I have been incredibly lucky to attended 11 NHL All-Star Games - one of them for my radio station in Buffalo (1978), and I broadcast another (while working for the host, Los Angeles, in 1981). The game in Nashville will mark my 12th game, second as an on-air broadcaster. The memories I have taken from these spectacles are many.
The 1978 game, played at the “Aud” in Buffalo, was my first. I am still amazed I was there and working it as a reporter. Take a look at the lineups that night, right here.
It was as if I was reporting on a traveling Hockey Hall of Fame exhibit. How about a defense corps with Denis Potvin, Larry Robinson, Borje Salming, Brad Park and Serge Savard? Do you think you could put together a power play with them and Phil Esposito, Marcel Dionne, Guy LaFleur, Steve Shutt, Bill Barber and Bryan Trottier? Of course, if the power play didn’t work, you could count on Ken Dryden and “Battling” Billy Smith to stop the puck in your end of the ice!
All of that talent was deployed by the top coaches of the era: Montreal’s Scotty Bowman and Philadelphia’s Fred Shero.
In the summer of 1978, I was lucky enough to move from working for a radio station where covering hockey was part of the job, to working for a team. The Los Angeles Kings came calling that August, and three years later, they hosted the 33rd All-Star Game at the “Fabulous Forum” in Inglewood.
I was truly fortunate to learn how to do the job at an NHL level from another product of college hockey: Bob Miller. Miller had been Voice of the Wisconsin Badgers, and he moved to the Kings in 1973, just after calling the Badgers NCAA championship. I guess we can say he has made it now. He is still Voice of the Kings and was honored with the Foster Hewitt Award by the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2000. Miller and I were the radio broadcast team for the 1981 game.
There was a great deal of excitement when it was announced the Kings would be the hosts. It was the biggest thing that had happened to the franchise, which had begun play in 1967.
At that point in time, I was also doing some writing for the Kings’ edition of Goal Magazine. The coaches for the game were set – Scotty Bowman, then with Buffalo, and Pat Quinn of Philadelphia. The Kings had a trip into Buffalo just before the New Year’s holiday, so I had my first chance to talk with Scotty Bowman for the All-Star Program:
After that, it seemed as if Feb. 10th came around quickly. It was game time! The 1981 All-Star rosters may be seen here.Notice this lineup included No. 25 from the Vancouver Canucks, defenseman Kevin McCarthy! It was a very special night for the host team and Kings fans.
This was an era of the lower-scoring NHL All Star games, which really didn’t change until the 1990s, when the scores began hitting double digits. In the 1978 game in Buffalo, the final was Prince of Wales 3, Clarence Campbells 2, in overtime.
The 1981 game will always hold a special place in my heart because we hosted it in Los Angeles, which until that time seemed like a “hockey stepchild.” Maybe it still was until Wayne Gretzky was traded there in August of 1988, but for those days surrounding the game, it seemed like hockey had overtaken Southern California. No one appeared to be unhappy about making the trip, I can tell you that!
As the color commentator at the game, I was given a great assignment – head down the back stairs of the Forum to the dressing room area to interview the All-Stars during the intermissions. That included two players who were already well on their way to the Hall of Fame:
When the game ended, the Campbell Conference had defeated the Wales Conference, 4-1. Goaltenders who have played in this game over the past 25 years or so would probably shake their heads to know that it was one of their brethren – Mike Liut of the St. Louis Blues – who was named the game’s MVP:
After working two All-Star Games in four years, it would be 1996 until I attended my next – at what is now the TD Garden in Boston. Never to be forgotten there – the performance of local favorite Ray Bourque in a 5-4 win for the East over the West – and the debut of the “FoxTrax Puck.” Fox had recently taken over the national broadcast rights for the NHL, and was attempting to come up with an answer for the casual fan who would complain about how difficult it could be to follow the puck on their television screens. It solved that, but upset the purists, so the glowing puck and its comet tail soon disappeared.
Then, it was four-straight All-Star Games for me with two different formats: In Denver and Los Angeles in 2001 and 2002, it was North America vs. the World, and the two sides split those games. One great aside tor the second game in Los Angeles, and first at Staples Center – the first full reunion of the 1980 U.S. Olympic “Miracle on Ice” team.
The 2003 game in Sunrise, Florida, featured the first appearance of the shootout as the West beat the East, 6-5. In St. Paul, Minnesota, the following year, it was all part of a great Winter Festival with the East over the West, 6-4.
