilers defence corps 20 games in.

Scoring **** GP, G-A-P PPP P/GP
-------------------------------

Souray ***** 19, 7-8-15(7) 0.79

Visnovsky ** 20, 4-8-12(7) 0.60
Gilbert **** 20, 2-9-11(5) 0.55
Grebeshkov * 17, 1-7-8 (3) 0.47
---
Strudwick ** 17, 0-3-3 (0) 0.18
Staios ***** 18, 1-1-2 (0) 0.11
Smid ******** 9, 0-2-2 (0) 0.22

The Oilers rely more heavily on scoring from the back end than almost any other NHL squad. Oilers currently (thru Monday's games) feature 3 of the top 25 defence scorers in the NHL (Souray 9th, Visnovsky 19th, Gilbert 25th). All 3 rank among Oilers' top 5 scorers; only Nashville and San Jose even have 2 D in their top 5, all other teams 1 or 0. Similarly, Oilers are the only team with 4 defencemen in their top 8.

Sheldon Souray leads the Oilers in goals with 7, while no forward has managed more than 5. The other 29 NHL teams have a forward as their leading goal scorer, although in Nashville there is a tie between a D (Shea Weber) and a F (Jason Arnott).

Tom Gilbert's splits:
as of Nov 1: 10 GP, 0-1-1, -6
since Nov 1: 10 GP, 2-8-10, +3


Dennis Grebeshkov's splits:
Oct 12-Oct 18: 4 GP, 0-4-4, +3
Oct 22-Nov 9: 7 GP, 1-0-1, -8
Nov 10-Nov 20: 6 GP, 0-3-3, +3

Time on ice:
Visnovsky is leaned on heavily at evens, 18:35 per game. The rest of the big four all come in right around 16 minutes, Staios 14, Strudwick and Smid 12. Visnovsky also leads the PP at a shade under 5 minutes a game, but ranks a distant 6th among penalty killers at under 1:00 per. Souray makes huge contributions to both special teams (4:45 and 3:55) and thus joins Visnovsky with 24+ minutes of total ice time. The PP has been divided 70/30 between Visnovsky/Souray and Gilbert/Grebeshkov, which is tough to argue with given both of the big money guys have earned a good reputation as a power player. It'll be interesting to see how this morphs as MacT tinkers with the pairings. It's also tough to argue with no other defenceman on the team averaging more than 0:10 PP TOI/G. Meanwhile, Staios and Souray anchor the PK, with Strudwick, Gilbert and to a lesser extent Grebs contributing appreciable time (if not results).

Special teams: On the PP so far,
Souray has been The Man. He has been on the ice for 12 of the 15 5v4 goals, with an impressive +8.21/60. Visnovsky, Grebs, and Gilbert are all between 5 and 5.5. The PP is only +2.94 when Souray is OFF the ice, whereas the other guys all see the PP improve from the low +5s to +7 or 8 when they leave the ice. On the PK, Strudwick impressed until the most recent game, and still leads the way with a modest -3.03/60. Gilbert and Souray are semi-respectable around -7, but the other guys are in minus double digits per 60 which is flat out terrible. Visnovsky trails at worse than -14 ... egads.

Corsi numbers of Oilers D (even strength):
Visnovsky +21, Souray +16, Grebeshkov +10, Gilbert -6, Smid -6, Staios -67, Strudwick -82.

ZoneShift of Oilers D (even strength):
Grebeshkov +16, Souray +12, Visnovsky +10, Gilbert +1, Smid -6, Strudwick -22, Staios -28.

From these last sets of numbers it is clear that our third pairing is getting killed out there at evens. Despite the fact Strudwick has started exactly the same number plays in the offensive and defensive zones (52 each), Oilers have been outshot a staggering 134-69 with him on the ice. Staios actually has started more shifts in the offensive zone (73-64), yet the shots against are nearly as bad at 150-93. This has begun to show up on the scoreboard in recent games.

Steve Staios' splits:
First 9 games: +5
Next 9 games: -4

Jason Strudwick's splits:
First 10 games +3:
Last 7 games: -4


On the other hand, there’s this from the same source (timeonice.com):

Sv% ON: Smid .983 (in limited minutes), Strudwick .948, Staios .947, Visnovsky .941, Souray .932, Gilbert .906, Grebeshkov .904

... which suggests that perhaps the two veterans are limiting the quality of the shots they allow even as they are getting clobbered in the territorial play. The next two on the list are also veterans who have the decided advantage of creating stuff in the other end. Meanwhile Gilbert and especially Grebeshkov have been doing well in driving the play judging from the above Corsi and ZoneShift numbers, yet both are minus players because … their goalies stink? they’ve been giving up ten bell chances? The Dice Are Rattling? Yet more grist for the Corsi/shots/shot quality debate that has been a recurring – and fascinating – theme of the Oilogosphere since I’ve been around and before. At this point I have concluded nothing more than the answer lies somewhere in the middle between quantity and quality, and neither can be trusted on their own to tell the whole story.

The Oilers' current group makes an interesting case study towards this discussion which I will continue to follow with interest.

Kings @ Oilers backstory


Objects in the mirror are much closer than they appear, with the Kings just 1 point behind the Oilers after 20 GP. L.A. has a slightly superior goal differential (-5 to -9) rooted in better special teams play: both teams have scored 17 powerplay goals, but the Kings have allowed just 15 PPG, the Oilers a whopping 24.

