Monday, January 20, 2014

The Washington Capitals Drinking Game

Hey Caps Fans! Tired of simply yelling at your Twitter feed or unambitiously drowning your sorrows in your adult beverage of choice every time General Manager George McPhee or Coach Adam Oates makes (or doesn't make) an unwise (or wise) roster move? Frustrated at the team's play on the ice? Well, were here to add a little fun to your probable memory loss. Presenting, the 2014 Washington Capitals Drinking Game!

-Just take a drink. You probably need it.
-Whenever Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer are on a line together, go stand in the corner and take shots till they come out of the corner.
-Every time Aaron Volpatti is on the ice when the Caps get a shot on goal, take a shot. Then give up three to your friend.
-Every time a Capital asks for a trade, pour your shot but wait till someone offers you 3 shots in return before taking it.
-Every time an elite level prospect is traded for a 4th liner/press box regular, pour half a shot and fill the rest with tears. Then throw the whole thing on the floor.
-Take a shot for every time that prospect shows up in the top 3 on a prospect ranking list.
-Every time a Caps defenseman is placed on waivers/sent to Hershey, drive to a bar two hours away, take a shot, sober up, then drive back.
-Take one shot for every game the Caps have more than 2 goalies on the active roster.
-Every time Semyon Varlamov is mentioned as a Vezina finalist, take a shot while looking at a photo of Matrin Erat sitting in the press/penalty box.
-Every time Tom Wilson gets a point, take a shot. You've probably been drinking a lot, so we'll call this 'sober up time'.
-Give your friend a shot whenever Alex Ovechkin makes a great pass at even strength. Your friend probably won't finish it either.
-Every time someone brings up Alex Ovechkin's +/-, give them a shot, then direct them to this story and tell them to shut up.
-Take a shot for every great game by a US Olympian against the Caps. Subtract a shot for every great performance by John Carlson. All shots should be dyed red or blue.
-Take a shot for every point the Caps are out of a playoff spot. Take another one for every team ahead of the Caps that has ever employed Steve Mason.

Friday, January 10, 2014

A Capital at Heart: The Story of George Dobson

Nearly 25 years ago, I began my hockey playing days as an eleven year old kid at Herbert Wells Ice Rink in College Park, MD. I still remember the layout of the old wooden benches, the smell of the black rubber floor mats along with that unmistakable smell of 35 bags of kids' hockey gear. And I remember George.

At the time, George Dobson was just the omnipresent, massive, gruff and grumpy man who worked at the rink. While he didn't "run" the place, he ran the place. He drove the Zamboni. He fixed everything that broke. He managed the rink guards and seasonal staff. He walked around barking at everyone who worked at the rink. He barked at little kids for not picking up their sock tape or using said tape as a ball in an impromptu locker room hockey game. And when he barked it often seemed nonsensical, like he was speaking in tongues. You stayed away from George. George was just plain mean.

Or at least I thought.

Seven years later I began coaching the same Hockey Clinic at Wells that taught me how to play. While our little group of hockey coaches was somewhat sheltered from the rest of the rink staff, we still had some interaction based solely on necessities: we needed clean ice, clean locker rooms and access to other areas of the rink. As it turned out, when we were there, so was George. It didn't take long before I started incurring the wrath of the big man.

I got called out for not controlling the kids I coached off the ice. I got called out for not telling him a rink door stuck. I was yelled at for shooting pucks against the glass ("If you break my glass, you're coming in off the clock to replace it!"). For not shutting the penalty box door. For not having my class entirely off the ice at exactly 9:15. For nothing other than being the first person he saw. "I just got here" or "That's not my job" were not valid excuses. If he saw you standing around, he'd go punch out your time card. If you left your keys laying around, he'd hang them from the ceiling.

I'll be honest: as an eighteen year old college kid, I did not like George Dobson. Not one little bit.