My next game was in Dallas in 2007, the West prevailed 12-9. The 2011 game in Raleigh, North Carolina, brought about the first of the “Fantasy Drafts,” which also seemed to usher in the super high scoring games. Nick Lidstrom’s team won, 11-10 over Eric Staal’s. In Ottawa in 2012, ex-Senator Zdeno Chara’s team beat the local captain, Daniel Alfredsson, 12-9. Last year in Columbus, they wore out the Blue Jackets’ cannon as Team Toews prevailed 17-12 over Columbus Captain Nick Foligno.
What will you remember from this year’s game, the 2016 edition in Music City? While it’s a fairly young group, there will be some Hall of Famers to remember, first among them Florida’s Jaromir Jagr, along with Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, who already is far and away the goal scoring leader of the NHL Draft class of 2004, with over 500. If you get to any of the activities, just absorb as much as you can. Hope to see you there! If you can’t make it, please do tune in!
The NHL All-Star Game has undergone tremendous change over the years. From its informal beginnings as a benefit for an injured player (covered in a previous post) to what is about to be unveiled at Bridgestone Arena at the end of this month, there has been a great variety of “Best vs. Best” in the hockey realm.
The All-Star Game officially became a regular part of the League’s calendar in 1947. At the outset, it was a preseason game, in which the previous Stanley Cup Champions would play the All-Stars from the other five NHL teams. That was essentially the form the game took through the start of the 1966-67 season.
There were some adjustments during that period as well, however. In both 1951 and 1952, the League had its previous season’s first All-Star team play the second, which produced two tied games.
In 1966, things began to dramatically change. They didn’t start the 1966-67 season with the All-Stars; instead, the NHL moved the game to midseason, where it has remained ever since. After the Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup in 1967, the NHL doubled in size, from six to 12 teams, adding Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis (each at previous points NHL cities), Minnesota, Oakland and Los Angeles (the 50th anniversary of this important NHL expansion will come next year in 2017).
Thus, the 1968 game was the last of the “Cup Champion against the remaining All-Stars” matchups. In 1969, the League pitted the Eastern Conference (established teams) versus the Western Conference (expansion teams).
At this point in time, hockey truly began expanding. The rival World Hockey Association appeared on the scene in 1972, so the NHL, not wanting to leave potential markets to that circuit, accelerated the expansion pace.
Buffalo and Vancouver began play in 1970, and those teams were both placed in the “established” Eastern Conference, with Chicago joining the 1967 expansion teams.
When the New York Islanders and Atlanta Flames joined in 1972, followed by the Kansas City Scouts and Washington Capitals in 1974, the league created the Clarence Campbell Conference with the Patrick and Smythe Divisions, and the Prince of Wales Conference with the Adams and Norris Divisions. If you want to check the records from that period, you will observe that most of them were geographically challenged. (Boston, Buffalo, and Toronto with California/Oakland?)
So in 1975, the NHL began staging the game with the Wales playing the Campbell Conference. There was a one-season departure in 1979. The Challenge Cup was staged at Madison Square Garden: a three-game series of NHL All-Stars against the Soviet Union, and the Soviets took it, two games to one.
In 1980, it was back to the Wales vs. Campbell format in Detroit, where 51-year-old, Red Wing-favorite Gordie Howe, representing the Hartford Whalers, drew an incredible reception at Joe Louis Arena:
From 1994 through 1997, the All-Star Game returned to the East vs. West format as the NHL renamed its conferences and divisions. For the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, in 1998, NHL professionals were allowed to compete. From that sprang five consecutive games pitting the North America All-Stars vs. the World All-Stars. This featured some interesting matchups of NHL teammates competing against each other.
When the game moved away from that, back to East vs. West in Sunrise, Florida, in 2003, the NHL added the shootout, as the West beat the East, 6-5, in the breakaway competition. The West’s Markus Naslund (Vancouver), Bill Guerin (Dallas) and Paul Kariya (Anaheim) all tallied in the shootout, with the East’s Dany Heatley (Atlanta) scoring the only successful try for the East. Heatley, with four goals in regulation was the MVP, and the shootout would come to the NHL regular season after the lockout of 2004-05.
Labor unrest (1995, 2005 and 2013) and Olympic (2006, 2010 and 2014) participation resulted in the loss of six All-Star games. In 2011, the NHL created the Fantasy Draft of players who had been selected for the game. That was abolished after last season’s game in Columbus.
