Friday, January 09, 2009

Helmets and Fighting and the CHL

While everyone is talking about the trades in the CHL this week (and I will be doing so over the weekend), something else happened in the OHL yesterday that I want to bring to everyone's attention.

No one who is involved with hockey was untouched by the news that Whitby Dunlops player Don Sanderson was fatally injured during a fight in a hockey game last month, and then tragically passed away from his injuries last week. According to reports (I have not seen video of the fight, so can't say from personal observation), Sanderson's helmet popped off during the fight, and when his head hit the ice, it caused a severe brain injury. Despite the wonderful play by the Canadian U20 team in the WJCs and the exciting trades that were expected in junior hockey, the sadness upon hearing of the death of a young player was palpable in the industry.

Sanderson's injuries and subsequent passing raised the often debated topic--should there be fighting in hockey? This discussion is a healthy one, but often when tragedies happen, there are responses to try to remedy things before really thinking them through. Yesterday the OHL proved that to be true.

The league disciplined Brad Mashinter of the Belleville Bulls and James DeLory of the Oshawa Generals for removing their helmets prior to a fight on Wednesday night. (Each player will sit out a game and their teams will pay a symbolic $100 fine.)

According to the league announcement, it had "discussed with all its Member Teams the importance of players not removing their helmets during the course of the game for their health and welfare. We find the actions of the two players most inappropriate, inconsiderate and concerning. Fortunately, neither player was injured."

We all know that this is a very dangerous game to play. We also know that most of the injuries sustained during hockey fights come from hitting of one player's hand against the opponent's helmet. Injuries from a player hitting his head on the ice are rare. Dieing from such an accident is so rare that, I can only remember one other such incident in my not so short lifetime.

For as long as I can remember, if non-professional players are going to fight, its been proper courtesy to take their helmets off first. (Professionals don't do it, only because part of the fight is to get the other player's helmet off his head.) So I was surprised to see the word "inconsiderate" in the OHL's press release.

It's an odd choice of words. It is considered courteous to take one's helmet off before a fight. Plus, the failure of players to take their helmet off will cause great harm to their opponents' hands over time. If the removal of helmets is forbidden, you will wind up with many young fighters whose hands are permanently damaged.

Being an attorney, I understand that there are legal issues here. After Sanderson's death, the OHL might be considered to be on notice that the removal of helmets during fighting could kill a player. This is particularly sticky because fighting is supposed to be against the rules, and the OHL knows it happens but does not ban fighting completely.

And that is the question here. By making this rule change, is the OHL trying to eliminate fighting completely from its games, without saying it outright? The elimination of fighting from hockey is most definitely a legitimate topic for discussion. But this rule is unwise, and ultimately dangerous to the players. The OHL should either ban fighting or let the game continue in the manner it has been played for generations.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Trades, Trades, and More Trades

Its hard to keep up with the CHL trades made over the last few days. And its hard not to be following the bus from Oshawa to Belleville this afternoon, as the big trade that has yet to be made occupies a lot of attention all over the hockey world.

As of 5:00 this afternoon, John Tavares is still a member of the Oshawa Generals. He is scheduled to play tonight in Belleville against the Bulls, but we will have to wait and see. If a trade is really close, it is possible that Tavares will be held out of the game, but as of now, he's playing. Rumours have London, Windsor, and Brampton as the possible destinations, but my money is on London. Windsor already pulled off a big enough trade today (see below).

Brampton would probably like to get Tavares too, but I am not sure that the team could give up enough and still make it far in the playoffs. Some of the trades made today suggest that Brampton thinks that this is the Battalion's year, but very honestly, if I was Brampton I would have let Windsor and London battle it out, been sellers this year (i.e., trade away Hodgson) and stocked up for next season. It does not look like that is in the Battalion's game plan, but I hope this gamble pays off for them, because it is a big risk.

Okay, I have had my say on this topic. Let's look at what happened today.

There were seven trades thus far in the Q today. With only approximately 15 hours left, there should be a flurry in the morning, but let's look at today's trades in context.