When he wasn't at Wells, George moonlighted as the locker room attendant for the Caps, first at the Capital Centre/US Air Arena and later at Verizon Center. Mike Gartner to Alex Ovechkin, George helped them all. From my knowledge of the job, it seems pretty thankless: fetching tape, drinks, towels and other odds and ends for the players and coaches, filling up water bottles and later, picking up after the guys at the end of games and doing laundry. I'm sure you get the best and worst from a roomful of professional hockey players. If ever there was man suited for that sort of give-and-take, it was George.

George was strong. I mean ridiculously strong. I saw him do things with insanely heavy objects that forklifts can't do. I once saw him replace a pane of rink glass by himself (and that stuff is really heavy and awkward). On the ice, he was menacing. He didn't shake your hand, he engulfed it. Working at an ice rink for as long as he did, he learned to skate quite well. His natural strength meant that when he shot the puck, it was a rocket. One time while playing goal, George hit me in an under-padded spot with a simple wrist shot. I didn't walk right for a month. George was a natural athlete; fast, powerful and tough.

I mentioned before that George spoke in tongues. George was almost completely deaf and never really learned to speak correctly because of it. It wasn't until his funeral in 2009 that I learned he had been diagnosed as being mentally impaired rather than simply having a hearing disability and was treated as such for much of his early life. He was never given a chance at a good education. He even competed at the very first Special Olympics in Chicago in 1968 and won several gold medals in track and field.

I've heard a story about George that I have never been able to document but wouldn't doubt for a second. In 1979, with no formal hockey training and having never played on a real team, George traveled to Colorado Springs to try out for the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team. After practicing for the coaching staff, George was told he wouldn't be making the team. Not because he wasn't good enough, but because he was too physical for the style of game Herb Brooks wanted to play. I can imagine a bunch of Division I college kids, guys that went on to win that historic gold medal, coming down the ice and being destroyed into the boards by George. It's a true story, until I hear otherwise.

George was a tough man to know. It wasn't until I was well into my 20's that I began to appreciate his tough-love style. It kept some people away, as getting more than gruff replies to questions was rare. Communication was difficult, so he only really tried when he had something to say. It wasn't until late in life that he found love and became one of the best family men I've ever known; his wife and daughters meant everything to him. Having now started my own family, I can finally truly appreciate everything George did. He gave kids sticks and jerseys (I once saw him saw a game-used Ovechkin stick in half to fit a Mite). He made friends with people from all walks of life. To celebrate the birth of his first daughter, he brought us all cigars. Bubblegum cigars.

George left us too early, five years ago this past July. But to this day, we all still tell stories about George and laugh and cringe through them all. "If George was still here..." comes up every time something goes wrong at the rink and we can imagine his booming voice unintelligibly echoing through the rink. Needless to say, we still miss him.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Ten steps to becoming a puck-possession team

Ten steps to becoming a puck-possession team:

1.       Do things as a team. Remember the days of Alex Ovechkin rushing up the ice while the other 4 skaters lagged behind by 80 feet? That type of ‘FOLLOW ME GUYS!’ hockey is a great way to lose pucks. If you’re more than 20 feet ahead of the next closest teammate, you officially don’t have puck support on your side.

2.       Don’t be afraid to restart a play. If you’re rushing up ice and see absolutely no way of safely getting an offensive opportunity, why not give the puck back to the defense and restart the play. Those defensemen can usually see the entire ice in front of them. A good puck moving defender can take advantage of seams and lanes other players can’t see. And I’ll put this out there: if you are not a decent puck-moving defender, you have zero business being in the top six in the NHL.

3.       Be boring. This does not mean ‘stop being creative with the puck’. Just stop trying toe drags, between the legs moves and fancy stickhandling in situations where a turnover almost certainly results in an offensive opportunity for the other team. Don’t try to toe-drag a guy in your own zone. This should be obvious.

4.       Be strong on the puck. Power moves and strong skating back defenders off and create separation. And separation usually means more time and space to do something with the puck. Not everyone can back defenders off simply by being Nick Backstrom.

