Sunday, October 16, 2016

Winterhawks leadership corps: a colorful bunch

When the Portland Winterhawks announced their leadership group for 2016-17, something jumped out at me.  In a white mans world, & a white man's game, Portland's leadership group had some color to it.

As a hockey fan, and a believer in the concept of all men are created equal, I hold these truths self evident that it shouldn't matter who wears the "C" & "A" on their sweater, as long as they are qualified to handle the responsibility.  However, as the current election season has taught us, we're not there yet.

Keegan Iverson has been named the 41st Captain in Winterhawks team history.   Portland fans have been following Iverson's career for years now.  He signed as a 15 year old, picked in the 3rd round of the WHL bantam draft.  Appeared in a game right after signing, & has been a part of the team ever since.  Drafted by the New York Rangers in 2014 - many folks thought his upside was pretty high.  Say what you will about the Jamie Kompon era, but Iverson was one of many players who didn't develop as expected as an 18 or 19.  Coming off of Minnesota Wild training camp, he's been awarded a leadership role by Mike Johnston - who originally recruited & signed Iverson.

 Its been 58 years since Willie O'ree broke the color barrier in NHL. Even today, there are around 10 players of African descent in the 30 team NHL.    Joel Ward wears 42 as a tribute to Jackie Robinson.  He caught a bunch of shit after scoring an important playoff goal a few years back.

One of the players entrusted with an alternate captains role for Portland this season is Keoni Texeria.  His WHL career has been interesting - as a 2nd round bantam pick, the team & fans have both been high on the defenseman.  The potential we anticipated hasn't realized in being drafted, but a free agent invite to Capitals camp proved fruitful for Texeria.  Surprisingly, one season later provided another draftless summer for Keoni, as well as no NHL camp invites.  He's responded by leading the WHL in scoring by Defenseman in the early stages of the season, while representing his Hawaiian heritage.

It hasn't been that long since the incident in London, ON where a fan threw a banana at Wayne Simmonds - hard to interpret it as anything but a racist act.

Another member of the Winterhawks leadership group is Caleb Jones.  Obviously, we know his brother Seth

As a watched prospect, who was drafted by Edmonton (with their 2nd pick that year),  signed by Edmonton.   You know all about his dad Popeye.   If you missed it, there were some interesting clips from Oilers training camp involving Jones.

Its hard to determine if this Krys Barch / PK Subban incident has racial undertones,  but asking a black guy about "slipping on a banana peel" could be interpreted as such.

Bear Bryant is often given credit for integrating  the Alabama Crimson Tide.  Of course, he only did so because adding black players to his team made them more competitive.  I write this on the 48th anniversary of Tommie Smith & John Carlos making the black power salute as part of the 1968 Olympics.

It shouldn't matter what your ethnicity is in sport - just how you perform.  Maybe we'll get there someday, but in 2016 its notable when a hockey team has a leadership group composed 75% of players of color.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

2015-16: 20 game mark

Mike Johnston always said something along the lines of  "You know what kind of team you have after 20 games...." - around here we take what MJ says pretty seriously.

Its unclear what this Winterhawks team is to this point, which is 18 games in as of this writing.  This is a team that has started slow for as long as I've been watching them - last season they were 8-11-3 at this point last season.  In fact, they didn't reach .500 until (American) Thanksgiving - yet they tied Everett in wins while attempting to win the US Division.

I wrote about their slow start in 2013-14: a season where they lost Game 7 of the WHL Final.

This team sits at 8-9 currently.  They've scored 5 goals in 2 of those losses.  On two occasions they won the game despite only putting up 2 goals.  Adin Hill has recorded 3 shutouts on the young season, but they were shut out once by Prince Albert.

They've shown flashes of brilliance, and can't get out of their own way at times.  Kelowna has been a "measuring stick" game over the last few years - this year is no exception.  Taking a 3-2 lead mid-3rd period is a sign of good things to come.  Turning that lead into a 5-3 deficit over an 8 minute span is a problem.  Jumping out to a 3-0 lead after 20 minutes the next night: sure seems like the proper adjustments were made.  However, back to back periods of giving up 4 goals spoiled that promising start.

Entering the Kelowna weekend Hill's GAA was right at 2.00, for a .500 team.  A junior team giving up 2 goals a game should be clipping along at .750 - or better.  This is a team that's scored 5 goals in 8 games so far - pretty much half the games they've played so far.

It might be easy as they're just inconsistent so far.  All junior teams are, right?

The "eye test" is that their struggles are as simple as a handful defensive breakdowns at the wrong time, which I don't have a good way to quantify or break down here.

