For the most part, the year of 2011 was one to forget in the hockey world. Yet, it was still as memorable as ever. Here are five storylines that caught our eye this year… 1. Concussions By Bryan Reynolds
The team that could be assembled using only players currently out with concussions would be a dynasty that would be unmatched in the history books. From Sidney Crosby to Shea Weber, the team would be stacked in every aspect of the game. Of course, the team would also be way over the salary cap.
Joking aside, the NHL has a major concussion issue. Some call it an epidemic, others say it has always been this way, only now we can properly diagnose and treat concussions, raising the number artificially. Either way, the NHL has a serious issue on its hands. Think about it. Either the league has a new, widespread epidemic of concussions taking its greatest names down, or, they were allowing players to play when they shouldn't have. Neither is a welcome or warming idea to admit.
As many as 64 players have sustained a concussion in the first half of the 2011-12 season. How is the problem solved? The so called experts say the game is too fast. The players are too big, too strong, wear too much armor. The solutions are far fewer than the accusations. Are we going to remove padding from players? Set up speed traps on the ice to slow players down? Perhaps add a sixth skater or make the rinks bigger? None of this seems realistic.
No, concussions may be something that is endemic in the game. High speeds followed by sudden stops will always result in concussions. Unless the very premise of the game is changed, or technology catches up and finds a way to cushion the brain, there really isn't much that can be done. Rule changes might – and emphasis on might – help. There is little way to know without actually changing the rules.
With the league and the NHLPA needing to agree on all rule changes, and a new CBA being negotiated, don't count on this being a priority, as sad as that may be.
2. Tim Thomas leads B’s to Stanley Cup By Ryan Porth (Story originally written on 7/10/11)
Tim Thomas did just about everything a goaltender could do in one season. He won the Vezina Trophy as the top goaltender in the NHL; he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason MVP; and he won the biggest prize of them all: the Stanley Cup.
Thomas has had an adventurous career that will make for a good novel one day. At the age of 37, winning the Cup – with a shutout in Game 7, no less – was the perfect ending to one of the best goaltending seasons in NHL history.
The highly-respected and well-spoken backstop etched his name into Boston Bruins lore with his great performances throughout a Stanley Cup run that ended a 39-year drought for the Original Six franchise. His play helped the city go into a frenzy.
In 25 playoff games, Thomas posted a 1.98 goals-against average and four shutouts, carrying his team for a good portion of the time. He further rose to the occasion in the Cup final, limiting the high-powered Vancouver Canucks to eight goals in seven games. In the series he had a .967 save percentage and two shutouts en route to winning Lord Stanley.
“It was a sweet moment,” said Thomas of lifting the Stanley Cup. “It takes so much energy to win that thing, that I don’t think at the time you can totally appreciate it.”
As a college teammate at University of Vermont, and having played against him in the conference final, Lightning forward Martin St. Louis was impressed with Thomas’ play against Vancouver.
“It’s no disrespect to Timmy; I thought he played well against us,” St. Louis said. “But I thought he played unbelievable against Vancouver. He had another notch in his game. He was still a big factor in our series, but somehow we were able to score more goals against him than Vancouver did. He brought it in every game against Vancouver and stood on his head.”
The Bruins netminder became just the second goalie in league history to win the Vezina, Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup in the same season. The first to do it was Bernie Parent, who did for the Philadelphia Flyers in both 1974 and 1975.
“It’s amazing that he did it two years in a row,” Thomas said of Parent after winning the Vezina Trophy last month. “I would love to be able to accomplish something like that, but so many things have to fall into place. I bet you Bernie would agree, it takes a unique set of circumstances to be able to win that like he did two years in a row and it’s an amazing accomplishment.”
Not only did Thomas win all three of those trophies in one season, but he also broke Dominik Hasek’s all-time save percentage with a staggering .938 mark. Hasek, a future Hall of Famer and similarly unorthodox between the pipes, was someone Thomas looked up to when he was younger.
“He was a goalie I started watching in my college years,” said Thomas, “Watching his game, not trying to imitate his game, but taking at least one or two aspects that I saw him use and trying to make them work in my game. Actually one of ‘em worked for a while but it hasn’t worked for me in a few years so I don’t use them anymore.”