5.       Skate. I understand the idea of dumping the puck and out-working the opposition in the corners. But, and not to sound like Alex Semin here, if you have a skating lane to advance the puck, why not use it?

6.       Shorten the passes. Sure, stretch passes look great when they work, but short passes create odd-man opportunities and lessen the chance that a well-read play results in a turnover in a dangerous place. Short passes mean puck support and puck support usually means good hockey.

7.       Shoot. I don’t mean the way the guy with no understanding of the game yells ‘SHOOOOOOOT!!!’ from the 400 level. I mean if you can get the puck to the net, get it to the net. Pucks bounce, deflections happen. Stop looking for the perfect shot. If you're going to control the puck, the goal should be to use that possession to get shots on net, not to simply have the puck more. Also, I think Mike Green's wrist shot has proven that defensemen always looking for the slap shot is flawed logic. Change angles and get it on net.

8.       If you’re not going to put the puck IN the net, at least hit the goalie. High, rising shots tend to rattle around to wings defending the point and end up as instant break-outs for the other team (loss of possession). And teammates need to recognize the high, off the glass shot and move into a position to recover that puck rather than letting it sail out of the zone.

9.       Positioning over physicality. Hitting is fine and dandy but hitting for the sake of hitting isn't very strong hockey to me. Hits should serve the purpose of removing the puck from an opposing player. I would bet that sound positioning creates more turnovers than hits, simply because a hit takes out a player from both teams in the process.

10.   Rebound control. A goalie’s Number One priority is stopping pucks. But their second priority is to put pucks towards their own players if at all possible. Teams should work on defensive positioning based on their goalies. Anaheim won a Cup by teaching their goalies to leave rebounds for their defensemen to transition up ice.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Russian NHL Players Have A Lot To Think About

With the sudden departure of Ilya Kovalchuk from the NHL, many in the blogosphere have openly wondered about other Russian NHL stars such as Alex Ovechkin or Evgeny Malkin making the same move. Washington Capitals prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov has openly said he may pull a Kovalchuk when he turns 30. It may be a bit of a stretch, but with relations between the US and Russia hitting a sour note of late, among other issues, the issue may become a bit more complex.

It's a well-known idea that people have a certain amount of pride (and loyalty) to their country. Gone are the days of defection from an Eastern Block country in the middle of the night to come to North America and play in the NHL. Russian players have the choice to stay in their native land and play in a major professional league, the KHL, or come to North America to the NHL. Most superstars make the leap to the NHL, wanting to play against the best in addition to being paid well. Playing for the Stanley Cup is also kinda cool.

Now, bringing National Pride into the equation. If the US and Russia continue to bicker (and don't think Russia giving Edward Snowden temporary asylum isn't going to cause a whole new level of bickering and bitterness between the two countries), some Russian players may choose to stand on their country's side in political matters and retire to return to Russia. If Kovalchuk's departure proved anything, it's that if you're a big enough name you won't be taking a pay cut to make such a move.

The other big new out of Russia recently is its passage of an anti-gay rights activism law. It has already become an issue with the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympic games in Sochi, with Russia warning that athletes will be subject to the same laws while in the country. Hockey has been brought into the fight, with the You Can Play Project having strong support in NHL circles.

Thinking more long-term, this could potentially become an issue among Russian NHL players. Would you, as a Russian, publicly stand with You Can Play, knowing your home country's stance on the issue? I wonder how many Russian players want to stand with the organization but are afraid to. And if you were a supporter of You Can Play, would you make an ethical decision to stay in the NHL and effectively boycott your own country to make a point? Maybe. Freedom of speech is a big deal to some. Sometimes being allowed to take a stance on an issue is more important than what side of the issue you're on.