Now we have the 3-on-3 tournament this month, and I am looking forward to this as Nashville welcomes the hockey world!
This one sort of snuck up on me, but by going through some other records, I realized I did my first hockey broadcast for pay (as opposed to a student station), on this date in 1974 – yes, 41 years ago!
A great deal of my youth was spent reading and watching sports, but I also spent a lot of time with the radios in our home, tuning in to games from all across the Midwest. In the summers, I regularly tuned in to Harry Caray and Jack Buck and the Cardinals on KMOX, Bob Elson and the White Sox on WMAQ, Ernie Harwell and the Tigers on WJR and many others. In the fall, it was Joe Boland or Van Patrick calling Notre Dame football with my dad joining me by the radio. The winters were reserved for Lloyd Pettit and Chicago Blackhawks hockey:
His “supercharged” calls of the adventures of Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Glenn Hall (later Tony Esposito) and the Hawks of that era caught my attention on those winter nights. (And I was just as charged-up when the Nashville Predators joined the NHL and Petit’s Milwaukee Admirals became the Predators farm club!)
In any case, it was those times listening to the radio, absorbing all I could, that drew me to the business and the games. I wanted to be able to call hockey like Lloyd Pettit! (The current Voice of the Blackhawks, Pat Foley, was a “member” of the same club!)
So, I got to Notre Dame just as varsity hockey was coming back to the school, and the Irish became full members of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association in my junior year. They no longer had to depend upon a frozen St. Joseph Lake to play; they had an indoor facility in the North Dome of what opened as the Athletic and Convocation Center in 1968. Charles “Lefty” Smith was the coach they brought in from St. Paul, Minnesota to oversee the rebirth of hockey in South Bend, and he oversaw the program from 1968 to 1987.
He was a great “father-away-from-home” to all of his players and the rest of us around the program. I was sitting at my computer in early 2012, ordering a birthday gift for him when I got the word he had passed. That was not an easy day.
Lefty was so patient to teach the intricacies of the game to so many, and was always very generous in the time he gave me. He also introduced me to the other giants of college hockey: Murray Armstrong of Denver University (winner of five NCAA titles), John MacInnes of Michigan Tech, who won three; “Badger Bob” Johnson, who won three championships at Wisconsin before moving onto the NHL; and, of course, Herb Brooks, who won three titles at Minnesota, along with the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” at Lake Placid.
It is all well and good that I had this ambition to get paid to broadcast my alma mater’s hockey games. In the spring of 1974, I learned that the man then in that saddle, Tom Ballinger, was going to give up that job to remain at WNDU Radio in an administrative role. So I set up a meeting with him to see if I might be able to become his successor.
It was set for the afternoon of April 4, 1974. I was sitting in the reception area of the station, the TV tuned to the afternoon’s NBC programming, when an announcer broke in, informing us that in Cincinnati, Henry Aaron had just hit his 714th home run, tying Babe Ruth’s record. Knowing that was going to come sooner or later, it was really no shock. What happened next was. A gentleman came out, introducing himself as “Station Operations Director Chuck Linster. Did you have an appointment with Tom Ballinger?” I replied that I had indeed. “Well he is no longer with us. Could I help you?”
“Sure,” I replied. “Are you guys looking for someone to replace Tom doing the Notre Dame Hockey games?” Within a few minutes – or so it seemed – I had achieved my goal!
That began a two-season stint broadcasting Notre Dame hockey on radio and anchoring weekend TV sports – and occasional weeknight fill-ins for Tom Dennin. (He played himself in the movie “Rudy:”)
Those two years in the WCHA brought me into contact with announcers Chuck Kaiton (Michigan and Wisconsin, then Hartford and now Carolina), long-time Rochester Americans voice Don Stevens (North Dakota) and Rich Marotta (Colorado College), now calling boxing for Fox Sports, whose spot I took next to Bob Miller (Wisconsin) on the Los Angeles Kings broadcasts several years later.
After that, I moved to Buffalo and in addition to covering the NBA, NHL and NFL there, I was able to do a lot of college play-by-play, including University at Buffalo hockey. UB had a young center, Frank Anzalone, who went on to a long coaching career at Lake Superior State, winning the Frozen Four title in 1988. A future Predators defenseman (Dan Keczmer) was on that time, as well as a future Predators broadcaster (Mike Greenlay).