One issue I have that is demonstrable is Paul Bittner.  I've been really high on him since he was a 15 - especially when he potted those 4 consecutive game winning goals during tournament time.  He ended up with 12 goals in 45 games that season - which projects out to 19 goals in a full 72 game season.  Pretty damn good for a 16 with limited ice time.

Currently Paul is sitting on 4 goals - a 17 goal pace for a full season.  That's just not good enough for a guy that Portland fans are counting on to deliver.  Of course, he lost both of his linemates.  There's a whole new set of expectations.  He'll improve.

The flip side is Team Captain Dominic Turgeon.  I'd heard some folks expressing they felt that Turgeon has a 40 goal season in his sights - which is pretty much the rate he's been shooting so far.  Can he maintain this pace?

Guys like Shoenborn & Iverson are about where a lot of us thought they'd be.  I feel there's a higher level both guys can get to, and if this team wants to do some damage they will both have to.

If they can marry the periods where they play lights out defense with the instances where they demonstrate all that firepower - then they're back in business.  They've shown the ability to play both ends of the ice at an elite level - but not game in & game out yet.

Gregg Drinnan says the season starts at Christmas.  The Los Angles Kings model - take the regular season off & get hot in the playoffs - could be applicable in a conference where only 2 teams miss the playoffs, but most Portland fans would rather they just got their shit together.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Open Letter to Kieffer Bellows

First off, congratulations on winning the Clark Cup!  Earning a championship seems like a great way to cap off a "rookie of the year" caliber season.  Putting up 33G / 19A / 52PTS in 58 games is one hell of a season for anyone - let alone a 16 year old forward.  Playoff runs producing 9G / 3A / 12PTS in 12 games played will get a guy noticed - as well as potential nicknames like "Cy Young".  It takes 9 wins to hoist the Clark Cup - 4 game winning goals coming off of your stick.

It must have been pretty special to win it all last season as well, contributing for Edina High School as they won State (again).  Many of us out west haven't experienced "the road to the X" - but we know its serious business

Committing to Boston University was a very mature decision to make as a young hockey player.  The NCAA route is the right move for many players, and the combination of a 30 game schedule & 1st class education seems attractive indeed.   College hockey is especially suited towards smaller players & late bloomers.

Hockey players are competitive sons-a-bitches by nature, and I'm sure that you're no different.  What you really want to do is end up a better player than your father, who had loads of success:  485 NHL goals, 1993 Stanley Cup Champion, a case for the Hall of Fame.  Some have questioned his toughness, but not his heart.  Brian Bellows starred in the 1982 Memorial Cup: winning it for Kitchner

It had to be a difficult decision to leave Edina, and all their success, for the USHL - but I'm sure you're glad you did.  Paul Bittner had a similar crossroads up in Crookston, and the tougher road to take looks like the right one.  Keegan Iverson left St Louis Park to play major junior, and there's an ongoing documentary being produced about his hockey career.  Blake Heinrich left Cambridge to play for Sioux City, and ended up wearing the "C" for a team with some playoff success.  Playing for Minnesota-Duluth was his initial plan, but ultimately headed out west to Portland - playing a key role.  My suggestion to you would be to ask these Minnesotans about what playing in the WHL is like.

The goal scoring tear you went on during the 2nd half + playoffs this year was pretty impressive.  Players developing at similar rates generally don't stay in college long: one year, maybe two.  Many observers feel that a development path involving major junior makes more sense for a guy like yourself.  Playing 30 games in college is great, but guys in Portland have played 20+ games on average over the last 5 seasons - in the playoffs alone - in addition to a 72 game regular season. 

It had to be frustrating to see how things went with Coach Eades just days after winning the war that was the Clark Cup playoffs.  He'll be fine in Fargo, but do you really want to go up against him all season?  Sioux Falls new coach Scott Owens has a long track record, and I'm sure he'll bounce back from that 7 win campaign he's coming off of.

The ultimate goal is the NHL, correct?  How many chances do you get to play for a coach with a couple of recent Stanley Cups on his resume?  Coach Kompon is simply trying to carry on the winning tradition established by the guy who's currently coaching Sidney Crosby & Evgeni Malkin, by the way.

Keep playing like you did this season & the scouts would find you anywhere.  Of course, playing in a league with 56 guys ranked by NHL Central Scouting seems like it would help get one noticed.  In fact, 9 of the top 30 North American skaters played in the 'Dub this year.  Scouts watching Portland's games picked up on guys like Ryan Johansen, Nino Neiderreiter, Sven Baertchi, Derrick Pouliot, Joe Morrow, & Seth Jones - all guys who went in the 1st round since 2011.