Interesting to look beyond goals to shots differential. The Kings have outshot their opponents in 15 of 20 games, the Oilers in just 5 of 20. The Kings are averaging 27.8 shots per game, the Oil 27.6, but in the defensive zone the difference is stark: 24.8 shots allowed by the Kings, a spectacular number; and 33.2 against the Oil, a spectacularly bad number. Oilers rank 28th in the league in shots allowed, ahead of just Florida and Tampa Bay. The Kings, meanwhile, ranked 28th last year; this year they rank an astonishing first overall in the National Hockey League, 0.9 shots per game better than San Jose and 2.2 shots clear of the rest of the league. (I had to check that on two different sites before I believed it!)

All of this must be put in the context that the Oilers have played the fewest home games in the NHL and the Kings the fewest road games. So they've had friendlier crowds, friendlier match-ups, and very possibly friendlier shot counters on their side. Nonetheless, it's a promising start for the young Kings and their new-but-old coach, Terry Murray.

Kings' problem seems to be at the back end of the roster: Matt Moulson -4, Peter Harrold -4, Brian Boyle -7, Tom Preissing -7, Raitis Ivanans -8, Derek Armstrong -8, Denis Gauthier -8.

Up front: Kings have 3 forwards (Dustin Brown, Alex Frolov, Jarret Stoll) with 6 or more goals, which is 3 more than the Oilers have. Anze Kopitar, Patrick O'Sullivan, Michal Handzus and 19-year-old Oscar Moller bring an attack that is fairly balanced across three lines.

On the blue: L.A.'s top 4 defenders in TOI are all plus players: Doughty 23:18, +5; Quincey 22:02, +3; O'Donnell 21:22, +2; Greene 18:59, +1. All four are playing 16-17 minutes ES TOI per game; the other guys are 12 minutes or less but are getting lit up.

Between the pipes: For all the LaBarbera Love in the 'sphere, the emerging goalie in LaLaLand appears to be Erik Ersberg, who for the second straight year has significantly superior percentages to LaBarbera in Pts%, GAA, and Sv%:

2007-08: GP, Pts%, GAA , Sv%
-----------------------------
Ersberg: 14, .545, 2.48, .927
LaBar'a: 45, .429, 3.00, .910

2008-09: GP, Pts%, GAA, Sv%
-----------------------------
Ersberg: 12, .545, 2.32, .898
LaBar'a: 11, .389, 3.06, .884

Interesting to see how their Sv% plummet as the team reduces shots allowed. But that's a discussion for another day.

Ex-Oiler watch: Jarret (Minus Touch) Stoll has been on the ice for 9 ES GF, just 3 GA: on a per/60 basis that translates to +2.49/-0.83. Is this the same player that posted +1.51/-3.09 with the Oil last year? On the PK unit he hasn't been on the ice for a single goal against in close to 40 minutes TOI. Surprisingly his least contribution is on the PP where he is clearly second unit.

Matt Greene (pictured) just seems to be tooling along, his "offensive" totals a pretty typical 20 GP, 0-3-3, but so far he's keeping his head above water with +2.32/-2.13. Last night in the Kings 6-2 loss in Calgary, Greene posted an assist, +1, with 3 blocks, 2 hits, 1 shot, and 0 penalties in 19:58 TOI. I watched a chunk of that game and Matt was one of the few Kings who played well. Oiler fans will salivate at the memory of Greene's flaws, but I suspect we'll notice a different aspect of his game when he's dressed in opposition silks, namely that the big lug just gets in the way an awful lot.

Keys: Playing with five days' rust it is essential that the Oilers are up to the early tempo against an opponent on the back end of back-to-backs. Oilers should have the energy advantage at the back end of the game.

2008-11-24

An interesting comp








If there are two things I have learned on the Oilogosphere, they are that 1) Kevin Lowe screwed up by trading Chris Pronger for magic beans, and 2) Kevin Lowe screwed up by signing Sheldon Souray as an unrestricted free agent a year later.

After a little more horse-trading the magic beans roughly translate into Ladi Smid, Riley Nash, and Jordan Eberle with a dash of Erik Cole. Meanwhile the cost of obtaining Souray was zero assets, just a contract. A hefty one, but we got to keep our beans.

But let’s forget those peripheral advantages of the deals -- not to mention the fact that Sheldon Souray wants to play in Edmonton and Chris Pronger doesn't -- and simply focus on the two principals. Oilers signed Pronger to a 5-year, $31 MM contract extension in 2005, and Souray to a 5-year, $27 MM UFA deal in 2007. Both were entering their 31-year-old season. Market forces aside, that’s similar enough money that shouldn’t it be reasonable to expect similar performance? But, but, but, the experts scoffed, Sheldon Souray isn’t half the player Chris Pronger is.

After an injury plagued 2007-08 that did nothing to quiet the critics, Souray has jumped out of the gate in ’08-09 with a solid stretch of hockey. Pronger, meanwhile, has rebounded somewhat from a subpar and suspension-spoiled season with what seems to be typically solid play. So for the first time since the deals, we can actually make an on-ice comparison. At the quarter-pole it’s an exceedingly interesting one:


CFP **** Vitals ***** SS
------------------------
34 ****** Age ******* 32
6’6 **** Height **** 6’4
213 **** Weight **** 233

Souray is two years younger, but with a more extensive injury history. Both are large men.

CFP * Boxcar stats ** SS
------------------------
22 ******* GP ******* 19
4 ******** G ********* 7
10 ******* A ********* 8
14 ******* P ******** 15
+2 ****** +/- ******* +2
32 ****** PiM ******* 30

Pronger has played all 22 Ducks games, Souray 18.5 of the Oilers 20, but their boxcar numbers are very similar. Pronger is more of a playmaker, Souray a finisher, both as advertised.

CFP * Scoring splits* SS
------------------------
3-3-6 **** ESP *** 2-5-7
1-6-7 **** PPP *** 4-3-7
0-1-1 **** SHP *** 1-0-1

Virtually identical production in all three situations. Souray’s threat as a goal scorer on the PP is borne out here.

