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December 28, 2006

Happy Pucking New Year, 2006 Ed.
TFP Columnist Greg Wyshynski presents his year-end awards (including The Worst Player of the Year), and explains why 2006 was the year when hockey fans decided not to take it anymore.

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- The hockey fan in me wishes the preamble to my obligatory snark-fest of year-end awards (see the end of the column) could focus on what the NHL considers to be reasons to rejoice.

Faster play. More scoring. Parity to the point of parody. Young stars who will carry this league on their shoulder pads (under their form-fitting aerodynamic new jerseys, naturally) for the next two decades.

The hockey cynic in me knows better than to swallow that sugar-coated dung. It used to be that the league was broken; now, regretfully, it's the game as well.

Two years of rules tinkering have left the NHL with a baffling, damaged product — tentative where it should be explosive, passive where it should be physical, tedious where it should be tantalizing.

It has left players wondering what they're allowed to do, what they're allowed to say, and when body-checks and slapshots will be banned for safety's sake.

Archived Articles

(Dec. 13) It's the Crosby Show
(Dec. 02) The Rory Details
(Nov. 19) Revenge of the Nerds
(Nov. 01) A Scheduled Interruption
(Oct. 23) The Legion of Doomed
(Sept. 12) The Real Roots of Hockey
(Aug. 12) 10 Biggest Hockey Headlines of the Summer
(June 20) How Edmonton Lost the Stanley Cup
(June 15) Lou's coaching moves speak volumes
(June 1) The NHL's Quiet Rebellion
(May 25) Bad Brad, or Bolt of Genius?
(May 18) Leave the Playoffs Alone, Gary
(May 11) Deep Sigh Diving
(May 04) Niedersmyther
(Apr. 27) The NHL's Attendance Myth
(Apr. 20) A Hockey Cynic's Guide to the Wales Conference Playoffs
(Apr. 13) The 'Canes Scrutiny
(Apr. 06) Ruffling the Peacock's Feathers
(Mar. 30) The Next Great Hockey Town, OK?
(Mar. 23) The NHL Blog Bust
(Mar. 16) Gerber, baby!
(Mar. 09) Deadline? Dead Time.
(Mar. 02) Clearly, This Rule's a Bad Idea

It's a game that would have left fans reaching for the remote control to change the channel, but that would assume the majority of them could find VERSUS or HDNet in their cable universe to begin with.

Yet the tide is turning. It's no longer an issue that the casuals are not coming to the arena or watching on television — it's that some of the diehards aren't, either.

In the end, 2006 may be the year when we've all decided just not to take it anymore.

At this point, the cliché would be to use Howard Beale's "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" rant from "Network" as a rallying cry. But for hockey fans, it's not about being mad — it's more like exhaustion.

We've spent the better part of the last two decades defending our sport against hateful hordes of non-believers and outright adversaries — in the media, on the Web... hell, in our own offices and living rooms.


Now, not only do we have to battle those boobs who make remarks like "I didn't realize they still played hockey," but we find ourselves fighting to keep a flicker of the game we love alive before focus groups, marketing firms and the unending avarice of the men charged with protecting and promoting hockey extinguish it.

The biggest mistake we, as hockey fans, made was not holding the owners and players more accountable for stealing a season from us during the lockout.

We were just glad to have the game back. But the honeymoon is over. The alarm clock has sounded.

Cost certainty? The only certainty is that watching this game is costing more every season.

Only now do we also realize that the pendulum on offensive play has swung too far away from what we loved about the game... which, last time I checked, wasn't powerplays and pirouetting midgets skating through the crease unabated.

Now they're talking about enlarging the nets... how long before the NHL features three pucks and a game without the unwelcome hindrance of goaltenders?

Luckily, there is a cacophony of voices all condemning the current product, with its dispassionate play and physical timidity; when Kevin Paul Dupont, John Tortorella, Stan Fischler, Don Cherry, Allan Muir and Larry Brooks are on the same page about anything, hit the panic button and cue the Bat-signal because something is amiss.

But it's not just the media championing the cause. Only now do we realize that the fans have some influence; that the fans have some say, the fans have some power when they decide they're not going to take it anymore.

We laughed at the league for those insipid samurai commercials after the lockout; now we have funny, appealing ads that center on personalities who actually play in the NHL.

We resented the all-star balloting format, so we've nearly voted a journeyman defenseman with no points in 22 games in as a starter; think they'll change that process next season?

And hey, did you notice in the new realignment plan floated by the NHL that the number of playoff teams remained at 16? That's because when they floated the additional post-season berths about a year ago, the fans raised hell — and the league cowered when it heard them.

In 2007, we'll be faced with more problems, from realignment and relocations to skin-tight jerseys and even tighter rules enforcement. Raise hell of you don't like them, on the blogs and on the message boards and in the stands. And keep raising hell until the league corrects not only its most recent mistakes (hello, overtime format), but also its lasting ones.

Like acknowledging that having a few more teams in Canada isn't a mortal sin after The Great American Footprint Experiment has failed.

Like acknowledging that VERSUS, with its empty promises and disappointing coverage, has become SportsChannel America Part Deux and that the league needs a new cable home in the U.S., pronto (though not necessarily ESPN).

Like dropping the instigator penalty, a move that would serve as a coded message to disenfranchised diehards: "Friends, please be advised that you can start watching hockey again."

I don't think I'm alone when I say I'm proud to be a hockey fan, but not all that proud to be an NHL fan these days. My father's the same way. This Christmas, my sister and I kicked in and purchased a Devils road Ken Daneyko jersey for him as a gift. He can't relate to a lot of these current players. But Daneyko? He can relate to a blue-collar guy, who overcame his shortcomings with undeniable heart; one who, from his fists to his fortitude, embodied what it was my father loved about the NHL.

