Hockey Night: an occasional column
I’m a hopeless video game nerd. An addict. To which I will readily admit, without shame but with some regret, to pretty much anyone who asks what I’ve been doing the last four years of my life. My latest shenanigan actually involves the world outside of online video games, in my case the world of Final Fantasy XI (aka FFXI). But only slightly. Whereas most people would throw their money into a company Superbowl or March Madness pool, putting in their 50 bucks with the hopes of picking the right teams and matchups and coming out with a quick grand reward, I’ve done something similar, and yet different enough to seem… atypical. It’s hockey playoffs, my favorite part of the season. And like any good hockey fan, I’ve thrown in my hat and picked my teams in a playoff pool, but instead of tossing in 50 or 100 bucks, I’ve thrown down a figure to the cool tune of 100,000 gil, which just happens to the be currency of Vana’diel, the world within Final Fantasy XI. Not only that, but I’m playing against nine other FFXI players, and the stakes are at nearly 1 million gil.
So far I’m doing pretty good. Pittsburgh swept Ottawa tonight (I picked Pittsburgh to win in five), and almost all my other picks are coming through, though not always at the pace I figured (I’m looking at you Montreal and Detroit). What’s funny though is that out of all of us in the pool, and in a lot of the pro picks as well, only a couple of us picked the Philadelphia Flyers to win over the Washington Capitals, and that’s not sitting well with me. The Flyers won Tuesday night 6-3 at home, 2-0 on Sunday on the road, and lost 5-4 on a late goal by the league’s superstar Alexander Ovechkin last Friday. Arguably, the Flyers have dominated the Capitals, who, on the strength of Ovechkin’s league-high 65 regular season goals and the team’s nine game winning streak on the run to the playoffs, were picked by many to simply mow over the Flyers, whose unevenness over the course of the season was an at-times painful thing for fans to watch. The Flyers have outplayed and outworked the Capitals in every way: defensively, clogging the passing lanes, standing up the Caps offense at the blue line, on the power play and off, shots per game, and, perhaps most importantly, shutting down Alexander the Great, touted by the league to be the face of the future.
But something else has materialized over the course of this series, which the Flyers currently own 2-1. After all the expectations and hype over the Capitals hot streak prior to the playoffs, people are suddenly crying foul. Sports writer Mike Wise, in a Wednesday column in the Washington Post titled “Beaten to the Punch,” accused the Flyers of essentially playing too rough with the team NHL commissioner Gary Bettman apparently (according to Wise at least) is betting (pun unintended) the future of the league upon. “Can’t Gary Bettman pay off someone to ensure his meal ticket for the next decade advances to the second round?” Wise writes in his opening sentence. “The Washington Capitals and their star Alex Ovechkin, the closest thing the NHL has to Kobe and LeBron, need some kind of help if they are going to genuinely awaken America to their game again.”
The implication here is pretty clear and I’ll get to more of Wise’s column in a minute, but right now I need to make some clarifications of my own. I am a Flyers fan. I have been since 1986 and have been watching the Flyers for near 22 years now. I love their style of play, their willingness to bring their rough and physical game to counter what has become a faster, more finesse-oriented style of play—a style Bettman is pushing hard in the league. The Flyers have always been derided as bullies, goons on ice with clubs instead of hockey sticks (“Never before have I seen such animal hockey,” said Konstantin Loktev, coach of Red Army (CSKA Moscow) after a 1976 exhibition game with the Flyers), and in truth, from Bobby Clarke in the 70s to Dave Brown and Ron Hextall in the 80s, to Riley Cote and Steve Downie in the present season, the Flyers have maintained this perception (Early this season the Flyers had three players suspended for 20+ games, including one incident during preseason.). The Flyers are one of the toughest teams in the NHL. That’s their style and their history. They will never be a finesse-focused team akin to the Russian great teams nor will they be led by incredible “free skating” players, in Wise’s parlance, like the Penguin’s Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Detroit Redwings’ Pavel Datsyuk, or Ovechkin of the Capitals. And, excluding last season in which the Flyers were the worst team in the league, compiling a miserable record of 22-48-12, they are perenially considered among the top teams in the NHL.