CFP **** Icetime **** SS
------------------------
25:58 ** TOI/G *** 24:54
17:17 * ES TOI/G * 16:13
4:01 ** SH TOI/G ** 3:55
4:40 ** PP TOI/G ** 4:45


Virtually identical on both special teams. Pronger plays 1 minute a game more at evens. Historically Pronger has played much more than Souray, but after peaking at 30:14 a game in 1999-2000 he has gradually scaled back to 26:00 in 2007-08. Souray meanwhile has seen his ice time gradually rise from ~20:00 when he first came to Montreal to 23:11 his last year there and 24:21 his abbreviated first year here. The gap continues to narrow this early season.

CFP ***** RTSS ****** SS
------------------------
61 ***** Shots ****** 63
6.6% **** Sh% **** 11.1%
31 ****** MsS ******* 31
25 ****** Hits ****** 17
33 ****** BkS ******* 14
10 ****** GvA ******** 9
14 ****** TkA ******* 11


Shots and missed shots a dead heat. Souray with the higher Sh%, of course. Pronger leads in “defensive points” (hits + shot blocks), but has played 13 home games to Souray’s 5 in front of a friendly local counter; still, the edge has to go to Pronger in measurable defensive contribution. Both have very similar GvA/TkA stats.

CFP *BehindtheNet.ca* SS
------------------------
-0.03 * QualComp * -0.01
-0.03 * QualTeam * +0.32
+2.18 * GF ON/60 * +2.33
-1.84 * GA ON/60 * -2.12
+9.90 * PP +-/60 * +8.95
-8.73 * PK +-/60 * -8.13


Again, very little to choose here with the obvious exception of QualTeam. I have to say of all the New Statistics that is the one that is giving me the most trouble this early season with its rapid fluctuations. So much so that I queried Gabe Desjardins a while back; he responded: “qualcomp is a lot bigger at the beginning of the year due to huge variations in performance that narrow quite quickly as the year goes on”. However, it must be pointed out that Souray has played most of the season with Lubo Visnovsky, while according to BtN, Pronger played the first month with the likes of Nathan McIver and Bret Hedican. I haven't been following the Ducks, but Carlyle's tendencies have been to run Pronger and Niedermayer both at right defence at evens so that at a given time one of them is likely on the ice. MacT runs his bench differently, but has switched up pairings in the last week or so.

Both players have excellent results on the PP, not so great on the PK, but the difference between the two is positive in both cases; their combined effect on special teams is roughly +1/60.

CFP * Timeonice.com * SS
------------------------
+8 **** Shots +- **** -8
+2 *** Fenwick +- *** +2
+15 *** Corsi +- *** +16
6.7% *** Sh% ON *** 7.8%
.929 *** Sv% ON *** .932
-25 *** ZoneShift ** +12

These are all team results with that player on the ice. There’s damn little to choose, Oilers have a better Sh% with Souray on the ice, but Souray seems to be a better shooter than Pronger, so maybe that is to be expected. The ZoneShift is a term
recently coined by Vic Ferrari, and refers to the location of faceoffs starting and during a players’ shift vs. those at the end of the shift. In Souray’s case he starts slightly more plays in his own zone and ends slightly more in the offensive zone, a pretty good indicator that play is flowing at least somewhat in Oilers’ favour when he is out there. Pronger starts way more often in the offensive zone for some reason, and ends his shift there considerably less often, suggesting a flow of play against the Ducks.

CFP *Contract status* SS
------------------------
$6.25 MM Cap Hit $5.4 MM
1.75 Seasons to run 3.75


Oh yeah, the bottom line: Souray has a somewhat lower cap hit, and is locked up for two years longer than Pronger, which is either good or bad depending on your opinion of Souray. My own opinion is that Pronger is the better player, but parsing all the above, statistically there’s been precious little to choose between the two in the first quarter.

I will follow this comp with some interest as the season proceeds. It’s early days for many of these types of stats, but so far it’s tough to argue there’s much to choose between the old 44 and the new one. If Visnovsky is out a while that could change things, although Souray has been playing with Gilbert of late anyway, with no apparent drop-off in his effectiveness.

While I had higher expectations of Sheldon than many, I am still pleasantly surprised by how solidly he has contributed to this point. This favourable comparison to one of the elite defenders in the game only reinforces that.

2008-11-22

Anniversaries VII: Heritage Classic -- Saturday



Five years ago this weekend Edmonton hosted the NHL’s first outdoor game. This lifelong fan was one of 57,167 people in attendance that day, but my experiences over thathockey weekend were in some ways entirely unique. I think it’s a story worth (re)telling. Part 2 of 2 follows.


Saturday, November 22, 2003. I had really wanted to go to the Heritage Classic from the day it was announced. An historic occasion for a self-styled hockey historian who has already experienced first-hand more than his share. Yet all fall I had done nothing about it, not even entering the lottery as the ticket requests piled into the Oilers' office by the hundreds of thousands. I can't really afford it, I rationalized, but maybe something will just fall into my lap. Somehow I remained sanguine, strangely confident that somehow it would work out. When Val told me about the CBC contest, I just knew I would win -- and typically I'm a "glass-half-empty" type when it comes to foretelling the future. Even when I was down to the equivalent of pulling my goalie in the trivia game, I maintained my composure. I felt that the contest was for people just like me: the hockey-is-in-my-blood fans who could say "Thanks for the memories" and actually remember. So I felt I deserved to win those tickets and somehow justice would prevail. Of course, my end of the bargain would be to share my experience with those who might share my passion if not my luck on this occasion.