Its pretty easy to conclude that you made the right decision playing in Sioux Falls this year - championships are always the goal.  Its hard to say what kind of opportunity you would have had in Portland as a 16 year old forward on that team - they had a ton of talent up front, and won a bunch of games.  However, it looks like Portland needs to replace 4 of their top 5 scorers from last season.  At the same time, they will bring back 4 NHL-drafted forwards to start the year (plus 3 defenseman & a goalie who've been drafted, too).  Factor all that in, and there's a top 6 spot open, and guys that can get you the puck.  In front of scouts, too.

You're pretty much playing with house money here:  the pro scouts will notice you in South Dakota, Oregon, Massachusetts, or wherever you play.  Picking up a year or two of school along the lines is great - as life after hockey is a 100% certainty.  Of course, players in the WHL earn scholarships for each year they play, in 1/2 year increments - in addition to taking classes during the season.  Its fully within the realm of possibility that playing 3 years of WHL hockey would leave you with more completed college credits than one or two years of Boston University - even if they don't have the clout of a school like BC - and if hockey doesn't work out, that WHL scholarship program would come in real handy.

In conclusion, we'll keep the light on for you in Portland.  Pro-style league, pro scouts, & plenty of opportunity.  If you want to match your dads Memorial Cup, Portland is your only shot.  You'll be drafted either way, but there's more chances to shine out west.  Winterhawks fans are pretty dedicated - you're not gonna see that from the Herd, or the Terriers.  Its always fun playing in front of big crowds, which we have.

I trust you'll make the right decision.


Chad Balcom
Cell Phones & Plane Tickets

Monday, February 16, 2015

 Annie Fowler, of the Tri-City Herald is kind enough to put together a WHL Best of the West poll each year, and hot off the presses its here:

2015 Best of the West

For fun, here's the last one, with some background on how this is put together.  Its a lot of work, and we are lucky that she puts it together for us.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Elvis Grbac & playing goal in Portland

Elvis Grbac sucks.

I lived in Kansas City when I learned to love the NFL, after moving there in 1999.  Elvis was the quarterback for the Chiefs at that time.  His story is fascinating - being the child of Croatian immigrants.  During his time in KC he lived in a neighborhood with a strong Slavic history.

He was part of a long line of 49'ers backups to play for Kansas City (Bono, Montana, & Alex Smith).   Elvis wasn't all that popular in KC.  They went through a period of quaterback controversy where they had to decide between Grbac and Rich Gannon.  They stuck with Elvis, with little success.  Gannon went on to lead the Raiders to their last few winning seasons including a Super Bowl appearance. 

Grbac was our guy, and I was backing him.  Everywhere you went in that town, someone was on him, "Elvis sucks.....shoulda went with the other guy....."  Didn't really matter, did it?  The Chiefs went with Grbac regardless of what you heard at dinner or over beers.  Sure, he sucked but he was the starter.  He was my guy.

Where this ties into Junior Hockey is this:  there are no shortage of Portland fans who are all over Brendan Burke right now.

Doesn't matter.  He's my guy.  He's struggled, sure.  Could have stopped a few more pucks so far this season.  There's been no shortage of defensive breakdowns, but does every screened shot have to go in?  Deflections from the slot?  Breakaways?  I'd argue the majority of goals against have been plays like these - extremely  difficult on a goaltender - yet plays that do occur in the course of a season.

It seems like I have to bring this up daily, but Team USA feels that Burke is among the top 4 US born goalies with junior eligibility this season.  If your average Winterhawks fan understands the game better than those in charge of building this country's World Junior team, then as Americans we're in trouble come Christmas time.

Allow me to make the same point about the Arizona Coyotes & their belief in Burke - its pretty damn hard to make main camp for an NHL team.  I see over and over again about how they only gave him a shot because his dad works for the team - because that's what folks do: risk throwing away a 24+ year NHL career as a favor to your kid.  Happens all the time.

So yeah, the dude who sits next to you at the games who "wants to see more of Adin Hill" knows the game better than a guy who played goal in 800+ NHL games.  Checks out.

Of course Adin Hill might turn out to be really good, but right now he's an 18 year old goalie with 8 career WHL games.

This is nothing new about this phenomenon amongst Winterhawks fans.  Remember when we fell in love with Cam Lanigan?  He had a good 3 games, in front of a good team, and we thought he was a rookie Ken Dryden.  We were expecting back a guy with 114 wins in the WHL, but this guy HAD to be better: I mean, did you SEE how well Lanigan played in those 3 games?

Speaking of the WHL's playoff winningest goalie of all time, all I heard for 4 years was how he was a bum.  This team won in spite of him, rather than because of his contributions.  Hell, one time I thought I was gonna end up in a fist fight with this asshole who made up a fake twitter for strict purposes of heckling Carruth.  I figured he was just talking shit on the internet and that was it.  Gave him my seat number & told him to swing by.  He did, although he was a game late.  Turns out he was not actually a hockey fan but just wanted to cameraphone a confrontation for youtube for some reason.  I fell right into his trap, before he tried to get at Carruth on the way off the ice after the second period.  Mac wasn't even playing that game.  It was a day game in the Glass Palace, if your wondering.