Thomas’ story is well-documented. Before arriving to the NHL, the 1994 9th round pick of the Quebec Nordiques played in five different leagues on eight different teams over a span of eight years. His latest adversity was having to overcome off-season hip surgery last summer. He admitted that he didn’t really know what to expect after the surgery.
“Coming out of the hip surgery I wasn’t sure how it was going to be,” Thomas said. “It didn’t take me long to figure out that it was better, and it still had to do with the rehabilitation work but right away within the next two days after the surgery I was like, ‘Oh, freedom!’ That’s what it felt like.
“Last summer, going through the work that it took to get myself to the level that I wanted to be at, that was a lot of hard work. I was doing three workouts a day and I was pretty much exhausted all the time, because that’s what I knew it would take. But it’s all paid off.”
Has it ever.
In 57 regular season games, the Flint, Mich., native racked up 35 wins, a miniscule 2.00 goals-against and nine shutouts. Not to mention the aforementioned single-season record .938 save percentage.
Many believed Thomas would never get back to his top-notch form from the 2008-09 season, the year he won his first Vezina. Somehow, he managed to top it.
“We know without Tim it would have been so much harder, or not even possible, to win the ultimate prize,” Captain Zdeno Chara said. “He’s been working really hard and been very focused since training camp. He continued to get better and better. We all know that he’s so competitive and he just wants to win.”
One thing that carried over after the surgery (that won’t ever leave) was Thomas’ competitive nature. When you watch him play, you wonder sometimes how made he this save or that save. But it’s his competitiveness that goes a long way in stopping those pucks.
“He never gives up on anything,” Lightning forward Steven Stamkos said. “You think you have him beat and his competitive nature takes over.
“He doesn’t play the most orthodox style, but he challenges you. If you’re going to beat him, you’re going to have to beat him with a good, clean shot. He challenges every single player and he has that confidence. He makes amazing saves and never quits on pucks. That’s why he’s got to where his career is right now.”
St. Louis added, “It’s almost like he knows how good he has to play to beat somebody. I’m not saying he let up against us, but it always looks like he’s in control. He knows how hard he has to push. Obviously he left nothing (on the ice) in the Cup final.”
Thomas probably would have never made it to the NHL if it weren’t for his will to succeed and never-say-die attitude. Bouncing around from league-to-league and country-to-country, and not becoming a full-time NHLer until he was 31 years old, it could have been easy for him to throw in the towel and move on in life. He didn’t. Two Vezina Trophies and a Stanley Cup later, Thomas has put together quite an NHL career.
We saw some of that compete level in the Cup final when he engaged in physical play with Canucks players, namely Alex Burrows and Henrik Sedin. But it is that attitude and style that has helped him flourish over the last few years.
When asked where he gets his competitiveness from, Thomas said, “I think it’s something that was instilled in me somehow as a child. I grew up believing in the American way and the American way is if you set your mind on something and work hard at it, you can reach it.”
Thomas’ record-breaking season was one of the best a goaltender has ever put together in the NHL. Stamkos, a present and future lethal goal-scorer, agreed.
“He was the best goaltender in this league by far,” he said. “I think we caught him on a couple bad games and we were fortunate that way. In some of our wins he wasn’t on top of his game, but in Game 7 he shut us out. And then you look at what he did in the finals.
“He’s come so far in his career. I was definitely happy to see him win after what he’s gone through and all of the work to get to where he is. He’s a great goalie and he proved it this year.”
Then we get into the off-season… the ‘Summer of Hell’, as some are calling it.
Derek Boogaard (mid-May), Rick Rypien (mid-August) and Wade Belak (late-August) all passed away well before their time. All three deaths were under different circumstances, but eerily similar at the same time (especially given they were all enforcers). Because of their on-ice playing style, they have all been thrown into the same conversation (fair or not), prompting pundits to wonder if fighting even has a place in hockey anymore.
And then there’s Wednesday.
In sports, team flights to away cities don’t even cross the minds of players or coaches who have boarded many flights without incident. Everybody knows the story of the 1970 University of Marshall college football team – among others – but no one ever thinks a team plane crashing, because of its infinite rarity, is in the realm of possibility. Which makes Wednesday’s events in Yaroslavl, Russia, so sad and tragic.