Came the day, and I awoke with said tickets having miraculously materialized only hours earlier. Game day temperature hovered between -16 and -20° C., with a "freshening" breeze from the SE. The promise of a warm-and-fuzzy experience was sure to be challenged on at least one front. Specifically, a cold front. But in a way I welcomed the cold as a factor which would make the occasion more memorable, an Outdoors-in-Canadian-Winter experience.

While the Oilers first NHL game -- whose ticket stub paved the way to this one -- was held on my birthday, the Heritage Classic itself was held on my wife's. (Some would call this a sign.) Unselfish person and loving mother that she is -- not to mention practical about the Great Outdoors in Friggin' November -- she graciously passed on her opportunity so that our son could attend, and spent "her" day mostly alone. She had seen hundreds of games with me in the glory years, and was happy to remember "the boys" as they were. Kevin, meanwhile, had heard the stories (more than once, in some cases) but never saw the team with his own eyes, the Gretzky sale having been completed in his first year.

Kevin and I prepared like tens of thousands of others for an extended outdoor stint. With my cold-weather night-time observing experience and collected layers of clothing, perhaps I was better prepared than many: briefs, thermal socks, two pairs wool socks, two full pairs of longjohns, outer pants, turtleneck, two hoodies, snowmobile suit, Oiler sweater, parka, Sorel boots, wool gloves covered by heavy wool gunner mitts, neck warmer, thick black cloth baseball hat, four hoods, sleeping bag. A thermos of hot coffee for me and of cider for Kevin, and off we trundled like a pair of Michelin Men to the Park'N'Ride. After a few nervous moments outside the stadium seeing a huge line-up awaiting security, I found that they were passing people through very efficiently indeed, and we were able to find out seats just as they began to introduce the so-called megastars. Perfect timing.

Commonwealth Stadium was the place to be that cold November Saturday, providing an interesting perspective on a few things. Seen at a greater distance than I'm used to -- and make no mistake, these were relatively excellent seats on Row 44, just below the underhang -- the games had a surreal element. I saw it as an event, whereas usually my attention is entirely focussed on the action between the boards.

What an event it was! It had a very Winter Carnival-type feel. I have been to many dozens of games in Commonwealth Stadium, starting with the Games themselves, but I have never, ever been there in the winter. Do we really just leave it sit there unused for half the year?

The experience of watching the timeworn rituals of hockey in the familiar-yet-strange setting of Commonwealth Stadium was like a dream, where context twisted into bizarre visions of unreality. The usual green floor of Commonwealth was replaced by a broad valley of brilliantly-lit white; an island ice rink surrounded by a lake of snow. While utterly appropriate to the occasion of the first outdoor game, the "lake" seemed to act as a buffer between the fans and the participants; seen at an odd, flattish angle the ice surface was seemingly suspended in space, the standard setting of spectators in surround-sound seats strangely sequestered. And my normally sharp sense of time was skewed in mysterious ways, as the utterly modern merged with the ageless.

The challenges of playing outdoors were as old as the game itself, yet utterly new to most of the participants. While a record audience of nearly 3 million viewers watched innovative camera angles on Hockey Night in Canada's first high-definition TV broadcast, to us in the distant stands the action was difficult to follow, the puck the size of a pixel when it was visible at all. One learned to follow it by the context of the play and the players; if, for example, Eric Brewer was skating in a certain direction, one could be sure the puck was going in another.

But all that said, the stands were the place to be, where one could observe the action unfolding live in something close to four dimensions, no matter how strangely warped. From that perspective one could focus less on the hockey game and reflect on Hockey, the Game. Or as Peter Gzowski put it, the Game of Our Lives. The patterns, the passing, the pounding, the poise-under-pressure, the performance art, the passion play.

In many ways the fans were the big story. Layered up as we were, we wedged ourselves together like rowsful of Dave Hunters. Not everybody stuck it out for the whole six hours, but a significant majority did. It was a wonderful celebration of the game of hockey, and simply of being Canadian. One just had to listen to the 57,000-voice Commonwealth Stadium Choir's heartfelt rendition of "O Canada" to recognize that. Normally a reluctant participant in flag-waving and territory-marking, I was surprised to hear my own voice rising to join the throng.

Back to the surreal: the legends game in particular had a dream-like quality, with the perception of both time and space seemingly distorted. For one thing it was a low-scoring game, hardly an Oiler trademark. For all that I had seen the core of the 80s Oilers play some 500 live games, they appeared for this one in their unfamiliar road blues. The Canadiens were wearing a weird sort of photonegative of the famed bleu, blanc, et rouge which made number identification almost impossible. I could see on the big screen suspended on a giant crane at the south end, that the sweaters sported the familiar "CH" (for "Classique Heritage"?).

But with due respect to the greatest franchise in the NHL's long history, it was not the Habs most of us had gone to see. Too many of les anciens glorieux are unfortunately a little more anciens than glorieux. They dominated the league for decades by passing the torch from one generation to the next. Many of the greats have long since died, some famously during their playing days (Georges Vézina, Howie Morenz), some famously in retirement (Rocket Richard), others in obscurity (Doug Harvey, Toe Blake). The majority of living greats are simply too old to participate in an event like this. Their last great team was a quarter century ago, a fully mature group of stars mostly in their 30s at a time that Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier were hitting the pro ranks in the World Hockey Association at the tender age of 17. Unlike the Habs, the Oilers developed all of their great players almost simultaneously, with the entire core of stars being within a couple of years in age. Today, this meant in their young 40s, far younger than almost all of Montreal's legends.

The view of my old favourites was refracted by the prism of time which had eroded their skills today, but which shone in my mind like yesterday. I couldn't read their numbers easily either, but had no trouble identifying any of them through posture, skating stride, mannerisms. I'm sure I could identify Lee Fogolin coming off the bench during a stoppage at 1000 yards: the stooped shoulders and laboured but purposeful stride are still unmistakable.

