Plus concussion talk is back and we still don't know what to do about it.
Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Three Stars of Comedy
The third star: This very polite referee – Even a Bruins fan couldn't get too upset with too-many-men calls if they were all announced like this.
The second star: This very realistic rock star – He gets it.
The first star: This very mean left winger – So much for the tolerant left.
Boys, easy, we're all friends here. Can't we think back to happier times of Kraft Dinner, mystery laundry and electric pilot lights?
Outrage of the Week
The issue: In his new book, Ken Dryden is calling on the NHL to ban all hits to the heads and "just finishing my check" late hits as part of an overhaul aimed at reducing concussions.
The outrage: It's too much. Or it's not enough. Or it's too late. Or we're just tired of the whole conversation.
Is it justified: TSN's Bob McKenzie pretty much nails the sentiment in this heartfelt response to Dryden, in which he basically agrees with the book's premise while still feeling weary over having the whole debate yet again. McKenzie has been at the forefront of the concussion conversation for years, long before the rest of the sports media caught up, at least partly because it was personal for him. If he seems worn out, well, he's earned it.
It feels like we've been talking about this stuff forever. It also feels like nothing has ever actually changed. How is that possible? How can not doing anything be so exhausting?
Dryden is one of the smartest people in hockey; he literally wrote the book on the sport, when he published The Game in 1983. His new book is called Game Changer, and it's going to land in the hockey world with an impact. You should read it. We all should.
And then, we'll start up the same old arguments we've already been having. Some will want to see blanket bans on all hits to the head, including fighting. Others will mumble about the good old days and how hockey players used to be tough and how we can go watch figure skating if we don't like it. And around and around we'll go.
I've written about "just finishing my check" before, and I'm all on favor of getting rid of the whole concept. It doesn't make sense that arriving a tenth of a second too early is always a penalty, but two seconds late sometimes isn't. Treat it like the NFL treats hitting a QB—if you haven't already committed to the hit, you have to avoid it. That's a simple change, and the NHL should make it.
Banning all hits to the head is tougher. I'm all for it; I'm just not convinced you can make it happen. Take a look at Martin Hanzal's hit on Yannick Weber from last week. In a league where open-ice checking is allowed, how do you hit a guy who's coming straight at you with his head that low? Is there any responsibility at all on the guy with the puck to protect himself? Can you just hunch over and stay low and become untouchable? That sounds silly, but then we used to think players would never intentionally turn their backs along the boards to avoid hits, and now it's a standard play. So I don't know.
And that's the frustrating part. I've been writing about this stuff for almost a decade, and I still don't know. Not what to do, not what to change, not what to keep. Almost all of us want to get to the same place, but nobody seems to know how.
In the end, maybe it comes down to the point McKenzie makes at the end of his essay: Eventually, the players have to decide what kind of game they want to play. If they want big changes, they have the power to make it happen. If they're OK with the status quo, then the rest of us are probably wasting our time.
Or maybe that's just passing the buck, and taking the easy way out on a hard question. Even after all this time, I honestly still don't know.
Obscure Former Player of the Week
Today marks the 24th anniversary of the first-ever NHL meeting between Wayne and Brent Gretzky. So it seems like a good day to honor another member of the Less Successful Younger Brother Travelling All-Stars, joining past alumni like Fedor Fedorov and Rocky Trottier. This week's obscure player is Steve Kariya.
Kariya was a college star who captained the University of Maine to an NCAA championship in 1999. But unlike his older brother Paul, who went fourth overall in 1993, Steve was never even drafted. The reason was fairly simple: He was just too small. At 5'6" and 170 pounds, he'd probably have a shot today, but back in the late-90s you almost never saw players that size.
Still, Kariya caught on with the Canucks as a free agent, and made an early impression by putting up ten points in six games during the 1999 preseason. That earned him a spot on the roster, and he managed eight goals and 19 points in 45 games as a rookie. Unfortunately, he'd play just 20 more NHL games and score just one more goal over the next two seasons in Vancouver, before being dealt to the Devils for Mikko Jokela. He never suited up in New Jersey, or anywhere else in the NHL. His big-league career was over after three seasons and 65 games.