Wise’s column, which, on Tuesday night after the Flyers 6-3 win, was titled “Among the Thugs” before it was thankfully amended Wednesday, in case any Bill Buford fans (myself included) were about to raise hell, seems to purport that the Flyers, the team of the past, of old hockey, should make room for the new generation, of what he calls “skating hockey.”
“For most of the evening, there was this unmistakable air of testosterone coming from the Flyers’ direction that just reeked of physicality, a way of exerting their mauling style on the Capitals that just sent their denizens into some medieval state of euphoria,” he writes.
“‘We want to make it physical between the whistles,’ Flyers Coach John Stevens said. ‘I think it’s important for no other reason then it’s the best tool we have to defend, to be honest with you. I think it’s very important that we move our feet and finish our checks and get people pushed off the puck.’
Translation: ‘We will keep punking the Caps until the NHL commissioner tells us not to.’”
And Wise attempts to paint the Flyers as teamful of Hanson Brothers lookalikes, mucking up a game with tinfoiled-knuckles that decent players, the players of tomorrow, are trying to play. Hardened veterans like Scottie Upshall (25) beating up on the inexperienced youth of Mike Green (22) in a fight Green himself started. “The tenor of this rugged series is terrible news for hockey progressives everywhere, the way the Flyers have punked a nice bunch of free skaters who train in Ballston and used to be among the most feared offensive teams in the NHL.”
Hello? This is playoff hockey. You lose four and you’re out and nobody wants to go home, no matter how much the odds are stacked against them. And last I checked the NHL was a men’s professional hockey league, so I’m not quite sure what quality Mr. Wise expects in the air during a playoff game, but it surely must be something other than testosterone. Perhaps estrogen, but that’s too simple. PCP, maybe. Maybe acquiescence is more in tune for Wise’s expectations—for the Flyers to roll over and let the Capitals’ “nice bunch of free skaters” undeservedly advance in this series. And, unless he was referring to their last nine games against the cellar-dwelling teams of the Southeastern Division, after lots of searching, discussions online and several emails and calls on the telephone, nobody I can contact can recall when the Capitals “used to be among the most feared offensive teams in the NHL.”
I drunkenly emailed the original article to my cousin, another hockey fan, mostly out of humor but also out of spite for the tenor, again in Wise’s parlance, of the column. He responded back the following morning: “I like the implication that the only way the NHL will regain its popularity is if teams like Philly are phased out and skating teams start winning something. The irony being that during one of the pinnacles of the NHL’s popularity, the mid ’90’s, finesse teams didn’t go anywhere. That was when Detroit had the best skaters in the league but didn’t win anything until they beefed up their third and fourth lines and fought with every team in the western conference just to show they had balls. Skating teams are not Stanley Cup winning teams and if the Caps want to have this ‘Ovechkin is the future of hockey and we need the world to see him’ attitude, they won’t be seeing the Cup any time soon.”
Wise seems to be under the impression that hockey should be a gentleman’s sport, like golf, curling, and maybe archery. The Flyers’ “thuggish ways” are more of a stain on the face of the NHL, a league in which body checking is legal, fighting is legal (well, you get a 5-minute penalty but you don’t necessarily get kicked out of the game like fighting in most other sports—ever watch a basketball fight? Laughable), and taking the man off the play or the puck is strategically key.
“[The Flyers] flat-out market and sell violence here, sanctioned, unbridled assaults disguised as sport. The Flyers are an instant repudiation of what Gary Bettman wanted the league to become. They are a reminder of the NHL’s pugilistic past that just won’t go away. The result Tuesday night was Hartnell and Daniel Brière popping Cristobal Huet, making the Caps’ goalie retaliate because no one on his team seemed interested in having his back at the moment.”