Like I said, these are grown men with the ability to make decisions about their futures. Kovalchuk chose to return home to be closer to family and friends. Whenever Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Malkin or any other Russian-born player currently in the NHL decides to return to their homeland, whether it's mid-career or retiring from the NHL in their 40s, they'll do so for their own reasons.

There might just be more reasons in play than we think.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Juice Boxes and Brains

I have two kids in daycare. My 10 month old, recently walking, is in a class close to the entrance to the building and generally has more "stuff" to pack up at the end of the day. This makes her the easy candidate for my first stop.

Packing her up and heading down the hallway to the three year old's class, home of my son, I routinely find the class is outside, attacking the jungle gym with a fervor. Usually my son will see me, run over, say his goodbyes and we're off.

Yesterday was different. Yesterday was scary.

I've seen it before where one or two of my son's classmates will come over to say hi to my daughter, henceforth called 'Baby'. The teachers will remind them not to touch The Baby, and they comply. But yesterday afternoon the kids were getting ready to come inside and were all together, with my son in the pack. I was mobbed with well over a dozen curious three and four year olds.

"The Baby. The Baby."

Hands were everywhere. My daughter was suddenly Justin Bieber standing in the hallway of a middle school. I had to lift her carrier up to chin level to keep them from mobbing her. It was a swarm. And then it hit me.

My God, this is a scene out of every good, old zombie movie. "Brains. Brains." "The Baby. The Baby." Same thing. I might not make it out of here.

No one ever really touches on the three year old point of view in Zombie movies, aside from the passing Zombie Baby or Zombie Toddler thrown in to add some humor (or humanity) to a scene. But after yesterday, I'm convinced that in the event of a full-scale Zombie Apocalypse, Zombie Kids will act differently than their adult counterparts: Zombie kids will go after their own. Young brains for young brains, or something like that. 

After yesterday, I'm not sure this hasn't already happened.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

No Ice? No Problem! How to Pick the 2014 Olympic Hockey Teams

With news that the cost of insuring players for on-ice participation in the various 2014 Olympic Hockey Orientation Camps is prohibitive to the players actually taking the ice to fight for the coveted spots, the big question is how the teams will be selected. It would make sense to evaluate players based on their on-ice play during the beginning of the 2013-2014 NHL, KHL and various other European league seasons. But surely there are better ways to pick a hockey team to compete in Sochi. Such as:

Goal Celebration Talent Show - Anything goes, from the Jagr Salute to miming jumping into the glass. And yes, unless you're Dustin Byfuglien, reenacting the Slap Shot strip tease is an option.

Career Fight Winning Percentage - There will be a few ties with this one and the obvious tiebreaker is to actually fight it out. But since getting insurance is the key issue here, they'll be using Pok√©mon cards.

Singing Contest - One song by an artist native to the team's country will be chosen for all the players to sing. Sorry prospective Team Russia players, you'll be singing 'All The Things She Said' by t.A.T.u. Stop laughing Team Canada... you're singing Nickelback's 'How You Remind Me'.

Beard Growing Contest - This one can't be as simple as 'best beards make the team' or great players like Sidney Crosby won't make their teams. Maybe we should change this to 'Skeevy Mustache Growing Contest' to help the follicaly-challenged superstars.

Jeopardy! - Only questions about your team's system and strategy, as well as about your potential teammates, are allowed. Don't forget to phrase your responses in the form of a question. Team Russia, the answer to 'How we enter the offensive zone' is 'What is pass the puck to Pavel'.

NHL '94 Tournament - Young guys are at a distinct disadvantage with this one, as players like Seth Jones and Alex Galchenyuk know the game as 'NHL The Year I Was Born'. Oh, and anyone that makes Gretzky's head bleed is off Team Canada. Forever.

Bake Sale - Of course, the best way to evaluate talent is on the ice, so why not raise enough money to actually skate. If Team Canada simply added Brooks Laich to their roster, some obsessive Caps fan would probably pay for the whole teams' insurance binder sight-unseen for Laich's "goodies", with severe disappointment to follow.