As you know by now, a Yak-42 passenger aircraft crashed in Yaroslavl just moments after takeoff, taking the lives of all but one member of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl KHL team (43 died in the crash). Notable ex-NHLers who perished were Pavol Demitra, Josef Vasicek, Ruslan Salei, Karlis Skrastins and Brad McCrimmon (head coach).
IIHF president Rene Fasel called it the “darkest day in the history of our sport.” Sadly, it’s hard to argue that.
This summer’s tragedies have hit close to home for many current and former NHL players. In Boogaard and Demitra, Rangers forward Marian Gaborik lost two very close friends; in Skrastins, Capitals goaltender Tomas Vokoun lost his best friend. And that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.
The hockey world is smaller than we realize. At one point or another, a good amount of current NHLers crossed paths with these players that have died this summer. It’s a true fraternity – which is why when one player dies, the rest of the league feels like they lost a teammate/friend.
What this summer has brought to us hockey fans is perspective. Many view athletes – not just hockey players – as invincible. They’re not invincible. They’re regular human beings playing the sport we all admire.
4. NHL returns to Winnipeg By Bryan Reynolds
Coming from a city that has had an NHL team move away, and another return, watching the saga of returning hockey to Winnipeg has been bittersweet. The way it was done was not the way anyone would have chosen, but the fact of the matter is, the Atlanta Thrashers are the Winnipeg Jets 2.0.
This, of course, has created confusion about if the new Jets are an extension of the old Jets, or a separate franchise with history only in Atlanta. It is great to see the fans get a team back, and yet it is still very painful to know how many hockey fans lost their team to make that happen.
None of this matters to the people who pack the building every night the Jets play. The building is loud, the fans are proud, and the team on the ice will get better. With the realignment forced by the franchises move, old geographic rivalries will quickly be reborn, and that will only help the process along. With the old Norris Division reformed, games in Winnipeg will have a playoff feel long before the Jets are true Stanley Cup contenders.
Another team north of the border will always appeal to those in a country that lives and breathes the game. In this, hockey as a whole can find solace. However, knowing that ownership issues and poor business acumen will forever scar the idea of hockey in the south leaves a bitter after taste for everyone outside of Winnipeg.
There also remains the looming question of what might happen if the Canadian economy goes south, as it did when the Jets left for Phoenix. The question if the fans in Winnipeg want hockey is a nonstarter. Of course they do. Can it work long term is a whole other issue, and one that can only be determined by letting the years pass by.
For now, take the good with the bad, and know that a hockey hotbed once again has a team, and the fans are eating it up.
5. Vancouver riots By Ryan Porth
Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final was supposed to end in celebration for either the Bruins or Canucks. But once the Bruins took a commanding lead and salted away a victory, people outside of Rogers Arena disgracefully took over the streets of Vancouver and started a riot that, unfortunately, no one will forget.
Vancouver rioted in 1994 when the Canucks lost to the Rangers in seven games – but not like this. Cars were burned, innocent people were beaten up and store windows were smashed. Skyline shots of the city that night showed smoke rising above buildings in two or three different places in downtown. It was a complete and utter nightmare for a city known for its beauty, not its idiocy and violence.
In total, 101 arrests were made, 140 people were injured and an estimated $5 million of damage was done in the four-plus hours that the riot took place. The mess all over the streets of downtown was cleaned up by the next morning, thanks to the effort of thousands of volunteers that try to help repair the image of Vancouver.
Afterwards, Canucks fans were all thrown into one big group that started the riot. According to reports, anarchists played a big role in the pre-planned riot, despite most images showing people in Canucks jerseys celebrating the burning cars and posing for pictures.
All in all, it was a black eye for Vancouver. The riots seemingly overshadowed (a) the Bruins winning the Stanley Cup and (b) Canucks falling short of destiny. The volunteers’ work in the days after was commended, but the images, unfortunately, will last a lifetime.
Our podcast 'RLD Hockey Talk' is LIVE every Wednesday afternoon at 1:00 ET/Noon CT. Some of our notable guests in past episodes have been Dustin Brown, Doc Emrick, John Buccigross, Dave Strader, E.J. Hradek, Elliotte Friedman and Jay Grossman.