January 20, 2012

Everyone Hates the Canucks, Deal With It

You’ve heard it by now. The media, the polls, the rants by the immaculately wise fans, about how the Vancouver Canucks are the most hated team in the league. Inspired by the diving, whining, and high flying hits in the 2011 playoff run, supporters on the West Coast have had to put up with a lot of flak.

Born out of that is the war of words that has been raging since April of last year. There are only two powers: Canucks fans, and “other”. In coffee shops and offices the discussions consist of the regular polite small talk with a little kick. Online, however, people tend to be a considerably more courageous. Personal attacks and call-outs between guys who will never so much as look each other in the eye are run-of-the-mill on chat rooms and forums.


Is there really a need to defend so valiantly the pride of the organization? After all, the razzing from around the hockey world is nothing new to successful clubs. There is no team that has followed a superb regular season by a deep post-season run who has ever avoided the same type of hatred Vancouver received.

The source of the real problem is the way Canucks fans have handled the remarks. The standard method has always been to ignore. Most often these attacks are brushed off with a quiet pride, knowing the hatred is born out of suffering.

This approach is usually taken by fans of historically great teams. They have grown used to winning, and the harassment that comes with it. When followers of a struggling rival come calling, they know the drill.

Vancouver, as their fans have heard repeatedly, is not one of those franchises. The famed 40-year drought has been littered with painfully irrelevant teams. Many of today’s supporters have spent much of their lives playing second fiddle (more like fifth) to the powerful Flames and Oilers squads of the eighties. The BC natives were the ones giving to the Albertans in bars, rather than the other way around.

Now, for the first time in their lives, the Canucks have spent the past couple seasons as serious contenders. And they are loving it.

People who have endured so long with absolutely nothing to brag about finally have just that. Suddenly, four decades worth of pride has come out in less than a year. Inevitably, the smack talk has been massively overdone. Even the normally classy audience at Roger’s Arena has turned into an anthem-booing mess. Canuck Nation has been given the unshakable reputation of arrogance. And there is nothing fans sick of losing hate more that arrogance.

As a result, these non-playoff supporters have turned unreasonably harsh on Vancouver. Their insults are nastier, and they dig deeper for dirt about the actual players. The Canucks, on ice actions are more scrutinized that those of any other team. Every single incident is blown out of proportion, and guys like Burrows and LaPierre have been turned into rats.

However, anyone without a clear bias (not many) can see that the Canucks are among the least suspended teams in the NHL. Some like to spin this fact, claiming the league is soft towards Vancouver. The reasons for this favouratism are always different, depending on who you ask, but the common denominator is that they are all baseless.

Nonetheless, these conspiracy theories only add fuel to the fire; they are conveniently adopted as fact. Canucks fans, instead of realizing how silly this talk is, let it agitate them into heated arguments. The reputation worsens, the haters get angrier, they find more dirt, and Vancouverites retaliate, doing even more damage to their own image. Such is the vicious cycle of ignorance.

This commotion is made more ridiculous is the fact that the actual athletes are seemingly indifferent. While fans are lapping up the hype the media is serving up, opposing players are continuing their business-as-usual approach.

With the obvious exception of the once-a-year Canucks-Bruins matchup, the “most hated team in the league” does not generally receive a lot of the cheap shots and rough play a truly despised group would expect. Even yesterday’s archrival Chicago Blackhawks have never given Vancouver an abnormally hard time in a regular season game.

In this case, the cliché is true: rivalries are for fans. If looked at beyond the first glance, the notion of other players hating Vancouver’s appears artificial. The animosity that is supposed to be sparking these heated debates does not actually exist, which makes this whole thing even sillier.

Rather than dwelling on fabricated anger towards their team, Canucks fans would be better off taking the high road. Just as those more used to winning ways have done, it must be realized that “haters gonna hate.”

These arguments cannot be won. No Toronto Maple Leafs fan is going to read a post and go,” You know what, he’s right. I’m gonna convert to a Canucks fan right away.” Somehow people still put up a fight, holding on to slim hopes of changing their adversaries’ minds. Beyond that prayer, there is no point in satisfying their hunger to get under Vancouver’s skin.

They simply have to accept that they will take some verbal abuse, and be glad to know the better man will have playoff hockey to watch.

Obviously it is unlikely the entire Canucks fan base will all of a sudden decide to be classy. Understandably, it is not easy to take a ribbing with dignity, or even without cursing them out. However, Vancouver is enjoying the most prosperous years they are likely to have in a long time. Rather than wasting the good years endlessly bashing the doubters, why not rationalize and enjoy the ride.

Then again, we are hockey fans. When did people start expecting us to be rational?

January 09, 2012

Salo Lost in Suspension Bickering

The low-bridge hit in Saturday morning’s game was less about Marchand than it was about Salo.

The 37-year-old Canucks defenseman suffered a concussion after a questionable hip check by Boston winger Brad Marchand, although it is doubtful that was the only upper body injury he sustained. Sami Salo seemed also to be favouring his left should while being followed off the ice by trainer Mike Burnstein.

The hit happened as a loose puck was drifting up the boards in the Boston end. Salo pinched from the blue line to race Marchand for possession. Marchand reached the puck first, motioned as if to clear the zone, and then out of nowhere dropped to take Salo’s knees from underneath him.

