Thursday, 27 March 2014

Boards of the Rinks: Scouting Seats in Hockey Arenas

Among hockey diehards and casual fans, there is probably no single issue that is more divisive than seating. Everyone has an opinion about which seats are best. As a teaching assistant, I once had to lead a group discussion about an article claiming that the best seats were right behind the goalie. Even though that dubious assertion was merely a preamble for the topic at hand, much of the class discussion devolved into an impassioned debate on where "true fans" should sit.

Canadians know that the above image has broken up more friendships and marriages than adultery has or ever will.

Among seasoned fans, there's a strong consensus regarding 200 level--especially 200 Centre. That's the best place to see the entire ice and, as a result, comprehend the action at both ends of the rink. However, if the game involves a lot of back and forth play, you may experience the sort of repetitive neck strain that is common only to participants in meth-infused marathons of Pong.

Seeing the game is important, but sitting away from the action only allows fans to indulge--at best--two of their senses in the action (sight and hearing) depending on the arena. If you're stuck in the Press Level of Scotiabank Saddledome, you're basically watching two colour-coded ant colonies that occasionally make a thud loud enough to remind you that even insect-hockey is a contact sport.

If you want to engage all 5 senses, then you have to sit on the glass, where you you will experience many thrills and travails. For instance, no matter how many times you've been up-close-and-personal at a hockey game, you will flinch the first time the puck ricochets violently off the glass.

On a similar note, there's nothing quite as exhilarating as seeing two players bounding for the boards, where they will cause a terrific crash. The subsequent quaking of the boards will never fail to make you fear an imminent downpour of glass shards.

That's why I refer to this section of the arena as "the seats of Damocles."

As the boards wobble violently, a giddy fear will arise: the fear that the game itself will bust through the barriers and land in a heap on top of you, thereby offering an experience that beats any 3D movie. This rare mixture of terror and glee will revive memories of playing bumper cars as a child. Indeed, hockey seems a lot like human bumper cars when watched close up.

However, there are also many hazards to watch out for when taking in the game up close. For instance, the inexperienced fan may find himself or herself in a sticky state of embarrassment if he or she forgets that the rules of physics apply in hockey games. That little ledge around the glass might look like an enticing place to set one's drink, but experienced fans know that they should resist the ledge's allure and instead place their beers on the floor--no matter how varnished it may be with the syrupy remains of drinks gone by.

When I was at the Calgary Hitmen playoff game against the Kootenay Ice last Saturday, some patrons didn't heed this simple rule and ended up wearing their beer and ice cream after an on-ice collision sent both purchases hurtling into their hapless laps. Worse yet, they had to stifle their looks of abject surprise when their gaze met the unsympathetic sneers of fellow onlookers. Even the players responsible for the unintended concession barrage stopped their roughing long enough to take in their Jackson Pollock-esque masterpiece with mocking approval.

Refraining from using the ledge as a snack repository is just one of the questions of etiquette that fans must resolve. Another involves the propriety of yelling "down in front" at the team's backup goaltender when he leans out to watch the play.

Some players screen goalies; some goalies screen fans.

There is, of course, one other downside to siting within close proximity of the athletes. Being close to the players' bench means being close to the players' stench. As each period wears on, you'll become accustomed to the musty yet pungent scent of wet gear, but the absence of the skaters during intermission will ruin that acclimatization. And so, with each new period, the game's assault upon each patron's nose renews with greater vigor. Hockey demands a lot from players as well as fans, and a willingness to sacrifice one's olfactory felicity is at the top of the list.

Lastly, sitting close will enable a fan (in many arenas) to feel the game. At the Saddledome, most seats are--at best--a bit uncomfortable. As a matter of fact, the owners should hang a sign outside the arena that reads, "Abandon all hope of personal space, ye who enter here."

The only place in the building that has adequate legroom is the area along the glass, and it has ample space. Indeed, there's even a bar at the base of the boards that can serve as a footrest. When you use that part of the boards as an ottoman, you get further into the game as you will absorb some of the collisions during the action. If nothing else, getting a feel for the game will elevate you from an "armchair General Manager" to a "Sideline Scout."

And so, while sitting around does not afford the best overall game experience as you'll often rely on the screens above to see the action at the opposite end of the rink, when the play does hover around you, those seats offer by far the most immersive hockey experience.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

How has Mike Gillis not been fired?

I can't believe that I have the opportunity to write this post. It's astounding to see that Mike Gillis is still employed as a GM while the Canucks' season continues to capsize.

Following Vancouver's recent struggles, the only major firing involves one thousand concession workers, who have been turned out of Rogers Arena as Canucks Sports & Entertainment prepares to transition from using an off-site hospitality company to running their own food and drink services. Yep, ownership is stepping in to reassert control over the team one hot dog at a time.