I had no idea of the journey that was beginning at that time, and I have had no legitimate complaints about any of my three NHL stops: Los Angeles, Buffalo and Smashville!
I think sports fans of all ages always want to see the “best against the best” in whatever sport(s) they follow. Over 80 years ago, one such fan, who attained a high level of influence, stepped forward to make such dreams come true.
Arch Ward was the Sports Editor of the Chicago Tribune, but he stepped over from supervising the coverage of sporting events to creating them. When the “Century of Progress” World’s Fair came to Chicago in the early 1930s, he convinced baseball’s American and National Leagues to meet in the first MLB All-Star Game at Comiskey Park in 1933. Just to make it “official,” Babe Ruth hit the first home run in the All-Star Game!
With that success, baseball has continued that game to this day. The following year, Ward put together the first College All-Star Football Game at Soldier Field – pitting the collegians against the professional champions from the previous season. In the earlier years, this proved to be a fairly even match, and the game continued through 1976.
Did you know that the NHL All-Star Game, which will be staged in Nashville on Jan. 31 had its roots around that time as well?
It all happened as a way to benefit some injured players. Toronto’s Ace Bailey had to retire after a check from Bruins defenseman Eddie Shore left him with a fractured skull. To raise funds for Bailey, on Valentine’s Day in 1934 (see what Arch Ward had started), a sold-out Maple Leaf Gardens hosted the defending Stanley Cup champion Maple Leafs, who beat a team of All-Stars selected from the other eight NHL teams at the time. You may have seen the picture of Shore shaking hands with Bailey in a pregame ceremony (above).
The NHL staged two more benefit games soon thereafter. On Nov. 3, 1937, at the Forum in Montreal, the Canadiens lost to the All-Star Team. This game was to benefit the family of Montreal great Howie Morenz (the great grandfather of former Nashville Predator Blake Geoffrion). Morenz had died after suffering a broken leg early that calendar year.
The third happened on Oct. 29, 1939 – the “Babe Siebert Memorial Game.” Siebert had drowned during the summer, the summer before he was to become head coach of the Canadiens. The All-Stars beat the Canadiens 5-2 that night.
It wasn’t until 1947 that the All-Star Game became a regular part of the NHL schedule. In those early days, they stuck with the concept from the three benefit games, pitting the Stanley Cup champion against the All Stars. Rather than doing it at mid-season, they did it to open the year, and the All-Star Game opened the NHL slate through 1965! That was fine for a League that had only six teams at that point.
But, as we have found out, the NHL All-Star Game is an ever-evolving product. We will examine that in more detail soon.
The National Hockey League really is in Brooklyn now – with the move of the New York Islanders from the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
The NHL was in Brooklyn, but by name only, in the 1941-42 season. The New York Americans played that year under that moniker, but never moved from Madison Square Garden, as there was no suitable facility in the borough to house the team.
In 1925, the Americans had become the second team to call the United States home, following the Boston Bruins. Their box office success prompted Madison Square Garden to get a team of their own – the Rangers – the following season.
The Americans suspended play after that one season playing under the Brooklyn name, ostensibly to return at the conclusion of World War II. The League, however, decided not to reinstate the franchise and folded it instead. Thus, the inaccurate phrase “The Original Six” came to life and lasted through the 1966-67 season, after which came the various waves of expansion.
In reality, the NHL came from the National Hockey Association, beginning NHL play in 1917-18 with four teams: the Montreal Wanderers, the Montreal Canadiens, the Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Arenas. In its history prior to the 1940s, there were also teams in Quebec, Hamilton, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and St. Louis, so “Original Six,” really should be “Surviving Six.”
That’s the “hockey part” of the story. The other involves the location of the Barclays Center, where the Predators play Thursday night. Its address is 620 Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn – at the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush. It is built above a platform over the Atlantic Terminal of the Long Island Railroad. This brings us to the “baseball part” of my story.
The Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles after the 1957 season. But was Dodgers’ owner Walter O’Malley truly the villain here? Shortly after taking over control of the Dodgers in 1950, O’Malley realized that Ebbets Field was about to outlive its usefulness. Ebbets Field had roughly 700 parking spaces around it, and with the exodus of so many Dodger fans from the borough to Long Island and other suburban locales, O’Malley recognized that public transportation would be the key.
At the time, Robert Moses was effectively New York emperor of all land development. Never elected to a public office, Moses nevertheless was behind numerous public authorities, which put him in charge of bridges, parks, highways and many urban renewal projects.