Familiar plays and patterns occasionally emerged, albeit in slow motion as hard-won muscle memory fought aging legs and a puck in serious need of retraining. For every change on the fly, there was the new Oilers' right defenceman trying to hustle across to his side of the ice to defend against yet another odd-man rush; and boy, do I remember nights like that. No mistaking Paul Coffey making the big turn at his own blueline, his powerful cross-over strides morphing from backwards to lateral to full-steam-ahead, taking a pass in full stride, blasting though the neutral zone and wide on the overmatched defenceman before making a backhand centring pass which barely failed; the puck turned over but Coffey had already used his considerable momentum to round the net and glide effortlessly back into defensive position. Obviously that was Wayne Gretzky hunching over the puck for the exactly correct number of milliseconds before (trying to) unselfishly dishing it off to the man in the best position. Only Glenn Anderson could lean at that impossible angle, defying the laws of gravity while taking the puck on the shortest path to the goalmouth. That had to be Charlie Huddy making a shrewd neutral zone pinch, causing a turnover and taking advantage of his position and momentum to lumber along the right boards as the fourth man on the rush, take another pass, dish it off, duck back to the point. There was Randy Gregg, tall and poised, making a crisp breakout pass; and there was Kevin Lowe, tall and poised, making another. To some they may have looked as similar as two tall pine trees, but to me who has seen each of them make the same play literally thousands of times, they were as unique as my own brothers.

While many "experts" in the (eastern) media viewed Mark Messier's participation as frivolous or worse, fact is Oilers would have been incomplete without the presence of perhaps their most dominant personality. So what if he was still an active player? To me it was the night-in night-out grind with the Rangers at the age of 42 that's the anomaly, not playing with his old buddies who have played out the string in a more conventional time frame. And for an original WHA fan like myself, in Oiler silks Messier embodied the only surviving remnants of the old league; by 2003 the Edmonton native was the only active NHL player who played in the WHA, and the Oilers its only remaining team.

There were of course, several retirees in the game who played in the WHA: Gretzky, Semenko, Chipperfield, Hunter, Linseman, Gingras, Napier, to name a few. But as usual, the Oilers chose to bury that part of their history without a trace. I don't understand it.

As for the Habs, they played hard, and they played well. But beyond Lafleur, Robinson, Lapointe, and Shutt, many of the big names were missing: no Gainey, no Cournoyer, no Savard, no Dryden, to name a few stalwarts of the last great Habs team of the late 1970s. The roster was sprinkled with Stanley Cup champions from the "fluke" Cups of 1986 and '93, good teams with great goaltending. The masked face of that team, Patrick Roy, was nowhere to be seen, but there was no shortage of solid but uncompelling skaters like Carbonneau, Muller, Ludwig, Pepé Lemieux. The Habs did what those Habs always did, play positional hockey to close down space and time on the puck carrier. Not exactly the "firewagon hockey" for which the Habs once were revered, more like the "starve the fire before it catches hockey" of the modern NHL. So in a way they were the exact wrong opponent to let the Oilers put on a show. Time after time a still-imaginative Oiler passing play would die just before the finishing shot.

The view of the ice was further distorted by shimmering haloes of exhaled air around the players' heads, nature's elements in an unnaturally natural setting. Occasionally the puck would crack against the boards in a distinctly outdoors sort of way, and one had to remind oneself that these were some of the greatest athletes this city, this country, this game has ever seen, playing shinny on a cold Saturday afternoon in November. They were having a ball, and so were we in the stands. To see them pick up the ice scrapers between periods teleported me to the neighbourhood rink with my seven-year-old son, or as a seven-year-old myself, holding the handle of the shovel under my chin, trying to keep up with my brothers in the crisp air of Tipton Park. No doubt other minds wandered to more distant eras and lakes and rivers of a truly timeless, Canadian pastime.

A personal highlight was attending with my son. Kevin loved to play the game but is ambivalent about watching it. It might be the fastest team sport in the world, but it's positively glacial compared to video games. And my teenager's usual response rate is about one grunt per four questions asked. But midway through the megastars game, right out of the clear cold blue, Kevin volunteered "This is just great!" And beamed as only he can, right through the neck warmer.

A few other snapshots from the day's activities will stand the test of time. As an erstwhile goalie, I will cherish a couple provided by the custodians of the cord cottage. One was a remarkable period of shutout hockey provided by the recent Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Grant Fuhr, capped by a lightning quick glove grab of a rocket off the still-formidable stick of Stephane Richer. The replay on the big screen was perhaps the day's defining moment for TV viewers: the modern net cam view of Fuhr in classic hockey card pose, silhouetted against a crisp blue sky. The other was Jose Théodore's toque, a practical fashion statement which for this hockey fan made yet another link across time. In 2002 Théodore became the second Habs' goalie to win the Hart Trophy. The first, 40 years earlier in the season before I started to watch hockey, was noted worrywart Jacques Plante, who famously used to knit toques as a stress reliever. Legend does not relate whether he actually wore one in an NHL game, but on this special day his spirit lived on.

The regular "league game" was something of an anti-climax to the megastars, because in many respects it was just another game. Historic, to be sure, and interesting to watch the players deal with the challenges, but I found I had to work rather harder than usual to follow the game at the intellectual level. Two points were on the line, but who won or lost was ultimately unimportant. A lesson which I am still learning at this advanced stage of my life.

Was it perfect? Certainly not. The utter lack of crowd control made the concourse a seething (in more ways than one) mass of humanity, where the destination eventually became a not-so-simple return to one's seat, leaving one to contemplate alternative uses of an empty thermos. The main game could have been better, and had a happier outcome for the frozen faithful. The Oilers megastars could have won 7-5, not 2-0. Jaroslav Pouzar could have been there. Don Cherry could have been booed off the field, or at least greeted with stony silence. (Some dreams remain forever beyond reach.)