Before tonight's games, three teams (Shawinigan, Drummondville, Moncton) had 67 points to lead the league. The Cataractes have played three more games than the Wildcats, and two more than the Voltigeurs.

Shawinigan was not involved in any trades today. But on Monday, the team traded top prospect Danick Gauthier to St. John for excellent offensive blueliner Alex Grant. This is Shawinigan's year, as next year, many of the team's best players will be professionals, but I just don't think they will go all the way.

Drummondville on the other hand, has been very active the past few days, and is my pick for the Q this year. Today, the Voltigeurs continued to stockpile talent. The prize this day was netminder Marco Cousineau, who is so much better than his mediocre stats. Yesterday it was Chris DiDomenico. This team was already stacked offensively. Now they have put a couple of other pieces together and will be formidable going forward.

Moncton sent prospect Tyler Noseworthy to Victoriaville today, and got prospects Joey Dillon and Mitch Morgan last week, but generally have not done much.

Neither has Quebec, which is right behind the top three teams. With 64 points in 41 games, the Remparts have two games in hand on Shawinigan, and only three points separate the teams. No trades today for Quebec, but on Monday, Quebec traded for defenceman Alexandre Neron, who will be a huge player along the blueline for the the Remparts. It was worth giving away Quebec's first and third round picks for Neron, who is in his second year of NHL Entry Draft eligibility.

Cape Breton is not out of the race to win the President's Cup either. No trades today, but over the last two weeks, the team got a tough guy in Brad Tesink, and good blueliner Michael Ward (but to get Ward, the Screaming Eagles had to give up first round draft pick Sam Finn to Lewiston). In an interesting trade that may work out extremely well for Cape Breton, the team traded Jeremy Gouchie to Montreal in exchange for Taylor MacDougall.

Rimouski is loading up for the Memorial Cup. Today's trades included the Oceanic, who got Maxime Ouimet in exchange for bunch of draft picks and rookie netminder Francois Lacerte. Earlier this week, Rimouski gave up six draft picks, including two first rounders, to get offensive defenceman Marc-Andre Bourdon, diminutive goalie Mathew Dopud and prospect Justin MacNaughton. Potential overager Jason Demers (who is currently playing in the AHL) was also traded to the Oceanic for a late-round pick. Rimouski now has seven players drafted by NHL teams, including Logan MacMillan and Patrice Cormier, and will be a formidable foe in the Memorial Cup, but the long run up to the playoffs, I just don't see the Oceanic moving atop the league.

On the other end, St. John has sold almost all their good players for picks. The Sea Dogs are stocking up picks for a run in two to three years from now. It should be a tough rest of the season for St. John, but the future looks bright. Both Acadie-Bathurst and Baie-Comeau are doing the same thing--building for the future.

Val-d'Or is also at the bottom of the pack, in fact, the Foreurs are in last place in the entire league, and have been very active over the last two weeks. But instead of stockpiling picks, Val-d'Or has been trading for a run next year. We shall see how this works out, but it is an interesting strategy.


There were fewer trades thus far in the OHL today. In fact, thus far there were only five. Friday at noon is the trade deadline, so you can expect a lot of movement tomorrow as the best teams shore up their ranks.

Today's big trade involved the Windsor Spitfires, who received Ben Shutron, Josh Unice, and Scott Timmins from Kitchener for prospect Brandon Maxwell, overager Jacob Lalonde, and three second and third round draft picks. Not enough actually, in my opinion, but it was what the market would bear.


No trades thus far today, but yesterday Kyle Beach and Mike Alexander were sent packing from Everett to Lethbridge for the young first round draft pick blueliner Alex Theriau, winger Dan Iwanski, and a first round pick in 2009.

Lethbridge also picked up the 2010 NHL draft eligible Brody Sutter earlier this week from Saskatoon in exchange for a fifth round pick. Sutter has not been very effective this seaosn, but at 6'3", the winger has good potential.

In other trades over the last few days, the Regina Pats obtained overager Matt Robertson in exchange for another overager Michael MacAngus and a 4th round pick in 2009 from the Prince Albert Raiders.

Also Prince Albert got Ryan Kowalski, who has not been very effective this season for the Prince George Cougars, for prospect Robbie Ciolfi.