Moses and O’Malley were constantly on opposite sides of various arguments. In 1955 (ironically, the year that marked the only World Series championship in Brooklyn Dodgers history), Moses rejected O’Malley’s offer to build a $6 million, domed stadium at the very sight where the Barclays Center now sits. The only land that Moses was willing to give O’Malley was in Flushing Meadow, where Shea Stadium was built, adjacent to the Mets’ current home, Citi Field.
As a result of that spat, New York was without National League baseball from 1958-61 (as the Giants left the even more decrepit Polo Grounds, joining the Dodgers on the West Coast), and Brooklyn’s downtown development was delayed by almost 60 years.
In hindsight, O’Malley’s heirs are probably grateful – and that’s the rest of the story of Brooklyn and major league sports.
About a year ago at this time, there was so much doubt surrounding the Nashville Predators. The team had missed the playoffs each of the previous two seasons, though they were somehow six games above .500 the season before.
There was someone other than Barry Trotz behind the bench for the first time in team history. The Central Division was shaping up as the most difficult in all of the NHL (the maximum five teams made the playoffs in 2014-15: St. Louis, Nashville, Chicago, Minnesota and Winnipeg).
Again, a year ago at this time there were so many questions surrounding the Predators. Peter Laviolette was taking over behind the bench, bringing his long-time assistant, Kevin McCarthy with him, joining up with holdover Phil Housley. How would the team react to the change behind the bench?
After not being available for 51 games in 2013-14, would Pekka Rinne be able to bounce back? Was he healthy enough to carry the team again? Another question of health regarded Mike Fisher, who ruptured an Achilles tendon during summer workouts. Would he be able to bounce back – and if so, when?
Every team has questions heading into training camp. A year ago, there was a great deal of concern about them.
With the Predators opening the Ford Ice Center in September and hosting a prospects tournament with the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers participating, thing began to look better very quickly.
New Head Coach Peter Laviolette found a key answer to the team’s need for increased scoring in Filip Forsberg, who made the all-tournament team and took that into a spectacular first full season. Forsberg played in the 2015 NHL All-Star Game in Columbus and finished with a team-high 26 goals and 63 points.
Forsberg spent much of the season on a line with Mike Ribeiro (signed to a one-year “show me” contract during the summer) and James Neal (acquired in a trade with Pittsburgh) to give the team a legitimate first line. As it turned out, Fisher was able to return in late November and helped provide a solid second line and lead Colin Wilson to his first 20-goal season.
Pekka Rinne bounced back splendidly, playing 64 games and winning 41 of them, two shy of his career best in 2011-12, when he played in nine more games.
Who can be the answers to this season’s questions? Will Barrett Jackman add an edge to the defense? How will Seth Jones perform in his third season?
There are so many youngsters to watch as this camp begins – one caught the eye of many in the recent prospects tournament in Florida: center Yakov Trenin, an 18-year old Russian who played in the Quebec League last winter in Gatineau.
Kevin Fiala got into a bit of action with the Predators last season, and he has vowed to make the team in this camp. Free-agent signee Steve Moses, out of the University of New Hampshire, came over from the KHL where he was a dominant scorer. Cody Hodgson is getting another NHL shot after signing as a free agent from Buffalo.
Those are just some of the candidates to be “answers.” Have fun watching!
Since we last got together…
The Chicago Blackhawks won their third Stanley Cup in six seasons and shortly thereafter the offseason began. The Toronto Maple Leafs have dominated the headlines there, bringing in Mike Babcock from Detroit to coach, convincing Lou Lamoriello to leave New Jersey to be the general manager of the Leafs and trading elite forward Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh.
Other big moves around the NHL included Colorado trading center Ryan O’Reilly to Buffalo; the Kings picking up left wing Milan Lucic from the Bruins; Boston also moving defenseman Dougie Hamilton to Calgary; the Blackhawks sending Patrick Sharp to Dallas and Brandon Saad to Columbus and the Stars signing former Chicago defenseman Johnny Oduya. Meanwhile, looking for Cup-winning experience, the Capitals signed free agent Justin Williams away from the Kings.
So the Chicago Blackhawks have now become the first team to win three Stanley Cups in the 10 seasons of the NHL’s Salary Cap Era. They have done it in a six-season span.