And there were omissions. If they'd put me in charge, I would have added a final touch: to announce the home town in the introduction of every player and in both games, from Edmonton to Espoo, St. John's to St. Petersburg. This would have served as eloquent testimony that the Game of Our Lives is proudly Canadian in origin but now stretches 'round the globe at those latitudes where ice forms naturally.

The dreamlike state in which I experienced this event was entirely appropriate. In earlier, happier days, it had been the dream of a lifetime for a die-hard hockey fan to witness first-hand such a team as the 1980s Edmonton Oilers, without doubt the most exciting team in NHL history, featuring the greatest genius to ever play the game. To have this one last chance to see them make history yet again was for me, what the chance to play together may have been for them.

2008-11-21

Anniversaries VI: Heritage Classic -- Friday


Five years ago this weekend Edmonton hosted the NHL’s first outdoor game. This lifelong fan was one of 57,167 people in attendance that day, but my experiences over that hockey weekend were in some ways entirely unique. I think it’s a story worth (re)telling. Part 1 of 2 follows.
*****

Friday, November 21, 2003. Earlier in the week, a close friend had given me the heads-up to the Heritage Classic contest on CBC Radio One's Radioactive show. They had a pair of tickets for the person who could produce the earliest ticket from an Oilers’ NHL game. Val thought of me immediately and knowing that I’m a CKUA guy, not to mention a hockey guy who didn't yet have tickets, took the trouble to call. So I trundled in to CBC's new downtown studios with my entire 47-game set of ticket stubs from Season One. (Five exhibition games, 40 regular season games, one international with Moscow Dynamo, and one playoff game; I went to them all.) They were only particularly interested in Game One, October 13, 1979, which of course was included. As luck had it, within a minute of my arrival an elderly lady came in also with a ticket from that game, and they said we were the first two. So they interviewed both of us on-air and decided that as a tie-breaker there will be a live-on-air Oilers' trivia contest on Friday afternoon. I was to face off against the lady's son -- likely to be about my age -- and possibly others who brought their stubs before the deadline, with the winner to receive a brace of tickets to the game.

Friday was an interesting day to say the least. First I took in the morning skate, thanks to an old friend who had received a four pack acknowledging his 25(+) years as an Oiler season ticket holder. They seemed to have been quite stingy doling out tix; there were maybe 5, or 6,000 people there. Room for ten times that many. Although I noticed there were lots of school groups, hockey teams and the like.

It was numbingly cold. I had inadequate gloves, and when I took my hands out to get out my camera or binoculars, well, I just couldn't get them warm again (outside of drastic action which I was unprepared to take). It was fun to see Lafleur and Shutt bearing down on Robinson in a 2-on-1 drill, although the passes were rarely on the mark it seemed. There were a fair number of Habs sweaters and toques in the stands, some people wearing the logo of both teams. A particularly fitting touch was supplied by one wag who posted the score of Guests 6, Home 15 on the temporary scoreboard. I instantly recognized it as the aggregate score of the Little Big Horn Series of 1981. Oilers over Habs 6-3, 3-1, 6-2. Ouch.

For some unexplained, inexplicable reason, there was an interminable 80-minute "intermission" between the two teams' skates. What the hell could they possibly have been doing? Dunno, nobody bothered to turn on the PA. Had a whole bunch of the Oilers' best customers a little nonplussed, to say the least.

But it was for the Oilers that most people came -- and waited, and waited -- and were rewarded by the following starting line-ups for the scrimmage (colours were blue for defence, white for forward, so I had to choose names for the teams):

First All-Star Team - Second All-Star Team
------------------------------------------
Grant Fuhr -------- G ------- Bill Ranford
Paul Coffey ------- D --------- Kevin Lowe
Charlie Huddy ----- D -------- Lee Fogolin
Esa Tikkanen ------ LW ----- Craig Simpson
Wayne Gretzky ----- C ------- Mark Messier
Jari Kurri -------- RW ---- Glenn Anderson

Obviously, the "action" couldn't possibly live up to those great names, but to think the Oilers have such a proud legacy after only 25 years in the NHL was (almost) enough to warm the heartles of my... wait a minute.

Other trios included the Original NHL Oiler Line of Chipperfield with Hunter and Lumley, and the Rat's Paradise Line of Linseman, Semenko, and McSorley. Other blueliners included Gregg, Muni, and Beukeboom and some guy O'Flynn, # 03. Maybe he won some contest or something, I dunno, but he allowed everybody to take a breather. Meanwhile, I had my own contest to think about. I still didn’t know if I’d be back to see these guys play one last game.

The CBC contest was exciting to say the least, starting with the adventure of trying to park downtown with all the metres off-line during rush hour. I was (as usual) pushing the envelope re: timeliness, and traffic had been terribly slow, so I sent my son in to the studio to tell them while I searched for a parking spot. I tried to rush into the library parkade but miscalculated by a block and went down the up ramp. The attendant came rushing out of the booth flailing his arms, giving me what-for and making me back all the way up the narrow ramp. I finally got parked and hustled off to the studio. By now my pulse rate was about 200 rpm, but I finally got into the studio with time to catch my breath; the other guy was late!

Turned out there were just the two of us, standing on the stage in front of a live, and large, studio audience. Live music (Captain Tractor), party atmosphere, no pressure. (Yeah, sur-re.) Upon introduction I did a pirouette showing the proud #99 on the back of my Oiler sweater, which may have won me a few fans.