My dad didn't take off his New Jersey new jersey for the entirety of Dec. 25th; he was a 59-year-old man morphed back into a 12-year-old fan on Christmas morning. Perhaps he was happy to spend a day in Ken Daneyko's NHL instead of wallowing in the miseries of its current broken model.

Perhaps by not taking it off he, like so many of us, just decided not to take it anymore.


OK, I've climbed down off the soapbox. Here are some random awards for the calendar year 2006; hopefully you'll enjoy most of them, and you'll be offended by a few of them:

PLAYER OF THE 2006: I was going to give this award to Alexander Ovechkin, for upsetting Sidney for the Calder, becoming the biggest thing in D.C. since President William Howard Taft, and bringing enough physical dominance and undeniable charisma to the game that it's a miracle Vince McMahon hasn't stolen him away yet. But then I made the mistake of having the winner of this award determined by an Internet vote... so congratulations, Rory.

GOALIE OF THE 2006: Miikka Kiprusoff, Calgary. His 2.07 GAA in the first season back from the lockout might be the most underrated stat of the year. Sure, he's got a solid defensive team in front of him, and there's a bit of a system at play here. But when you've been a cheerleader for Martin Brodeur for as long as I have, those facts don't stand in the way of praising a true star between the pipes.

TEAM OF THE 2006: The Buffalo Sabres are hockey's best story right now. A franchise that has faced ungodly adversity — from near financial collapse to Brett Hull's skate to a slew of post-season injuries that may have kept it from the Cup last season — is now a must-see team, and one of the league's only examples of the successful marriage between high-flying offense and blunt force.

THE BEST THING ABOUT THE SABRES NEW UNIFORMS: Having the numbers on the right shoulder, if only because it decreases the ad space for the NHL when it starts NASCAR-ing the sweaters.


ANNOUNCER OF THE 2006: John Davidson. How many times have we sat watching a game, listening to some blowhard criticize a team and thought, "You think you're so smart? You try running one!" Now J.D. has his chance, with amounts to a blank canvas. The only regret here is that St. Louis didn't select John Buccigross, who would have immediately changed the team's name from the Blues to the Hair Metal.

BLOG OF THE 2006 (tie): and Both Paul Kukla and Eric McErlain have changed the face of hockey blogging, turning entertaining Web sites into fully-staffed, must-read daily visits. They've also landed some pretty plum gigs — Paul with, Eric with — and have championed the rights of the alternative media to become credentialed members of the press box. Kudos to both on an outstanding, and eventful, year.

THE BEST TRADE OF 2006: The Edmonton Oilers acquiring goaltender Dwayne Roloson from the Minnesota Wild in exchange for a first round pick and a conditional 3rd round draft pick. This one worked out for both sides in a big way, as Roloson back-stopped the Oilers to the Stanley Cup Finals and the Wild turned that first-rounder into Pavel Demitra from the Kings.

THE WORST TRADE OF 2006: The New Jersey Devils acquiring defenseman Ken Klee from the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for winger Alexander Suglobov. Klee became the biggest traffic pylon not found on the Jersey Turnpike in his 24 games for the Devils. Seriously, Suglobov could turn out to be a popcorn vendor for the Leafs and they still would have gotten the better of this deal.

THE PLAYER ON MY FANTASY TEAM THAT IS CURRENTLY GIVING ME A MIGRAINE: C'mon Ales Hemsky... Five stinkin' goals and 17 stinkin' assists? That's five points away from being Joni Pitkanen, and at least he's gotten me 42 PIM!

THE LOUGANIS AWARD FOR MOST SUCCESSFUL DIVING: The Carolina Hurricanes, who managed to win the Stanley Cup even though they received a 4.8 from the Russian judge.

DEDICATED HUSBAND OF THE 2006 (tie): Chris Pronger, Anaheim, and Kevin Federline, Hip-Hop Nation.

MOST WELCOMED RETURN: Ted Nolan, back from exile to return the New York Islanders to respectability. The magic he's worked with Alexei Yashin would make Harry Potter hang up his wand.

MOST UNWELCOMED RETURN: The ESPN Retreads. Darren Pang on NBC, Brian Engblom on VERSUS... new places, same zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

THE JEREMY ROENICK AWARD FOR FOOT-IN-MOUTH DISEASE: "The league is having a very strong sophomore season," -- Bernadette Mansur, NHL Senior VP, Communications, to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and relayed by Larry Brooks of the New York Post. As Brooks said, "These suits think hockey began when they broke the NHLPA, instituted the hard salary cap and introduced the Sixth Avenue League."

THE JEREMY ROENICK AWARD FOR FOOT-IN-MOUTH DISEASE (RUNNER-UP): "I don't think there is anything wrong with going and having a nice dinner, having a beer and watching the hockey game. I don't know why everybody is trying to create a stir or create a controversy." -- Jeremy Roenick, Phoenix Coyotes, after deserting his team and leaving the arena for a local restaurant following a game-night scratch in December.

And finally, the one you've been waiting for:

THE WORST PLAYER OF 2006: Dan Cloutier, goalie, Los Angeles Kings. Hate to pile on the poor guy, but the only way he could have had a worse year in L.A. is if he changed his name to Michael Richards. Limited to just 13 games in his last season in Vancouver, he was traded to the Kings and promptly became the most terrible goalie in the NHL: 6-14, and a 3.98 GAA that ranked him last among 42 goaltenders. This after signing a $6.2 million, two-year contract extension before the season.

Now that Garth Snow has made a few good trades, there's no denying that Cloutier is the biggest goaltending punchline in the NHL.

Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for, and the Senior Editor and Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.



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