Next season, the Los Angeles Kings have a chance to one up the Blackhawks’ efforts. A 2016 Cup victory for the Kings would give them three championships in five seasons. Just think, a team that didn’t make the playoffs this season has a chance to accomplish that! For further consideration, if the Kings hadn’t beaten the Blackhawks on an OT goal in Game Seven of last season’s Western Final, the Blackhawks would have had their own shot at three Cups in five seasons, not to mention two straight!
Let’s keep in mind the Salary Cap part of all this. The cap is intended to even out the playing field and to make it more difficult to repeat or sustain excellence. It appears to have accomplished that, with seven different teams winning the Cup since the cap became a part of NHL life.
Today’s NHL does not feature teams winning five straight Cups, as Montreal did from 1956-60. Not to diminish their titles, but the Canadiens took those in the six-team League. Nor are we likely to see something like the New York Islanders of 1980 through 1984 (with 21 teams in the League), who won the Cup in the 1980-1983 seasons and went to the Cup Final in 1984, having established a mark of 19 consecutive playoff series victories. Picking up directly from those Islanders were the Edmonton Oilers, who won the championship five times in seven seasons.
Clearly, this is the zenith of the Blackhawks’ 89 year history, which began in 1926. Prior this run, they have hoisted the Cup three times – in 1934, 1938 and 1961. In the early years, they were defeated in the Final in 1931 and 1944. After winning in 1961, they learned that it wasn’t easy to “get there,” with losses in 1962, 1965, 1971 (with 14 NHL teams), 1973 (16 teams) and 1992 (22 teams).
That 1961 team, playing in an era when only two series victories were required to win the Cup, never recaptured the magic. Consider the Hall of Fame talent on those teams: Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Pierre Pilote, and Glenn Hall. Hull was only 21 and Mikita, 20, while Pilote and Hall were the “old timers” at 28! Perhaps a lesson here for the Tampa Bay Lightning, as Brent Seabrook told an interviewer after the Final concluded: “We’d better keep an eye on the Lightning to see what they do over the next six years.”
The year before the Predators began play in 1998-99, the Hawks did not make the playoffs. As a matter of fact, they only made it once in 10 seasons, and that was a first-round exit for them. The United Center wasn’t always the “Madhouse on Madison II.” In those days, sometimes visiting broadcasters would hear their own words echo back at them.
As the Predators joined the NHL, the dominant pre-salary cap team was the Detroit Red Wings. The Wings’ great run began in the lockout-shortened 1995 season. They lost the Cup Final that year to New Jersey and lost the Conference Final the following season to Colorado – at the very beginning of the Red Wings/Avalanche rivalry. (Who said rivalries need time to establish themselves? They definitely hated each other from the first puck drop! The Avs – originally the Nordiques – didn’t move from Quebec City to Denver until the summer of 1995).
In that pre-cap era, if a team had the money and was willing to spend it, the only thing holding them back was their imagination. The New York Rangers spent wildly, yet did not make the playoffs for seven straight seasons (1998-2004). But it can work both ways, of course. Since the institution of the cap, the Maple Leafs have made the playoffs just once in 10 years.
By the fall of 1996, the Red Wings were ready. With Steve Yzerman and the “Russian Five,” they became the last team to win Cups in back-to-back seasons in 1997 and 1998. The 1997 championship represented the end of a 42-year drought without a Cup in Detroit, just like the 2010 Cup ended 49 years for Chicago. The Wings beat Colorado in the 1997 Conference Final, then Dallas in 1998. Colorado derailed them in both the 1999 and 2000 Conference Semis.
Examine the roster, for example, of the 2002 Red Wings: it featured nine members of the Hockey Hall of Fame, including Coach Scotty Bowman, and players Brendan Shanahan, Brett Hull, Nicklas Lidstrom, Luc Robitaille, Steve Yzerman, Igor Larionov, Chris Chelios and Dominik Hasek, who are already enshrined. You can make a pretty good argument that Sergei Fedorov and Pavel Datsyuk will make it as well. The payroll for that team was roughly $65 million. The cap limit this past season was $69 million!
Following a first-round upset at the hands of Los Angeles in 2001, the Wings beat Colorado in another Western Final, then took out the Carolina Hurricanes to win the 2002 Cup, equaling the Blackhawks’ feat of three titles in six seasons. In 2007, Detroit lost the Western Final to the eventual champion Anaheim Ducks, followed directly by a Cup triumph over the Pittsburgh Penguins, then a loss in the 2009 rematch with Pittsburgh. Since then, they have lost three Western Semifinals and have been eliminated three times in the first round (including 2012 versus the Predators).