Unless the ownership group intends to hand out free beer to help fans commiserate each loss, I fail to see how this move helps the Canucks' current conundrum. The suits behind the team seem content to fiddle with revenues while the franchise burns.

Also, the Sedins are apparently supplementing their salaries in a manner that is not conducive to a desireable team image.

Meanwhile, the architect of the crestfallen Canucks has been aiding the opposition by steadily routing his own roster. According to Sun Tzu, effective generals make their weaknesses look like strengths, and their enemy's strengths look like weaknesses. Gillis has engineered the exact opposite result by obliterating his club's greatest area of strength: goaltending.

A mere three seasons ago, Vancouver was a puck-stopping powerhouse: Roberto Luongo and then-rookie Cory Schneider won the Jennings Trophy for having the lowest goals-against-average among all backstopping tandems in the NHL. Now both premier netminders are lacing-up elsewhere, leaving the Canucks' flimsy defence with no backbone between the pipes.

I'm not trying to slight Eddie Lack. Indeed, I feel terrible for him as the latest goalie caught in Vancouver's ongoing crease controversies. After the team's torrid affair with Schneider and an on-again/off-again relationship with Luongo as the team's starter, Lack's position as #1 goalie seems like a marriage of convenience. While Gillis is not entirely to blame for problems with the goaltending personnel, the rate with which he's promoting and discarding netminders make him look like the Henry VIII of NHL GMs.

My interpretation might be coloured by Gillis' official portraiture as GM.

Yet somehow, reports suggest that Torotella's head is on the chopping block instead of Gillis'. For some bizarre reason, Gillis remains in charge even as the team flounders as a direct result of his decisions to give away two invaluable resources for next to nothing. As one anonymous writer notes,
 Gillis went on to make one of the worst trades in NHL history, trading Luongo to Florida for two nickels and some string. Even more unacceptable was Gillis' trade of Corey Schneider to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for a lifetime supply of crack cocaine. As a result of these idiotic trades #FireGillis was a trending topic on Facebook in 2014. (Source)
You don't have to be an expert in sports management to conclude that this wasn't exactly a "hockey trade." Just kidding--the Canucks received actual assets for both goaltenders, but neither package is particularly helpful at the moment. That block quotation was just a reminder that we should not rely on wikipedia for anything other than comic relief.

John Tortorella has been offering his own brand of comic relief by discussing the Canucks' situation in graphic-novel terms. Torts claims that Lack's takeover of the starting gig from Luongo is akin to Robin taking over the role of Batman. The analogy is rather clever even if it portrays Tortorella as the villain in this Canucks-Batman crossover: Robin took over for Batman after his spine was smashed, and benching Luongo during the Heritage Classic was most certainly the Bane that broke Luongo's bat.

Luongo: Why didn't you just trade me?
Torts: You don't fear being traded....You welcome it. Your punishment must be more severe.
Luongo: Torture?
Torts: Yes, but not of your body...of your soul.
Luongo: Where am I?
Torts: Behind the bench, where I learned the truth about despair, as will you.

If John Tortorella is the bane of the Canucks, then he should be fired along with Gillis, who fired three-time Adams Award nominee Alain Vigneault in order to hire Torts. Gillis shouldn't be allowed to execute an unending queue of coaches for their failure to produce a championship.

It's especially surprising that Gillis hasn't been axed yet given the rumours that ownership intervened to prevent the GM from trading Ryan Kesler before the 2014 trade deadline. Supposedly, Francesco Aquilini didn't want Gillis initiating a full-scale rebuild of the club. However, such a move will be inevitable if Gillis remains with the team in July.

The Canucks desperately need to retool their ranks, but no quality UFAs will likely opt to join a team that has been so disastrously mismanaged. At the same time, Kesler and other jaded players will likely want out of Vancouver this summer. With the veterans wanting out and no NHL-ready players signing on, the Canucks will have little choice but to blow up the roster and start again.

I can understand why people would want to keep Gillis around. He has, after all, done enough good for the club to merit winning the NHL General Manager of the Year Award following the 2010-11 season. Ironically, that year was also the end of his effective leadership. When the highly-favoured Canucks collapsed in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, Gillis seemed to lose the script that he had used to develop the team.

Gillis' moves since 2011 have been a series of puzzling decisions (e.g. Hodgson for Kassian), near-decisions (e.g. the Luongo rumours that ended with Schneider getting traded), and sudden do-overs (e.g. the abrupt trade of Luongo to Florida).

Such frantic activity suggests that Gillis is making ad hoc maneuvers with no conception of an overall strategy for the team's future--one that will be hampered by Luongo's lingering cap hit and Lack's imminent mental breakdown following Monday's game against the New York Islanders. For the sake of everyone involved--including the sanity of Gillis himself--it's time for a new GM in Vancouver.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Happy Bloggerversary to Me!