Most would agree that it was a dirty hit, the real debate being to what degree. NHL Head Disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan weighed in with a five-game suspension for Marchand. Excessive, as is nearly all supplementary discipline this season, but relative to Shanahan’s standards, five makes sense.

Of course, Vancouver fans will lobby for more, while the Bruins base will wonder why this “clean” hit was even penalized, and some keeners will go to the usual lengths of comparing similar plays from the past, which are not really similar at all. No matter what Shanny does, no one will be happy.

However, the focus of this entire incident has been on the offender, not the victim. The blow to Salo hurts more than his shoulder. It has been nearly eight years since he last played greater than 70 games in a regular season. Halfway through this campaign, he had only missed four games.

It finally seemed that luck was going his way. Then his new-found health was dashed by a cheap shot, and the normally even-keel Salo suddenly burst into frustration, tossing his stick into the glass, refusing to be helped off the ice. Realizing Salo was hurt yet again, many watching in their living rooms did the same to their remotes.

You can’t help but feel for the guy. He is the epitome of blue-collar. With his slap shot power diminishing, he has worked hard to improve his defensive game. His contributions in his own end have quietly been priceless for the Vancouver Canucks, as shown by the highly publicized statistics concerning their play without Salo in the lineup. In this year’s version, they are 1-4 when he is injured.

He is nothing but class, always taking the high road, a behavior fast disappearing in the Canucks organization. You can bet the farm Sami Salo will not be bashing Marchand in the press.

Unfortunately, the story of Salo’s career has been one of bad things happening to a good person. From the legendary snake-bite in his native Finland, to the endless list of injuries he has endured, he has had to put up with more trouble than anybody deserves much less a man of Salo’s character. And that’s before the Brad Marchand incident.

Naturally, his struggle will be simply subtext to the jawing by both clubs’ management (and some players, too.) One can only hope than maturity will somehow set in, and these men will realize that it’s not about Alain, or Claude. Not Alex, or Brad, or Maxim. It’s about Sami, and it’s about respect.

January 04, 2012

Canada's Loss Reveals Goaltending Troubles

After yet another heartbreaking loss to the Russians, the Canadian skaters are doing exactly what they should after their goalie tandem gave up six goals: blaming themselves.

Canada was handed a 6-5 loss, their riveting comeback effort falling just shy after trailing by five with little more than 10 minutes left in the game. Regardless, the six goals allowed by the Canadian goaltending were not used as an excuse.

In all of their post-game interviews, not one bad word was spoken of either starter Scott Wedgewood or reliever Mark Visentin. The teammates took the entire blame on their own shoulders, an impressive display of leadership in the midst of a very difficult outcome.

The trouble is leaders will more often say what is right than what is true. The fact is, Russia’s goaltending let 5 goals through them on 54 shots, while Canada’s duo allowed 6 goals on just 24 shots. The deflections off the snake-bitten Ryan Murray offer no excuses. Netminders at this level must make more of those tough saves.

This is not a country that is used to such feeble performances between the pipes. Canada has a proud history of legendary goalies backing stingy defenses. When team Canada needed stand-on-your-head goaltending, fans had the luxury of taking it for granted.

Nowadays, Canada’s net at the World Juniors is increasingly average. In a tournament that not long ago was dominated by prodigious goalies out of Quebec, the talk has shifted to traditionally attack-minded European sides.

Examples from the 2012 tournament are the flashy Czech Petr Mrazek, and Russia’s Andrei Vasilevski who, despite the rough finish, kept the Canadian offense at bay for 50 out of 60 minutes.

The Canadian keepers did not have the same kind of star power coming in to this tournament, and while Scott Wedgewood’s exceptional play early on got people talking, getting yanked halfway through the semi-finals will be his mark on the World Juniors.

The performance against the Russians, along with the collapse of Mark Visentin in the 2011 gold medal game, continues a trend that has spanned the better part of a decade. The days of spectacular goaltending are in the rear view mirror for World Junior fans, which makes the same effect on Canada’s senior squads inevitable.

Fortunately, the Canadian Juniors of the mid to late 2000s brought such overwhelming talent in the offensive zone that they continued to steam roll their way through the holidays. Panic has been delayed up to now.

The cover-up could only last until Canada was twice knocked out of contention by the hated Russians. The lack of success has lifted the veil from over the Canadian net, and the fear is that this nation is on the path to a full-blown goaltending crisis.

This would be, no doubt, the worst position that could possibly dry up for any program. Over the last century, no matter how the game has evolved, the goaltender has remained the most critical component of a hockey team. If Canada truly is running out of young netminders, the result 20 years down the road will be disastrous.

To avoid this catastrophe, Hockey Canada must do all the necessary digging to find out why they are not developing goalies. Right now, all we have is speculation by decreasingly wise hockey writers, none of whom offer any legitimate solutions.

Hockey Canada knows best why they fall short, and if they are serious about maintaining this country’s hockey dominance, they will be humble enough to honestly assess and address any of their findings.

It is truly important that they recognize that goaltending is a serious issue, and take any necessary action, or else put their fans through suffering on far bigger stages than the World Juniors.