Great teams can drive other great teams to success. The Avs and Red Wings were good for each other. Colorado got through Detroit to win their first Cup in 1996. Detroit beat Colorado in 1997, 2002 and 2008 enroute to championships.
The Kings and Chicago have been good for each other as well. After winning their first Cup in 2012, the Kings lost in the Western Final to Chicago the following season. Los Angeles prevailed over the Rangers in that seven-game extravaganza in 2014, on the overtime goal by Alec Martinez. This season, 95 points were not enough to gain a playoff berth for the Kings. That left them three points behind Calgary in the division and four points back of Winnipeg in the Wild Card race.
So, what happens next? With the summer months upon us, we know rosters will be juggled, that’s for certain!
In my mind, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are the best “sports theatre” available. The atmosphere, the intensity, the drama is all there. Now, the National Hockey League has been blessed with two Conference Finals that will go seven games for the first time since the year 2000. This is really something special.
The Nashville Predators have not been involved in a Game Seven yet. In my three seasons with the Los Angeles Kings, we did not have that experience either. In Buffalo, where I spent most of my time prior to my move to Nashville in September of 1998, there were but a relative few. In 45 years, the Sabres are 1-6 all-time in series that go the distance:
- 1983 L, 2-3 OT at Boston (Bruins led series, 3-2)
- 1992 L, 2-3 at Boston (Bruins led series, 3-1)
- 1994 L, 1-2 at New Jersey (Sabres won Game 6 in 4 OT)
- 1997 W, 3-2 OT vs. Ottawa (Ottawa led series, 3-2)
- 2001 L, 2-3 OT vs. Pittsburgh (Sabres led series, 3-2)
- 2006 L, 2-4 at Carolina (Sabres took Game 6 in OT)
- 2011 L, 2-5 at Philadelphia (Sabres led series, 3-2)
Each one of those series has special story lines as noted. The 1997 series with Ottawa was special to me – as I was calling the games on radio and it included my one and only Game Seven.
The drama was all there. Goaltender Dominik Hasek quit on his team in Game Three, sprinting off the ice after a goalmouth collision, turning things over to Steve Shields, who had all of 15 games of NHL experience at that point in his career. Shields finished with a 3-2 win in that contest, but then the Senators (in their first playoff series since the NHL’s return to Ottawa), took the next two games, 1-0 in overtime at Ottawa and 4-1 at Buffalo. Andrei Trefilov finished Game Five for Shields.
The pressure was on for Game Six at Ottawa. The Sabres had won the Northeast Division Title that season and would eventually take home a lot of postseason hardware from the NHL Awards Show that June in Toronto.
In that sixth game, Shields turned in a masterpiece – a 3-0 shutout of the Senators, setting up the fourth Game Seven in Sabres history. The Sabres tied the game on a face-off play involving Derek Plante and Alexei Yashin. Trying to pull the draw to the end boards, Plante tied up Yashin’s stick and the puck ended up blooping over goaltender Ron Tugnutt into the Ottawa net.
That eventually helped the game into overtime and here/”hear” is how it ended.
Game Seven is truly special – enjoy the wealth of them that has been bestowed upon us this weekend!
With their victory in Washington on March 28, the Nashville Predators clinched a playoff berth, the eighth time they have managed to do so in 11 seasons. That’s a record of consistency interrupted by the previous two campaigns.
The interesting thing to consider here is: What caused them to fall out of the playoff picture during those two seasons?
2012-13 Nashville Predators:
The abbreviated 2012-13 team (the lockout-shortened season started on Jan. 19) never had a chance when you examine the stats. The previous season, when the Preds went two playoff rounds (knocking off Detroit in Nicklas Lidstrom’s last go-round, before losing to the Coyotes in the second), they were fifth overall in the League. That success was built on having the top power play in the NHL, which gave them the eighth-best offensive numbers overall. The 2011-12 team was also 10th in goals-against. All of those are great indicators of success, and they proved to be just that.
The following season, in 48 games, the Predators had all the negative indicators: tied for last offensively (the power play dropped off to 17th), defensively, they fell from 10th to 20th and their penalty kill was next-to-last. David Legwand led the team with 12 goals. Gabriel Bourque was next, with 11 in 34 games played, and Mike Fisher had 10 in 38; Shea Weber and Nick Spaling were next with nine. Patric Hornqvist was only able to play in half the schedule.