Besides believing Daniel Briere, at 5’8” and 180 lbs, is bullying goalie Cristobal Huet (6’1”, 204 lbs), he’s also wrong in thinking tough, physical play is limited to the Flyers brand of “goon hockey.” (Wise’s comment about Scott Hartnell is, however, pretty much hilariously spot on.) Ovechkin led his team with 220 hits for the season, while his teammate Matt Cooke followed up with 198. Jason Smith, the Flyers captain and team leader in hits had 148. Ovechkin, while inarguably one of the best players in the NHL, if not the best this season, was boasted by Capitals fans, NHL officials, and most of the hockey media as a fearsome player, eager to take the body, hungry to steamroll over opponents, score pretty and withering goals, and play with an unmatched fervor for the game. He is indeed capable of and possesses all these skills, but the sad truth is, in three games of playoff hockey he’s sitting at -2 with a goal and 2 assists. That’s three points, one more than Donald Brashear, the ex-Flyers heavyweight enforcer who’s now playing for who? Oh, the Capitals. After hailing Ovechkin as a major force in the NHL because of his aggressiveness and skill, to go back and cry foul when being rendered ineffective is ridiculous and characteristic of poor sportsmanship. And I’m pretty sure Hillary Clinton’s campaign already has that strategy on patent. So far Ovechkin’s major contributions to his team’s playoff hopes have been a very nice game-winning goal in game 1, and a dubious 9.8 triple-salchow dive during the third period of game 3. He’s playing frustrated, showing his inexperience in the playoffs, but still dangerous. Kind of like a blind wolverine.
Wise has been hammered mercilessly online by posters on both sides of the fence, on Flyers discussion boards as well as the Washington Post’s own comment pages. They cite Wise’s obvious lack of hockey knowledge (his aversion to physical play, equating it to thuggish activity, his need for “pretty goals” while implying the Flyers have had none, and his uninformed and ignorant statements like “The Flyers act like they would rather demoralize a psychologically wounded offense than score a short-handed goal” [The Flyers’ forward Mike Richards was in the top five short-handed scorers this season.], etc.) as the primary source of ire, while his obvious bias (which this column obviously and transparently lacks) just fans the flames. He assails the Flyers fans with the keen eye of a cultural anthropologist: “Midway through the third period of this demoralizing 6-3 loss at Wachovia Center, 20,000 people in fluorescent orange howled for their World Extreme Cagefighters, and a crowd in the upper bowl chanted vulgarities at Ovechkin that went beyond the bounds of loutish fan behavior… many of the women and children looked as if they could work security for Megadeth.” He forgets the howl of the Capitals crowd when, in game 1, Flyers forward Patrick Thorenson blocked a shot with his crotch, went down in obvious and great pain, and, like a good friend of mine, damn near lost a testicle. (It, my friend asserts, still works fine.)
The article is posted on the Flyers discussion board under the thread “Worst Hockey Article I’ve EVER Read.” The comments range from the sophomoric and bitter to the embarrassed, visceral, and well-informed. The misspellings and lack of even the most basic grammar skills are at the same time hilarious and sad. On the Washington Post site it’s more of the same from fans of both teams. (One Capitals fan wrote: “Ya know Mike, before writing about the Caps, you may want to understand the game first. But anything coming from Mike Wise is always coming out of his B-U-T-T.”) If the Wachovia Center on Tuesday night reeked of testosterone, his article reeks of sour grapes, and even fans of his team are cringing when he posts his random, winding, and ignorant thoughts to his newspaper’s server. As far as eloquent responses to Wise’s article go, this poster “colintuc” may have summed it up best:
“I think, Mr. Wise, that a season’s worth of watching games played against the Hurricanes, Lightening, Thrashers, and Panthers may have distorted your perception of hockey. ABOVE the Mason-Dixon line, teams tend to employ a little thing called ‘defense.’ With time, you’ll discover that this approach often involves tactics such as ‘checking,’ ‘taking the body, and ‘playing the man, not the puck.’ You seem to have rolled all of these elements up into one ambiguous term: ‘punking.’ This is a pretty amusing choice of words in that it implies that, by playing defense, the Flyers are employing an underhanded and deceitful strategy. They’re not. And if the Caps really are the NHL’s meal-ticket for the next decade, they’d better get used to encountering teams that actually defend this time of year.”
So far there’s been no response from Wise to the barrage of comments on his column. We’ll see what other silly assertions he has in store in game 4 tonight as the Flyers take on the Capitals in Philadelphia.
All images save for the Polaroid, are credited to the Washington Post, Getty Images, AP, or the Flyers Archives.