I suppose that story really drives home the point of backing our guy, doesn't it?

If Brendan Burke goes on to have success in hockey beyond the WHL I'm going to be temped to retweet every win, every award, every positive development in his career.   Shouldn't be much work, since he is terrible and all.

Elvis Grbac?  He sucks.  I'd love to see him in person to tell him so much.  Once we got rid of him in KC I got real busy making up for lost time throwing him under the bus.  When Elvis went to Baltimore - following a Super Bowl win - he said, "This is a great team. I can make it better."  He did, when he left after one year.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Fighting, 2014, and what it means to you

In the last week we saw this play:

as well as this one:

It's probably just a coincidence that we saw both incidences 6 days apart, but its worth noting that Portland isn't really icing a "heavyweight" or a "goon" at the moment.  I'm making the argument that those things are related.

The game, like most aspects of our society continues to evolve.  The arc of the Moral Universe Is long, but It bends toward Justice - which applies to hockey as well.  There are some who feel that fighting has ran its course, and shouldn't have a place in the game - and these voices often know what its like when the shoe is on the other foot.

I get the argument that fighting is barbaric.  Concussions are a huge issue in hockey, and need to be dealt with.  Fighting results in less than 10% of the concussions in the game, so even if you eliminated it you'd still have the other 90% to deal with.  There is an argument that having a deterrent on the bench prevents even more concussions, which I believe history has proven.

When Gretzky was traded to L.A., he insisted that he bring his enforcer with him. Arguably the best player the game has ever known couldn't do it without protection.

The decade prior was marked by a team known as the "Broad Street Bullies" - who simply muscled their way to back-to-back Stanley Cups.

In the WHL, the 70's were known for rough stuff - primarily from the New Westminster Bruins.  I've heard stories about the New West players stealing all the pucks in warmups, planting them in their own end, and challenging the other players to come and get them.  They won the Memorial Cup in 1978 & 1979.  It was an effective strategy. I can only hope that there's video of Portland's part in this dance.

Organized hockey emerged in the 1880's, and it's been rough since the beginning:

  Early hockey, however, was also plagued by excessive violence. In two cases, one in 1905 and another in 1907, hockey players were put on trial after blows that killed other hockey players. Both times the players were found innocent, but the press and many in the country (including the juries) called on legislation to be enacted that would curb the violence.
To come back to modern(ish) times, the Bertuzzi incident comes to mind.   Full disclosure:  I am an Avalanche fan.  If you're not familiar with "the code" - you probably should be, and there's a chapter in this book about this incident.  What went down was a series of events starting with Steve Moore laying a borderline check on Canucks' captain Markus Naslund:

Say what you want to about this hit, but the Canucks weren't having it.

Threats were made. “There’s definitely a bounty on his head,” Canucks winger Brad May said, as quoted by The Vancouver Sun. “It’s going to be fun when we get him.”
The next game between the two teams was in Denver, and it quietly ended in a tie.  After that was a matchup in Vancouver:

The "code" says that it should be over, Moore answered the bell.  He fought one of Vancouver's tough guys.  Cooke had the opportunity to exact revenge.  A pound of flesh.  But it wasn't over:

I was watching that game.  I somewhat expected fireworks.  When that broke out, I was into it - I thought we would see a goalie fight, which most of us love.  Once the gravity of the situation settled in, I was sick to my stomach.  As Jim Hughston said in the above clip, "The score settling has gone to far"

The aftermath resulted in one NHL career ended, and another suspended for 20 games.  Everyone loses.

Why would I present the Bertuzzi incident in the context of calling for more muscle on the Portland Winterhawks?  Hockey, like the rest of life, is complicated.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

 The idea of enforcers in hockey is not unlike the doctrine of Mutual Ensured Destruction: you don't take liberties with their top guys, as the other team will take cheap shots on your skilled guys.  I've heard stories where the Kypreos' of the world say that star players on their own teams tell guys to knock it off, lest the other teams goons come after them.

Its been that arms race / balance of power for about a hundred years.  We want to think we're beyond that, but we ain't there yet.  There remains a place for enforcers, and I'm of the opinion that Portland needs one, and soon.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Austin Carroll elbows Alex Schoenborn in the head

We've seen some ticky-tack shit called majors against Bittner & Texeria so far this young season, each with an accompanying 1 game suspension.  The above play went unpenalized.

Good work, WHL.