The 2012-13 Predators began the season 7-3-4, but finished 9-20-5 for a 16-23-9 final mark. They rallied to a 15-14-8 record, but then lost 10 of their final 11 (1-9-1).
2013-14 Nashville Predators:
Gone from the team when training camp began in September of 2013 were: goaltender Chris Mason (to Europe); forwards Martin Erat (traded with Michael Latta to Washington in the Filip Forsberg deal at the 2013 trade deadline), Sergei Kostitsyn (to the Kontinental Hockey League), Matt Halischuk (free agent signee by Winnipeg), Bobby Butler (traded to Florida), Brandon Yip (free agent with the Coyotes) and Chris Mueller (free agent with Dallas). Defensemen Hal Gill (free agent to Philadelphia) and Jon Blum (signed by Minnesota) were also gone.
The structure for making the playoffs changed for the full season following that shortened schedule. The League was split into two divisions in each conference. The Eastern Conference had two eight-team divisions, the Western Conference two seven-team divisions. The top three teams in each division made the playoffs, along with two Wild Card teams in each conference. Previously, with three divisions in each conference, it was simply the best eight records that made it and they were seeded accordingly.
The Predators had to overcome a lot in 2013-14 – most notably the infection that hit goaltender Pekka Rinne after their second trip to Minnesota. He underwent surgery and was not available for the next 51 games. Somehow, they managed to go 21-21-9 without him and stayed in the race.
Nashville used four goaltenders during Rinne’s absence: Carter Hutton, Magnus Hellberg, Marek Mazanec and Devan Dubnyk. Hutton had only played in one NHL game before the season, but he fared well, going 13-10-4 with Rinne unavailable (and 20-11-4 overall). 22-year-old Magnus Hellberg played just a portion of one period. Mazanec, also 22 that season, was a very competitive 8-10-4 with 2.80 goals-against and .902 save percentage.
Dubnyk, acquired in a January trade with Edmonton (for summer free-agent signee forward, Matt Hendricks), bore no resemblance to the goaltender he has been this season with Arizona and (especially) Minnesota. In 124 minutes, he only stopped 85 percent of the shots he faced.
After Rinne returned, the Preds went 12-7-2, taking six of their final seven games to fall three points behind the Dallas Stars for the last playoff spot (with the Coyotes in-between). In circumstances like that, you realize that two more wins would have done the job.
The team was not offensively robust; finishing tied for 18th in goals, but did have four 20-goal men (Craig Smith 24, Shea Weber 23, Patric Hornqvist 22 and Mike Fisher with 20). Eric Nystrom was next with 15 (including the first four-goal game in team history, at Calgary).
That frustrating season brought about another rebuild, some of which included the maturation of the team’s younger players.
Hornqvist and Spaling were dealt to Pittsburgh at the Draft for sniper James Neal. Olli Jokinen was signed to help out at center. Shortly thereafter came the news that Fisher had ruptured his Achilles tendon; that resulted in a search for even more depth at center.
On July 15, Derek Roy signed a free-agent deal after his time with Buffalo, Dallas, Vancouver and St. Louis. On the same day, Mike Ribeiro was signed to a one-year contract after the Coyotes had bought him out.
Ribeiro remains, and he has been a key to the Predators offensive success, centering the first line. His smooth passing skills and poise have been a great help to his former Dallas teammate James Neal, along with the rookie sensation Forsberg and Craig Smith.
Fisher’s late-November (ahead of schedule) return to the lineup also provided a spark to both the powerplay and penalty kill. He centers the second line and should be credited a great deal for Colin Wilson’s first 20-goal season. On a per-game basis, this is Fisher’s best goal-scoring season (he previously had 25 for the Ottawa Senators in 2009-2010).
While the team’s offensive production has fallen off from a fast start, one thing that hasn’t changed over the course of the year is the team’s resilience. They have been particularly strong in games decided by one goal and there have been quite a few of those. As of this writing, 57.7 percent of their games have been decided by the slimmest of margins.
If anything became absolutely clear in this season’s success, it’s how important Pekka Rinne is. With apologies to the late Marvin (“The Human Eraser”) Webster of ABA/NBA fame, Rinne has been able to correct a number of mistakes and kept the team in the Top Five in goals-against all season.
And there are the reasons why this team made the playoffs!