That left him well behind his Hall-of-Fame brother on the all-time scoring list, although his contribution does get the family over the 1,000-point mark. He went on to a decent pro career in the AHL and Europe, and was popular with fans who appreciated the hard work he had to put in to compete against bigger players. You can relive some of his best moments through the wonders of still photography in this fan-made YouTube tribute video.
Debating the Issues
This week's debate: The Toronto Maple Leafs are good again, and Auston Matthews is emerging as an early MVP candidate. Do the Leafs get too much media attention?
In favor: Oh lord yes. Ask a fan of literally any other team. We're already sick of having the Leafs shoved down our throats.
Opposed: Oh, stop being so sensitive. The Leafs are a fun team. Their rapid-fire rebuild is an interesting story. And yes, they're one of the league's biggest markets, so of course they're going to get some extra attention. That's how the media works.
In favor: Some extra attention? Try all of it. You'd think none of the other teams even existed, thanks to all this round-the-clock coverage of whether Matthews scratched his left or his right cheek when he woke up this morning.
Opposed: You're exaggerating. Other teams get plenty of attention too, even if grumpy fanbases want to resort to making stuff up to pretend otherwise. In a 24-hour media world, there's plenty of coverage to go around, and if you can't find anything about your team it's because you'd rather whine than look for it.
In favor: But that's the point. I have to go looking for my team, because everybody leads with the Leafs and Matthews.
Opposed: Of course they do. You don't think Aaron Judge gets extra attention because he plays for the Yankees? Dak Prescott shouldn't have a bigger spotlight on the Cowboys? This is how the world works. That's not bias. That's just business.
In favor: It's business and bias, and there's nothing wrong with pointing that out.
Opposed: Oh boo hoo. You guys are so paranoid, always seeing pro-Leafs bias lurking behind every corner. It's almost comical.
In favor: Maybe not every corner, but it's…hey, wait a second, isn't this very column written by a known Leafs fan?
Opposed: Um… no it's not.
In favor: It totally is. He can't go two weeks without writing about them. They're even in this week's YouTube section.
Opposed: OK, fine. But again, that's not the same as being biased.
In favor: How can you tell?
Opposed: Because if this column were biased, your side of the debate would be written in a way that made you seem ridiculous.
In favor: Huh. I guess that's a good point. And in related news, I am a big stupid-head.
Opposed: Huh. Interesting.
In favor: HEY! I saw that! This is exactly what I'm talking about! A real-life example of the media favoring the Maple Leafs over my lame boring team that literally nobody cares about.
Opposed: You don't say?
In favor: STOP THIS! This isn't fair! Also, I am a giant crybaby with a crippling case of little-brother syndrome, and secretly want the Maple Leafs to win because complaining about them is the only joy in my dull and shallow life.
In favor: I hate you.
Opposed: The media is not biased in favor of the Maple Leafs and Auston Matthews.
In favor: The media is not biased in favor of the Maple Leafs and Auston Matthews.
The final verdict: The media is not biased in favor of the 2018 Stanley Cup champion Toronto Maple Leafs and perfect wonderful boy Auston Matthews, and anyone who says otherwise is a big whiny baby.
Classic YouTube Clip Breakdown
So yeah, things are going pretty well in Toronto these days. But balance is important, so we need to nudge Leaf fans back towards their natural state of despair. So today, let's travel back to 1991 for a reminder that the Leafs can't ever have nice things.
- We're watching an interview with Maple Leafs GM Floyd Smith, who's in his second season on the job and has had a busy few months. He recently made the worst trade in Maple Leafs history, his team is headed for last place, and everyone in Toronto wants him to lose his job. It's not going well.
- This clip is from 1991. I don't have a specific date, but it's from some time before June, because that's when Smith is going to get fired. I would have put a spoiler alert on that, but this is a story about the Maple Leafs. You already knew it wasn't ending well.
- In case you're not familiar with Floyd Smith, he played 13 seasons in the NHL, was a head coach for six seasons, went into scouting, and was eventually named Toronto's GM in 1989. He's a guy who's been around. And, as we're about to find out, at this point in his career he gives exactly zero dangnabbits what you or anyone else think about his work.