The WHL's trade deadline is Saturday at 4 pm, so several more exchanges are expected between now and then.

Backlund to Join Kelowna

All during the World Juniors, there were rumours about Mikael Backlund not returning to his team in Vasteras, Sweden. He was not getting enough ice time or skating with linemates that would move his development along. I think had he been a bust in the WJCs, this would have been less of an imperative for the Calgary Flames, who drafted him in the first round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. But he wasn't a bust, in fact, Backlund was Sweden's best forward for the entire tournament.

The Kelowna Rockets had selected Backlund in the second round of the 2007 CHL Import Draft and have been waiting patiently ever since. Well, by the end of the week, their patience will pay off. Backlund, who is an excellent playmaker, with very good skating and finishing skills, will be very exciting to watch for the rest of the season. He should help the Rockets enormously in their playoff run this spring.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Thoughts on Chris DiDomenico and Today's Trade

I did not know Chris DiDomenico before Christmas. He was a name on a stat sheet--a player I saw from afar in a rink. But I met Chris and his family in Ottawa last week. His family is fun, funny, filled with a love of hockey and in absolute support of their son, grandson, and brother. When you interact with his family, its easy to see how Chris became the person and player that he is--a character kid who can really play at an elite level.

This morning, a/k/a the morning after, DiDomenico was traded from the QMJHL St. John Sea Dogs to the Drummondville Voltigeurs. Drummondville, currently third in the league standings, made this trade because the team was looking to get stronger for the coming playoff run. I am not sure they even know at this point what they have. A player who can score, crash the boards, come out of the corners with the puck, fight and, despite reports otherwise, he can skate. But Chris has an extra intangible--the ability to overcome.

Everyone has always underestimated Chris DiDomenico. No one should anymore. It's hard to believe that this is a guy who was never drafted by a CHL team and then, after an all-star rookie QMJHL season, was only selected by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the sixth round in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. He was given the opportunity to shine at the Selection Camp last month and DiDomenico did so. He was chosen to play a role--to make space for John Tavares and Angelo Esposito. And game after game, he did exactly what was asked of him.

Now DiDomenico is being asked to play for a new team, and help the Voltigeurs vie for the President's Cup. And maybe even the Memorial Cup after that. I would not bet against this very special player doing just that. Stay tuned. The end to this storybook tale has not been written yet.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Have Aliu's Chances Run Out?

When Akim Aliu was last a member of the Wolves, he could not wait to be traded and get a new start. I know, I interviewed him at the 2007 NHL Combine, and he was excited to go to a team that would find out that he was nothing like his reputation. Soft spoken, intelligent, and keenly aware of his challenges, Aliu is capable of introspection and knows the powers of persuasion. When those two things are combined with his immense talent, Aliu should have been an OHL star.

But yesterday he was traded again. This time from London, back to Sudbury, the team he could not wait to get away from. Despite his intellectual and emotional intelligence, Aliu just can't keep himself from tanking his hockey career. I am not really sure exactly what his problem is. Impulsiveness, inability to play well with others, family issues, I've heard it all. Probably its all of this, but whatever the problem or problems are, it is a shame.

Here is a player who is immensely talented and well-spoken enough to overcome some of the worst stereotypes in junior hockey. He has had several opportunities to reinvent himself and achieve his goals, as well as to be a role model for others who come from backgrounds that are not usual within the hockey community. Unfortunately, Aliu has not been strong enough to even fight his own demons, no less the hockey establishment that very honestly has not been pleased with him since the Windsor incident. Rightly or wrongly, Aliu had to be just a little better because of who he was, and then because he upset the applecart.

I know how this is--having been a girl in hockey at a young age in the United States a very long time ago. But this is not about me. It's about a guy who wants to play in the NHL. Character has always been a big issue in hockey, and NHL teams are looking for players that reek of this quality. As much talent as Aliu has, it is not worth much when NHL teams think that he does not have his head on straight. I fear that he has run out of chances to avoid the label "head case." Because of this, it's likely that his dreamed-of NHL career will never happen.

What a waste.