RinkRover turns one-year old today!!!

When I was a kid, our teacher would give each student a Jos. Louis on his or her birthday. Thus began my lifelong obsession with monetarily-cheap but physiologically-costly chocolate. 

I'd like to celebrate this milestone by writing a retrospective on the past year. Enjoy!

Most popular post: Daniel Alfredsson has been very kind to my blog by providing plenty of material for comic and critical posts. My most popular post to date was a pictorial rendering of the Senators organization and Sens Army coming to grips with Alfie's abrupt and unceremonious defection to the Detroit Red Wings. Check out the post here.

So, I guess I owe a big "Thank You!!!" to Alfie for being an unfeeling cup-chaser? After all, the Sens' biggest loss has certainly been my gain.

Least popular post: I'm lucky that some of my biggest duds dropped early in the blog's history. There are a few tied with less than a half-dozen hits, but the most notable is a piece comparing Ron Wilson's misuse of Nazem Kadri to (former SNL executive producer) Jean Doumanian and her horrendous underappreciation of Eddie Murphy.

Would you be kind enough to give it a "pity click" (PWEASE!)?

Most controversial post: Since fighting has become a hotly-contested issue among fans, it's no surprise that my proposal to replace the shootout with fighting became my most disputed post. The post itself was meant to mock observers who reviled the rise in shootouts and fights during the lock-out shortened season. To my surprise, some people took my suggestion, that we adapt the conventions of pre-industrial warfare to hockey, seriously.

To me, this misunderstanding raises concerns about media literacy. But maybe I didn't make the piece self-consciously absurd enough to establish that it was meant to be humourous. Feel free to judge the post as you wish.   

Most popular picture:
I think this one speaks for itself.

Top Five NHL Teams: Here are my favourite teams based on how many times they've been tagged in a post.

1. Toronto Maple Leafs (66 tags)
2. Ottawa Senators (32 tags)
3. Boston Bruins (23 tags)
4. Montreal Canadiens (17 tags)
5. Vancouver Canucks (17 tags)

As I suspected, I pay way too much attention to the Leafs. To branch out a bit (pun intended), I tried to focus on other teams during the current NHL season. Unsurprisingly, the Leafs started to play better when I stopped writing about them. Then, right before the schedule resumed after the Olympic break, I wrote a post about Toronto, and the team proceeded to drop two games in OT.

This evidence means that I will continue to write about the Leafs on every day from now until the end of the season unless MLSE pays for my silence.

Bottom Five NHL Teams:

5. Carolina Hurricanes (3 tags)
4. Dallas Stars (3 tags)
3. Florida Panthers (2 tags)
2. Columbus Blue Jackets (1 tag)
1. Tampa Bay Lightning (1 tag)

Yikes, the only post that tags TBL is a poor representation of the team. The post looks at Mark Fraser fulfilling expectations by fighting Keith Aullie (and thereby offering a reboot of Ali vs. Frazier). That post certainly doesn't capture what Tampa's all about, so I'm going to make it up to Stamkos et al. by giving them attention that is worthy of their roster.

Favourite mascot: The most discussed NHL mascot on this site is Spartacat. All rivalries aside, Spartacat is an awesome mascot. The Sens have done a great job developing an energetic and entertaining frontman whose exuberance is as untamable as his unruly mane.

Carlton comes in second on my list, but he shouldn't really count as one of those posts focuses on suggestions for completely redesigning him. Nothing epitomizes the truculence, pugnacity, and (other angry words that the Leafs aimed to embody) less than Carlton.

Sadly, I've mostly overlooked Harvey the Hound, who is by far the best mascot I've ever seen. He walks on ledges around the arenas; he badgers opposing fans; he makes steals people's seats. In short, even with the Flames sucking, Harvey provides fans much needed entertainment with his antics. He is much more than an ominous floating head.   

Blocks on twitter: Two...that I know about. One is a fellow blogger who would no longer suffer our difference of opinion regarding hockey fights. The other is TSN's Ray Ferraro, who apparently draws the not-taking-anymore-crap line at being criticized over erroneous comments that he made about My Little Pony.

Lessons learned: Looking back at this blog gives me a great appreciation for how unpredictable a readership can be. When I started the blog, I focused on humour. Many of these nonsense posts did well, but so did the more thoughtful contributions to the discourse surrounding the sport.

So, if I were to offer any advice to aspiring bloggers, it would be write whatever seems to work because there's no way of telling what people want to read and when they want to read it. I guess the trick is to enjoy blogging since (unless some massive sponsorship kicks in soon) I'm producing posts for the sheer enjoyment of it.  

Worst prediction:

Here's what I thought the game between the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings at Dodger Stadium would look like. Whoops!