The contest was three "periods" of two trivia questions each, six questions in all. I played it just like the Oilers, skating out to an excellent first period and taking a 2-1 lead thanks to my knowledge of Paul Coffey's records, before completely tanking the second to fall behind 3-2 and get myself seriously behind the eight-ball. I was stumped by consecutive questions: where was the 2000 NHL All-Star Game (the tenuous connection to Oilers being that was when the NHL officially retired Gretzky's number); I remembered Canada, I guessed Vancouver but given it was CBC I should have defaulted to the correct answer, Toronto. And where did Mike Comrie play college hockey? "Michigan..." I began, and the host started to congratulate me before I foolishly finished my guess “…State." Wrong: Comrie went to Michigan, his contemporary Shawn Horcoff to Michigan State. I lump the two together, I could have told them Horcoff beat Comrie for the 1999-2000 CCHA scoring title by one point, but I couldn't remember which guy went to which school.

As it turned out, I knew the answers to every last one of my opponent's questions, but not these two. So when he got set up like a sweet Gretzky feed to start the third period, how many goals did Gretzky get in his record year, it was 4-2 and I had no room to manoeuvre. I had to get my two questions right, then hope he missed, then win it in OT. True story: at this moment my mind flashed back to one of my favourite Oiler games of all time, Game 2 of the 1988 Blow Out the Flames series, when the Oilers themselves trailed by 4-2 only to pull off the comeback and complete it in overtime on a memorable goal by Wayne Gretzky. Oilers 5, Calgary 4.

Visualization works; that's pretty much how this one played out. I answered a couple of fairly tough ones: who played the most games in goal for Oilers (Bill Ranford, 449), and who had the first shutout for the Oilers. "Eddie Mio" I responded, biting my tongue on "3-0 over Hartford, December 9, 1979." At this point it didn't matter what I knew, there were no extra points for know-it-alls, and it was out of my hands. And here it came: "Who scored the Oilers' first hat trick... ("B.J. MacDonald" my mind screamed)... at home AND first hat trick on the road?" Egads, I'm thinking, TWO clues, I'm dead, and of all the guys to beat me, it's my old favourite B.J. But my opponent asked him to repeat the question and was clearly stumped. Finally... "Wayne Gretzky?" Good guess, but wrong, and off to OT we go. Once again I got first choice, and answered an easy one about who the Oilers first playoff series was against. (Philadelphia) My opponent was asked who led the Oilers in playoff scoring that spring of 2003, guessed Ryan Smyth instead of the afore-mentioned Shawn Horcoff, and I had won. 5-4, in overtime. Felt just as good as that shorthanded Gretzky slapper over Vernon’s shoulder.

There was quite a big cheer from the audience as I received a pair of the hottest tickets this town has seen in a long time and held them triumphantly aloft. I showed one to my son and said "for you!" My opponent got a nice bunch of prizes too, including the new Gretzky DVD, but I had what I wanted. A few complete strangers came up to shake my hand.

My son and I celebrated by heading to City Hall to see the great NHL exhibit there. 18 beautiful trophies in the silverware collection, including the spectacular new Rocket Richard Trophy which is another gorgeous work of art. I visited the Gretzky Wing of the Art Ross and Hart Trophies, and saw the inscriptions of Grant Fuhr on the Vezina, Mark Messier on the Smythe, Paul Coffey on the Norris, Jari Kurri on the Byng, Edmonton Oilers again and again on the Clarence Campbell Bowl and on the first two plates of the President's Trophy. It had been a pretty spectacular 25 years for NHL hockey here in Edmonton, especially the first dozen.

Stanley was there too, but roped off and almost impossible to read at a distance, although very easy to admire. They also had some real nifty Hockey Hall of Fame displays: Frank Mahovlich's rookie sweater, the (unridged) puck with which Nels (Old Poison) Stewart scored his 200th goal, and most interestingly to me, Bill Durnan's old goal gloves. Another in the long line of great Montreal netminders, Durnan was the only ambidextrous goalie in NHL history. When he had time to prepare for an angled attack he switched his stick to the short side post, so both gloves were a weird combination of blocker and catcher. It seems to have been a good strategy: in Durnan's short, seven-year career, he got his own name inscribed on the Vezina six times.

Finally leaving the milling throng at City Hall, we found the right hole to depart the parkade and hit Thanh Thanh for a small celebratory feast Vietnamese style. Saturday would be another busy day...

2008-11-20

Anniversaries V: Bugsy's new shoes



November 20, 1980 was a Thursday of course, it being exactly one "solar cycle" ago (28 years = 7 leap cycles). It seems like a long time ago but what goes around comes around; there are some interesting parallels between Oiler teams then and now.

In those days the Oilers played most of their midweek home games on Wednesday. 28 years ago yesterday was another such game, an utterly forgettable 6-4 loss to Vancouver, remarakable for just one thing: it was the end of the short coaching career of Bugsy Watson.

In the fall of 1980 Glen Sather was assuming the reins of GM with the departure of Larry Gordon. His first job was to replace himself as coach. In the brash Bryan Watson, Sather saw a lot that reminded him of himself. Both had lengthy NHL careers because they were as long in guile and gamesmanship as they were short in actual talent. A good comparable for Watson among mondern players would be the guy who now wears Bugsy's old #18 for Red Wings, Kirk Maltby, with a little Jerkko Ruutu thrown in for good measure.

Watson's most famous accomplishment was his shadowing of Bobby Hull in the 1966 playoffs in which Bugsy drove Bobby beyond distraction and into revenge mode. Hull had killed in the Wings the previous year's playoffs, and in this, the fourth consecutive Hawks-Wings semi-final Wings coach Sid Abel unleashed his skating pit bull with the single task of taking down Hull. Which he did, with both scoring twice in the series while conducting an ongoing tong war. Wings won in six.