- Our piece is introduced by CTV sports anchor Joe Tilley, who doesn't seem to be a big fan of Smith's. He's actually being restrained here—check out this clip from the same season in which he absolutely ethers Smith as "under-qualified and hopelessly incompetent." And here he is two decades later singing about the Leafs being hopeless. Also, he was apparently a three-time Alberta welterweight champion. I thoroughly enjoy Joe Tilley.
- Sadly, Tilley isn't handling the actual interview; those duties to go to Suneel Joshi. But first, we need to meet the unquestioned star of our show: Whoever it is that does the graphics at CTV sports. This guy is fantastic. He starts us off with "Crisis Management" and a Maple Leafs logo being torn in half. That's some subtle symbolism right there.
- Wait, why is the "A" from Leafs lying there, but not the "O" from Toronto? This is going to bother me all day.
- Smith starts right in on the Leafs, and how awful they've been for the last decade. He's not wrong there. Meanwhile, Joshi listens to him with the exact same expression and posture my wife uses when I try to tell her about my fantasy football team.
- Joshi asks about the pending shakeup in Leafs ownership, and whether that has Smith worried. The GM replies that "I don't hear very much from the people around here." Uh, that probably means you should be worried, Floyd.
- We get our second graphic: "Let's Make a Deal," which disappointingly does not feature a bunch of Maple Leaf players dressed in outrageous costumes. Instead, it's fistful of Canadian twenties, which appear to be being offered to the Maple Leafs logo as compensation for the recent ripping-in-half incident.
- Smith pumps the tires of a few of the team's veterans, including team captain Rob Ramage, "who gives us tremendous leadership." Fun fact: the Leafs lost Ramage in the expansion draft that May.
- We really kick into high gear when Joshi asks if Smith has given up too much of the future. "What future? What'd I give up?" I love this answer so much, and it's made even better when Joshi asks a follow-up about Scott Pearson and Smith answers by talking about Scott Thornton, who at this point is still on the team. But for the record, neither Pearson nor Johnny McIntyre amounted to all that much, so Smith is kind of sort of right here.
- Smith then explains that "all the teams that are up near the top" are trading away picks and prospects, which is maybe not the best point to hit when your team is closing in on dead last. But he redeems himself with "Draft picks are good when they play, but only 20% of them play." Hell yeah, look at Floyd breaking out the analytics!
- Seriously though, Cliff Fletcher said "draft schmaft" in 1996 and to this day people still bring it up, but Smith basically torched his whole scouting department in this interview and nobody cared. The internet ruined everything.
- Our next graphic: "The Price Is Right." Wait, are we doing a game show theme here? Was "Crisis Management" a game show? Because that sounds awesome.
- We shift to talk about Wendel Clark's contract, during which Smith says Clark's recent problems were "more mental than physical." Again, let's imagine a GM saying something like this today. We'd have three days of blistering hot takes and counter-takes. Back then, every Leaf fan watched this interview and went "Sure, I guess" and went back to organizing our eight-track cassettes.
- Our last graphic is "Search for Tomorrow," which was definitely not a game show. But that doesn't bother me because I'm looking at a Maple Leafs logo flat on its back while beams of light poke through a clouded sky. Did…did the Maple Leafs die? Are they going to heaven right now, graphics guy? Should I have brought flowers?
- "We're in a tough division with some good hockey teams." Oh great, as if things weren't bad enough the Leafs have apparently been kicked out of the Norris.
- We wrap up with Smith running down a short list of areas the Leafs need to improve in: Their play within the division, their play on the road, and "definitely" their play at home. Other than that, they're all set.
- And we end with Smith planting his flag in the ground, with a promise to Leafs fans: "I feel really strongly that…uh…it will not embarrass anybody next year." Aim for the stars, Floyd!
- The epilogue here is that Smith was quickly fired and replaced by Fletcher, who almost immediately turned the Leafs into contenders. That was pretty much it for Smith as an NHL front office presence, much to the despair of interviewers everywhere.
Bonus YouTube Clip