In his classic book on those 1980-81 Oilers, The Game of Our Lives, Peter Gzowski wrote:

'Just a few months earlier, Watson had seemed the perfect man to put some toughness and fire in the Oilers. He must have been one of the most voracious competitors ever to have played the game. Small (five-ten) and stocky -- he played at 170 pounds -- he set league records for penalties; until Dave "The Hammer" Schultz came along to lead Philadelphia's Broad Street Bullies in the 1970s, he was the most penalized player in NHL history, with 2,212 minutes -- more than thirty-six full games -- in the box. Yet no one regarded him as a bully, or an intimidator. He shared many of Sather's characteristics as a player; in a book called The Violent Game, the American sporrtswriter Gary Ronberg singled out the two of them. Ronberg described them as "relatively small rogues," and went on to write that, "They intimidate few players, but have a knack for unnerving them with an impertinent word or gesture, an annoying slash or cross-check. When they fight, it is usually against a bigger and stronger man, but the mismatch is in one sense an advantage -- little men are usually beaten, and when they manage to avoid a thrashing it seems like a victory."

'Although Watson played with nine different teams in his seventeen years in the league, the most vivid memory most fans have of him was as the Detroit Red Wing who stuck so closely to Bobby Hull in a 1966 playoff series... The tactic, sending one defensive specialist out to hobble a superstar, was not new at the time but no one had seen it used to this degree before, and it drove Hull to distraction. As a result of punishment he received in the course of that and other assignments, Watson's face looks like that of a battered pug. The bridge of his nose is concave; scar tissue crinkles over both eyes. He looks, as his nickname Bugsy suggests, like some small-time hood in a Hollywood gangster movie. For all that, though, there is a boyish vitality about his rearranged features, despite their brutish history. Women find him inordinately attractive.'

The Oilers had finished with a flourish the previous season under Sather's tutelage, grabbing the last playoff spot with a late surge and playing the first-overall Flyers tough in a surprisingly close first-round series. But the second year they struggled out of the gate. "Veterans" of the previous season included Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Kevin Lowe, Dave Hunter, Dave Lumley, Dave Semenko: still young and developing players who were subject to ebbs and flows in their physical, mental and emotional games. In this sense they weren't too different from the modern group of Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, Tom Gilbert, Kyle Brodziak, Marc Pouliot, Zack Stortini, all of whom are struggling with the burden of higher expectations after the giddy heights of last spring. And their coach is struggling tight along with them.

In '80-81 the young Oilers and their coach struggled right out of the gate. Gzowski again:

'On his first road trip as coach, Watson was having difficulty adjusting the social distance he felt he ought to maintain from the players. For seventeen years he had been one of the boys; now, he missed the fraternity. Executive robes did not rest easily on his shoulders ... At the morning practive in Buffalo after their defeat by the Sabres, he had felt out of cointrol of the team. At least one player,who had apparently not settled for just a beer after the game, smelled of booze in the morning. Watson was angry with them, and disappointed.'
By mid-November the team had struggled to a 4-9-5 start, winning just one of 10 home games (a big one, the first ever Battle of Alberta which Oilers won 5-3 on two goals from Dave Semenko). Other than one frustrating run of 4 consecutive ties during a 6-game homestand -- no overtime in those days -- other home games were even more frustrating losses, many of them to mediocre opposition. In 6 home games the squad had scored 4 goals and failed to win.

Sather, whose patience with his players was legendary, wasn't satisfied with what his friend Bugsy was getting out of them. After that 6-4 loss to the ever-mediocre Canucks he had seen enough. With Peter Pocklington's blessing, Slats turned to the one guy he had the utmost confidence in: himself. That weekend, with the local press congregated in Toronto for the Eskimos' annual Grey Cup victory, Bugsy was fitted with cement shoes and quickly sank out of sight.

Sather: "The most important thing is the team. If my own brother was coaching this club, or playing on it, and it wasn't working out, I'd let him go too."

Although they predictably won the next game, 6-3 over Buffalo, Oilers continued to struggle under Sather. They posted an even worse 4-12-1 W-L-T mark in his first 17 games and made the turn at New Year at 8-21-6, before making a second half surge that took them right into the second round of the playoffs where they were eliminated by the defending champion Islanders. Sather had established firm control of the team and continued in the dual role (later becoming club president as well) as the team blossomed into a powerhouse and ultimately, a dynasty.
***

Historical footnote: The Grey Cup weekend firing was a time-honoured NHL tradition. Half a century ago, in a situation that closely parallels the Sather-Watson situation, Punch Imlach fired Billy Reay during Grey Cup weekend 1958 and became GM-coach of the Leafs. As described by sportwriter Scott Young (Neil's dad) in his own terrific book, The Leafs I Knew:

'November 26, Vancouver. Here for the Grey Cup. Sad but not much surprised to get the news that Billy Reay had been fired as the Leafs' coach and that Imlach would take over for the time being. What a bunch of cunning so-and-sos. They wait until every Toronto sports columnist is three thousand miles away covering the Grey Cup, and sports pages are all full of Grey Cup, and they fire Reay.

'Not that we could have changed the situation. But we might have put the finger on a few people who deserve to share the blame -- and do it before most fans forget, which generally takes about 48 hours; or until the next hockey game.'

Those '58-59 Leafs also went on a late season run to scrape into the playoffs, then made it through to the second round (then known as the Stanley Cup Finals) where they were eliminated by the defending champion Canadiens. Imlach too had established firm control as his team blossomed into a powerhouse cum dynasty.

In both cases the team was still 3+ seasons away at the time of the Grey Cup firing, but once they won the Cup they held onto it for awhile. Both Punch Imlach and Glen Sather won four Stanleys in the dual role. And Billy Reay and Bugsy Watson became historical footnotes in their own right.